Earl Kenneth "Fatha" Hines, relaxing after a performance the other night at Blues Alley, was telling some associates about a recent brush with a fan.
"A young man came up to me," Hines said in a voice like soggy sandpaper, "and asked, 'Fatha, what do you think of these new electrical instruments?' " He grinned his piano keyboard of a grin and waited a beat. "Well, I told him, 'Let me ask you something. Whaddya think of frozen food?' "
The table erupted in laughter. Fatha Hines, after all, has dished up to the hungry more than half a century of home cooking, jazzed to taste.
It's not every day that you can hear a true pioneer of jazz at close range -- Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, among the handful that rank with Hines, have died -- and that alone should be enough to draw a crowd. Beyond that, Hines, though 76 and suffering from arthritis, aggravated by a fall he took recently during a gig in Montreal, is not a relic but a working pianist, and still the consummate showman he's been since his salad days in the Chicago of the '20s.
After making his way between the tables, gradually, and sliding into his berth at the piano, he favored the opening-night audience with his patented smile, highlighted by that black wavy mop he calls his own. "We've got some numbers for you from yesteryear to the present day," he said, running the words together in a breathless phrase. "We hope they'll meet with your approval, and if so, may we say in advance, 'Thank you.' "
Then he and his "co-workers," as he calls them -- Jimmy Cox on bass, Eric Schneider on sax and vibes, and Chant ,e Hamilton on drums, all whippersnappers about a third his age -- launched into "Rosetta," the Hines classic that serves as a theme song.
During this and other tunes -- ranging from such as "Summertime" by Gershwin to "Yesterday" by the Beatles, and featuring the aptly named vocalist "Marvelous" Marva Josie -- Hines was unobtrusive, even conservative, at the keyboard, letting the young folks shine in solos instead of going for broke himself. Part of the reason, it developed, was that the piano, a Steinway grand, had what Hines judged to be "stiff" action, discouraging the improvised flights for which he's known. "I play light," he said later, "and it's hard to do with that thing."
Sometimes he hummed along, or else just puffed on his cigar, bantering over the music with his colleagues. But there was no doubt who was in charge, and who everybody had come to see.
EARL FATHA HINES -- At Blues Alley through Sunday.