Indiana's Catalyst Productions continues to be an outlet for talented, somewhat obscure, but very good, Midwest jazz artists who seemed to have fallen between the recording cracks. Now comes Luqman Hamza, long time Kansas City resident and well-known piano/vocalist (in local circles), with this distinguished recorded outing. Hamza is not new to this game by any means. At 19, he was sitting with Charlie Parker and at 21, played with Miles Davis. Briefly tasting national acclaim with his "When You Surrender" for Decca, which made the charts, he hasn't gained much notoriety outside of the Kansas City/St. Louis areas since then.
Joined by another Catalyst performer, tenor sax man Willie Akins with his regular group, Hamza waltzes through a play list of 11 tunes, four of which he wrote. On some cuts the influence of Nat King Cole is obvious, recalling Cole's trio days, with guitarist Will Matthews ably playing Oscar Moore. The resemblance to Cole is particularly apparent on "Can't See for Looking" and his own "K.C. Cutie." Be clear, Hamza's interpretations are not imitations of Cole's, but uniquely his own. Tunes he writes are romantic, sometimes sad but never maudlin, occasionally belying the title of the album When a Smile Overtakes a Frown. The smile doesn't always come out on top. Nonetheless it's good to hear songs from a contemporary composer that aren't consistently bleak and complaining. Hamza gets outstanding support form Willie Akins and his confreres. Akins' tenor has a different tone when accompanying a singer than on his own recently released album Alima. On that album, his debt to John Coltrane dominates. Here he sounds closer to Stan Getz, with a bit of Charlie Parker for seasoning. His playing on "Estate" and "Do I Hear a Waltz?" is especially telling. Akins' excellent contributions notwithstanding, the other star on the album is guitar player Matthews. In addition to providing a comfortable framework for Hamza's vocal efforts, his solos are intelligent and entertaining a la Tal Farlow. This album is easily recommended.