Full Length Portrait (2)


Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

There are very few records that are the full portrait of a musician, a complete picture of what one musician tried to do over a lifetime, with successes and failures and tragedies and joys. There are very few records that can sum up this much about a person and a music.

Listen to Sunday At The Village Vanguard. Listen to it as if you’d never heard it before. Listen to it as if you could forget that Scott LaFaro was dead just a few weeks later; as if Bill Evans hadn’t chippied his way into the grave too early; as if Paul Motian’s drums still got set up at the Vanguard.

That’s the way the audience for that weekend in 1961 heard it. You can hear them, talking, drinking, laughing. The Village Vanguard is a small place, and this music is big music, but it doesn’t drive out the rest of the world, but includes it, wraps itself around it, winds its long solos and sinuous melodies through it.

Listen to it like that.

Bill Evans was careful about his records. He took time to make them, took care making them, and didn’t like when labels released unauthorized recordings. But, although his recorded work stands as a testament to his love of the music he played and his desire to have that music represented accurately, Evans spent most of his career not in the studio, but on the bandstand. Thousands of hours of  recording exist of Evans playing live: with Eddie Gomez; with Philly Joe Jones; with Alan Dawson; with Larry Bunker and Chuck Israels; with Marty Morell; with Jack DeJohnette; with musicians who sometimes energized the same old set lists (”California, Here I Come,” ”Alfie,” ”Turn Out The Stars,” ”T.T.T.T.”), and sometimes did not. But Evans always sounds the same.

He always sounds the way he does on Sunday At The Village Vanguard.

The Keepnews reissue of the album gives us three glorious takes of ”All Of You.” Listen to them. Listen to the way the melody morphs, ducks and weaves, fades and strengthens under Evans’s fingers. From those first chords from the piano alone, the trio crafts a beautiful thing, an interpretation, almost a tune of its own. These are not the obligatory ”standards” of many records today; they are living, breathing creations. If we were to discard the American songbook, as some have suggested, we would surely lose not sheet music or ”tradition,” but the chance to innovate and replenish, create new from old. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but the music always rises again.

There is the beauty of ”Alice In Wonderland,” which changes from delicate melody statement to a shape-shifting swing. Or the dark shadows of ”Jade Visions,” nine beats to a measure – but we can hardly tell, as each tune plays so skillfully with their bar lines.

The trio of 1959, still finding its way , is gone. The trio of 1961’s Explorations, confirming its own sound, is gone. This trio, the live trio, the everyday trio, this is the real Bill Evans trio. Motian’s brushes provide a rock-steady but fluid foundation – or is it a roof? – for LaFaro and Evans; the bass is both the bass and the soprano voice, languorous and hyped, always providing just the right countermelody to the piano – Astaire and Rogers.

And the piano. The synchronized left- and right-hand lines, the full, deep chords, the unwavering thread of melody.

Listen to Sunday At The Village Vanguard. Scott LaFaro died a few weeks later. Evans’s heroin habit never left him, and he died in 1980. Even Motian, the last link, who seemed as if he would never die, is gone now, too.

But on Sunday, at the Village Vanguard, they were all young and alive, and so was their music. And it was never the same, before or since.

Full Length Portrait (1)


Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

Listen to Bill Evans’s 1958 recording of ”Oleo,” from Everybody Digs Bill Evans. No one would say that this was a trio of disconnected voices: Evans, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Philly Joe Jones play fully interlocking music, with each musician complementing the others’ choices. Philly Joe lays out while bassist Jones takes over the pulse of the tune; Evans propels the recording forward with dynamic improvisation. In many ways – Evans’s across-the-bars soloing, shifting responsibilities for each musician – this was progressive music, a new look at the piano trio format.

Then, in 1959, Evans made Everybody Digs look like Dixieland. With Portrait In Jazz and his new trio mates Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, Evans turned the trio on its head, and influenced generations of musicians, from contemporary colleagues such as Herbie Hancock and Paul Bley to pianists yet to come into their own, like Keith Jarrett, and pianists not yet born.

The funny thing is that Portrait In Jazz isn’t substantially different from Everybody Digs Bill Evans. 1959’s ”When I Fall In Love” or ”Blue In Green” still display the lyrical, melodic improvised lines of ”Lucky To Be Me” or the beautiful ”What Is There To Say?” And the swinging, relaxed rendition of ”Autumn Leaves” isn’t too far from ”Oleo.”

So what is the difference? It isn’t just Motian and LaFaro, or rather it isn’t their playing alone. It’s really the way that what was already present in Evans’s playing – the punchy, solid chords, layered, Debussian harmonies, and flowing, forward-leaning right-hand lines – is given room to expand and take up space. Philly Joe and Sam Jones are great players, and the Evans, Jones and Jones trio is a great one, too. But Portrait In Jazz is the first Evans record that shows us Bill Evans in completion.

Take ”Witchcraft.” Motian, for his part, plays a subdued but bouncy swing with hi-hat and brushes; it’s energetic, and it moves the tune along, but it isn’t in any way revolutionary, and besides his metronomic time, I doubt those only familiar with his later playing would know it was the same drummer. Evans plays very similarly to his work on Everybody Digs, or Live At The Half Note, with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh – melodic playing with tinges of Tristano, block chords and fluid lines, a way of finding the most beautiful harmonic avenues to explore, even in a warhorse tune. But Evans does sound different here.

Motian’s playing may not be revolutionary, and Evans’s may not be such a drastic departure as it has sometimes been presented as. But the trio hasn’t yet been put together.

Compare ”Witchcraft” to ”Peri’s Scope,” for example. the latter tune sounds much more like the 1958 Evans than the ’59; why?

Who plays the first note of ”Witchcraft”? Scott LaFaro. Scott was a great bassist, but, as with the rest of this trio, his talents didn’t hit their real stride until this trio. LaFaro is seen by many as a ”busy” bassist – and he is – but his ability to leave just the right space for Evans’s piano seems almost telepathic. The truth is that LaFaro had been leaving those spaces for years, just as Evans was playing in them before Portrait In Jazz – but without the other half of the equation, neither could fully stretch into existence.

And that equation is the reason this trio really is different from any trio before 1959 – it established an equilibrium totally different from the accepted trio balance. Even trios that played with this musical balance of power, such as Jimmy Giuffre’s drummerless trios, didn’t get it right the way Evans, LaFaro and Motian did.

Portrait In Jazz is really the first real portrait of Evans. And it would turn out to be just a sketch compared to the finished work from this trio.

Next week: Part 2, Sunday At The Village Vanguard

The Meaning Of The Blues

Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

What is the meaning of the blues? And if anyone knows, is it really all that likely to be Keith Jarrett?

Isn’t it far more likely to be Wynton Marsalis? After all, in 1983, when Jarrett’s Standards, Volume One was released on ECM, Marsalis was talking an awful lot about the blues. He was talking an awful lot about an awful lot of things: pop music, Miles Davis, Buddy Bolden, his own jazz pedigree, and under it all was always, of course, the blues. Marsalis is a black musician from New Orleans, after all.

Of course, for all Marsalis’s talk and outward appearances, his claims to the heritage of jazz are more often contested than not in the jazz community, while Keith Jarrett’s musical philosophies  – if not his attitudes towards his audiences – have weathered extremely well.

Perhaps it’s because even though Standards, Volume One was released at the inception of Marsalis’s neo-traditional movement in jazz, and though its concept of interpreting standards – and only standards – seems to fit snugly into that traditionalist moment, the Jarrett Standards Trio is a band committed to the music. Just the music. Unlike Marsalis, Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette are three musicians with a point to make, and they let the music make it.

That’s the point.

Aside from all this analysis of the context of Standards, let me just say that this record is a scary fucking record. It’s visceral in a way that standards records, even later ones by Jarrett himself, fail to be. Part of this is undoubtedly the fiery playing by the trio; at times, Jarrett’s fingers seem to overtake themselves, and Peacock and DeJohnette are dizzyingly adept at filling in blanks and intuiting musical directions. Part of it is surely the literally frightening array of sounds that issue from Jarrett’s mouth over the course of the record. But the really scariness of Standards lies in the combination of these two; monumental imaginings of jazz standards, seemingly by some kind of inhuman beast.

I mentioned that the Standards Trio lets the music make its points. That’s what allows them to take liberties with the tunes, liberties that suddenly, when heard, seem no less than the composer’s complete intention. The Jarrett trio can’t make their points any other way – their histories are too contradictory, or at least meandering, for that. All played avant-garde jazz at one point; that’s how Gary Peacock made his name, after recording surf-movie soundtracks with Bud Shank, and it’s what Jarrett did with Charles Lloyd and DeJohnette in the ’60s. Jarrett, after breaking ground with the electric Miles Davis, renounced electronic instruments. All three were at the forefront of a generation that relished in leaving standards in the dust.

Wynton’s never been that way. That’s why he’ll never be able to record a version of ”God Bless The Child” that rocks out for a full fifteen minutes, Leon Russell-like, with backbeat and funky bassline and all. That’s why he’ll never squeal his way through an ”All The Things You Are” that somehow finds new paths through old changes. That’s why he’ll never find the meaning of the blues, or at least the meaning of the jazz tradition: that the music can’t be limited by its past; that the music only really lives when it’s injected with something new and fresh. Why was Louis Armstrong so badass? Because he played these notes at this speed over these changes? Partly. But mostly because no one had ever played that way before, and he did.

A lot of words have been written about how Marsalis went wrong. But not much time has been spent looking at the people who were doing it right. Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette do it right. They do it for the music. And hey – that’s the point, right?

If I Were A Gate, I’d Be Swinging


Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

I don’t remember the first time I heard a jazz record, but I do remember the first time I paid attention.

It cursed me, in a way, ”If I Were A Bell.” I think the fact that the first jazz recording that really captivated me was made in 1956 might have contributed to my reluctance, for several years, to listen to anything made beyond 1965. But I don’t care about that.

It’s the best jazz recording ever made. I’ll get in trouble for that. I don’t care about that, either. I guess I should clarify that word, best. See, I don’t think it should be the only jazz recording. I don’t even think it’s the greatest, the most important, jazz recording ever made. You can fight that one out amongst yourselves; I’ll be over here in the corner, listening to ”If I Were A Bell.”

That’s the beauty of it. That’s why it never wears down. It has the essence of jazz in its eight minutes of sound. I don’t mean the Wynton Marsalis essence of jazz – vague words like ”swing” that raise more questions than they answer, and a lot of talk about Buddy Bolden and the way things used to be  – but the real essence of the music.

Lester Young liked to tell a story with his solos. That’s what jazz is, isn’t it? It’s what every creative art strives to be – a good story. Today, it’s fashionable to tell our audiences all about what we do. I’ve done it here on The Head In. ”Here’s who I am, why I’m here, what you’re getting.” Robert Glasper does it when he tells us about how jazz is on the wrong path, how we need to let go of this and grab on to that; Wynton did it at the Vanguard with ”Buddy Bolden”; whether you’re Vijay Iyer or Yoko Ono or Richard Ford or Chuck Close, you all do it, because that’s what’s done.

Not in the eight-minute world of ”If I Were A Bell.” Not in the eight-minute world where people play it and tell you what it is later. When I was younger, I thought that Miles never got around to telling us what it was. There’s no raspy epilogue – ”That was ‘If I Were A Bell,’ motherfucker.”

Oh, but there is. There are five voices telling us what song it is, motherfucker. For eight minutes.

I still hear this tune not only as a beautifully coherent, almost telepathic quintet performance, but also as five isolated voices. There’s Miles, muted but close to the mike, loud in the mix. The mute crystallizes every note, so no phrase is lost in the dead sound of the recording studio. He plays the melody, and then he plays a few dozen more, tells us his little story.

Then there’s Coltrane, of course; the early, lyrical Coltrane, before religion and liver problems and Alice and Archie Shepp. But even here, he dives right in, late to the mike, adding his chapter to the story. Under it all, Paul Chambers’s bass is providing a countermelody, the subplot. Close your eyes for a moment as you listen. Forget about Miles, Coltrane, the foreshadowing of Red Garland’s stabbing left hand, and forward lean of Philly Joe’s cymbal. Just listen to Paul Chambers, just for a moment.

”I’ll play it, and tell you what it is later.” That’s jazz, right there. Because it is music, after all. It isn’t books, or movies, or that link to the hip new blog. Is jazz dead? If you have to ask, you ain’t got it, because it’s right here, telling you what it is now.

I’ve listened to a lot of music since I first heard ”If I Were A Bell.” A lot of records have told me stories just as good, and as well, too. That’s where jazz is. It’s in the stories – not in artist’s statements, or Treme, or the Atlantic. It’s in the music. So come on over to my corner, ‘cause man, have I got a tune to play for you.

Count Off

”Hello, ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, this is Uncle Don.”

See the ”About” page for more information on The Head In. The basic premise is one essay every Monday, each one dealing with an album from the list (below) of, as the header says, ”the albums that got me started.” That’s right – not a best-of list, not a comprehensive list by any means! There are certainly albums I wouldn’t have chosen today (such as the Oscar Peterson Frank Sinatra record), and I’d definitely have more scope in the whole thing (very few records here are from after 1965, and only two before 1950). But there they are, warts and all, and I’m going to try to make something out of them. Enjoy!

Here’s the list of albums (links will be added as the essays are published):

1. Affinity, Oscar Peterson (1962)

2. At Carnegie Hall, Thelonious Monk/John Coltrane (1957)

3. Black, Brown & Beige, Duke Ellington (compilation)

4. Blossom Dearie, Blossom Dearie (1956)

5. A Boy Named Charlie Brown, Vince Guaraldi (1964)

6. Chet Baker Sings, Chet Baker (1956)

7. The Birth Of The Cool, Miles Davis (1950)

8. Complete Decca Recordings, Count Basie (compilation)

9. Cookin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet, Miles Davis (1956)

10. Feelin’ The Spirit, Grant Green (1962)

11. Figurations, Richard Nelson (2001)

12. Giant Steps, John Coltrane (1959)

13. Go!, Dexter Gordon

14. The Great Concerts, Dave Brubeck (compilation)

15. I Dig The Duke, I Dig The Count, Mel Tormé (1961)

16. I Just Dropped By To Say Hello, Johnny Hartman (1963)

17. The Incredible Jazz Guitar, Wes Montgomery (1960)

18. A Jazz Portrait Of Frank Sinatra, Oscar Peterson (1959)

19. Jazz Soul Of Oscar Peterson, Oscar Peterson (1959)

20. John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963)

21. Like Someone In Love, Art Blakey (1960)

22. Live At The Village Vanguard, Wynton Marsalis (1999)

23. Love Letters, Roy Haynes (1998)

24. Lush Life, John Coltrane (1957)

25. Miles Smiles, Miles Davis (1966)

26. Milestones, Miles Davis (1958)

27. Mingus Ah Um, Charles Mingus (1959)

28. A Night In Tunisia, Art Blakey (1960)

29. Out Of The Afternoon, Roy Haynes (1962)

30. Out To Lunch, Eric Dolphy (1964)

31. Poll Winners ThreeBarney Kessel, Ray Brown & Shelly Manne (1959)

32. Portrait In Jazz, Bill Evans (1959)

33. Quartet, Billy Hart (2006)

34. Relaxin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet, Miles Davis (1956)

,35. The Ronnell Bright Trio, Ronnell Bright (1958)

36. Saxophone Colossus, Sonny Rollins (1956)

37. Smokin’ At The Half Note, Wes Montgomery & Wynton Kelly (1965)

38. Someday My Prince Will Come, Hank Jones, Richard Davis & Elvin Jones (2003)

39. Soul Station, Hank Mobley (1960)

40. Speak No Evil, Wayne Shorter (1964)

41. Standards, Volume 1, Keith Jarrett (1983)

42. Sunday At The Village Vanguard, Bill Evans (1961)

43. A Swingin’ Affair!, Frank Sinatra (1956)

44. Thelonious Monk And Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins (1954)

45. Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk (1955)

46. This Is Jazz 13: Erroll Garner, Erroll Garner (compilation)

47. Time Out, Dave Brubeck (1959)

48. Waltz For Debby, Bill Evans (1961)

49. The Wes Montgomery Trio, Wes Montgomery (1959)

50. Wizard Of The Vibes, Milt Jackson (1948-1952)

51. Zoot Sims And The Gershwin Brothers, Zoot Sims (1975)

Epilogue: Kind Of Blue, Miles Davis (1959)