Full Length Portrait (3)

Bill Evans Trio_Waltz For Debby

Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

But, of course, they are gone. One of them was gone before the trio’s last album, Waltz For Debby, was released; the record became a kind of memorial to Scott LaFaro, dead at twenty-five in a car accident.

It is the beauty of the Evans/Motian/LaFaro trio that it represents the peak of the music they made; no one else, not even capable pianists like Paul Bley or Steve Kuhn or Keith Jarrett, can quite recapture the sound of it. That’s also the tragedy, because not Evans couldn’t, either. While Paul Motian moved on to other styles and other music ideas, Evans couldn’t get past the Bill Evans trio of 1961. He might try the Rhodes out for an album or two, or overdub himself, or rhapsodize about Eddie Gomez, but the truth is that for all the good music Bill Evans made after 1961, none of it was truly great.

John Coltrane in the 1950s and early 1960s had a favorite mouthpiece, which he ended up filing down to improve on its sound; he made a mistake, the mouthpiece was ruined, and, subtly, his music was never the same. Bill Evans had a trio in 1961; its bassist died, and though Evans was recording again by 1962, something, subtly, was different. Chuck Israels and Larry Bunker, Motian’s and Lafaro’s successors, play some great solos with Evans; but the dynamic was different. The sound that was so freewheeling and loose, yet still deeply anchored, had been ruptured by LaFaro’s death. It’s almost as if Evans wasn’t going to get burned again, so he never let his sidemen play in that same trio dynamic again. He and LaFaro and Motian were so close on the bandstand, and when it fell apart, Evans fell apart, too.

The arrangements started stagnating. The solos started sounding startlingly similar. Just listen to the two versions of ”My Romance” from Waltz For Debby; each one has its gems, its moments where everything crystallizes into a moment of telepathic awesomeness (check out the moment of total in-sync groove from around 3:15-3:21 on take one). Then try to find those same moments on a record like California, Here I Come, a perfectly competent recording by more than competent musicians (Evans, Gomez and Philly Joe Jones). But they’re hard to find. The multiple versions of ”Alfie” or the title track sound more like alternate takes from an Oscar Peterson session – scripted almost to the solo.

Waltz For Debby is a beautiful record, but it wasn’t meant to be released; the tracks were assembled after LaFaro’s death, but if he’d lived they probably wouldn’t have been seen for decades. And that’s more fitting for the trio; two whole records from the same run at the Vanguard would have been growing too much moss for these guys. Waltz is all the more poignant, then, for being the moment when Evans hit slow-motion on something extraordinary, something that he knew would never happen again.

Next Monday: Wynton Marsalis at the Vanguard.

Time Out

cover

Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

Dave Brubeck is gone.

So much time is spent talking about Brubeck’s one major innovation – the popularization of different time signatures in jazz – that too little is taken to discuss the largely self-contained beauty of his music. As Ethan Iverson points out at Do The Math, Brubeck was one of the only major pianists to never record as a sideman; and although some of his tunes became standards, Brubeck’s own work sits apart.

Perhaps it is because Brubeck never was a jazz musician. His musical goals never seemed to be quite the same as his contemporaries in the jazz world – or, for that matter, in the classical one.

It’s lamentable that so many focus on Paul Desmond, but it isn’t surprising. The image of Brubeck is a great one for those looking for ”easy jazz.” It’s popular, lyrical, and there are enough complexities (the time signatures) for a jazz newbie to survive for a while among afficianados.

But that train seems to have left without Brubeck. Why else would ”Take Five” be the automatic RIP track for Brubeck? And, while Time Out is a beautiful record, why have I only seen so few talk about, say, ”Strange Meadowlark”? 

In the 1960s and 1970s, Brubeck was often a principle character in the conflict between the ”real” – black – jazz of the East Coast and the ”fake” – white – jazz of the West Coast. He’s perfect for it – a Milhaud-trained, square-sounding pianist seemingly more committed to finding the least-hip rhythm or the most cluttered chord. Martin Williams, for one, hated him  – not least because he became popular while black musicians struggled to get by.

Now, we’re all pretty much agreed that white jazz musicians can play the music well, even if they can’t, and shouldn’t, claim authenticity over black innovators. And, with hindsight, we can see that all that conflict around Brubeck misses the point.

That point is that Brubeck minded his own business for ninety-one years. He weathered storms, rode waves, and made great music for decades. He was a gentle man who loved what he did and loved the musicians he did it with; the cared deeply about the traditions of all music, but wasn’t afraid to bend the rules. And he never let anyone get him down.

Dave Brubeck is gone. But his music will never leave.

Full Length Portrait (2)

Image

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)

Image

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

If I Were A Gate, I’d Be Swinging

Image

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.