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.

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