Full Length Portrait (1)

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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

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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.