Saturday, February 21, 2009

Enrico Pieranunzi, Part - 3 "Bill Evans: The Pianist as an Artist"


[C] - Steven A. Cerra, Introduction, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Over the years, much has been made of the album Kind of Blue by the Miles Davis Sextet, and deservedly so. From any number of perspectives, it is a landmark recording, one that changed the course of Jazz. By employing a series of modes or scales as the basis for the improvisations on the album’s tunes [instead of the usual chord changes] stylistically, the music on this recording created another manner or approach in which Jazz could be played.

By the late 1950’s, “running the changes” [chords] had created an improvisational log jam for some musicians with the result that they began looking for a way of adding space to help restore some breathing room in the pace of improvisation.
With his live recordings for Argo at the Pershing Room [Lounge] in Chicago, IL and the Spotlite Club in Washington, D.C., one musician who employed a style that avoided the hectic and frenetic pace of bebop and its hard bop counterpart was pianist Ahmad Jamal.
Dismissed at the time by many of the reigning Jazz critics as little more than "cocktail music" or, perish the thought, "commercial" recordings, the immensely entertaining music on these recordings displays an individual virtuosity and group cohesiveness that is easy to respect but difficult to emulate.

Careful consideration is given to the arrangement of each tune and Ahmad Jamal's orchestral approach to the piano is beautifully complemented and underscored by the sensitive, yet always swinging bass work of Israel Crosby and the rock soild drumming of Vernell Fournier [with a name like that would you be surprised to learn that he was from New Orleans?].
Speaking of "surprise," to use Whitney Balliett’s famous term, "the sound of surprise" is everywhere apparent on these recordings as Jamal allows the time to flow while darting in and out with improvised statements instead of running the changes with bebop lines played with the right hand in the style of Bud Powell. Vernell Fournier's use of a tympani mallets and open high-hat cymbals played in the manner of finger cymbals on the tune Poinciana created, according to Jeff Hamilton what drummers would thereafter referred to as "the Poinciana beat."
These recordings had a far-reaching effect on many Jazz musicians during this period especially with their introduction of new uses of space and time and what could be called the sound of silence [ the soloist "laying out" and just letting the bass and drums "cook"].

One musician who was very much taken by the openness and airiness of Jamal’s music was Miles Davis and he began looking for a way to incorporate it into what he was doing.

In walked Bill.

While Jamal’s approach created space in the music, Ahmad was still playing tunes that were based on traditional chord changes which he essentially interrupted or interjected with intervals of space, rhythmic vamps and/or sporadic improvisations to alter the pace of things.

Through his own studies and deliberations, as well as, his work with composer George Russell who employed the Greek Lydian mode as the foundation for many of his orchestration and voicing techniques, Bill Evans was able to provide Miles with an alternative basis for improvisation – The Greek Modes.

Strictly speaking, the Greek word for these would have been tonoi which, for our purposes, can best be translated as tonal center. “Modes” comes from the Latin modus which means “measure, standard, manner or way.”
In music, a scale refers to an ordered series of intervals which, along with the key or tonic, defines the pitches.

However, when a mode is used in music to mean a scale, it applies only to specific diatonic scales and gives these a different tonal center.

The Greeks used seven [7] modes. On piano, one can find their diatonic scales by using the white keys only with the result that the seven note scale starting on C is an Ionian [mode] scale; starting on D gives a Dorian [mode] scale; starting on E a Phrygian [mode] scale; starting on F a Lydian [mode] scale]; starting on G a Mixolydian [mode]scale; starting on A an Aeolian [mode] scale; starting on B a Locrian [mode]scale.

Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian are major and the other four are minor.

Jamal’s use of space along Bill Evans’ application of modal tonal centers provided Miles with the basis for opening up the music and gave to it the “lightness of being” that he had been searching for, all of which was to ultimately manifest itself on the landmark Kind of Blue album.

It is also important to keep in mind that in Jazz, the modes correspond to and are played on particular chords.

The composer can create conventions or rules for the way in which the modes or scales and their related chords are used. For example, when improvising, the soloist can stay [improvise] as long as he/she wants on the modal note and related chord before releasing and going on to improvise on the next one.

Or the improvisation may be set up to oscillate back and forth between two modes and scales with no specific bar requirement as to when this happens; the soloist just cues the change when he/she is ready.

The net effect of the use of modes by the Miles Davis sextet on Kind of Blue was to unlock the music and to give it an airiness and buoyancy by helping to free the soloists from the didactic rigors of bebop and hard bop chord progressions.

To his credit, Miles had throughout his career looked for new and different ways of playing and interpreting Jazz. This can be seen dating back to his involvement with the “cool” Jazz of the Birth of the Cool band in the late 1940s to his innovative use of electronic instruments in his 1960’s Jazz-Rock fusion groups.

However, I am of the firm opinion that while Miles may have been the catalyst for the music that became the Kind of Blue recording, the music itself would not have happened without the involvement of Bill Evans.
And no one understands this better than Enrico Pieranunzi as is explained in his chapter from Bill Evans: The Pianist as an Artist entitled:

Blue in Green
"Everybody Digs Bill Evans was well-received by the critics. “Some of the most private and emotionally naked music that I ever heard,” as described by critic Martin Williams.

Gene Lees, then-director of the magazine Down Beat, remembers being so struck by that album that he listened to it over and over for hours, completely enchanted by the emotional content of the music. Lees was so moved that he wrote Evans a simple fan letter, in which he called his music “Love letters written to the world from some prison of the heart. Such an artistic sensitivity so clearly manifest in music could only belong to a someone whose life “must be extraordinarily painful.” The work and faith that Keepnews had invested began to bear fruit. Lees decided to dedicate the cover of his influential magazine to Evans, along with an article and interview with the artist.

Notwithstanding Evans' reluctance to accept himself, his name began to spread and people began to recognize and appreciate his talent. He recorded with Chet Baker at the end of 1958, and at the beginning of the following year he recorded a few trio pieces with Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers. He wasn’t happy with these pieces though, and made Keepnews promise that they would not be published. A promise that they decided not to keep after listening to them again years later since the music didn’t sound so bad after all. This constant severity with himself would follow Bill throughout his musical career.

After recording an album with Bill Potts' orchestra, on which Evans first met a piece that became one of his favorites, I Loves You Porgy (the album offers an overview of the most memorable hits from the musical "Porgy And Bess"), it was in March of 1959 that he arrived at another key moment in his artistic life.
Even though he was no longer part of the group, Miles Davis called him to record an album, that very quickly would prove to be one of the all-time masterpieces of jazz. Destined to become a cult album for the most informed of jazz fans, it was, and still is, also able to attract an audience usually drawn to other forms of music. Kind Of Blue [CL1355; CK64935] was recorded in two sessions, one on March 2nd and the other on April 22nd [1959]. Evans played on four selections, two per session: So What and Blue in Green for the first, and Flamenco Sketches and All Blues for the second. It was Evans who wrote the album’s liner notes, and it is very interesting to read with what penetrating clarity he analyzes the process of improvisation.

Taking Japanese painting as a model, he observes that

“these artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.” Further on he adds: “this conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful reflection, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique discipline of the jazz or improvising musician.”
'Discipline' is a term to which Evans would often refer in order to clear up the common understanding of improvisation as a sort of game where "anything goes". He consistently repeated that the opposite was true, that freedom in music only makes sense when there is a solid foundation; otherwise you get lost in arbitrary disorder and reduce the aesthetic value of a piece.

For the most part extraneous to any type of avant-garde movement, Evans was sometimes involved in spite of himself - one could say "forced" in some cases - in performances in which there was no pre-planned referential structure (in particular with George Russell). He was never convinced of the validity of free forms: “l really believe in the language of the popular idiom, the song... I'd rather deal with that than play anything merely arbitrary such as playing without chords, bar lines or form.”

That avant-garde music that had found in Ornette Coleman its most audacious and innovative champion (his Something Else!!!! had been released the previous year) was not enough to satisfy Evans' need for “something that offers a wider scope emotionally to express myself in.” In contrast with Evans' credo, the ingenious saxophonist believed that “playing popular tunes has got to hold you back, because you are not playing all your own music.”

There was no preview of the scores for the musicians involved in the recording of Kind Of Blue. Miles “demanded a lot of spontaneity in this work from them,” as he explains in his autobiography, immediately afterwards getting a little peeved if anyone insinuated that Evans had somehow collaborated on the composition of the music on "Kind Of Blue" [emphasis mine]. In any case, the Evans stamp is unquestionably there, and Davis had to admit that “Bill was the kind of player that when you played with him, if he started something ... he would take it a little bit farther.”
This album represents a unique moment of convergence in the artistic paths of these two artists - a bit like one of those intersecting of orbits, that kind of extraordinary astronomic event that happens only once every several hundred years. Evans' piano work had by now achieved the maximum in evocative refinement, the tone of his chords had all but dematerialized; it seemed to speak of far-off abstract things while, nevertheless, maintaining a kind of subterranean tension and a sense of restless expectation.

Music historian Wilfrid Mellers picked up on a Debussy-like character in the introduction to So What and throughout the album, noting with insight that, notwithstanding its minimal preparation, one has the impression “of an extremely organized composition, partly because the fundamental material - the melodic phrasing, the chord changes - is very simple,” (the compositional character of this famous fascinating introduction, is also proved by the fact that Gil Evans transcribed it for an arrangement of his own).

However, it is Miles himself who provides the most stimulating key to the nocturnal, dreamy atmosphere of this masterpiece when he recalls that “seeing as how we had liked Ravel very much, especially his Concerto For The Left Hand and Rachmaninov's Concerto no. 4, there was some of that stuff somewhere in what we played.” Kind Of Blue, in fact, represented a meeting point between jazz improvisation and some significant harmonic and colorist aspects reflecting the typical French flavor of Impressionist and post-Impressionistic music. The mix was surely not pre-planned, but Evans seems to have acted as a catalyst, capable of "drawing" the whole group towards mysterious places of silence. It could be said that "Kind Of Blue" is, in a certain sense, an album of pauses, of suspensions, where the most beautiful pauses are inevitably "played" by the pianist himself [emphasis mine].

Jazz critic Art Lange observed that Evans' time with Davis - little more than one year, counting Kind Of Blue recorded outside the concert phase, was a decisive moment of passage. His rapport with the audience served him well and, at the same time, he revealed to Miles the possibility of new musical directions. [emphasis mine].
Evans' use of open, harmonically multifaceted chords contributed enormously to making "Kind Of Blue" an album that blazed a new trail for jazz [emphasis mine]. His work with Davis also gave Evans much more visibility. At the beginning of the 1960s we find him ranked third (after Thelonious Monk and Oscar Peterson!) in the critics poll of Down Beat magazine. It was time for the thirty-year-old pianist to put together his own stable group. He called in drummer Kenny Dennis and bass player Jimmy Garrison for a few evening club dates.

They played a three-week gig together at Basin Street East in New York, opposite Benny Goodman’s big band, who was making a come-back. All the attention was on that band, and the trio were treated badly (“when we came on the stand we'd find that the mikes had been turned off on us”). Over those three weeks Evans was forced to change bassists four times, and drummers seven. The first to leave was Dennis, replaced by Philly Joe Jones, and at that point Evans was beginning to feel good about his trio. Garrison and Jones interacted well and the trio began to enjoy some success, receiving a warm response from the audience. But Philly Joe's talent was stealing the show from Goodman's big band, who complained to the management that the other group was too good. So Evans was forced to change again, This time fate was on their side. He called in bass player Scott LaFaro (who had just finished a gig with Tony Scott in a club very close to Basin Street East) and, for the last week of that tormented gig, drummer Paul Motian. Evans had already worked with Motian on three different occasions over the previous three or four years in various groups, including those of George Russell and Tony Scott. The three were immediately aware of a certain ease in playing together - the music just "happened", so they decided to cancel all other gigs and to play exclusively as a trio. Evans was finally happy and, knowing that he could count on Orrin Keepnews' support, he was sure that he would be able to make some terrific recordings with this trio.

Spring is Here
A few months to set things up and the trio was ready for its first recording session. Evans had met LaFaro at an audition for Chet Baker a couple of years earlier. He had not been very favorably impressed at the time by LaFaro's rather effusive, show-offish nature. Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1936, he was, after all, still young. But when the two began to work together with Motian, Evans' respect for the 23-year-old bass player grew rapidly. “He and Paul and I agreed without speaking a word about the type of freedom and responsibility we wanted to bring to bear upon the music, to get the development we wanted without putting repressive restrictions upon ourselves,” Evans himself reported.

It is worth noting that the tendency towards a freer approach to trio playing, his idea of a sort of collective "three-way improvisation", came to Evans, at least in part, from his reflections on classical music; (remember that at that time the bass and drums usually had a pretty static role as simple support to the piano). In fact, as Evans noted,

“in a classical composition you don’t hear a part remain stagnant until it becomes a solo. There are transitional development passages. A voice begins to be heard more and more and finally breaks into prominence;” and, as if to prevent a possibly too sharp break with tradition, he added: “Especially, I want my work - and the trio's if possible to sing. I want to play what I like to hear. I am not going to be strange or new just to be strange or new. If what I do grows that way naturally, that'll be OK. But it must have that wonderful feeling of singing.”
Singing is a way of being still, we are reminded by Vladimir Jankelevitch, and the silence is itself a constitutive element in audible music. These profound truths are made real in the work of the Evans/LaFaro/Motian trio which, aside from Davis, Lester Young and maybe some coolsters like Lee Konitz, had few precedents in jazz. This music had always been extroverted, communicative and open to the world outside, but in the late 50s it seemed to be expressing a need to withdraw into the artist's most ineffable and interior world. Bill Evans, his music, and even his characteristic physical posture became a visual symbol of this trend: all curled up over the piano he looked like one trying to grasp the intimate nature of the instrument and his own as well.

After Kind Of Blue, Evans recorded with Lee Konitz and Jimmy Giuffre, took part in the recording of John Lewis' sound track for Robert Wise's film Odds Against Tomorrow, and recorded many times with Tony Scott. After one more recording with Lee Konitz’s tentette in October, Bill finally got into the recording studio with LaFaro and Motian on December 28th 1959. Evans, at slightly more than thirty years old, was about to begin surely the most important musical adventure of his entire artistic career.
Portrait In Jazz [Riverside RLP-1161; OJCCD 088-2] was the first of four albums that the trio were to make - a limited production but of the highest artistic quality, which was to influence whole generations of jazz musicians all over the world. The trio's innovative intentions were only partially carried out in Portrait In Jazz. Evans was aware, as were his partners, that “nobody at that time was 'opening up music like they were, letting the music originate from a beat that was more implied than explicit.” He had a gift for shaping music and a capacity to make every part of the improvisation spring consequentially from the previous one: an approach that the pianist asked his partners to extend to the total form of the piece. When it worked, when the three of them played like one single individual entity, the result was breathtaking. Autumn Leaves (second version) is an example of that success, as is What Is This Thing Called Love. Here the trio offers a glimpse into some completely new mechanisms: like when Motian ventures into audacious multi-rhythmical initiatives, with LaFaro strongly and profoundly accenting the pulse; or when, in the same piece, they experiment with the dynamic contrast between duet (Evans and LaFaro dialoguing while Motian stays silent) and fully active trio.

Portrait In Jazz contains some interpretive peaks that highlight Evans' more meditative and lyrical side and the profundity of what he had to say: Spring Is Here, above all. According to Wilfrid Mellers this piece retains the sound mood of Miles Davis. Hc observes that Evans' ability “to make melodic lines ‘speak’ is of extraordinary subtlety... and always the sensuousness leads not to passivity but to growth,” adding that on the album’s fast pieces “the rhythm zest provokes the song.” On Spring Is Here Evans’ piano breathes, and his emotion makes the instrument vibrate with a gentle, resonant sonority - as always, the consequence of the nature of the musical narration that he is improvising and never mere decoration or narcissism. Through a simple song, Evans talks about a part of himself, and the piano is his voice.
The performances on Portrait In Jazz are uneven from the point of view of the "simultaneous improvisation" approach, which had not yet developed at the time. The artistic rendition also doesn't always maintain the same level. Evans would later say, for instance, that the version of When Fall In Love on this album was one of the most incoherent and disconnected that he had ever recorded; and, in effect, upon careful listening, one discovers here and there some empty, somewhat ingenuous areas in the construction of the solo. Evans was notoriously demanding with himself and here he recognized some gaps in the logic of the solo that couldn't help but bother him.

The opposite was true for Peri’s Scope (in one of the plays on words which he loved to indulge himself in, Evans dedicated the song to Peri Cousins, his girlfriend at the time). The tune is a little masterpiece in improvisational compactness. There is no trace of evident interplay between the musicians, at least in the sense of a contrapuntal or melodic dialogue, but there is certainly a lot of swing and a great elegance here. Evans converses with himself; his solo an admirable example of that logical structuring and consequentiality, both main features and his principle objective in music. LaFaro, and Motian accompany Evans in the usual 4/4 time, but with such energy and joy, along with enormous precision, that a kind of precious carpet is woven upon which Evans' rhythmic inner feeling comfortably reclines. Evans displays a very innovative use of the left hand, which seems to move in perfect tandem with that of Motian playing the snare drum. This creates an imaginative, cheerful rhythmical counterpoint to the phrases of his right hand. So, in a little more than three minutes Peri’s Scope leaves an impression of vitality and pleasure in making music not frequently matched in Evans' musical production. In this luminous gem he seems to get back a little of that pleasure of carefree play rarely perceptible in his performances - the piece almost smiles.
Finally, in terms of Evans' trio work, Blue In Green should not be forgotten. This is the piece for which Evans had claimed paternity and which, for incomprehensible reasons, was and continues to be attributed to Davis. [emphasis mine]. Actually, Miles, before the Kind Of Blue session, had only given Evans the first two chords, from which the pianist spun the entire composition. In any case, in this trio version of the tune, he doubles the time twice, allowing LaFaro to move completely autonomously, both melodically and rhythmically. Apart from this number, however, the general atmosphere of the album does not sound as revolutionary as the trio's live performances a year and a half later at the Village Vanguard would. More than a year were to pass between the trio's first and second recordings.
Explorations [RLP-351; OJCCD 037-2] was recorded on February 2, 1961. The demanding, critical Evans was in no rush to record, something which made Keepnews very anxious. The Riverside label was going through an expansion and image-building phase in which Evans played no small part. Between Portrait in Jazz and Explorations the trio went on the road, playing a few nights at Birdland in the spring of 1960, but Evans carried on with his activity as sideman. By now he was a deluxe contributor to contexts very distant from him, like J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding's quintet, with whom he recorded in the Fall of that same year, or the four-trombone septet led by Winding himself with whom he recorded that December. He was in dire need of funds. He had to do studio work with various groups other than his trio to support his narcotics habit, a problem that over the years was becoming increasingly serious, and which created a constant need for money. His producer's loans were not always enough to get him out of the disastrous situation that his self-destructive side had landed him in. As if in a sort of double-exposure, Bill pursued his musical objectives with great honesty and intellectual lucidity while his private life was deeply marred. The heroin weakened his perception of an outside world that seemed all too tough to him. It was his refuge, but a punishment as well – the price of such a gift.
How Deep is the Ocean

Shy and introverted, “ I've always been basically introspective,” Evans managed his dependency with that same discretion that we find in his music. Nonetheless, it naturally created enormous problems for him in his personal, and especially intimate, relationships. Music became more and more his ivory tower, where he barricaded himself in an attempt to deny internal crisis. He was moving towards a kind of abstracted intellectual vision, rich in religious sentiment, that barely hid his progressive dissociation and internal bewilderment. (“My creed for art in general is that it should enrich the soul”). Perhaps in this scenario we can find a plausible explanation for Evans' aversion to any sort of musical transgression, even that in which he revealed himself so great a protagonist.

His work of 1960 offers a two pertinent examples on this point: the first was the recording of Jazz In The Space Age with George Russell, who had always believed in and encouraged, more than the pianist himself, Evans' innovative talent. The second one was the recording of Jazz Abstractions, two Third-Stream sets of variations by Günter Schuller (one on a theme by Thelonious Monk and one on a theme by John Lewis). A point of interest in the latter recording was that Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy were part of the group. These two musicians were hatching the total renovation of the formal models that had characterized jazz up to then, but Evans was evidently not particularly moved. He was going his own way, profoundly rooted in the traditional jazz idiom.

While extremely well-versed in 20th century European classical music, and even very knowledgeable about advanced compositional techniques (such as serialism), he was not drawn to experimentation. In Chromatic Universe Part III Russell left room for a two-piano free improvisation: Evans and Paul Bley (a Canadian pianist already part of the avant-garde scene) engaged in a duet with no pre-established layout, threading themselves through the asymmetrical rhythmic background traced by Don Lamond and Milt Hinton. On the surface the occasion could be said to have been a historic one, but in reality the only one who seemed to really believe in it was Bley. Evans showed some uneasiness and struggled to let himself go. A missed opportunity, perhaps, even though the duet offered some very valuable moments.

Evans' expressive world, in any case, was decidedly another, the proof of which would be seen a short time later when he went into the studio to record Explorations (February 1961), his fourth personal album and second recorded with LaFaro and Motian. The album was a further step towards that "trialogue", that three-way colloquy they were looking for. Nardis and Sweet And Lovely, in particular, are remarkable results for these three on their way to emancipation from that worn-out pattern of a pianist in the foreground with bass and drums just comping.
The roles are inverted for a while in Nardis. The theme stated, LaFaro soars into a magnificent solo (maybe this amazing performance had something to do with the fact that just two days earlier he had recorded the Atlantic album Ornette! with Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell); Evans backs him with a simple but engagingly voiced melody, its tone permeated with that French Impressionist aura he loved. He is extremely sensitive in adapting to LaFaro's improvisational line, accurately choosing the height of the sounds and alternating open or close harmony to modulate the color of his voicing. When Bill's turn comes up his very colloquial solo proves how maximum results can be achieved with minimum means. His right hand, in fact, plays a few sparing notes loaded with an emotionally dense "specific weight", giving us a clear example of his ability to make the piano “a complete expressive musical medium.” LaFaro then takes up his own individual path, playing in counterpoint to the new melody that Evans is extemporaneously composing and interpreting on the piece's chord changes. Finally, in its coda, Nardis offers us a fleeting memory of the celebrated Prelude in C Sharp Minor, by Rachmaninov, whose marked Russian-ness he had always been very fond of. Beyond everything already said above, and the fact that the version that we are talking about was the first that Evans recorded in trio, Nardis deserves a special digression, which is a little story in itself. As any jazz student or professional jazz player knows, in every jazz tune collection Nardis is generally credited to Miles Davis even though, surprisingly, its composer never recorded it. According to a personal recollection of Evans', referring to a 1958 session with Cannonball Adderley, “Miles came along to the studio with it, and you could see that the guys were struggling with it. Miles wasn't happy with it either but after the date he said that I was the only one to play it in the way that he wanted. I must have helped his royalties over the years, because I have never stopped playing it. It has gone on evolving with every trio I have had!”

Despite this recollection, and also thanks to the information kindly passed along to this writer by the well-known jazz critic Ira Gitler concerning the numerous, dexterous, and sometimes even bold-faced "misappropriations" that Miles was known for (e.g.: Solar), it is highly improbable that Davis really wrote the tune. It is very probable, however, that it was really written by guitarist Chuck Wayne, whose ancestry was Slavic - which would finally clear up the mystery surrounding a piece written in E minor, a very comfortable key for the guitar but a decidedly awkward and unnatural one for the trumpet. Its composer's Slavic roots would also explain the Oriental over tones of a piece that, most likely for this precise reason, had such a compelling impact on Evans in his final period.

To get back to Explorations, Israel and Beautiful Love are, in terms of group work, two important examples of the trio's progress in their desired direction, that of an ever deepening and complex work of "simultaneous improvisation" for three equal partners. In the first of the two selections, as also noted previously with Sweet and Lovely, and perhaps influenced in mood by the ingenious rendition some time earlier by Thelonious Monk, whom it is known that Evans deeply admired, the trio breathes like a living organism. When one of the three starts driving or increasing the sound intensity by means of a stronger musical energy, the other two juxtapose themselves to the new situation. The way Evans does it is to enrich and broaden his voicing, making the piano resound like a full orchestra in which the whole range of frequencies is activated at the same time to flank and enhance LaFaro's energetic outburst.

Aside from this group progress, Explorations offers good examples in another area where Evans was having important artistic results: that of ballad interpreting. The "romantic" aspect of jazz (a term that the pianist wasn't crazy about, at least in its superficial and obvious sense) had been, before Evans, the almost exclusive domain of singers or horn players (Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Davis himself, Chet Baker, Helen Merrill). Never, in the history of jazz, had the piano been used as a vehicle to "sing" stories from the heart [emphasis mine]- or their sad endings either - like a trumpet, sax or human voice had been. Evans was a true revolutionary in this. He changed a solidly established tradition, expanding it to include the piano which, before then, had been thought of either as a percussion instrument or as an "imitator" of the trumpet or sax, the most visible jazz instruments.

Through some of the slow pieces on Explorations, Evans throws open a door to re-embrace the very ancient popular song tradition, making his songs heirs to the 19th century European Lieder. Just as jazz, in the early 60s, was speaking out in a louder voice to a wider audience (John Coltrane's famous quartet was born, in fact, in 1961), Evans was choosing to go in the opposite direction and speak softly, and the conversation was with himself. If anything, he would invite a few, discreet friends to listen. While Coltrane would steep his music in theological query, and come up with a positive and sure response, in How Deep Is The Ocean or in I Wish I Knew, Evans' seems to wonder, without ever getting to a satisfying answer, about Man, about the meaning of existence, about the "unbearable lightness of being".
His musical processes are, of course, technically analyzable. In the first of the two selections, for instance, he never plays the original melody, landing there only at the very end of a sort of (re) compositional journey founded on completely new melodic lines. Warren Bernhardt, pianist and Evans' personal friend, states that despite the fact that he never plays the original melody here, he brings out its “quintessence.” The something that makes How Deep Is The Ocean (as it did Spring Is Here) an extremely significant musical event is to be found, in reality, in silence, in the unspoken - but for this reason spoken in a more penetrating way – “communication by implication.”

His music evokes a profound and unconscious reality where the resonant vibration of the instrument, the relationship between one sound and another, between one melodic fragment and the next, become 'psychic images' - a minimum of sounds containing a maximum in human content.


“The emotional content of his work was unique in his generation. He could take a standard show tune, originally attractive, yet sullied by the accretion over the years of countless trivial associations, and give it a reading which seemed not merely to restore its pristine appeal but simultaneously to embody a truly personal vision, in comparison with which the basic tune seemed but a desultory thought. His (re) compositions - for no other description will suffice - of such material were carried through with immense discretion, as though the component notes of each and every chord had been subjected to prolonged consideration, as though the rhythmic imaginativeness and flexibility involved in the task, the minute gradations of touch and subtle shifts of emphasis, had been evolved with that one interpretation in mind.” (Michael James in the liner notes of the two 1961 Village Vanguard albums).
My Foolish Heart

Three weeks after Explorations, Evans recorded as sideman on Oliver Nelson's great Blues And The Abstract Truth. The group included, among others, Eric Dolphy, a saxophonist from Los Angeles, whose very dissonant and extremely innovative phrasing went well beyond hard bop clichés. Dolphy was soon to be recognized, for his work with Coltrane and Mingus, as one of the most original heralds of the jazz avant-garde, contributing richly to the deconstruction and transformation of the current rhythmic/harmonic parameters of post-bop jazz. Once again the meeting seems not to have produced much of a reaction in Evans. He kept his own pace along that personal path which, in the space of a few months, would lead his trio to astonishing musical and artistic peaks. Perhaps in a less sensational way than Dolphy or Coltrane and some others, these would profoundly, and forever, change the concept of a piano/bass/drum trio, the “ethics" within group improvisation, and the interactive approach of a bass player or drummer in any type of group.

Evans' influence on other pianists and instrumentalists, already glimpsed by that time, was destined to gradually equal that of Bud Powell. However, his went much further as a result of the greater number of jazz piano aspects involved, such as voicing, melodic approach, the logic in shaping a solo, tone of the instrument in relation to expressive aims; not to leave out some aesthetic/historical aspects like the rediscovery of the "singing" potential of the piano, no small feature of the late-Romantic and Impressionist European tradition with which Evans generously enriched the jazz language.
In the spring of 1961, since the trio was going strong, they decided to risk a live album, notwithstanding all the technical problems associated with this type of recording, which was not so common a practice at that time. The planned date was Sunday, June 25th, the last day of a two-week gig at the Village Vanguard. The trio played five sets that day, two in the afternoon between 4.30 and 6.30, and three in the evening, starting at 9.30. A total of thirteen pieces were recorded, five of which only once, others twice, and only a couple (Gloria's Step and All Of You) three times. Some selections had never been recorded by the trio before; another (LaFaro's Jade Visions), turned into a sort of "public rehearsal". Finally, My Romance and Waltz For Debby, which Evans had recorded unaccompanied on his debut album, were re-packaged for the trio setting.

The trio reached an apex here that they had been working towards for a couple of years. In one of those coincidences not infrequent in the history of jazz, all three seem to be arriving simultaneously at a ripening of their respective and different talents. Their individual creativity and musicality has peaked, the desire and capacity of each to enter the musical spirit of the other, giving birth to a musical miracle.
Although the concert takes place before an audience, the three seem to interact exclusively among themselves and relate only to the music. This contributes to the almost palpable, breath-taking density of these recordings where the musicians follow their itinerary of pure, almost merciless honesty. In the background you hear the chatter and laughter of the audience, but the trio pays no heed. Each of them is totally concentrated on his own sound while carefully listening to that of the others: the inner mechanism of the trio has been carried to its perfect balance. Each of the three completes a little revolution, My Foolish Heart (which Evans records for the first time here) being an excellent example. Here only the melody is played, but the calm sense of humble and participant singing with which Evans interprets Young's song is exalted by the parsimonious interventions of LaFaro, whose profound and resonant notes seem to anxiously await the melody in astonishment, and to dialogue with it. This performance is permeated with the sense of the yet-to-be-discovered, an unknown dimension in which Motian’s role is decisive; in fact, he plays with the melody, making of the delicate contact between his brushes and cymbals emotionally meaningful interjections that closely follow the "little story in music" that Evans is telling.

LaFaro's true creative stature begins to come out on My Romance. In December of the previous year the 25-year-old bass player had played on Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz. It was probably that contact to finally assuage his uncertainties about trying out harmonic and rhythmic paths more unconventional than those of recent trends. He literally explodes in Solar, which is, from every point of view, the most innovative result of this historic occasion, After an opening where LaFaro follows in the steps of the melody Evans is playing, the latter begins to improvise an octave-doubled single line. Echoes of Tristano reemerge, but what is most remarkable is that beneath him LaFaro, picks up the theme and gradually exploits some of its chromatic fragments. The bass seems to go off on its own, ignoring the piano and drums, as he hazards some sharp intervals, clambering up harmonies far away from the basic one, with each of the three keeping an eye on the structure of the piece while doing his own thing. Evans contributes to making Davis' piece dramatic by his insistent drilling of its motivic cell, which he extrapolates and makes into the germinating cell of another, extemporaneously composed line. The number ends in a very open and completely unconventional way for the time, after a 12-bar Motian/Evans "trade" in which the pianist boosts the volume of his chord voicing to deal with the increasing sound impact of the drums. This ending seems to pose a question: What comes next? or even What has just happened? It seems to say: "these were only a few of the possibilities that we could have explored; and we'll surely go looking for others next time ….”

Two of the selections played on that very special Sunday at the Village Vanguard [3RCD-4443-2]were LaFaro's contributions, both deviating from the prevailing compositional habits: Jade Visions, which alternates 4/4 and 5/4 meters, and Gloria’s Step, a theme whose first section unfolds over 5 bars. Here he ventures into a very audacious solo, letting the phrasing of his bass "fly' into a vigorous monologue bursting with the desire to go beyond. His instrumental skills are astonishing, he pushes them to the edge, not for mere virtuosity's sake, but in order to have available the widest possible range of sound and tone contrasts (low notes of the instrument responding to high ones, for instance).
LaFaro is the real co-protagonist of this historical recording. His relationship with Evans is telepathic. He inserts himself naturally among the piano's silences and breaths, almost always stubbornly refusing to ‘walk’ as the majority of his colleagues did in those days. Even in All Of You, where he could do it, he breaks up the tempo, thus creating a contrast with Motian. Observing these performances a bit more closely, it is clear that some of the material has to do with Miles Davis, both because they use two of his compositions (Solar and Milestones) and because of some important performances of his (All Of You and Gershwin's My Man’s Gone Now and I Loves You Porgy). All of which is understandable given Evans’ recent association with the trumpeter.

Evans plays My Foolish Heart in A major, a key generally considered “awkward" (it is very probable that LaFaro was no stranger to the choice of this key as a way to exploit the open strings of the bass); and My Man’s Gone Now, which the pianist "sings" with deep nostalgic participation, is played in E minor, the same key as his favorite Nardis - both of which keys Evans would claim to love playing in. Their awkwardness, in reality, could help avoid “mechanical" improvisation, since a less common key forces the ear into the highest concentration. On the other hand a piece played in an easier or more common key could encourage a sort of repetitive automatism that counts on what the hands “already know". We find an illustration of this in Alice In Wonderland where LaFaro seems to be suffering for the rather banal and obvious character of the piece.

.... to be continued in Part 4

1 comment:

  1. thanks for writing and transcribing and republishing all this. i've been an Evans fan since discovering Kind of Blue around '62, but eventually came to love maybe most of all the album Explorations--even ahead of the Vanguard live brilliance. so bring on the next installment!

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