Classic Music Review: Portrait in Jazz by the Bill Evans Trio

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Pure delight. Click to buy.

Look. I despise musicals and find most standards boring. That’s why I don’t care for much that Ella Fitzgerald did after the 1940’s and why you won’t find much by Ol’ Blue Eyes in my collection (though I did like James Darren’s engaging take on standards on This One’s from the Heart.) The moniker, “standards,” is the ultimate turn-off. I don’t want the standard model of anything, especially music.

This bias means that despite my admiration for Charlie Parker’s reconstructive surgery on various standards, I tend to view with sour disfavor on the various efforts by jazz musicians to translate the stuff you hear on the Easy Listening stations into jazz pieces. Once Coleman Hawkins reconstructed “Body and Soul,” the practice became widespread, with mixed results. I certainly approve of Parker’s remodeling of “Embraceable You,” but I always skip “Bye Bye Blackbird” on Miles Davis’ ‘Round About Midnight and don’t get me started on Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things.” Trying to hold the images of John Coltrane and Julie Andrews in my little blonde brain at the same time is asking too much of me. When I research a jazz album and see a track listing consisting primarily of standards, my modus operandi is to pass and hope I can find something with original compositions.

Although Bill Evans hardly looked the type to shatter a lady’s resistance (until he grew a beard later in the 60’s), he took my defenses and smashed them into tiny shards with Portrait in Jazz. All save two of the tracks are standards, some of them songs that usually set my teeth to grinding mode. I mean, we’re talking standardized standards written by people like Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Cy Coleman, Cole Porter and (gasp!) Rodgers & Hart. Why would anyone, especially a pianist at Bill Evans’ level, bother with shit like “Witchcraft” and “Some Day My Prince Will Come?”

Here’s why: Bill Evans had a more creative mind than I do and could see possibilities where I see dead ends. He also understood the limits of intellect and had the patience and discipline to build the skills one needs to become a true artist: “I mean,  jazz is a certain process that is not an intellectual process. You use your intellect to take apart the materials and learn to understand them and learn to work with them. But, actually, it takes years and years of playing to develop the facility so that you can forget all of that and just relax, and just play.”

I can apply that kind of patience and discipline to the erotic arts, but not to music. With the erotic, your pleasure centers are active even while you’re learning through experience, and they are active in the fantasy and preparation stages. It’s easy to be patient when the journey itself provides ample opportunity to get your rocks off. In ten years of flute and piano lessons, I might have experienced what Bill Evans was talking about once a year when all the practice paid off and I finally nailed a piece. My goal in taking music lessons was always to learn how music worked, not to become a musician; my goal in sex has always been to become the greatest fuck on the planet. I want every sexual encounter to be a fucking masterpiece.

This may seem like one of my digressions, but it really isn’t. Do you know how many people take up music just to get laid? Or just to make money? A great musician may have those goals as well, but they’re not the only goals. A great musician fulfills his or her life purpose in music. Music is their raison d’être, the endlessly alluring partner they are unable to resist. Portrait in Jazz is an ode from the lover to the beloved, with Bill Evans in the role of suitor. Portrait in Jazz is also a set of remarkably sensitive interpretations created by a highly interwoven trio of Bill Evans on piano, Scott LeFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. The interplay between Evans and LeFaro is crucial, for through their highly attuned collaboration, you clearly hear the effects of Evans’ belief that the root note in the chord should be left to the bassist: the bass takes a more prominent role in melody and Evans is freer to play with chord structure, creating impressionistic and original chord combinations that are fresh and intensely pleasing to the ear.

Uh oh . . . I felt myself slipping into the language of music theory in that last paragraph, something I try very hard to avoid because it’s off-putting to the majority of readers—as is most jazz criticism. Bill Evans found the majority of jazz critics as irritatingly arcane and as stuffily intellectual as I do, saying, “That’s why it bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It’s not. It’s feeling.” A similar mindset dominating modern art criticism made Picasso and Miró intimidating and unfathomable to the average person. With Bill Evans blessing, then, I will limit discussion of the musical technicalities and focus on how the music feels to me.

The album opens with a song that I actually do like—when Ray Charles or Etta James sings it. Bill Evans’ take on “Come Rain or Come Shine” maintains the essential lounge feel of the song while uncovering multiple layers of hidden melodies. Evans hints at the main melody through block chords (chords built below the main melody in four-part harmony) in classic Ellington style, but Bill Evans had the most sensitive touch of any pianist I’ve ever heard, and he used it to express a range of emotions. The way the notes fall from his piano sound almost shy and probing at first, as if the lover at the heart of the song experiences that hesitation we all feel before we make the leap into a full romantic commitment. After about a minute, the lover gains confidence and the notes fall more rapidly and playfully, as if the once tentative steps have become more certain. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, the notes mirror the very human experience when we’ve held something inside for a long time and once it comes out, it keeps on coming, in starts and stops, in peaks and valleys. Some of his short arpeggios (chords played in sequence rather than simultaneously) sound like hesitations; others take the form of tiny questions. When he breaks into a full run, the effect on the listener is one of unexpected delight. The track ends with a series of arrhythmic starts and stops that are reflected in Scott LeFaro’s bass patterns, as if the lover is pausing to look into his lover’s eyes and say, “But I’ll love you always, I’m with you rain or shine.” Standard it may be, but the trio’s arrangement and execution transform it into a marvelous listening experience.

With “Autumn Leaves,” Evans takes on a song that Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis had already turned into a jazz classic on Somethin’ Else. Evans’ version is far more uptempo, in complete contradiction to the mood established by the song’s lyrics and the melancholy feeling that is established when minor and diminished chords are dominant. In the Adderley-Davis version, autumn is a symbol of the lost summer, the beginning of the end. In Bill Evans’ hands, it’s a nice crisp, sunny autumn day in Vermont and the colors are exploding all around you. The interplay between Evans and Scott LaFaro on this track is breathtaking, as the two weave in and out of each other’s contributions in one of the great examples of call-and-response in jazz. The loss of Scott LaFaro at the age of twenty-five in a car crash only a week after the trio recorded the jazz classic Sunday at the Village Vanguard was a great loss to music: this man could have become the greatest bassist of them all.

The song that really blew me away on this record is “Witchcraft.” I have always hated Sinatra’s iconic version with his precisely clipped phrasing slathered in excessive emphasis on the punchlines, those sickeningly shimmering strings, the cliché vamps from the band and those dumb-ass manufactured lyrics. Have I made my feelings clear? In the hands of Bill Evans and Scott LeFaro, the melody is transformed into something witty and playful, as both men exult in the freedom that Charlie Parker gave to the jazz community to go wherever the imagination leads, for you can always resolve a moment’s dissonance sooner or later. I love the way they play off the expected rhythm, faithfully supplied with brushes by Paul Motian. Instead of Sinatra hitting the notes where he knows he should, we have Evans and LaFaro hitting the notes when it feels right, placing our expectations in suspension before delivering the satisfying surprise.

“When I Fall in Love” was first made a hit by Doris Day, and though I think Doris is a more credible singer than people realize, this was one of her worst drama queen moments. Nat King Cole’s version is buried from the beginning by a pompous string arrangement in a lame attempt to telegraph the message that this song should be taken seriously and you all better shut the fuck up and listen. Your intrepid reviewer even mustered up the courage to listen to Celine Dion’s version on YouTube, sung in duet over images from the diabetic film Sleepless in Seattle, necessitating a trip to the hospital so I could get my ears and stomach pumped. Every fucking interpretation of this song is designed to convince you that love is a serious and sacred thing, and that notion offends every fiber in my body and soul. Love is fun, joyful, exhilarating, energizing! It’s not any fun when you’re so paranoid about your lover cheating on you that you have to insist that it last forever, which means you really don’t love that person because you’re trying to restrict their right to choose to be with you or not, and what the hell good is a relationship unless both parties consciously choose to be with each other? Harrumph! Bill Evans’ interpretation is blessedly devoid of all the melodrama, accenting the main melody with blue notes to emphasize the sensual component. It’s more of an after-sex statement where you say, “Yeah, this feels good and I want it to last forever,” then after a cigarette and a drink you go back for delightfully sloppy seconds. Bill does some amazing runs just past the halfway point that sound suspiciously like post-sex foreplay, so I think my “let’s do it again” theory has some validity.

The one uncontested Bill Evans original on Portrait in Jazz is “Peri’s Scope,” a toe-tapping little number where you really notice Paul Motian’s influence in keeping the beat steady and the players moving. Bill Evans’ magic touch is on full display here, as he plays some amazing runs and arpeggios with his amazing delicacy. The natural tendency on any instrument to play louder when you play faster, and to hear someone defy that urge so convincingly is both educational and inspiring. It’s followed by Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” one of the few Ella interpretations from the 1950’s that I do enjoy. The trio’s version is more déconstruit, more cubist and be-bop than jazz standard. Both Evans and LeFaro knock you out with their breathtaking runs over the subtle brushed cymbals and occasional snare hits from Paul Motian, who gets a shot at a solo and nails it. It’s one of the few passages on the record where he confirms he has an entire drum kit, and he’s very, very good on it.

(That was weird. When writing the description of the trio’s approach to this song, I couldn’t think of the English word for déconstruit (it’s “deconstructed”). I’ve also been dreaming in French lately, and though I use English every day at work, I’ve also noticed that my partner and I communicate mostly in French and Spanish when we’re together. Hmm. I wonder if the English part of my brain is beginning to crumble.)

Coltrane and Evans may have played together under Miles Davis, but it should be no surprise to anyone that Coltrane and Evans have vastly different interpretations of Rodgers and Hart’s “Spring Is Here.” Coltrane’s version always sounded awkward to me, and is a vast departure from the sentiment or structure of the original: that spring is the most overrated season of them all. Jo Stafford’s version is superb—primarily because Jo Stafford is always superb—and it does reflect the intentions of composer and lyricist. The Bill Evans Trio is more Stafford than Coltrane, creating a picture of a pretty girl looking out from the window at the April rain scattering the petals of the bright spring flowers all over the garden, transforming the beauty of burgeoning life into a mucky mess. The dissonance Evans creates with some of his chords is the most accurate representation of spring I know, right up there with “April is the cruelest month,” but Bill doesn’t travel into Eliot’s wasteland . . . the effect is sad and reflective rather than apocalyptic, through the use of impressionist chording (Ravel and Debussy were major influences on Evans).

Regular readers will easily be able to predict my reaction to “Someday My Prince Will Come.” The very paradigm of that song fills me with shame that someone of my own species could have created such a monstrosity. Only a woman created by Walt Disney could have sung that song and meant it, which makes it all the more surprising that the song was covered by artists as diverse and feminist as Lena Horne and Sinéad O’Connor. Although Snow White has to be the dumbest broad ever conceived, what attracts singers and a host of jazz musicians to the song is not the hideous set of lyrics but the chord structure, which at one point features a shift from a minor chord to diminished chord a half-step below—a very compelling combination. Evans begins the piece pretty much tracking the theme, independent of the waltz-time rhythm, then cues the bass and drums with an uptempo intro. Once everyone’s on board, Evans takes liberties galore, introducing series after series of delightfully witty and mesmerizing patterns that hint at the melody while integrating blues and be-bop transitions. LaFaro has an extended bass solo in this piece which is equally inventive, and when Evans steps in to support him with a few brief arpeggiated chords, LaFaro seems to step it up a notch. Bill Evans turned a song I loathe into a playful exploration of musical possibilities, leaving me positively joyful at the end of the track.

Portrait in Jazz ends with a kind of statement. “Blue in Green (Take 3)” was one of the tracks on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and Miles claimed he wrote all the songs on Kind of Blue. Bill Evans insisted it was his, and most jazz historians back him up. Here he has the tune pretty much to himself, with only very light backing from LaFaro and Motian, and it is indeed a thing of beauty. I wrote of the version on Kind of Blue that “The feel is late night reflection after a very sweet day,” and for the most part, Evans retains that reflective feeling while adding a touch more assertiveness to emphasize the sheer loveliness of the melody and its rhythmic potential. From the listener’s standpoint, this version feels at times lush, at times sparkling, but always intensely beautiful.

I noted in my review of Kind of Blue that Miles Davis described Bill Evans’ touch on the piano as “crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall,” and the description holds true throughout Portrait in Jazz. He also commented in his autobiography (in one of the few passages that does not contain the word “motherfucker”) that “Bill brought a great knowledge of classical music, people like Rachmaninoff and Ravel. He was the one who told me to listen to the Italian pianist Arturo Michelangeli, so I did and fell in love with his playing. Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano.” That quiet fire is also present here. More pungently, Miles noted that “he can play his ass off,” and there’s no doubt about that when you listen to Portrait in Jazz or almost any recording graced by Bill Evans’ presence. If you have been frightened away from modern jazz by the writings of pompous intellectuals full of convoluted explanations of the complexity of the music, just listen to this record and feel it.

It’s a beautiful feeling.

 

 

7 responses

  1. […] Bill Evans, Portrait in Jazz […]

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  2. I’m glad I could rely on the ARC to insert (pun intended) an erotic context into a Bill Evans review. Gorgeous album that swings as much as it lilts – a neat trick! – and severely underrated in a critical cannon that has trouble seeing past the two village-vanguard albums (great as they are!)

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    1. I can explain with a touch of New Age wisdom! You can’t grow up in San Francisco and escape the New Age!

      One of my parents’ friends was a new age guru type (a channel) who was into the Michael teachings. She did what they call a reading of my “overleaves,” which are allegedly the aspects of personality we’ve chosen for a given lifetime. We have a goal, a mode, an attitude and something called “centering.” There are seven centers, but most people only choose three: emotional, intellectual or moving (action); the other four are very rare. The center is how you respond to stimuli, and we generally use two of the centers: some people act then think, some feel then act, some think then feel … you get the picture.

      The “channel” was shocked that when she read my overleaves that my main center was one of the rare ones: sexual. That means my first response to stimuli is sexual, and my second is action. In short, things make me horny and then I do something about it. That’s an overgeneralization, but it does apply to a lot of music, men, women, vodka, leather . . .

      After the “reading,” I told my mother that the channel’s perception of my overleaves could have been discerned through conversations she’d had with my parents or by reading my body language. To wit: my goal in life is dominance (duh), my mode is perseverance (also something anyone who knows me is fully aware of), my attitude is that of the skeptic (which she could have read from the sour expression on my face as she tried to explain this shit to me), and my sexual center could have easily come from my mother (“You think I’m horny? Well, let me tell you about my daughter.”) Maman denied it, but she denied it with a smile, which tells me I caught her red-handed.

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  3. That’s an interesting story! And it seems like that channel really had you pinned. I tend to be of mixed feelings where concerns new-ageishness and the occult ‘sciences.’ Intellectually I’m also inclined towards skepticism, but every now and then I will be obliged to reconcile the intellectual skepticism with an intuitive “wow, this numerology chart really knows me!” or “golly gee, has really got me down,” so that finally I settle somewhere near an attitude of cautious, Hamlet-ish, open-mindedness. Suffice to say, if you wrote a memoir I would read it, because your life as you describe it here is always interestingly described and/or written. I hope my comment re: the erotic context did not come across as snide, since I merely meant it as tongue in cheek.

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    1. No, your comment was taken as you intended. There are aspects of some of the New Age philosophies that ring true for me because I do value intuition. The personality theory behind the Michael stuff is actually quite brilliant and perceptive; I just wish it wasn’t presented with all the mystical hoo-hah.

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  4. […] Bill Evans Trio: Portrait in Jazz […]

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  5. Matheus Bezerra de Lima | Reply

    There are reasons why these songs are Called standards: they are american classical popular music, heavily influenced by classical music. Sinatra, even tough wrote almost no songs, was the main responsible in define standards. Many standards only became standards because Sinatra frequently picked old songs that everybody had forgotten, and brought them back to consciouness. Sinatra sing standards with a passion and deep engagement that immortalized the songs. Listen to albums like In The Wee Small Hours or Only The Lonely: some could easily have been boring, kitschy or trite in the voice of almost every other singer, but Sinatra makes definitive versions and can carry even weaker songs to higher levels. But the songs were good and Sinatra know how to choice repertoire. Songs by nothing less than Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and others. Standards only suffer from new singers that only transform the songs in simple and generic poor imitations. Sinatra really deserved the nickname The Voice because of all this.

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