The Bill Evans Trio – Portrait in Jazz – Classic Music Review


Look. I despise musicals and find most standards from the Great American Songbook boring. 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 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 ’60s), 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 stuff 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 notes that 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.” Most singers overplay their hand when covering this song, but 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 a crooner trying to hit all the notes at the right time, 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 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 must 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 typical 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 1950s 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 it’s obvious he knows his way around.

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 the 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.

14 responses

  1. Damn! My musical education consisted of watching the old, grand B/W musicals one was compelled to watch when only three channels were available. My point being, though I was fortunate enough to come from a good school system, I never took advantage of the opportunities I had to learn music theory. I did enjoy music, I could get lost in Hendrix’ musicality or Dylans musical poetry, I believe I hear music well. Moving to lower Manhattan in the mid ’70’s, I decided business sucked and committed to the bar job I’d picked up on the side in a small pub. Anyway the small Chelsea pub while not unusual for the day was amazing in what it afforded its patrons. including jazz on weekends. While it wasn’t my beginning with jazz, it was a life altering change in the relationship when one night working the bar, Kenny Barron was playing ‘Willow Weep for Me’. and I was suddenly stunned. I had had a ‘Jazz’ epiphany and it was beautiful to gather the complex , component parts and appreciate them as part of a sometimes transcendent whole.

    I continued as a technical dullard but through the years Iran and booked a couple of clubs and worked in a couple of very well known clubs. I’ve happily heard thousands of hours of live music and talked with hundreds of musicians. One thing I liked to occasionally throw into a conversation was I might be at an appreciation advantage listening to jazz not being bound by technical knowledge. IK but its a thought. I ran into your review after listening to the McPartland/Evans ‘conversation, which led me to a full listen of ‘Portrait’ which led me to a review search.

    Asde from your general dismissal of certain forms, I see jazz jazz as an explorative and curious ascendent music form and not an obviater of lesser styles, I found your review exceptionally written and very well considered, many of the ideas you expressed as evident in the music Evans also expressed to McPartland. He believed the responsibility of his gift was to deliver a finished product to the audience reflective of his artistry. Having made the short story long let me reiterate I very much enjoyed the review including the somewhat innovative interplay presented by this special band. I also enjoyed the interplay I experienced with my personal experience with the music and the McPartland interview and then aspects of your review. I feel the greatest genius is brought down to earth and you don’t need to be able to transcribe the music to ‘fully’ appreciate it.

  2. […] Bill Evans Trio – Portrait in Jazz […]

  3. Matheus Bezerra de Lima | Reply

    About Doris Day, there is an interesting commentary about her that I find by an unknown user in web:

    “Doris Day was a huge discovery for me. For years I considered her nothing more than the “eternal virgin” of a series of romantic comedies with Rock Hudson, and a reclusive star with a penchant for animals in her later years. But once I heard some of her early recordings with that voice, that voice! Well, it sent me just about as hard as when I first ‘got’ Sinatra. See, I’ve discovered that Doris Day had two voices. One, the one she developed for her film comedies and novelty songs, was a big, brassy, Merman-esque instrument which I simply can’t abide. There are some albums which are ALL this kind of blaring cacophony. But her other voice – the one she made many records with – is all loveliness and trembling softness, with a little catch that makes it sound as if she’s thisclose to breaking down and crying, that made me realize that this girl can really SING! Nevermind that she eventually became the archetype of the perfect mother, or that her hair eventually turned into a self-parody of the whole 60s “flip” thing. During the 1950s and early 60s Doris Day had one of the most meltingly beautiful tones in the whole wide world.”

  4. Matheus Bezerra de Lima | Reply

    Do you dislike Rodgers/Hart? I am just curious to know if you dislike Rodgers/Hart because you wrote “gasp” before mention them. I am curious also about other thing: what songwriters of the Great American Songbook do you like most or dislike most? And in general, what do you think about Tim Pan Alley tradition, the american popular music of the first half of 20th century°

    1. Well, I despise musicals, so that pretty much kills most of the Great American Songbook. I don’t know how you can call something “The Great American Songbook” and completely ignore the blues and early American folk music. The Songbook has a very strong New York bias, which excludes many worthy potential contributors. That said, there are songs I like and some of the composers and lyricists are people I admire (Ellington, Carmichael, Arlen, Kern). Rodgers, Hart and Hammerstein are not on that list. So much depends on who’s interpreting the song. Sinatra, Fred Astaire, most recently James Darren and Billie Holiday did some fine standards; Ella’s extensive catalog of standards doesn’t do much for me. I loathe Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things,” but that has more to do with the song than the performer.

      1. Matheus Bezerra de Lima

        Thanks for your answer. Interesting. Well, I remember have seen about a book that I can’t recall now its name, but the writer said that the book was about the history of American popular music of the first half of the century beyond the Great American Songbook. He said that there was far more american popular music made that time than the Great American Songbook, but that popular music that was not the Great American Songbook was already at that time, and still is, strongly marginalized by musical critics. He criticized the most of books talking about history american popular music, saying that they offer only a partial and tendencious point view of music of that time and that musical critics since then have tried to erase the music of that time that wasn’t the Great American Songbook. He said that his work in the book is finally make all that marginalized and despised music be known.

        Another interesting thing is that many of the best standards were written by unknown songwriters that almost never, or never, wrote a song so great again. Angel Eyes is the first example that comes to mind.

        Ella Fitzgerald’s songbooks albums are generally hailed. But the Gershwin and Ira Songbook album is the most praised by many. Ella Fitzgerald is widely considered the greatest singer of Gershwin songs. Ira Gershwin choice Ella the greatest singer of the songs that he and George wrote, saying: “I did not know that our songs were so good till Ella Fitzgerald sing them”.

        Sinatra is widely considered the greatest interpret of Cole Porter songs. But Sinatra’s most important contribution to the Great American Songbook is that, in a way, he created a big part of it, even tough he was not a songwriter! There are two very interesting texts of links below that explain this much better than I could.

        I would add two things:
        Sinatra discovered many great songs that were forgotten and he made standards when he not just recorded them, but very often he also deeply transformed them, with help of Nelson Riddle’s arrangements. Just a few examples are: Angel Eyes, Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry, All Of Me, You Make Me Feel So Young, Glad To Be Unhappy, My Funny Valentine, A Foggy Day, I Get A Kick Out Of You, When Your Lover Has Gone, My One And Only Love and I’ve Got You Under My Skin. And there are much more examples! I have no doubt that what put Sinatra above a singer as Bing Crosby, that had voice so great as him, was his deepness in singing the songs, while other crooners as Bing Crosby were pleasure and had also great voices, but nothing more. Compare the version that Crosby made of What’s New with the version that Sinatra made for the album Only The Lonely. He fully reinvents and deepens the song. Maybe the only thing needed to show this is just compare Sinatra with Sinatra! The most of Sinatra’s recordings in Capitol of songs that he had already recorded in Columbia are much better because:
        1-Sinatra’s singing and voice are deeper, richer and have much more colors, diversity and subtleties.
        2-Nelson Riddle’s arrangements are far more imaginative and rich than that of Axel Stordahl.

  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.

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

  7. 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.

    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.

  8. 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!)

    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.

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

    1. Matheus Bezerra de Lima | Reply

      I was a jerk in bits of my replies here, I apologize.

      Someday, I think I would like to have a nice talk with you about damsels in distress in films. I mean, I get your hate for the song “Someday My Prince Will Come”, but I think the whole discussion regarding damsels in distress characters, specially when it comes to Disney princesses, is more nuanced, and there are good elements of those characters that are unfairly overlooked in favor of a simplistic and exaggerated view of their flaws.

      A problem I see in recent films that brag empowering women is that they over-correct the trope, they go to another extreme, to the point that it feels like women showing vulnerability, being in distress, or falling in love with a man who helps saving them, are by themselves negative things, signs of weakness. Women and men, are all human beings. We are often vulnerable, we are in distress that can’t get out by ourselves, but above all: we fall in love, and, like the song “Love Is A Many Splendored-Thing” says, “love is nature’s way of giving a reason to be living”. Love on itself is not a weakness, it’s beautiful. And I think we can all agree with that.

      I have more thoughts on this whole topic, specially when it comes to classic damsel and distress, and also classic Disney princesses, tropes, but those are for another day.

      Cheers, I wish you the best!

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