Tag Archives: Bill Evans

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

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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.

 

 

Miles Davis – Kind of Blue – Classic Music Review

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One of the “greatest recordings of all-time” that is better than the hype. Click to buy.

This is going to sound weird, but the only reason I’m reviewing Kind of Blue is because I want to do a few reviews of John Coltrane and Kind of Blue is a good jumping-off point for exploring Coltrane.

No, dear readers, this is not another one of those reviews like Pet Sounds or Exile on Main Street where I rip universally-acclaimed crap to shreds. Kind of Blue is one of the greatest records ever made and Miles Davis is one of my top five musical artists in any genre. It also happens to be the best-selling jazz album of all time (#5 on the iTunes charts last week after 54 years). The reason I’ve resisted doing anything with it is that there is already an intimidating body of literature covering Kind of Blue. What on earth could poor-little-no-credentials-no-connections-no-cred-with-the-experts-who-lists-sex-ahead-of-music-as-a-life-interest-and-who-never-went-to-Julliard-thirty-two-year-old me possibly have to add to this formidable field of study except long, hyphenated adjective strings?

Look at my tagline and figure it out.

Most listeners don’t give a rat’s fuck about the technical musical jargon that jazz critics use to excess, alienating potential listeners by droning on and on about music theory and its related technicalities. Only rarely do they talk about the experience of the music—how it makes you feel, the images it creates, the way it can change your perception of the immediate moment. In the case of Kind of Blue, though, the technicalities are important, in part because of the new possibilities they created, but mostly in how Miles Davis chose to work with those technicalities and with the musicians under his direction. I’ll try to avoid boring you to death via an overdose of music theory, but a teeny bit might help you appreciate what was accomplished on Kind of Blue.

The mass of literature on Kind of Blue focuses primarily on the concept of modality, or modal jazz. What that means for those of you not versed in musical lingo is that for each piece, Miles simply gave each band member a scale (mode) that defined the boundaries for their improvisations instead of chord charts, tabs or a score. Kind of Blue isn’t purely modal or completely improvisational; there are some defined chord changes, and some of the melodic themes had been sketched out in advance of the session. What modal jazz does is heighten the importance of melody and challenges the performers to explore melodic possibilities that cannot come into existence when you’re tied to the chords.

What makes Kind of Blue so wonderful is something else Miles Davis gave the musicians: his trust. He trusted their ability to use their unique talents to create something beautiful together. As the true essence of jazz is improvisation, freeing the music from any kind of dogma is a liberating, challenging act for the serious, passionate, curious musician. Miles had no specific idea what these guys were going to play (there were no rehearsals and very few takes), but he had deep confidence in their abilities.

And no wonder! When you’ve got John Coltrane on your team, you’ve already got a winner. Add Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, Bill Evans on piano (Wynton Kelly on “Freddie the Freeloader”), James Cobb on the skins and Paul Chambers on bass and you have one of the great combos of all time (and Miles would put together another great combo a few years later). You may not know all the names, but once you sit down and listen to Kind of Blue, you’ll say, “Jesus Christ, these guys know how to play!” You’ll also find that each musician has a unique voice, a unique style and ways of communicating thought and emotion that give the music a rich diversity . . . but because they are simultaneously listening closely to each other and picking up on cues and suggestions, Kind of Blue is also a deeply collaborative, unified work.

As I did in my review of Robert Johnson, I’m going to focus less on the theoretical aspects and more on the emotions, the imagery and the kinetic energy the music inspires.

“So What?”: The opening piano-bass segment was likely written by frequent Miles Davis collaborator and arranger Gil Evans, who would help him create the wonder that is Sketches of Spain. The message I hear in this arrhythmic opening is “slow down, take your time, give a listen and let the music course through your soul.” When Paul Chambers makes a clever little shift into the main bass run and Jimmy Cobb brushes those cymbals with such delicacy, I take a deep breath and feel my gears start to downshift; the horns enter to reinforce the tempo, and then comes the moment when the clutch is in position and the ride becomes oh, so smooth. Herbie Hancock described that shift beautifully in Ashley Kahn’s guidebook to Kind of Blue: “When Miles comes in and starts his solo and Cobb hits that crash on the down beat, you can’t get any better than that.” Miles’ solo makes me feel like I’m floating in air; the integration of trumpet, piano and bass is soft and snug. Trane’s solo is more daring, more rhythmically unpredictable, but still within the mood of the piece, and I find myself surrendering, following him wherever he wants to take me because his voicing is so alluring. Cannonball comes in and makes me smile; his melody is playful and he doesn’t mind shifting bars early or leaving the scale to create a little tension and shade the mood. Bill Evans seems a bit tentative at first, but the horns encourage him to loosen up before he finds comfort in Paul Chambers’ bass line; now I’m ready for a dry martini and a cigarette. The fade on the bass is one of my favorite parts of the song; the absence of frets on a standup bass allows for tones between the notes that paint splashes of color that I find endlessly delightful. Technically, the piece is in the Dorian mode, shifting between two chords, Dm7 and Ebm7. Structurally simple, deliciously complex: you can listen to this piece a hundred times and hear something you never noticed before.

“Freddie Freeloader”: The structure is classic 12-bar blues, but instead of winding down on the expected I-V-IV-I pattern, the last two bars go to VII, a variation that gives this piece more of an edge. Miles chose Wynton Kelly for piano on this piece because of his noted ability to comp the horns with strong rhythmic support. He also takes the first solo, and it’s impossible not to snap your fingers on the fourth beat of every measure as Kelly and Jimmy Cobb establish an irresistible groove. Miles comes in with a smooth blue solo that’s as sexy as fuck; the rest of the martini burns my throat and I have to light another cigarette. From this moment forward, this song is a pure foreplay; this fucker is teasing me with a soft touch here and a tongue in the ear there. Once Miles has me all worked up, Coltrane enters with serious force, making me turn from one lover to the other. Less bluesy, more probing, like excited hands running over my body in uncontrolled ecstasy. Cannonball comes in a few beats late; he takes a quick look around then flat-out sings in delight, reconnecting with the tension of the seventh chords, causing me to grind away. The volume eases off like the man has had second thoughts or is worried he’ll let it go too early; the tension created by the brushed cymbals and disarmingly easy piano is almost unbearable. The main theme returns, telling me they’re going to make me hold that orgasm a little longer . . . I think I’d better powder my nose.

“Blue In Green”: Bill Evans described this in the liner notes as “a 10-measure circular form following a 4-measure introduction, and played by soloists in various augmentation and diminution of time values.” Most of you probably fell asleep reading that description at about the halfway point, but trust me, the result far outshines the technical characterization. The 10-measure form means that Miles is messing with your expectations, as it’s certainly not the twelve or thirty-two bars commonly used for many blues or traditional pop numbers. Hell, even the musicians had a hard time getting this one down, repeatedly stopping takes to reaffirm timing. They finally got it down on the fifth take to create one of the loveliest jazz pieces you’ll ever hear. Miles and Bill Evans get two solos each, sandwiched around Coltrane’s. The feel is late night reflection after a very sweet day; when Bill Evans doubles up and changes chords at twice the pace, it’s like remembering the highlight of that day, perhaps the long, dulcet kiss on the balcony as the sun went down, or the heart skipping at the beauty of a street scene or of wildflowers in a meadow. Coltrane’s middle piece slows things down considerably, like you’re letting it all sink in; the contrast between this solo and his work on “Freddie Freeloader” leaves you amazed at the man’s expressive range. Life is good.

“All Blues”: “Blue in Green” transported me to a dream world, but it’s easy to snap me out of those moods if you’re offering something with a little spice, like basic blues in 6/4 (the critical debate over whether it’s 6/4 or really 3/4 is exceedingly annoying). The tonal variation on the basic blues structure is the flatted sixth, one half-tone above where you’d expect. The vamp (the term used for a two-chord pattern repeated over and over) also serves to separate the various soloists, so “All Blues” is in some ways the piece best structured to highlight the differences between the soloists. Coltrane’s feels the hottest and bluesiest, definitely putting me back in the mood for more foreplay. Cannonball’s starts out hot and smooth but winds up making me smile again; his technique captures human-sounding grunts, head-shaking and splashes of free-spiritedness. Bill Evans’ solo is the most remarkable; his timing is so off-beat that the notes sound like they’re hanging in mid-air like when the world stopped in The Day the World Stood Still, but his resolutions are always on point. Kahn commented that “As easy-rolling as it all sounds, the effort of playing the same musical phrase over and over again—even for veteran musicians—is apparent as the tune ends . . . all breathe a sigh of relief.” Since the piece goes on for eleven-and-a-half minutes, that sigh is indeed heartfelt.

“Flamenco Sketches”: This precursor to Sketches of Spain stands on its own as an exceptional piece of music. Although you can hear the effect throughout, I think this is the piece where the natural acoustics of recording in a studio that used to be a Greek Orthodox Church really stand out. The solos soar up to those high ceilings, collecting natural reverberation that sounds so fresh and alive in comparison to the software-generated equivalent used today. This is the piece that best reveals truth of Miles Davis’ characterization of Bill Evans’ piano style: “crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.” His solo, consisting of precisely played single notes or two-note combinations delivered with his exceptional ability to float over the beat, is like hearing flowers or drops of color. A complex piece that accesses several scales and modes, what is interesting to me is how little the Phrygian mode appears (those are the Spanish Scales that stamp a piece of music with an unmistakable Iberian flavor); after all, the piece is called “Flamenco Sketches.” It’s interesting because the combined effect is very Spanish/Moorish, which only goes to show that spending excessive energy on music theory can take you far away from the music. My partner is from Spain, and we’ve visited her family and friends several times. When I hear this piece, it calls up images of bougainvillea hanging over the balcony; warm, dry nights; the last drink in the tapas bar; the sleepy streets of Sevilla as dawn breaks on a Sunday morning. And yes, it’s also intensely romantic and always makes me want to kiss her and hold her close to me forever. Ahh!

Kind of Blue works on so many levels. As background to foreplay, there’s nothing better. For pure, simple musical enjoyment, it’s a bottomless glass of fascination. If you want to hear what it sounds like when human beings are in perfect sync with each other—something you almost never hear in the real world—this is it. It’s not only one of the greatest jazz albums, but the one that best demonstrates the essence of jazz: collaborative improvisation. There are no overdubs, no gimmicks, no software.

One of the wonderful things about moving to France is that I have friends who actually listen to jazz! Seattle had a couple of jazz clubs but I never found anyone who shared my passion and who could hold an intelligent conversation about jazz. It’s far more popular here than in the land of its birth. The other day I checked my play stats on iTunes and found that 42% of the music I listen to is jazz, 38% rock and its variants, 11% blues and R&B, and the rest an amalgam of Celtic, folk, world and singer/songwriter. I’ve deliberately limited my reviews of jazz albums because a.) I’m the Alt ROCK Chick and b.) my readers (mostly American) don’t seem to share my interest.

Sigh. Maybe someday Americans will recognize the truth of what Wynton Marsalis said in Ken Burns’ documentary, Jazz: that jazz is the true American art form because of its essential democracy. Jazz is where different people with different perspectives come together specifically to create something that melds different points of view. Given the fractious politics in America today, where everyone seems hellbent on shouting down the opposition and making a show of refusing to collaborate, Americans can learn a lot from their musical heritage.

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