Bill Evans Trio, How My Heart Sings!

Album of the Week, January 28, 2023

Producer Orrin Keepnews said in the liner notes to Bill Evans’ How My Heart Sings, “This project was the first time I had set out to record two albums by the same group at the same time,” referring to the album of ballads that came from these same sessions, Moon Beams. The theory behind this album was a set of more up-tempo songs to accompany the unusual all-ballads format of the accompanying recording. As Evans himself noted, “the selections presented here are primarily of the ‘moving’ kind, though there is in the trio’s approach to all material the desire to present a singing sound.”

Whatever you call it, this second recording from the May 1962 sessions, not issued until January 1964, is unusually buoyant. But it’s not extroverted; it rings with a quieter joy. You can hear it from the beginning, where Evans opens Earl Zindars’ “How My Heart Sings” with a gentle swing that leans against the syncopation of Chuck Israels’ bass. Drummer Paul Motian is a little more present here than on Moon Beams, underscoring the shift from 3/4 to 4/4 in the second chorus, but he still stays mostly in the background, setting the stage for the dialog between Evans and Israels.

I Should Care” leans into the rhythm harder, with Motian swinging against Evans through several choruses before falling back behind Israels’ solo. Here the bassist underscores Evans’ point about really singing the line, as the solo is lyrical and all melody. Evans plays with the beat throughout this one, shifting emphasis to the second and fourth beats, especially in the last chorus.

We’ve heard Dave Brubeck’s great standard “In Your Own Sweet Waybefore, but here Evans puts his own stamp on the tune, taking it faster and playing with the beat in the bridge, then briefly departing from the gentle swing of the original into a racing second melody, as though bursting into a second song in the middle of a first. Chuck Israels’ solo takes the melody down into the bass depths and fragments it further; when Evans steps alongside him he tosses the fragments back and forth with the bassist as they go.

Walking Up” is an Evans original, with more than a little of the feel of John Coltrane’s “Countdown,” from Giant Steps. But when he turns the corner (or maybe reaches the landing?) we’re suddenly in a different environment. Perhaps we’ve walked to the top of a bridge and that’s a ray of sun peeking through the fog? At any rate, we’re playing with meter again, moving from straight four into a syncopated off-beat, and it’s fascinating.

If you’re going to play “Summertime” and make it your own, you’d better have some good ideas to share. The version on this record, again, shares some DNA with a Coltrane recording, in this case the version of the great Gershwin tune on My Favorite Things. Both recordings feature a rhythmic motif around the modal suspension underpinning the verse, but where Trane’s version has the beat in McCoy Tyner’s piano, here it’s given to Chuck Israels, who opens the track with the motif and never puts it down. Evans’ version swings more than Trane’s, due in large part to Motian’s skillful fills. This is probably the one track where Motian steps out of the background and you can really hear all of the things he’s got bubbling away under the others.

34 Skidoo” is the second of three Evans originals on the album, and the jauntiest by far. Sliding in and out of different meters, Evans and Israels take turns syncopating the tune and perform some incredible handoffs between their turns at the wheel. The momentum continues through Cole Porter’s “Ev’rything I Love”; the tune leans closer toward ballad status than most of the numbers in this set, but when Evans comes out of the first chorus he takes lyrical flight.

Show-Type Tune” brings us out with another Evans composition. A wistful opening on the piano is followed by a metaphorical “squaring of the shoulders” and a more forthright, lyrical verse. The most extroverted performance on the album, the track features Evans pulling out trick after trick in his solo, shifting chromatic scales at the end, and seemingly taking flight at the end. It is a heck of a closing number from such a deeply introverted performer.

The two albums recorded during the May 1962 sessions re-established Evans as a force to be reckoned with, and put a capstone on his time with Orrin Keepnews’ Riverside Records. The following year saw him move to Verve and producer Creed Taylor, where he would make some deeply original recordings — as well as a fair amount of dreck. We’ll hear some of the more original and less drecky work next time.

You can listen to the album here:

The Bill Evans Trio, Moon Beams

Album of the Week, January 21, 2023

Jazz musicians are often inspired by playing with particular colleagues. Arguably neither Dave Brubeck nor Paul Desmond ever excelled individually the records that they made together. And Miles’ great quintets were defined by the partnership the trumpeter made with saxophonists John Coltrane, then Wayne Shorter. But Bill Evans was inspired by his bassists—first and most famously Scott LaFaro, then following his death with Chuck Israels. It is that collaboration that brings this, the first proper record of the new trio with Israels and drummer Paul Motian, to life.

Evans and his trio entered the Sound Makers Studio in New York on Thursday, May 17, 1962, three days after his second and final session with Jim Hall for Undercurrent was recorded in the same studio. They cut four tunes that day, of which “If You Could See Me Now” appeared on this record. They returned on May 29, June 2, and June 5. The bulk of today’s record was recorded in the June 2 session, along with the more balladic material recorded across the other three dates.

Re: Person I Knew” is an opening statement that is shrouded in modal mystery. Displaying several Evans hallmarks off the bat, including the out of time entrance, the yearning of the modal pivot between the G minor and D minor, and even the cryptic title (an anagram of the name of the producer who had spurred him to reform his trio, Riverside Records founder Orrin Keepnews). And then there’s the playing of the trio. After the solo statement in the first eight bars by Evans, Israels makes his presence known with a bass line that keeps time while sketching out the space around the open fifth and octaves. Motian’s understated but complex drum fills keep the whole thing moving forward as Evans and Israels breathe, listen to each other, make statements. It’s a powerful performance.

Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” which lends the album its title, returns to a more normal and less modal tonality, but Evans and Israels continue their duet. Following the first statement of the chorus, Israels begins a complex countermelody that underpins the entire remainder of the song. The conclusion has him bring the tune to an unusually irresolute finish, descending to a relative minor.

I Fall In Love Too Easily,” the great dark Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne ballad, here drives headlong into the darkness and comes out blinking into the light of a major key. The transition is so gradual that you hardly notice it’s happened until the end, where the pianist underscores the major with a few bars that seem almost like a dance before resolving to the final major chord.

Stairway to the Stars” is lights down, swaying to the music after midnight, with only Motian’s insistent drum pattern nudging things on away from slumber. Thus roused, Evans plays a rhapsodic variation on the theme over a high obligato in Israels’ bass. The coda, which returns to the feeling of out of time, brings the first side to a close.

Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now” opens the second side, with Evans treating the tune as a more straightforward ballad for the initial chorus, then gently swinging into a syncopated restatement of the theme. The interplay between Israels and Evans here is striking and almost telepathic, with the pianist taking a breath as the bassist enters with a chord change or plays the first note of the next verse.

It Might As Well Be Spring” begins as a yearning statement then seems to take flight, as Evans brings the melody through two choruses and then into a third that almost seems like it’s in double time. Throughout Israels maintains a sort of running commentary that turns outright sly at the end, where after the final chord he seems as though he is playing the beginning of “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”) before continuing the downward run one more note.

Jerome Kern’s “In Love In Vain” carries the melancholy burden of being from the last show he worked on before his 1946 death, the musical film Centennial Summer, which also featured “Up with the Lark,” another perennial Evans favorite. Again the dialog between Israels and Evans borders on the telepathic, with the heroic final chorus in particular a stunning example of their collaboration.

The last track, “Very Early,” is the second Evans original on the album, and one that was destined to appear in his setlists for the rest of his life. The tune is in playful Evans mode, as it circles the tone center while keeping things major throughout. Israels’ solo is worth a second listen, as he does some harmonic things that lend an unexpected depth to the musical structure while keeping up a dancing rhythm throughout.

Where some of Evans’ earlier work could be so delicate as to seem tentative, there is joy that rings from these sessions, a feeling of surety and confidence. The album seems to announce that Evans is back, and better than ever; the partnership with Israels was off to a good start.

One interesting side note: another memorable album cover here, with a beautiful model in a provocatively romantic pose. The model is none other than Nico, some five years before her Andy Warhol inspired turn as chanteuse on the Velvet Underground’s debut. Like Evans, there’s more than a hint of sadness behind her smile here.

You can listen to the album here:

Bill Evans and Jim Hall, Undercurrent

Album of the Week, January 14, 2023

In April 1962, Bill Evans was still digging out from under the emotional burden of Scott LaFaro’s death, but at least he was recording. After Orrin Keepnews persuaded him to return to the studio with Herbie Mann in late 1961, he was intermittently in and out of the studio in various contexts — a brief session with the new trio that wouldn’t see the light of day until 2007, a recording with Todd Dameron’s orchestra, a solo session. And on April 24, he entered the Sound Makers Studio in New York City to record with a new collaborator, guitarist Jim Hall.

Hall had built a reputation in the late 1950s in the Jimmy Giuffre Trio, and went on to collaborate with a number of musicians in the following years, including Dave Brubeck’s long-time collaborator Paul Desmond, and Sonny Rollins (that’s Hall on Rollins’ The Bridge). Along the way he had appeared opposite Evans when the latter was in Tony Scott’s quartet, and with the Giuffre Trio opposite Evans in Miles’ band in a run of dates at Café Bohemia in 1958. (Hall recalls, “Miles would tease that our silly little trio would get more applause than his group.”)

The two men got together to toss around some ideas in Evans’ New York apartment, and then headed into the studio, recording the album on April 24 and May 14, bracketing the final recording session for Nirvana with Herbie Mann and the Evans trio. What happened in the studio is an example of jazz alchemy. The two players throughout listen to each other intently, trading melodic ideas and completing each others’ harmonic sentences.

The version of “My Funny Valentine” that opens the album shows off the duo’s musical imagination. Far removed from the meditative flavor of Miles’ various interpretations of the tune, the two take the tune at a breakneck speed that shows off the interplay between the two. In the first chorus, Evans takes the lead, but Hall’s accompaniment anticipates the chord changes up the scale, practically pulling Evans up after him! After the first chorus, things start to breathe a little more, with both Evans and Hall leaving rests in their solos between ideas, as though punctuating a conversation.

The second track, “I Hear a Rhapsody,” likewise flips around the convention established by John Coltrane and others who had covered this unlikely jazz standard. Where Coltrane’s recording takes a brisk pace, Hall and Evans meditate on the tune, with Hall’s guitar setting the pace via an out of tempo introduction that settles into a 60bpm reverie. Again, Evans and Hall exchange ideas in a way that seems psychic.

Dream Gypsy” continues the trance, this time in a waltz. There is more than a hint of “Blue in Green” in the introduction, but rather than heading into modal bliss, this first performance of the lovely Judith Veevers tune settles into a dark mode with flavors of Spanish guitar.

The opening of the second side, Jim Hall’s “Romain” sounds as though it should be “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” before it turns a corner, and changes key. There’s still a tinge of the Cole Porter number in the song, but the melody circles around G minor, as though reluctant to leave, before returning to C major, not quite performing the “major to minor” transition from the earlier song. It’s bewitching, and the duo keeps the tempo moving so that the end effect is bluesy rather than lugubrious.

John Lewis’ “Skating in Central Park” likewise has a touch of the familiar about it, but the genial waltz sweeps you along too ingratiatingly to worry about where you might have heard a bit of it before, circling the proverbial pond until it reaches a final climactic chord.

Darn That Dream” continues in much the same key as “Central Park,” but freely, with a short introduction by Evans yielding to an unaccompanied solo by Hall. The performance has the feel of the best of Bill Evans, that quiet moment where the chords give way into a moment of transfiguration. He was to find that transcendent quality in the next recording project he did, which would see him return to the studio with his new trio; we’ll hear from them next week.

A note on the cover: that’s a photograph from a 1947 Harper’s Bazaar shoot by fashion photographer Toni Frissell at Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida. The tourist attraction, known for its live “mermaids,” is still in operation today.

You can listen to the album here:

Herbie Mann and the Bill Evans Trio, Nirvana

Album of the Week, January 7, 2023

Bill Evans—whom we last saw providing compositions and historic accompaniment for Miles on Kind of Blue—was putting things back together. On June 25, 1961, he and his trio—Paul Motian on drums and Scott LaFaro on bass—performed a legendary set at the Village Vanguard club in New York City, from which the famed albums Live at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby were drawn. The trio was making a name for Evans’ innovative, dreamy compositions and for the unusual equality of voice among the three players in the trio, particularly with Scott LaFaro’s bass playing. Then, on July 6, 1961, LaFaro was killed in a car crash on US 20 in Seneca, New York. Evans was bereft, playing nothing but his and LaFaro’s version of “I Loves You, Porgy” for days and pausing all performances.

By December 1961 Evans was recording again. Spurred by his producer and Riverside Records founder, Orrin Keepnews, he put his trio back together, this time bringing in the bassist Chuck Israels. Before the trio recorded any sessions for Riverside, though, they found themselves in the Atlantic Records New York studios December 8, 1961 with producer Nesuhi Ertegun and flautist Herbie Mann.

If you have been on the Internet for any length of time you’ve seen the listicles of bad 1970s album covers. One, Push Push, is especially memorable, showing a balding, shirtless man in a hairy-chested slouch with a flute over his shoulder. That’s Herbie Mann. But before he was recording (pretty good!) jazz-funk albums with eye-bleach-worthy covers, he was a straight ahead post bop jazz soloist and composer. So while the pairing of the two might sound odd on paper, on vinyl it makes a lot more sense.

The opening track, “Nirvana,” is a Mann original, but it opens up sounding a lot like a Bill Evans composition, as the trio introduces the chordal progression almost at a whisper, Evans exploring modes around the chords as Israels’ bass quietly marks the fifths. When Mann’s flute enters it’s as though he was whispering too, and his melody provides Chuck Israels with the moment to start exploring the tune independently. The dialog among the players is sensitive and you can almost see them listening to each other and nodding quietly as each introduces new ideas. The tune unfolds like breathing.

The mood continues with “Gymnopédie,” one of the rare jazz covers of the second of the Erik Satie compositions, instead of the more commonly encountered first. The trio introduces the theme and Evans and Mann take turns essaying the melody of the composition. It’s a gentle meditation and true to the original composition, which depending on your inclination is either refreshing or slightly stultifying. Interestingly, though it sounds like a continuation of the first track, “Gymnopédie” and the final tune “Cashmere” were actually recorded at a different session in May of 1962.

I Love You” changes things up, with the players digging into the faster tempo of the Cole Porter song and Mann’s flute ringing in a higher register. On the second chorus, Evans drops out and we hear just Mann, Motian and Israels, which seems to spur Mann’s improvisatory muscles. By the time the players reach the end of the tune, all are fully engaged, with Israels’ stretto in the accompaniment no less exciting than his solo passage, one of only two on the record.

Willow Weep for Me” is back in ballad territory, and here the weakness of the record reveals itself: Herbie Mann is not that compelling a ballad player. He largely sticks to the melody or to very close improvisation around it, and while he tries to find the bluesier corners in Ann Ronell’s legendary tune, it’s ultimately not a compelling exercise. Evans finds more interesting things in the melody but ultimately this track is a little flat. “Lover Man” is better. The tempo is up just a touch, but more importantly Mann is more engaged, his improvisation and statement of the melody more compelling.

Cashmere,” closing the album, is another Mann original and the trio digs into it, finding a slightly off-kilter syncopation in the accompanying line under Mann’s first statement of the melody. Mann’s subsequent improvisation picks up the syncopation and makes it central to his interpretation of the tune, and when he hands it back to Evans the latter’s chorus is sprightly and sly, zigging from corner to corner. Israels’ solo (here’s the other one!) digs into the silence between the melody lines and also into the syncopation, trying a one-note variation of the syncopation pattern over three bars as though leaning into the groove. His solo is supported by Motian’s unshowy but brilliant drumming, which quietly anchors each pulse of the entire album. The band’s returning statement brings the tune through several modes before closing on a final suspension.

Mann and Evans wouldn’t record again, but Evans would go on to make some essential records with his trio. We’ll hear some of them soon, but first we’ll hear another unusual record in his discography that he began recording between the December and May dates for Nirvana. Come back next week for more on that record.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue

Album of the Week, April 16, 2022.

The opening of “So What,” the first track on Miles’ magnum opus, might be Paul Chambers’ most famous performance. Forget everything he had done with Miles’ group to this time; forget his solo records; forget all the great work he did with Trane and Cannonball Adderley and Kenny Clarke and Wynton Kelly and pretty much every hard bop artist in the 1950s and early 1960s. That walking bass line that follows Bill Evans’ introspective opening will forever define jazz bass: simple, functional (it underpins the modal progression of the that serves as the first line of the song’s theme), and utterly unforgettable. Chambers would live not quite ten more years after recording that bass line, and his work would never again have the sort of prominence he had on this record.

Kind of Blue was that kind of record for many of the players who performed on it. It’s that kind of record, period. It’s probably the one jazz record you have if you don’t own any jazz, because everyone has told you to buy it. And they’re right: Kind of Blue is the pinnacle of a certain type of playing, recorded by a group of men who had developed a certain telepathic sense of line and melody and how to step up and when to lay back.

For this reason, Kind of Blue repays countless listenings. It’s not as out there as some of the work that was to come with the Second Great Quintet, but it’s as intricate as a precision timepiece and as effortless as exhaling. So these thoughts are what I observe as I listen today. I might find different things tomorrow.

This was one of the few Miles albums that put the names of each player on the cover, even pianist Wynton Kelly, who only sat in on “Freddie Freeloader.” As we’ve learned in this series, the players matter in all these recordings, but they especially matter here. This is because, as Bill Evans notes in the liner notes to the album (below), almost everything you hear on the album was a first take.

That “almost” is interesting, because it raises the spectre of a self-conscious mythologizing—especially when one learns that there were, in fact, two takes of “Flamenco Sketches,” and that the one on the record is Take 2. There is also, in the liner notes, references to Japanese painting and a description of the different forms of each song, in an attempt to hint at the formal underpinnings beneath the improvisations. Evans notes of “All Blues,” for instance, that it is “a series of five scales, each to be played as long as the soloist wishes until he has completed the series,” which is a bit like saying Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a set of rhythmic vibrations of air.

Jibes aside, it is impossible to overstate Evans’ contributions to the album, and indeed to this phase of Davis’ band generally. As we learned while listening to Miles Ahead, Miles had been leaning toward a less cluttered conception of his music that offered more freedom for improvisation without the density of the chord changes that had been the formal underpinning of small group jazz since the days of Charlie Parker. Evans brought to his work on the piano a sense of formalism inspired by the works of Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud, as well as a formal grounding in the modal theories of George Russell courtesy of a working relationship with the noted “third stream” composer over the course of several years. The combination of Evans with Miles’ new modal direction, heard in their initial joint recordings as well as live performances in Davis’s sextet, was electric. But Evans was already looking beyond his sideman work and beginning to record with his first great trio with Scott Lafaro and Paul Motian. Miles had to ask Evans to come back and record this album with him.

It is clear that Kind of Blue would not have happened without Evans. First, on purely practical grounds, he by all accounts composed “Blue in Green,” based on a request by Miles to Evans for a piece that centered around two chords, G minor and A augmented. When he was not credited on the record, he confronted Miles, who is said to have offered him $25 in compensation. Based on its similarity to Evans’ earlier composition “Peace Piece,” it’s likely that the pianist wrote “Flamenco Sketches” as well.

But the pianist contributed other elements to the record, most notably an abiding sense of melancholy, particularly in the two compositions mentioned above. But the genius of the album is that the melancholy is not a destination. The form of “Blue in Green” sees the pianist come full circle, repeating the opening figure as though returning again and again to a painful memory. But “Flamenco Sketches,” as it moves through the different scales, opens up that melancholy like a flower, moving beyond and through to a new horizon.

Adderley and Coltrane brought their own strengths to the record. Cannonball brings his own sense of harmonic conception, but his rhythmic approach is more linear than Trane’s, who bent the meter when it suited him. Indeed, his entrance on “Freddie Freeloader” literally stops the time, as the entire band drops out behind his first entrance. Throughout, though, both saxophonists bring an almost psychic connection with each other and the rest of the band, contributing to the frequent description of these tracks as perfect improvisation.

Evans would not record with Miles again. Nor would Adderley, who moved on to form his own group. Trane returned for a few tracks of Miles’ next small-group album, but his swan song with the group was effectively the tour of Europe that they mounted in 1960. We’ll hear that soon.

Listen (again).

Eddie Costa, Mat Mathews & Don Elliott At Newport

Album of the Week, February 5, 2022

For every Miles, Trane or Monk, there is an Eddie Costa.

Even the most enthusiastic jazz reissue program inevitably falls into a rut. You get the umpteenth repressing of Kind of Blue, you get (admittedly fabulous) live concert recordings from a high school janitor who just happened to be taping Thelonious Monk. But you don’t see too many revivals of interest in players like Eddie Costa, Mat Mathews and Don Elliott.

The Clef Series, issued on Verve in the US and Columbia in the UK, consisted of recordings related to Norman Granz, the impressario behind Verve and Ella Fitzgerald. In this particular case, Granz was making a bet on some of the lesser known musicians that played the afternoon sets at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957.

Eddie Costa was on his way up then, a rising star on both piano and vibes, and was recording prolifically with his own groups and as sideman for Gigi Gryce, Gunther Schuller, Shelly Manne and others. He appeared on over 100 recordings before being killed in a car crash in 1962.

Mat Mathews, a Dutch jazz accordionist, was less well known, but he still recorded sessions with Herbie Mann, Oscar Pettiford, Kenny Clarke, Art Farmer, Percy Heath, Carmen McRae, Charlie Byrd and others. And Don Elliott was a multi-instrumentalist, recording on trumpet, vibes, mellophone and vocals in his career.

The sessions on this record are loose and swinging, up tempo and genuinely fun to listen to. They are not momentous, save perhaps in featuring an early recording by Don Elliott’s pianist, who had been studying with George Russell: Bill Evans. Evans would record one more album with Elliott before auditioning in early 1958 to replace Red Garland in Miles Davis’s sextet, and the rest is history.

I found this copy, of the first UK pressing, in my local bargain bin in Burlington. When I want to remind myself that jazz is supposed to be fun, I put this on the record player (or cue up the ripped tracks in Apple Music) and listen.

There doesn’t appear to be a full copy of the album anywhere, but here are a few tracks:

Friday bootleg time

An assortment of selections from Doom and Gloom from the Tomb that I’ve been meaning to check out for a while. In reverse chronological order (of posting, not of recording).

Sonic Youth, Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro, North Carolina, August 5, 2000 – falling neatly in between the first show I saw of theirs and the next two, squarely in the middle of their NYC Ghosts and Flowers period. Be ready for beat poetry.

Pharoah Sanders – Festival de Jazz de Nice, Nice, France, July 18, 1971  – Live Pharoah? Yes please.

Bill Evans Trio – Pescara Festival, Italy, July 18, 1969 / Vara Studio, Hilversum, Holland; March 26, 1969 – two live Bill Evans dates that sound worth checking out.

Yo La Tengo Does Dylan  – of course they do. Curious about the cover of “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” which is on the short list of Dylan songs that I’d consider singing in public.

Leonard Cohen – The Paris Theatre, London, March 20, 1968 – OMG.