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:

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:

Herbie Hancock, My Point of View

Album of the Week, May 21, 2022

Say you’re Herbie Hancock. You have, at the age of 22, released your first album for Blue Note Records, and it’s a hit. The single cracks the Top 100, and your friend Mongo Santamaria’s re-recording of it cracks the Top 10. You’ve demonstrated that you can compose soul jazz, modal jazz, and ballads. What do you do for an encore? Well, if you’re Herbie Hancock, almost a year to the day you get back in the studio, and you do it again, with a bigger band.

To call My Point of View similar to Takin’ Off is a little unfair. The writing is more assured and distinctive, for one thing. Where you could be forgiven for mixing up “Three Bags Full” and “Empty Pockets” on the first album, each tune on My Point of View is distinctive. And the orchestration is fuller. In fact, the band on this date reads like a Who’s Who of early 1960s Blue Note, with Donald Byrd stepping in for Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Hank Mobley (fresh off his stint with Miles’ band) replacing Dexter Gordon, and Chuck Israels, who did not release albums for Blue Note as a leader but who would later anchor one of Bill Evans’ most essential trios, on bass. Two other Blue Note luminaries, the brilliant guitarist Grant Green and the cerebral composer and trombonist Grachan Moncur III, appear on half the tracks.

And on the drums: Tony Williams. Aged seventeen years and three months when he went into the studio, Williams was already demonstrating his genius behind the kit, keeping things boiling even on tracks that might have been sleepier ballads like “A Tribute to Someone,” and positively lighting up the stage on the modal burner “King Cobra.”

So where’s the similarity? Mostly it is in the consistency of Herbie’s compositional voice. When he writes a soul jazz number like “Blind Man, Blind Man”—written, as he says in the liner notes, as a conscious evocation of his Black childhood—or “And What If I Don’t”—you can immediately hear the kinship to “Watermelon Man” from his first record. They are still catchy tunes, but there’s not a lot of compositional development from one to the next.

I mean, yes, Herbie’s arranging prowess leaps ahead substantially. The guitar lick that Grant Green drops at the turn in the chorus of “Blind Man, Blind Man” is a note of genius, as are the thick blocks of chords that open “King Cobra.” But in the end, you’d be forgiven for thinking that both albums were recorded in the same delicious session.

The album was revolutionary in one way, though, at least for Herbie’s career; it introduced him to Tony Williams. By June of 1963, they would both be playing with Miles, whose next great quintet was beginning to take shape. We’ll hear the first recorded (but not first released!) album from that group next time.

You can listen to My Point of View here.