Saturday, May 28, 2016

Wynton Kelly - "A Happy Feeling"

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Of the late pianist Wynton Kelly [1931-1971], Richard Cook and Brian Morton in their Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed. have written: “His chording [comping or accompaniment] behind a soloist has a gentle but dynamic bounce. He never does anything to startle a listener, but he has a bright, swinging, communicative style that always appeals. He deserves wider recognition.”

And so the following piece about Wynton by Gene Lees in an effort to promote this wider recognition.

“If they gave awards for unpretentiousness, Wynton Kelly would win a large loving cup. The stocky pianist, just entering his fourth year in the rhythm section of the Miles Davis quintet-turned-sextet, has the distinction of being about the most unobtrusive pianist in jazz, while at the same time inspiring an enormous professional admiration.

If being imitated is the mark of having arrived, Kelly has arrived. His ebullient approach to solos has seeped into the playing of a wide variety of pianists, and he has written the very definition of good comping.

"Wynton," said Voice of America jazz commentator Willis Conover, one of the many persons who has tried (with middling success) to pin down verbally the nature of Kelly and his music, "has a marvelous go-to-hell attitude. Like the Miles Davis attitude turned active, and with humor added."

Not that there is a hint of antagonism in Kelly or his playing. "He always projects a happy feeling, regardless of the tempo," said trombonist J. J. Johnson, currently a co-worker of Kelly's in the Davis group. But there is a disinclination to overwhelm the listener. Kelly seems content to let the listener come to him.

"Wynton has by no means shown all the things he can do," commented Bill Evans, a forerunner of Kelly's with Miles. (First there was Red Garland, then Evans, who in turn was succeeded by Kelly.)

"For one thing," Evans continued, "Wynton is a fine accompanist. I heard him first with Dinah Washington, and immediately I felt an affinity for his playing.

"He has a wonderful technique, and he gets a true piano sound out of the instrument. He approaches the instrument legitimately and, although I don't know his training background, I know that if someone else hasn't disciplined him, he has disciplined himself.

"I can hear in his mind that he's broad enough to be able to play solo — that is, unaccompanied by rhythm section — but I like him in a rhythm section so much that I'm not sure I'd want him to do it."

After a moment's reflection, Evans added, "Wynton and I approach jazz essentially the same way.

"Wynton is an eclectic, not in the cheap way, but in the sense of copying the spirit and not the letter of the things he has liked."

The man who elicits this musicianly admiration was born in Brooklyn in 1931. Like his friend Oscar Peterson, Kelly has West Indian parents. When the two meet, they will sometimes slip into a West Indian patois that leaves them laughing and other musicians staring in confusion.

Kelly started playing piano at the age of 4. "I didn't have much formal study," he said.

"I went to Music and Art High School and Metropolitan Vocational. They wouldn't give us piano, so I fooled around with the bass and studied theory.

"I used to work around Brooklyn with Ray Abrams, the tenor player, and his brother Lee, the drummer, and also Cecil Payne, Ahmad Abdul-Malik, and Ernie Henry. We all came up together.

"One of the first bands I worked with was Hot Lips Page's. Then I went with Lockjaw Davis for about a year. After that I did a stint with the Three Blazes. Then Dinah Washington. I worked for Dizzy Gillespie too. I was between Dinah and Dizzy for years."

Kelly joined the Miles Davis group in the early part of 1959. It was then that the public really began to be aware of him, not only as a soloist but as a pulsing rhythm-section player. Though he has recorded six albums on his own —"three for Vee Jay, two for Riverside, and one I made in 1950 when I was 19 that doesn't even count" — it is nonetheless for his work in the Davis unit that he is best known.

If the Kelly style is not an obtrusive one — not a style that one hears once and ever afterwards recognizes — it has its curious distinctiveness. There is in it a highly personal ease and lightness, an infectious, casually bouncing quality to which one rapidly becomes attached.

"He never," J. J. Johnson said, "lets his technical facility, which he has plenty of, dominate. The swing is the thing with Wynton."

As an accompanist for horns, Kelly is the ne plus ultra of skilled, meaningful, and yet non interfering comping. "He does all the right things at the right times," Johnson said.

Kelly loves to comp. "In fact," he said, "at one time I didn't like to solo. I'd just like to get a groove going and never solo.

"The first pianist I admired for comping was Clyde Hart, and later Bud Powell.
"The way you comp varies from group to group. Some guys will leave a lot of space open for you to fill, like Miles. Others won't. And so you have to use your discretion. In general, I like to stay out of a man's way. But you have to judge it by the situation. I did some things with Dizzy I wouldn't do with Dinah, and things I did with them that I wouldn't do with Miles.

"It's good to sit down and hear how other guys comp and then learn to do it yourself."

Kelly's tastes among pianists are predictably broad. An incomplete list of his preferences includes:

Oscar Peterson —"First of all, he's tasty. And he knows the instrument very well."

Erroll Garner —"He's a hell of a stylist, and he's very versatile."

Bud Powell —"I respect Bud as one of the main figures in starting modern jazz piano."

Bill Evans — "For beauty. That's all I can say. He also knows the instrument very well. He's one of the prettiest piano players I've heard in a long time."

Phineas Newborn—"We were in the Army together, bunk to bunk. He's a genius."

Walter Bishop Jr.—"I've liked him since I was a kid."

McCoy Tyner — "He's a serious-minded musician. I like his style, and he fits well with the other instruments in Coltrane's group."

Unlike most pianists who come to prominence in someone else's group, Kelly has no pressing urge to form a group of his own.

"It's in the back of my mind," he said. "But not now.”

Source - January 3, 1963 edition of Downbeat Magazine.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Clare Fischer - Surging Ahead

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Think you can lick it?  Get to the wicket.
Buy you a ticket.   Go!


Go by bus, by plane, by car, by train...
New York, N.Y..


What they call a somethin' else town.
A city of more than eight million people,
with a million people passin'
through every day. Some come just to visit
and some come to say. If you scuffle hard enough
and you ain't no dunce, you can always get by
in New York City. I heard somebody say once.


Yeah...if you can't make it
in New York City, man, you can't make
it nowhere.


Not too long after its inception in New Orleans during the WWI years and its incubation in Chicago in the mid-1920s, Jazz moved to New York City which, as implied in the above lyrics by Jon Hendricks, has become the music’s proving ground ever since.


If musicians want to make it big in the Jazz World, sooner or later they have to test their luck in New York City.


The ease of moving around the city via its public transportation system, the close proximity of people and venues made possible by the restricted island geography, the cultural proclivity of many of its denizens toward The Arts which is underscored by its status as the financial capital of the United States made New York City the premier “place-to-be” for the aspiring Jazz artist.


With lots of people, plenty of places to play and a ton of money to be spent on entertainment, what’s not to like about being in New York if you are a Jazz musician looking to make a name for yourself?


And yet, following World War II, plenty of first-rate Jazz musicians eschewed New York City and came to the Los Angeles area where the backyard living made possible by the sunny and healthy southern California weather, a geographic dispersement into affordable family homes facilitated by the automobile and the stunning growth of freeways and the development of  the entertainment, aircraft and assorted service industries provided a financial base for the explosive growth of the area from 1945-1965.


During this period, southern California wasn’t the mess that it is today. In 1960, the entire state of California had a population of 15 million as compared with today’s 38 million. The 3.7 million folks living in LA was about half the size of the population of NYC, but they were spread over an area of 4,084 square miles compared to NYC’s 304.8 square miles.


In the post WWII years, Southern California’s movie and television studios and its radio stations provided lots of commercial work for musicians who could read music as well as improvise Jazz. There were excellent symphony orchestras, concert venues and numerous hotel lounges that featured excellent show bands. And LA had twice as many Jazz clubs as Manhattan, although it’s true that many of them were not as well known as those in NYC.


Is it not surprising then that a number of excellent Jazz musicians shunned New York City and preferred to remain in southern California?


Many of the musicians who settled in Los Angeles during the post WWII period were transplants from the East Coast and the Midwest who came to California as members of touring big bands and vocal groups and discovered in southern California’s sun-drenched climate that, among other things, winter was optional.


One such Midwestern transplant from Durand, MI was keyboardist, composer and arranger, Clare Fischer who arrived in Los Angeles as the Musical Director for the vocal group The Hi-Lo’s in 1957.


Soon after his arrival, Clare established his own trio and began a recording career with Dick Bock’s Pacific Jazz label.


The distinguished Jazz author Leonard feather picks up the story from there with this article about Clare’s earliest recordings for that label.


In the summer of 1962, reviewing Clare Fischer's First Time Out (Pacific Jazz PJ 52) for Down Beat and assessing it as a five-star surprise of the year, I commented that "Fischer has had enough trouble establishing himself as a major jazz composer-arranger, through a series of bad breaks (the non-release of his Donald Byrd LP, the failure to credit him on Dizzy Gillespie's Duke Ellington portrait album); but hardly anyone knew that he is also an extraordinary jazz pianist." [Leonard’s review follows this piece]


Some of the reasons for the delay in recognizing Fischer were made clear by biographical details as sketched by John William Hardy in the liner notes for the album in question. Because of his extensive schooling, interrupted for two years by his Army service and then resumed until he obtained his master's degree, it was not until 1957 that Fischer came to Los Angeles and began to be noticed by big-league professional contemporaries.


But the next few years were spent largely on tour with the Hi Los. For all their superiority over other vocal groups of the late 1950s, and despite the occasional credit accorded Clare for his remarkable work with them as pianist and arranger, the job was hardly conducive to the kind of prestige and artistic freedom of expression he has been enjoying more recently.


Having decided once and for all to find his own direction, Clare in 1962 became a part of the local jazz scene. For a while he had a regular gig playing one night a week at Shelly's Manne Hole. The group that worked with him there (Larry Bunker and Ralph Pena) is heard in three tracks on the present set; Strayhorn, Things Ain't What They Used To Be and Davenport Blues. Later he gave up this weekly showcase in order to gain some experience as a working member of a jazz combo: he joined Cal Tjader, and at the time these words went to press was within earshot of Pee Wee Marquette as the Tjader group played one of its intermittent stands at Birdland.


The Tjader job obviously is a stepping stone toward his ultimate objective. Eventually Clare will be able to keep a trio of his own together on a steady basis, and will be able to select, from the many offers reaching him, whatever album writing assignments may provide the most stimulating challenge to his pen.


The sides between these covers mark Clare Fischer's third major pianistic exposure on records. In addition to First Time Out there was the remarkable bossa nova album, Brasamba!, on Pacific Jazz PJ 64, presenting him in a different instrumental context (Bud Shank, Joe Pass et al) in one of his several flings in the realm of Brazilian music. (He has also written bossa nova compositions and arrangements for such leaders as Tjader and George Shearing.) But this new LP is like neither of the previous ventures. Instrumentally, it returns to the piano-bass-drums format of the original; but from the standpoint of material it places an entirely different accent, for instead of an album dedicated largely to original material, we have here a collection that includes jazz and pop standards, one recent movie song and only a single Fischer composition. With the exception of the final track the personnel, too, is different from that heard on Clare's debut sides.


These differences are not necessarily qualitative; they simply represent an attempt to find new approaches, sympathetic new talent and appropriate familiar material. Inevitably, though, comparisons are going to be drawn. There will be those who find the Fischer style easier to grasp and more fascinating to follow when the framework is an established, recognizable piece; there will be others, of course, for whom the manner rather than the matter of his playing is the only relevant factor (or, as I heard a critic observe one night at the Half Note, "the material is immaterial.")


The musicians who work closely with Clare on the first side (one dare not say that they "accompany him!' for the trio as a piano-with-rhythm-accompaniment composite is a thing of the past) are both comparative newcomers to the scene. Colin Bailey, a 28-year-old drummer from Swindon, England, came to this country in 1961 as a member of Bryce Rohde's Australian Jazz Quartet, but stayed on after the group broke up and worked for 16 months in San Francisco with Vince Guaraldi. He came to Los Angeles in January of 1963 and has been playing with Victor Feldman's Trio at the Scene.


Albert Stinson is a discovery of Charles Lloyd, saxophonist with the Chico Hamilton Quintet. A native of Pasadena, he has been working with Chico in recent months. Colin Bailey says: "The first time I heard Al take a solo, I stopped playing and just sat there listening in amazement. We hit it off well together right away. Needless to say I have the greatest respect for him — he's like another Scott La Faro!'

The original intention on this session was simply to cut Way Down East for a single disc release, but the trio achieved such an immediately happy groove that Dick Bock immediately declared himself in favor of extending the date to complete a whole album side.


Concerning Clare's own work, it might be fitting to recall some of my comments in the review of the first LP: "It is hard to describe his style. There are in him elements that suggest a harmonic sympathy for Bill Evans, and at moments his articulation and right-hand voicing reminded me of the early Dodo Marmarosa. He is always in complete command of the keyboard; unlike Gil Evans, Tadd Dameron and other arrangers who are secondarily pianists, he can be judged entirely by a pianistic yardstick!'


These comments came to mind when I listened for the first time to Billie's Bounce. Using the 1945 Charlie Parker blues line as a point of departure, Clare manages from the outset to retain the essence of Bird's theme while adding harmonic changes that were never envisioned in the simple original. After the thematic statement has been completed, he is off on his own, playing the blues, constantly emphasizing his concern for the rhythmic and emotional essentials of the form while extending it to reach new and intriguing harmonic horizons.


As Clare remarked concerning this album in general: "I suppose my underlying intention was to present the blues oriented side of me, so that later I can present the lyrical side in another. You can well understand that the side presented here I've found in clubs to be the more readily graspable!' To these comments it should be added that no hard and fast line can or should be! drawn between the two aspects. There are lyrical moments in his blues-directed moods just as there is a touch of the blues here and there in his more lyrical performances.


Way Down East was, as noted, recorded as an idea for a motion picture called The Chase, it was composed by Larry Adler, whose reputation as a strictly pop harmonica soloist has long concealed his deep concern for modern jazz (recently he insisted on using Bill Evans in a TV show; for years his pianist was Ellis Larkins). Adler's waltz is a charming theme and Clare's interpretation commercial in the better sense of the term, i.e. appealing and melodic on a high level.


Satin Doll, a 1952 Duke Ellington tune, is used as the groundwork for a seven-minute harmonic masterpiece. The intensity builds magnificently, the creative process is at work constantly as Fischer flexes all his mental and physical muscles in an infuriatingly perfect performance. Infuriating to me, that is, because I become angrily jealous of all pianists with gifts such as Clare's. Here is a rare example of mind, hands, heart and soul in impeccable collaboration.


This Can't Be Love is a tour de force in the course of which, notably during the third and fourth choruses, Clare indulges in octave unison lines for two hands, a technique that recalls Phineas Newborn, though his application of it is entirely his own. Bailey has a tasteful solo chorus and Stinson maintains the remarkable sense of note-selection that is a strong feature throughout this side.


Strayhorn, one of the three tracks cut with the trio Clare led at the Manne Hole, is to the best of my knowledge the first song ever dedicated to Swee'pea since Duke himself recorded Weely in 1939. "The tune" says Clare had been used on Johnny Come Lately for Diz's album.  He has always been part of my admiration for Duke's group" The only original in the album, this occasionally gospel-tinged work moves with grace from 4/4 to 3/4 time and reflects some of the airy charm of Strayhorn the person, of whom Clare must have an instinctive knowledge. Larry Bunker and Ralph Pena, long among the most respected musicians both in jazz and studio circles around Hollywood, lend strong support.


Things Ain't What They Used To Be is a 1941 blues concocted by Mercer Ellington (now a disc jockey on New York's WLIB) and his father. As with Billie's Bounce, it is subjected to extensive renovation without losing any of its blues-drawn essence.

Davenport Blues was recorded by its composer, Bix Beiderbecke, in 1925. Except for the opening phrase (starting with the two triads stated by Pena), little is retained of the original theme and the performance to all intents becomes an original, and a mood-sustaining one, to which the 12/8 meter lends much of its character.

Without A Song is the only track that uses the personnel heard on the previous trio album (Gene Stone and Gary Peacock). Played in long meter (the tune is rarely heard nowadays in its original 32-bar form), it provides a point of departure for some of the most buoyant improvisation of the album.


It is difficult, until one has lived with an LP for a while, to select the items most likely to prove lastingly valuable and most certain of repeated playing. All that need be added at this point with reference to these two sides, and to the outlook in general for Clare Fischer at this stage of his career, is that the evidence of his stature continues to mount. Musicians of his caliber, and with his outlook, are not merely an invigorating element in the present day scene; more meaningfully, they symbolize the wave of the future in the progress of jazz.”


Clare Fischer FIRST TIME OUT—Pacific Jazz 52:
Nigerian Walk; Toddler; Stranger; Afterfact; I've Been Free Too Long; Piece for   Scotty; Blues for Home; I Love  You.
Personnel: Fischer, piano;   Gary  Peacock, bass;
Gene Stone,  drums.
Rating:   *****


“This is the surprise of the year.


Fischer has had trouble enough establishing himself as a major jazz composer-arranger, through a series of bad breaks (the non-release of his Donald Byrd LP, the failure to credit him on Dizzy Gillespie's Duke Ellington portrait album); but hardly anyone knew that he is also an extraordinary jazz pianist.


It is hard to describe Fischer's style; there are in him elements that suggest a harmonic sympathy for Bill Evans, and at moments his articulation and right-hand voicings reminded me of the early (not the recent) Dodo Marmarosa. He is always in complete command of the keyboard; unlike Gil Evans, Tadd Dameron, and other arrangers who are secondarily pianists, he can be judged entirely by a pianistic yardstick.


Five of the eight pieces are Fischer originals. The others are Peacock's Stranger, the Cole Porter’s I Love You, and the most attractive Nigerian Walk by drummer Ed Shaughnessy. All the Fischer works are of vertical as well as horizontal interest. Scotty, dedicated to the late Scott LaFaro, is a poignantly pretty tribute. Afterfact is a compiling swinger.


Free Too Long is a study in group improvisation, with no set plan structurally, melodically, or harmonically. It is not exactly atonal and seems at most times to be geared to a C feel or pedal point; whatever the technicalities, it comes off better than any experiment of this kind since Lennie Tristano's Intuition. This freedom is constructive rather than anarchistic.


Home is an unpretentious piece, always true to the blues changes and never betrayed into condescending pseudo-funk. The mood is ruined by the drum solo; in fact, the often-obtrusive drums almost reduced the rating by half a star. Yet Stone on the whole is a capable, swinging musician.


Peacock, though, is worth an extra full star in himself. He is one of the most amazing bassists I have heard, with the dexterity of a guitarist and consequently tremendous melodic strength. His solos are consistently original and inventive. His only faults are a tendency at times to get too busy during Fischer's solos instead of just playing straight time, and an occasional intonation lapse in the higher register.


This is not the best-organized trio on the scene, but it includes two talents of such magnitude that the album is essential listening for anyone interested in unexploited talents. It is ironic that Fischer had to wait almost until his 34th birthday for the first exposure of a talent that probably has been his for 10 or 15 years.”                                           (L.G.F.)


Source:
Downbeat Magazine
September 13, 1962

The following video features Clare, Ralph Pena and Larry Bunker on Things Ain't What They Used To Be.


Thursday, May 26, 2016

Inside The New Bill Evans Trio With Gene Lees

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Bill Evans-Jim Hall UNDERCURRENT—United Artists  14003:
My Funny Valentine; I Hear a Rhapsody; Dream Gypsy; Romain; Skating  in   Central  Park; Darn That Dream.
Personnel:  Evans,   piano;   Hall,   guitar.
Rating: *****
"This collaboration between Evans and Hall has resulted in some of the most beautiful, thoroughly ingratiating music it has been my pleasure to hear—now or any other time. Each of the selections is suffused with a lyric charm, a tenderness, an elegance, an unabashed romanticism that take one's breath away. These joint inventions have the stamp of inevitability about them, the ring of utter verity in every line and note—the result of a perfect meeting of minds.


Yet not only is the music remarkable for its delicacy and subtlety of interaction, it is immediately appealing for its manifest loveliness. Of the six selections, five are warm, ardent ballads. They are afforded reflective, luminous performances that emphasize to the utmost the lyricism of the songs, yet are never cloying or overdone. It would be difficult to imagine more perfect realizations of the songs— especially Dream Gypsy and Hall's attractive Romain—for on every one there are any number of moments of glowing, unalloyed beauty, as Evans and Hall spin out their shimmering entwining lines.


The sixth song, Valentine, is something of a dark horse. Reportedly, United Artists wanted an entire collection of ruminative ballads on the order of the first five; but after the session at which the ballads were recorded, Evans and Hall continued to play for their own satisfaction."
- Pete Welding


With his passing in 2010, many Jazz fans were disappointed that the distinguished Jazz author Gene Lees did not write a full-length book treatment about his close friend, the now iconic pianist Bill Evans, who died thirty years earlier in 1980.


To these disappointed fans, the closeness of their relationship coupled with Gene’s keen powers of observation and his ability to write lucid prose represented a lost opportunity in terms of getting to know more about the universally acclaimed Evans.


But a closer search of the Jazz literature reveals that perhaps the reason Gene did not produce a book about Bill was because over the years he wrote many smaller pieces on key turning points in the artist’s career and felt that these collectively served in place of a larger tome on the subject.


A case in point is this 1962 article about the then “new” Bill Evans Trio.


“SOMEBODY SAID recently of Bill Evans, "It's as if a gray cloud followed him, haunting him."


There is a measure — but only a measure — of truth to this. Evans' fortunes this fall began to take a distinct turn for the better, but his career has been plagued by disappointments, ill health, financial problems, mishandling by some of the business people in jazz, and outright tragedy.


Despite it all, he has left along his route a sprinkling of albums that constitute what may prove the most important body of jazz piano recordings since Art Tatum. Those recordings have spread his influence throughout the world.


It is an approach that, once heard, is as easy to identify as it is hard to describe. One can call it exquisitely lyrical, superbly thoughtful, highly imaginative, rhythmically unique . . . but these terms don't fix for examination a kind of jazz piano playing which, for its admirers, has the flavor and emotionality of a personal letter.


Martin Williams has said, in a Down Beat record review, that Evans seems to have a communication problem. And perhaps he has. But obviously he gets through to all those people who care enough about jazz to listen genuinely, including Williams, whose review was highly favorable. Recently, checking through Bill's scrapbook, I was astonished to discover that he also had received rave reviews from Nat Hentoff, Frank Kofsky, Ralph Gleason, John S. Wilson, Don DeMicheal, and myself. I know of no other subject on which you could get all of us to agree.


Evans communicates equally well to musicians, one of whom is 23-year-old Chicago pianist Warren Bernhardt, who now lives in New York City. The young pianist offered this comment on Evans' playing:


"Everything he plays seems to be the distillation of the music. In How Deep Is the Ocean?, he never once states the melody. Yet his performance is the quintessence of it. On My Foolish Heart, on the other hand, he plays nothing but the melody — and you still receive that essence of the thing.


"Pianistically, he's beautiful. He never seems to be hung up in any way in doing anything he wants to do — either technically or harmonically. You can voice a given chord many different ways, but he always seems to find the correct way. When he's confronted with a choice on the spur of the moment of improvisation, he doesn't have to wonder which voicing is best, he knows. And he is physically capable of executing it immediately. It's as if the line between his brain and his fingers were an unusually direct one.


"You see, a given voicing will have different effects in different registers, especially when you use semi-tones as much as he does. So he constantly shifts voicings, depending on the register. Yet he doesn't seem to have to think about it, because he's been thinking about it for years."


Evans' own comments corroborate and complement this view. Of chord voicings, he said recently:


"It's such an accumulated thing. The art lies in developing enough facility to voice well any new thought. It's taken me 20 years of hard work and playing experience to do as well with it as I can. There's no shortcut. It takes a lot of time and study."


Various observers have noted the apparent influence of certain classical composers in Evans' voicings, particularly Ravel, Debussy, and Chopin. Was the influence absorbed directly and deliberately? "No more than from jazz," he said. "It's whatever I've liked the sound of. I've built it by my own study, never consciously looking at a voicing in a score and saying, 'Gee, this would be nice to use.' '


However arrived at, Evans' voicings are an important part of his style. But there are other parts. For one thing, he has magnificent time. He thinks so far ahead of what he is doing that he phrases in whole choruses, and his phrases always come out right. His way of swinging is one of the most subtle in jazz. And the swing is so self-generated that he and guitarist Jim Hall, performing without rhythm section,  were able to set upon astonishingly powerful pulse on the My Funny Valentine track of the United Artists album Undercurrents a few months ago. Many New York musicians think the track is a classic of jazz. (Ed. note: see above.)


Finally, there is his tone, one of the loveliest jazz piano has ever known. It can be hard and muscular, as on the Valentine track. But usually it is soft and round, so soft in the ballads that a TV director, hearing him for the first time, exclaimed, "Good God, the man must have fur-tipped fingers!"


Whatever they're tipped with, they are remarkable fingers and lately they are conveying to those who know Evans' music a rising morale and improving health. A year ago, they were communicating the pianist's despair over the death of bassist Scott LaFaro. The death of LaFaro left Evans so broken in spirit that he didn't play publicly for six months.


To UNDERSTAND why, it is necessary to consider the history of the Bill Evans Trio. Paul Motian, Evans' drummer almost from the beginning, recalled:


"After I got out of the Navy late in 1954, I entered the Manhattan School of Music. I completed a semester and a half. But by then I was working gigs about six nights a week, and I was falling behind in my studies, so I left. I started playing with different people, including George Wallington. That summer — the summer of 1956 — I worked in a sextet with Jerry Wald. The piano player was Bill Evans.

"After that, somehow, Bill and I seemed to work together in a lot of bands. We both worked for Tony Scott and Don Elliott. And we worked on a George Russell album together.


"Bill was living on 83rd St. at the time, and we used to play together a lot — almost every day, in fact. Then Bill went with Miles Davis, and I worked with various people, including Oscar Pettiford and Zoot Sims.


"After leaving Miles, Bill formed a trio. He had Kenny Dennis on drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass. That sort of petered out. In the latter part of 1959, he went into Basin Street East. He had a lot of trouble, and he changed rhythm sections several times. ... On drums, he had Philly Joe Jones for a few nights and Kenny Dennis for a few more and me. He must have gone through about eight bass players.


"Scott LaFaro was working at a club around the corner. I'd first heard him some time previously, when Chet Baker was forming a group. Chet called me and Bill, and we worked out. I wasn't too impressed by Scott's playing at that time. Anyway, Scott used to come around to Basin Street East and sit in with Bill. And I was impressed.


"From Basin Street East, we went to the Showplace, with Scott. That was actually the beginning.


"It's hard to describe what Scott's death last year did to us. Bill telephoned me. I was sleeping. It seemed like a dream, what he told me, and I went back to sleep. When I woke up, I was convinced it was a dream. I called Bill back, and he told me it was true.


"When it began to sink in, we ... we didn't know what to do. We didn't know if we'd still have a trio. We'd reached such a peak with Scott, such freedom. It seemed that everything was becoming possible.


"We didn't work for six months — between the last two weeks of June, 1961, until Christmas. Then we went to Syracuse, N.Y., to work a gig. Chuck Israels went with us on bass.

"That must have been a difficult time for Chuck. It had taken us two years to get to the peak we had reached with Scott, and now we had to start all over."


Rapport between Israels and the other two members of the trio didn't happen overnight.


"Because everyone was looking at Chuck with Scott in mind," Evans said, "he was in a very sensitive position. He did admirably, but he had many things on his mind — things of a technical nature, concerning the musical means with which we work.


"I think that this, coupled with replacing a man of great talent who had taken part in the development of the group, was all happening during the engagement we played earlier this year at the Hickory House. And though there were many encouraging aspects of it, I had slight apprehension about whether his self-consciousness would prevail for a long period, obstructing or misdirecting the natural way the group could develop.


"About the time we left the Hickory House, Chuck had a big overhauling job done on his bass, and we didn't have a chance to find out what effect it would have on the sound of the group. But obviously, during the month-long layoff, many of the problems, musical and otherwise, must have settled or resolved themselves for Chuck.


"Opening night at the Vanguard last July, we felt. . . . Well, it's difficult to describe the amount of difference that we all immediately felt as a result of his ability to play within the group with such a natural flow. Now I have no apprehension about the ability of the group to develop in its own direction and no hesitation about performing for anyone anywhere."


Recalling that Vanguard opening, Motian said: "It started to jell. We could feel it immediately. I thought, 'Oh, oh, we've reached that point again.' I knew we could continue where we left off when Scott died."


To this Evans added: "Not that we're trying to duplicate the point of development we reached with Scott. Chuck is a strong, intelligent, and accomplished talent in himself. It's a different trio now.


"And I'll say this. This is the first time I've been genuinely excited about the trio since Scott's death. Not only about the prospects, but what we've already arrived at."


IN VIEW OF the rich textures Israels, Motian, and Evans are capable of weaving, it is probably not without significance that all three of them had childhood groundings in nonjazz musical cultures.


In Evans' case, it was a double background. Of Welsh and Russian descent, he was surrounded with the traditional Welsh love of vocal music, and with Russian Orthodox church music. Though his mother was born in this country, she speaks Russian and is steeped in the music of the church. One uncle was a choral director, and so is Bill's cousin, Peter Wilhausky, who was a choral director for Arturo Toscanini and is now head of the New York Secondary School of Music. "I think what I got from that environment," Bill said, "was a true and humble love of music."


Israels' background is strikingly similar, though derived from another culture, Jewish. One of his uncles is a member of the music faculty at the University of California in Berkeley, His maternal grandfather was an amateur musician and an officer in the musicians union local in Yonkers. His stepfather, whom Israels said "had a monumental influence on the life of my family," is Mordecai Baumn, a cantor and an influential figure in music education.


In Motian's case, the childhood musical influence was Armenian. "I heard a lot of Armenian music at home," he said. "My parents had a lot of it on records, and I used to dance to the rhythms. I still like Armenian music very much. The rhythms are interesting and some of them swing along nicely. They have a lot of rhythms in 5/4 or 7/8 or 9/8."


It is interesting to speculate how much these "alien" musical influences may have contributed to the trio's musical freedom. Certainly the three men have shown a remarkable ease in handling material in time figures other than the traditional 4/4 of jazz. The group is notably able to dispense with forthright and heavy-handed statements of the underlying rhythmic pulse of a work, all three taking off in individual and yet beautifully interrelated directions without ever losing their bearings. The word "freedom" crops up constantly in their talk.


Israels, who has dedicated himself to music only for the last two years (he has been a photographer, sound-equipment salesman and repairman, recording engineer, and an experimental engineer for a hi-fi components manufacturer), says that "only with Bill have I begun to realize my conception of music. It's a melancholy thing to say, but, in a way, if Scotty hadn't died, I'd be struggling still to find a situation in which I could play what I want to play. I like to make the bass sound good. If playing time in a deep and firm and flowing way sounds good, then that's the way I like to play. If playing more delicate counterlines and fill-ins sounds right in a situation, then I want the bass to sound light and clear."


"What's a groove about the trio is that there's never a hassle," Motian said. "It's never, 'Do this or do that.' It's just three people playing together."


Only once since Israels joined the trio — and this was immediately after he joined — has the trio held a formal rehearsal. New material is simply introduced and then allowed to evolve on the job. Consequently, the group is simply not a piano-accompanied-by-two-rhythm trio. Its music has a true conversational quality, each member contributing what he feels is appropriate. This is a remarkable thing, in view of the individuality of its leader's playing.


It is this newfound group strength, which dates back only to July, that is the main cause of Evans' brighter outlook. "He seems like his old self again," Motian said, "as witty as he used to be. He can be a very funny guy, you know."


All of which leads us right back to the communication problem noted by Martin Williams.


"This isn't a problem I'd deal with directly," Evans said. "I find that when I'm feeling my best, spiritually and physically, I project. For example, I think the record on which I project most is the Everybody Digs album. I'd had hepatitis, and I went to stay with my parents in Florida to get over it. When 1 came back, I felt exceptionally rested and well. I made that album at that time. And I knew I was communicating the way I'd like to communicate.


"Right now, I'm starting to gain some weight that I'd lost, and I'm getting into a more secure financial period, and believe me, it's raising my morale 12,000 percent. "I think it's making a real difference. "Remember how Miles suddenly came out? The fact that musicians and critics had known about him for years didn't dispel the fact that he was saying, in effect, 'Here I am, I know what the quality of this work is, and if you want to know, you'll have to come and get it.' Yet eventually he succeeded in communicating.


"All of this is a social-personality question. It takes a profound personality evolution to affect it. I want to communicate, I want to give. But I'm not foolish enough to think I can go to a teacher to learn how to communicate." With that, one can only ask if Evans has any advice for aspiring young musicians.


"Well, there was a shipwreck, and the only man who survived was the bass player from the band. He floated on his bass for days, burned by the sun and half frozen at night, and at last he was sighted off Long Island. The press and TV people rushed down to the shore to interview him, and as he waded out of the water, dragging his waterlogged bass, they asked him, 'As the survivor of this terrible tragedy, do you have anything to say?' And the guy says, "Ooooh, m-a-an, later for the music business.' "


Source
Down Beat Magazine
November 22, 1962