Wednesday, April 27, 2016

New Jazz Conceptions - When George Russell Met Bill Evans

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

Clarinetist Tony Scott provided Bill Evans with much late-fifties club work in New York. Scott had also landed a recording contract with RCA and Bill was part of a quartet the contributed four tracks to Tony’s showcase album, The Touch of Tony Scott.

On these quartet tracks, Evans delivered his most fully formed work to date, displaying several facets of his rapidly developing talent. 'Round About Midnight was notable for its reticence, Scott and Evans taking a refined view far removed from the rough-hewn original. Bill's classical training helped him layer the tone, the opening melody warmly projected, the accompanying chords touched in ever so lightly underneath.

On two other tracks he employed that artful, double-handed technique known as "locked hands," which he had been pursuing since his college days, each note of the melody played and harmonized by the right hand whilst simultaneously doubled at the octave below in the left.

In this manner all the harmony notes became sandwiched between two parallel lines an octave apart. Derived from close saxophone-section voicings, the technique was pioneered at the keyboard by Milt Buckner in the Lionel Hampton band and popularized by George Shearing in his quintet recordings.

However, on Aeolian Drinking Song, the last of the four quartet tracks, the aim was entirely different: to create single lines, either solo or in counterpoint, in the Aeolian mode — a scale from A to A on the white notes of the piano — based in this case on the note F. There was hardly a chord to be heard in the piece. In the first of several similar excursions in his early career, Evans met the challenge head-on. He was stark, deadly, and intellectually daunting.

This track belonged to a separate strand in the pianist's makeup and will be better understood in the light of a radical session that had taken place in the same venue some three months earlier. On that occasion, the seminal figure in charge was the composer and arranger George Russell.

The whole idea behind Aeolian Drinking Song was revolutionary and lay entirely outside the scope of the average swing musician. The one pianist on the scene in the summer of 1956 who was most likely to assimilate the idea and come through with flying colors in the execution was Bill Evans. His first recorded leap into that particular void had already occurred at the end of March, in a sextet led by the composer George Russell.

Down Beat magazine had announced that Russell, who had not been active in jazz since 1951 — when he had done "Ezz-thetic" and "Odjenar" for a cool Lee Konitz sextet nominally led by Miles Davis — was now writing for several forthcoming Victor jazz albums. Kenny Dorham was projected (prematurely, as it turned out) as the trumpeter, and Bill Evans was advertised as the pianist.

One hot day the previous summer, while recording The Singing Reed, Lucy Reed, who was an old friend of George Russell and his wife Juanita, called to say that she would love to visit with a friend called Bill. George suggested they all take a ride on the Staten Island ferry. His first impression of Lucy's friend was not encouraging — "plain looking fella, very quiet, very withdrawn" — and Russell felt that he was in for a tough time socially. This is going to be like pulling teeth all day, he thought.

Eventually they returned to the Russells' place at the Beechwood Hotel, where the stove, bed, ironing board, and piano were crammed together into one room. George was paying his dues working behind a lunch counter while working on his theoretical magnum opus, the Lydian Concept. As it happened, some of his arrangements had already come Bill's way in a concert with Lucy. The ironing board was moved onto the bed so that Evans could play, while Russell, expecting the worst, hovered at the door ready to make an excuse. Instead, "It was one of those magic moments in your life when you expect a horror story," he now recalls, "and the doors of heaven open up — I knew then and there he wasn't going to get away."

George Allan Russell was born in Cincinnati in 1923. He remembers singing in the choir of his African Methodist Episcopal Church, and he grew up to the sounds of Fate Marable's Kentucky riverboat music. Art Tatum spent some time in the city, and Russell sometimes heard him practicing. As a teenager he was impressed by Tatum's sounds, but he was equally struck by his first experience of modern symphonic music, a record of Debussy's "Fetes" from the orchestral Nocturnes. He never let go of that sound, and the amalgamation of jazz with European forms was crucial to his musical philosophy. Like Tony Scott, he came under the influence of Stefan Wolpe for a while.

In 1941, after failing the draft because of spots on the lung, Russell entered the hospital for the first time with tuberculosis. It was during subsequent extended spells in the hospital, and between drumming with Benny Carter's band, that he formulated his theoretical work, fully entitled The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation (for all instruments).

The concept exposes an existing principle rather than inventing something new; Russell's revelation is based on the conviction that the Lydian scale on, for instance, C (C D E F-sharp G A B) is more compatible with the tonality of C major than is the familiar C major scale. The logic of this, as explained in the book, is irrefutable, and Russell's thesis convinces not only theoretically but in the compelling brilliance of his own creations. "George composes things which sound improvised," Evans said. "You have to be deeply involved in jazz and understand all the elements to be able to do that."

Evans became exposed to this world soon after he settled in New York in 1955, and he quickly absorbed its language. (Like the French genius, Olivier Messiaen, George Russell stakes out his own vernacular.) Evans's active participation began the following year, soon after RCA began a new series of recordings called Jazz Workshop. One of the recordings, led by the alto saxophonist Hal McKusick, included a piece by Russell. Encouraged by McKusick, Jack Lewis, the artists and repertory man for RCA Victor, offered the composer his own record date in the series. Russell already wanted Evans, and Hal McKusick recruited the other musicians, including trumpeter Art Farmer, guitarist Barry Galbraith, and bass player Milt Hinton.

Three recording dates were set up and a series of intensive Sunday rehearsals, usually at Hinton's house in Queens, took place before each session. The bassist played his part as written, but Art Farmer told me that the other musicians "took the parts home from the rehearsals and tried to come to terms with them. All George Russell's music was taken very seriously by the musicians. That Victor album took a year to do."

There was a calm and quiet confidence about George Russell that inspired trust in his players. RCA Victor sessions did not come easily, but Farmer remembers that the composer never panicked or raised his voice — and everyone knew there would be no overtime pay. Afterward Miles Davis told Farmer, "Man, that was very nice work. It can't have been easy." Called The Jazz Workshop, it was George Russell's first big-break album as leader, and for the first time he could swap a penurious lifestyle for the relative comfort of a small apartment on Bank Street in the Village. Russell and Evans became good friends, George and his wife nicknaming Bill "the minister," he looked so unlike a jazz musician.

The melodic and harmonic world created (or discovered) by Russell was hauntingly original. Hal McKusick, who sounded thoroughly at home in the sessions, nevertheless declared that it was like learning another language. The album should be assessed in terms of music history, for though undoubtedly a jazz record, it is also a twentieth-century classic, to be considered alongside the wind chamber works of Stravinsky or Varese.

At the first session at Webster Hall in March, Evans turned in some solid work, firm of tone and with a spring in the fingers. Russell's most-played piece at the time was Ezz-thetic, a tortuous bop line on the restructured chords of Love for Sale. Bill's solo on it here gleaned from Bud Powell and Horace Silver but had a direction and purpose all its own.

Evans was not blessed with natural self-assurance, but by the time of the second session in October he had just completed his first trio album, New Jazz Conceptions, and his confidence was boosted as well by the presence of Paul Motian on Round Johnny Rondo, Witch Hunt, and, most of all, Concerto for Billy the Kid. The "Concerto" was his real opportunity, designed especially by Russell "to supply a frame to match the vigor and vitality in the playing of pianist Bill Evans."

At the start, in the two-handed octave passage over bucking-bronco rhythm, Evans played from the written score, but soon stretched out, fully exposed, on the chords of I'll Remember April. The precision of the fingerwork controlled the backing band, abetted by the alert Russell on the podium. This was one of the pianist's early tours de force, on a par with the more notorious All About Rosie, composed by Russell about a year later.

The musicians knew that they had a sensational performance of "Concerto" in the can, but Art Farmer recalls that either Evans or Russell was dissatisfied with some element, and it was decided to have another crack at it during the final December session. On that take Evans incorporated a quote from Thelonious Monk's Well, You Needn't. He had come under the wing of Monk, staying at his place once, just when he needed friends and contacts in New York City. He had no doubts about the quality of that eccentric genius's playing, and his favorite recording was the Prestige album from the early 1950s, mostly Monk originals in definitive versions. Evans particularly liked the humor in the playing. Later, in the sleeve note to the 1964 Columbia album Monk, he wrote: "Monk approaches the piano and... music as well, from an 'angle' that, although unprecedented, is just the right 'angle' for him."

The Jazz Workshop was the first of a handful of stunning collaborations between Russell and Evans. The pieces were superbly structured, at once compositions and settings. Evans himself always stressed the importance of form and structure in his own work, whether it be the overall framework of a number or the shape of a solo. He was in his element participating, and one wonders what other pianist working in this context could have accomplished what Evans did: creating such assertive right-hand lines unaided by left-hand comping, integrating the invention stylistically, and reading the written parts with such skill.

Art Farmer said, "The more difficult the music was, the more he made of it. He could deal with the weirdest chord changes and really respond to a challenge.”

The work of the pianist Lennie Tristano, with his cool approach to a line, permeated Evans's contribution to this music.

The influence of the older pianist on the younger is clearly audible: Tristano, the sonic architect and ascetic, argued for soundness of construction but shied away from romantic inflection. Evans, the passionate romantic, nevertheless identified immediately with Tristano's logical approach. Thus a satisfying amalgam was achieved as Evans pursued Tristano's long, snaking, but rhythmically bland lines, injecting them with cross-rhythms and oblique accents of his own, the execution controlled with tightness and panache.

Evans needed good tone and independent fingers, among other qualities, to meet the challenge of his next group of engagements. In 1957 Brandeis University appointed the composer Gunther Schuller as artistic director to its Festival of the Arts. While lecturing there, Schuller coined the term "third-stream" for the fusion of the European musical tradition with jazz. In this context the university commissioned one composition from each of six composers, three from jazz (George Russell, Charles Mingus, and Jimmy Giuffre) and three from the classical world (Schuller, Harold Shapero, and Milton Babbitt). Bill Evans, as a well-rounded musician, was engaged as pianist for the event.

George Russell's contribution, a suite in three movements called All About Rosie, was previewed on NBC-TV's Tonight Show a week before the festival. For the core of his fourteen-piece lineup Russell drew on the talents of four musicians who had been at the heart of The Jazz Workshop LP: Evans, Art Farmer, Hal McKusick, and Barry Galbraith. The piece went well, Evans in particular rising to its considerable challenge; the power of television led to hallowed references in jazz circles to a "legendary" performance by an unknown pianist called Bill Evans.

All six works were played outdoors on the campus on June 6; Schuller conducted, and Nat Hentoff introduced the composers and their pieces. It was cold and damp, the audience was restless, and the performance of this demanding music reflected the inhospitable conditions. Listening closely was a twenty-year-old Brandeis student, Chuck Israels. Afterward he played bass in a trio at a reception; his colleagues were an even younger pianist, Steve Kuhn, and the drummer Arnold Wise. Evans liked what he heard from the trio and chatted with the players, little suspecting that both bassist and drummer would feature in his own group within the next few years.

The concert program was repeated more successfully indoors the following morning, and it was soon recorded as Brandeis Jazz Festival for Columbia. In the third movement of All About Rosie, Russell spotlighted the pianist as he had in Concerto for Billy the Kid: in both pieces tempo and feel were the same, "Rosie" taken perhaps a notch up from "Billy." Again the band dropped out on cue to leave Evans's coruscating right hand exposed in solo, his choice of notes uncanny, the rhythmic verve bracing, his fingerwork relentlessly muscular. 

Aside from the brilliance of the playing, the most notable element was the assured integration of improvised and written material, credit due in equal parts to composer and performer."

Peter Pettinger
Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings

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