by Stuart Nicholson
This excerpt from The Essential Jazz Records Vol. 2: Modernism to Postmodernism, adapted by the author for this website, is the first article in what we hope will become a series about classic jazz recordings.
Waltz for Debby
Original Jazz Classics OJC20 210-2
Evans (p); Scott LaFaro (bs); Paul Motian (d).
25 June 1961
My foolish heart, Waltz for Debby (two versions), Detour ahead (two versions), My romance (two versions), Some other time, Milestones, Porgy (I loves you, Porgy).
Sunday at the Village Vanguard
Original Jazz Classics OJC20 140-2
Personnel and recording date as above
Gloria's step (two versions). My Man's gone now. Solar. Alice in wonderland (two versions). All of you (two versions). Jade visions (two versions).
The Bill Evans-Scott LaFaro-Paul Motian combination first came together on the bandstand of the New York's Basin Street East not long after Evans finished an 11-month spell with Miles Davis in the autumn of 1958. Work for the new trio, however, was infrequent, and their first recording together was as part of a Tony Scott group that recorded Sung Heroes (Sunnyside [A] SSC 1015) in October 1959.
However, the following month the new trio played four consecutive weeks at the Showplace in Greenwich Village, "That gave us some basis to record," said Evans.[i] Portrait in Jazz (Riverside [J] VDJ 1506), the pianist's third album under his own name and the first with his now regular group, was recorded the following month, while Explorations (OJCCD [A] 037-2) followed in February 1961.
These albums showed a somewhat forthright Evans, with a concept that had its roots in Bud Powell's approach to improvisation. Most immediately apparent was how Evans had adopted a similar manner of comping to Powell (albeit more harmonically ambiguous, sometimes with rootless left hand voicings) and a tendency towards the somewhat staccato phrasing used by Powell.
Motian recalled his initial working relationship with LaFaro within the trio, "I had a hard time getting with Scott LaFaro at the very beginning, 'cause I wasn't used to the way he played—they said in those days, 'This guy sounds like a guitar player!' We didn't click right away, it wasn't like, 'Ah, magic!'"
"Personally we were good friends; remember he hadn't been playing that long, either, just a couple of years to that point. It took a little time, but we hooked up, hooked up for good. We each made adjustments, maybe, but we didn't talk about it. We didn't even rehearse much. Playing, okay. But rehearsals, no."[ii]
Although "Witchcraft" and "Autumn Leaves" on Portrait In Jazz suggest a loosening of the rhythmic conventions of hard bop, a less forthright, rhythmically more interactive approach is actually more apparent on The Legendary Bill Evans Trio: The Complete 1960 Birdland Sessions (Cool n' Blue [A] C&B CD106). Recorded live between March-May 1960 at the famous 'Jazz Corner of the World,' it pre-dates the Vanguard sessions by almost a year. Robust versions of "Autumn Leaves" and Tadd Dameron's "Our Delight," both at brisk tempos, reveal an accomplished pianist presenting exceptionally coherent, lyrical improvisations.
As a result of his previous musical experiences with George Russell (Jazz Workshop [RCA Bluebird ND 66467], New York, N.Y. [Impulse IMP 12782] and The Birth of the Third Stream [Columbia Legacy 485103-2], the latter with Evans' stunning solo in the third movement of "All About Rosie") and Davis (Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings [Columbia Legacy 65833]), Evans had moved towards voicing certain chord sequences in terms of modes.[iii] Equally, since his tenure with Davis, he had begun extensively refining the harmonically ambiguous voicings the trumpeter so admired in the playing of Ahmad Jamal.
With intricate voice-leading passages over blocked, 'locked-handed' chords (that would become something of a signature), Evans gives no indication of the kind of 'introspection,' or perhaps more accurately a preference for slow and medium tempi, that he would increasingly come to employ. On the contrary, his playing displays great poise and fluency at fast tempos. On the slower "Beautiful Love," however, we have a clear indication of what was to come, with Evans leaving space for LaFaro to interact with harmonic and rhythmic asides, presenting the burden of explicit timekeeping to Motian. Again, Evans makes use of reharmonised passages and harmonically equivocal voicings.
That he was clearly moving to a more reflective style of playing becomes clearer on "Come Rain and Shine" and "Blue in Green" which anticipate the emotional climate of the Vanguard sessions and show how he had largely cleansed himself of the long, smooth quaver lines that owed much to his personal favourites Tristano, Konitz and Powell. Using a more legato style that favoured sustained chords at these slower tempos, the diverse elements of Evans style were coalescing into a wholly original approach to the jazz piano. Although the faster tempos revealed his accomplished technique,[iv] overall it was now being gloved in the service of a more expressive, romantic melodicism.
Equally, his trio as a whole were moving to a more sophisticated rhythmic conception that represented a watershed for the jazz rhythm section. Jamal had demonstrated that intensity need not equate with treble forte and that in certain circumstances pianissimo and silence could be effective—even dramatic. Jamal also encouraged his bass player Israel Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier to interact to a degree then quite unusual within a piano-bass-drums unit of the late 1950s.[v]
These quite specific elements of Jamal's style were rare, if not unique in jazz at the time, and Evans would have been well aware of them, since Davis had urged both Evans and his predecessor Red Garland to listen to Jamal, even taking them along to hear the Chicago pianist whenever he could. With his own trio, Evans explored these aspects of Jamal's approach with a much greater awareness of carefully nuanced melodic detail.
Through the familiarity of regular performance and inspired musicianship, the trio suggested that if everybody kept time in their head, then the need to express it explicitly in terms of the then conventional rhythmic approach derived from bop and hard-bop models was unnecessary, allowing them the flexibility to react and comment on each other's playing. By the time of the Vanguard recordings they had made such significant advances in this direction that it now suggested a meeting of like minds.
Although Motian could be a forthright drummer[vi] as much as LaFaro could lay down a powerfully driving four beats to the bar[vii], they were now exploring an area of interaction suggesting a floating three-way conversation with Evans at the hub, mediating the ebb and flow of ideas with discretion and courtesy. Although occasionally they observed the conventions of the tradition from which they had emerged, the main thrust of their performances together would emancipate the jazz rhythm section from the hard driving, straight-ahead style then prevalent in jazz.
What the Vanguard recordings reveal above all else is how the disparate elements of Evans's previous musical experiences had coalesced into a wholly individual style and how the forum of his trio had been shaped to create an effective context for his playing. His repertoire now lent towards a mixture of standards and originals that were both reflective and tranquil, sometimes evoking the pastoral moods and chordal textures of Delius, a personal favourite. His touch, or tone, was exquisite; delicate, yet never fragile, full yet never harsh and he was one of the few pianists in jazz to make extensive use of piano's pedals as a means of heightening his expressivity. In short, Evans was now ready to make his first truly definitive statement as an artist.
The culmination of the advances Evans had made in his own playing as much as the group empathy the trio had evolved is exemplified by "Solar," a 12-bar theme, although not using blues changes. Evans interprets the theme very freely, with LaFaro playing a prominent role, as much as a timekeeper as a second voice commenting in contrpuntal duet-like figures. Evans's solo is given over, for the most part, to single-note right hand lines in the middle register of the piano with, a hallmark of his playing, his delightful use of perfectly fingered quaver triplets.
LaFaro, mixing a time-keeping with counterpoint, often in the higher register of his instrument, plays a prominent role in accompaniment, intertwining his ideas with Evans's line, with Evans adding subtle comping figures with his left hand in accompaniment to his increasing interaction with LaFaro. The degree to which the bassist had defined a new role for his instrument was clearly a radical readjustment of inter-relationship of piano and bass within the three man rhythm section. Throughout, Motian holds this animated discourse together by playing relatively straight time.
On "Gloria's Step," an original by LaFaro, this two-way conversation is extended to include Motian, whose conception of time is more fluid than his role in "Solar." The song itself is unusual, a 20-bar AB song where the A and B sections are 10 bars each, and the theme is again interpreted very freely by Evans. It is perhaps worth highlighting at this point what an exceptionally refined sense of time he possessed that allowed such temporal freedom within form. This sense of time was vital to his work; he excelled at the slowest tempos in jazz, and it still surprises some fans (and some critics) to learn that slow tempi are far harder to master than the fast. Evans was one of the few instrumentalists in jazz who made slow tempos a specific feature of his performances, previously only Billie Holiday and Davis spring readily to mind in this respect.
"My Foolish Heart" is one of the major exhibits of these sessions. The tempo is largo/larghetto,[viii] which would be considered slow for classical music, never mind jazz. The inherent drama of the piece is the trio's collective handling of such a mesmerisingly slow pulse. Here, explicit statement of the beat occurs most commonly at cadence points, when the trio fleetingly unite to provide aural reference points before moving forward in a series of languid sighs among clusters of notes that seem to hang in the air just long enough to illuminate Evans's unique voicings; indeed this is truly music that breathes, each player intensely aware of their precise role one to another and in moving the music forward.
In contrast, "My Romance," a 32 bar ABAC composition, that was later used as a feature for the drummer in subsequent editions of the trios, is here free from percussive onslaught and is taken at quite a bright clip[ix] and although presto, this is somewhat disguised by the use of alla breve, or cut time. As Evans develops his solo, he creates a pleasing contrast by moving from a cut-time feel to 4/4 and gradually the ear begins to demand an even four from LaFaro, which is finally resolved late in Evans' solo, giving a pleasing sense of lift and of climax.
Evans liked melodies with unusual structures such as "My Romance" and his own compositions invariably refused to conform to the usual 'show type tune' construction of the standard 32 bar AABA format.[x] In this respect "Waltz for Debby" is perhaps the most interesting of all of his compositions.[xi] The piece begins with an exposition of the melody in pure 3/4. The tempo is very brisk for a waltz[xii], but since LaFaro plays only the first beat of the bar, one's initial perception of tempo is that it appears more languid.[xiii]
This sets up a pleasing contrast between tempo and metre; in fact it may surprise some listeners to learn that the tune is 80 bars long. It is has an AABC construction, where the A and B sections are 16 bars each and the C section is 32 bars. Strictly speaking, the C section comprises the first 10 bars of A, a further 10 bars that in essence are a variation of A, and finally 12-bars that resolve the melody. However, Evans elides the final 12 bar section of C to 10 bars and uses it as a transitionary passage to move into 4/4. This is achieved so subtly that many listeners are unaware of what has happened and think the whole performance remains in waltz time.
This is because LaFaro plays a highly embellished alla breve time in 4/4, which echoes the compound time-feel of the main body of the theme spread over the previous 68 bars leading up to the 'transitionary' 10 bar passage. At the end of bar 78, of the now modified first chorus, there is a subtle shift in the harmonic backdrop for soloing as the form changes to a 40-bar ABC construction with A and C 16 bars each plus a B section of 8 bars. The harmonic movement of the revised ABC section is distinguished by a frequent use of ii-V progressions, probably the most definitive chord movement in the mainstream of jazz. Evans takes three choruses on the revised form, followed by LaFaro and a return to the main 80 bar theme in 3/4.
It is a wonderful piece of Evans magic, with smooth transitions between form and metre, revealing a wealth of inner detail in the role and relationship of each member of the trio that showed the group to be one of the most exciting in jazz.
On "All of You," LaFaro again plays in highly decorative alla breve and although the tempo is a bright presto[xiv] there is no feeling haste. Typically he plays on the first and third beats of the bar, while Evans accents the second and fourth. However, the degree of interaction LaFaro employed with Evans would simply not be possible with a pianist whose lines filled all available space like a Powell or an Oscar Peterson; indeed at this tempo the tendency of both pianists would have been to insist on a driving four-beats-to-the-bar from the bass player leaving no room for the sort of loose, flexible interaction that LaFaro employed here.
LaFaro's virtuoso style of playing became widely adopted by a whole school of modern jazz bass players and still remains a benchmark of excellence in jazz today. Equally, Motian's playing complemented the fluid feeling of interaction between Evans and LaFaro by reacting sensitively and inventively to their playing, often adopting the role of colourist as much as timekeeper. The coda is a circular four bar sequence whose origins reside with Ahmad Jamal's version of the number.
Evans makes reference to his tenure as a sideman with Miles Davis with his only recorded version of "Milestones," the modal classic from the album of the same name, and here used as a feature to showcase LaFaro's virtuosity. "Jade Visions," the second of two LaFaro originals on these recordings, is in 9/8 and is an example of the delicate, floating romanticism that became associated with this historic group. In all there is some two and one half hours of music that in both concept and execution remain perfectly realised, with a freshness that has not succumbed to the passage of time.
"We knew we were doing something that was different, new, good and valid," said Motian in 1986, "It was like three people being one voice instead of a piano with bass and drums accompaniment. We talked about that. And at the end of our Vanguard gig, when we recorded, we were talking about how we really reached a peak, we got to be sure to work more, play more. But Scott died that 4 July weekend, the same year."[xv]
Throughout, Evans had set new standards for the jazz piano and exemplified what he called 'the science of building a line', a challenge that occupied him throughout his life. Here it is pursued with such focus one is reminded of his liner notes for the original issue of the Davis album Kind of Blue (Columbia/Legacy CK 64935) where he likened the improviser to the Japanese brush painter, such is the calm deliberation with which he defines his art, "This conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful reflection, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician."
And although there is a joy and spontaneity in Evans' playing, as much as quiet reflection, he was also the most disciplined of artists who achieved a clarity of expression that with these performances elevated him into the company of the master improvisers in jazz. They are recordings that are significant for either of two reasons: the emergence of an important and original voice in jazz or the revolutionary approach to the jazz rhythm section. That both occur simultaneously underlines the importance of these albums.
i. down beat October 1979, page 20.
ii. down beat, May 1986 pp 24.
iii. See Evans' recordings with Russell on (382).
iv. For example, All about Rosie with George Russell (48) from 1957 or a rare example of Evans's more expansive side with his own trio: Bill Evans-Montreux II (+CBS Associated [A] ZK45219) from 1970.
v. See (351), of several examples throughout this album, Stompin' at the Savoy.
vi. Such as his playing on albums like Al Cohn-Zoot Sims Quartet, Live at the Half Note (Liberty (J)LBJ60057) or Lee Konitz, Live at the Half Note (+Verve (A)521659-2).
vii. Crow's nest for example, on Stan Getz Meets Cal Tjader (+OJCCD(A) 275-2).
viii. l=60. There are few examples of jazz performed within this tempo range, although perhaps the most famous example is Billie Holiday's Strange fruit l=56.
x. For example, of two of his better known compositions: Very early is a 48-bar AAB song, while Re: person I know is a 32-bar AA song.
xi. Evans enjoyed waltzes to an extent that was unusual among jazz musicians, Alice in Wonderland from these sessions was also a waltz. Among the other waltzes he recorded were Up with the lark, Someday my Prince will come, Tenderly, I'm all smiles, Elsa, Very early, B minor waltz, My man's gone now<, Love theme from Sparctacus, How my heart sings, and Skating in Central Park.
xiii. The melody is expressed freely but appears in the range of andante; circa l=78
xv. down beat, May 1986 pp 24.
Stuart Nicholson is the author of five books on jazz and is the only European jazz writer to have received two Notable Book of the Year citations from The New York Times Review of Books. His latest book Reminsicing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington is published by Northeastern University Press. He is also co-author of The Essential Jazz Records Vol. 2: Modernism to Postmodernism with Max Harrison and Eric Thacker.