Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Believe the Hype: the New Live Bill Evans Trio Album Is the Real Deal

Here’s Gary Burton on Bill Evans: Live at the Top of the Gate, due out June 10 from Resonance – “When I first learned of the existence of a never-released Bill Evans recording, a double-cd set no less, I admit I had mixed emotions. Bill was one of the most influential musicians of all time and a new recording would be major news to all serious jazz fans. On the other hand, so often in these cases when tracks surface decades later, it turns out to be something taped on a home recorder from the back of a club and the quality of both playing and recording is inferior.” You might as well know that the punchline is that Burton was blown away by this album, and he’s right, serious jazz fans will want to get their hands on this.

How to describe Evans to someone who’s not familiar with his music? His playing has a luminous, singing quality. As a player of ballads, he has few equals. His chops were wickedly precise, but he didn’t take gratuitous solos, preferring to inhabit the songs with a nitty-gritty, clustering, chordal approach that invited the bass to participate, and so many bassists did. The emotional resonance of his music gives away his fondness for Ravel and Debussy. There’s so much implied melody in his playing that half the time what you’re hearing doesn’t actually exist – and nobody played hipper chord substitutions. If you want to learn to play jazz piano, there’s no better place to start than with Bill Evans.

So why didn’t this album see the light of day until now? Maybe because nobody knew it existed other than the guy who made it. Resonance’s George Klabin recorded two sets of Evans with his trio – a young, hungry Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morell on drums – at the restaurant above the Village Gate on October 23, 1968 for Brooklyn radio station WKCR. And then it sat in an archive for four decades. But unlike the bootlegs that Burton alludes to, this is a professional recording. It’s not pristine – the piano is noticeably if not painfully out of tune, and occasional crowd noise pops up here and there. But it beats anything you can make with your phone – and most everybody who grew up in the mp3 age won’t be able to tell the difference, or care. As far as the quality of the playing is concerned, this could just as easily be called Bill Evans Live at the Top of His Game.

It gets off to false start with the first of two versions of Emily. On this one, the phrase “Em-I-Lee, Em-I-Lee” becomes incessant and cloying: the song hasn’t aged well, and the album wouldn’t be compromised without it. Although by the time the considerably more adventurous second set comes around, Evans gives it a far more spacious, laid-back interpretation, Gomez taking over with one of several vigorously tuneful solos. By the time Evans has made his way through tightly unwinding, gleaming takes on Witchcraft and Yesterday, he’s found a groove and launches into a marvelously low-key, purist version of Round Midnight, then takes My Funny Valentine so far from its origins that when he finally hits the vocal hook, it sounds he’s quoting from another song. The set ends with a a slow, richly bittersweet, suspenseful take on Burt Bacharach’s Alfie, and then the lone Evans original here (awwwww!), Turn Out the Stars, steady and quietly triumphant.

The second set is looser, and more playful: Evans quite likely was high by now, and he lets Gomez take centerstage on a second version of Yesterdays and a bit later bounces energetically into In a Sentimental Mood, engaging the bass as sparring partner as was his trademark. Meanwhile, Morell, whose deftly terse, swinging brushwork is key to everything that’s good about the first set, moves deeper into the backseat. The intricate interplay between Evans and Gomez picks up with a second, more brisk Round Midnight, a propulsive Autumn Leaves and then Someday My Prince Will Come, Gomez wailing on his chords for a deliciously strange, banjolike tone. The highlight of the night is Earl Zindars’ gorgeously bluesy Mother of Earl, which comes across here as something like Cole Porter’s Too Darn Hot as Scott Joplin might have written it – and might be the first trio recording of the song that Evans ever made. The band winds up the night with a literally wee-hours Here’s That Rainy Day. As emotionally impactful, cerebral piano jazz goes, it doesn’t get much better than this.

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June 3, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Luciano Troja Rediscovers an Important Jazz Composer

This is the kind of album we love best: a rediscovery, a new appreciation of someone who may have slipped under the radar. Sicilian pianist Luciano Troja learned of Earl Zindars (1927-2005) through Bill Evans, who popularized Zindars’ best-known composition, How My Heart Sings, as well as recording and playing many of the Chicago-based composer’s works throughout his career. Troja credits Zindars with being one of the pioneers of using multiple time signatures (in this case, 3/4 and 4/4) in the same piece, something of an overstatement: jazz groups were doing it decades before Dave Brubeck popularized the device. But Zindars has been long overdue for a rediscovery: he was third stream before the term existed. Like Brubeck, he blended impressionistic, sometimes brooding Romantic themes with jazz, utilizing strikingly imagistic melodies that sometimes took on a cinematic sweep. Also recognized within the classical world, his works for orchestra and brass were frequently performed during his lifetime. Troja’s new cd At Home with Zindars isn’t the first Zindars album – pianist Bill Cunliffe did one in 2003 with a sextet, and Zindars himself produced a couple for pianist Don Haas and his trio – but it’s probably the best (Zindars rarely recorded professionally, and it doesn’t appear that he ever released an album of his own). Troja plays solo, with an understatedly cantabile glimmer closely attuned to the nuance and warm emotional immediacy of Zindars’ music. It’s an album of subtleties: as a plus, many of the compositions here have never been previously released.

Many of these songs – and they are songs in the purest sense of the word – are miniatures, possibly designed to offer a comfortable melodic framework for extended improvisation. The casually swinging, Romantically tinged ballad Mother of Earl that opens the album sets the tone for most of the rest of what’s here. The simply titled Nice Place grows majestically out of a memorably Chopinesque architecture; Silverado Trail builds from minimalistic echoes of Debussy to a vivid blue-sky theme. The memorably moody, modally-tinged My Love Is an April Song is the darkest and most overtly jazz-oriented of all the tracks here, followed closely by the wary, apprehensive vignette I Always Think of You. Several others lean in the opposite direction toward pop, most successfully on the blues-infused Four Times Round, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Harold Arlen catalog. Troja’s version of How My Heart Sings gets a rubato treatment that reaches more avidly for the emotional brass ring here than anything else here; Troja’s lone composition here, Earl and Bill so perfectly captures Zindars’ trademark classical/blues blend that it could be Zindars himself. The album closes with its strongest and most intense track, Roses for Annig, which Zindars wrote for his wife shortly before his death. A couple of tracks here lean toward Windham Hill blandness and could have been left out, but all in all, this is an important achievement and a treat for fans of the genial, evocative style that Zindars – and Troja – so successfully mine. The album comes with a very informative, illustrated 44-page booklet in both English and Italian.

August 11, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: The Mingus Big Band – Live at Jazz Standard

Allowing the new live cd by the Mingus Big Band to qualify as a contender for best album of 2010 isn’t really fair – it’s like sponsoring a home run-hitting contest and then inviting the ghost of Babe Ruth to compete. Every Monday night at New York’s Jazz Standard, the three Mingus repertory bands rotate: the original Mingus Odyssey, the ten-piece Mingus Orchestra, and this unit. Broadcast live and recorded by NPR as 2008 turned into 2009, it captures the Mingus Big Band in particularly exuberant form, blazing through a mix of classics and obscurities. Credit drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts for characteristic breakneck intensity – and also for staying within himself as much as he does. The fun the group is having is visceral – but with this material, who wouldn’t? Mingus’ music leans toward the dark and stormy, but here, when the rains come, the band splashes through the puddles undeterred.

The concert kicks off with the joyously slinky blues of Gunslinging Birds, including brief, incisive breaks by Watts and bassist Boris Kozlov (whose regular gig with this unit is a bass player’s dream come true, especially as he gets to play Mingus’ old lions head bass). New Now Know How (which is a question: New, Now – Know How?, according to arranger Sy Johnson) has an infectious, buoyant enthusiasm that transcends its somewhat sly, swinging atmospherics, trumpeters Randy Brecker and Kenny Rampton getting the chance to shine and making the gleaming most of it (this is the first recording of the song since the original Charles Mingus version). They follow the vivid, gentle Bill Evans-style ballad Self-Portrait in Three Colors with a lickety-split romp through Birdcalls, Wayne Escoffery’s blissfully extroverted, modally tinged tenor sax giving way to Vincent Herring’s alto while bari player Lauren Sevian, altoist Douglas Yates and tenorist Abraham Burton battle for the edges. Then they segue into Hora Decubitus, which is considerably more roughhewn and belligerently ominous than the version by Elvis Costello (who wrote the lyrics). Trombonist Ku’umba Frank Lacy growls them with a knowing wariness, and his solo comes down quickly out of the clouds.

Cryin’ Blues features a tightly restrained muted trumpet solo from Rampton, a deviously whispery one from Kozlov, and one that’s absolutely majestic from Lacy. And the whole ensemble takes the majesty up as far as it will go once they’ve scurried their way into the middle passages of Open Letter to Duke; Sevian and Escoffery segue it deftly and fluidly into an electric, soaring version of Moanin’, lit up by a long, biting, expressionistic David Kikoski piano solo. Lacy brings Goodbye Pork Pie Hat up out of chaos with a soaring vocal, Escoffery taking the spotlight, magisterial and intense. The band wraps up the night with a strikingly terse version of Song with Orange, waiting til the very end to take it out in a big explosive blaze. As good as the performances here are, the album is also remarkably well-produced, with a welcome absence of whooping and hollering – either the Jazz Standard folks managed to convince the New Year’s Eve revelers to keep it down, or the crowd was so blown away by the music that they didn’t make much noise til it was practically over. Nice to see – the man who was arguably the greatest American composer deserves no less.

July 6, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment