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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bill Evans - A Forgotten Man?

Bill Evans a forgotten man? Seems like an absurd thought – but with the arrival of the 30th anniversary of Evans’ death on September 15th, I definitely got the feeling that his one-time huge profile as one of the most influential, important, and admired, pianists in jazz had taken a serious tumble. Yes there were jazz blogs which mentioned him and marked the anniversary, but they were in general blogs that have a stylistic leaning towards the music of the 50s and earlier, rather than blogs that deal with contemporary jazz and its doings. It was a combination of reading these blogs, noting the absence of mentions of Evans in others, and watching some Youtube clips of Evans that gave me this feeling that as far as the contemporary jazz world is concerned his star has fallen considerably in recent years.

But a forgotten man? This post is more me thinking aloud rather than me coming to any definite conclusion.

There was a time when Evans was ubiquitous, where he was mentioned in any serious discussion of jazz piano, when everyone could list their favourite Evans albums (which in those days were NOT just ‘Everybody Digs Bill Evans’ and the trio recordings with LaFaro and Motian). And of course up to 1980 he was touring and recording, so I knew many people, even in Ireland, who had seen him play. I just missed that particular boat myself, he died just as I started to get around, get out of Dublin and go to NY and London to see international artists who, at that time, never appeared in Ireland. So at that time his reputation and influence were enormous – it was very much accepted as a sine qua non that he would be always mentioned in the pantheon of jazz piano Gods alongside such deities as Art Tatum, Bud Powell etc.

But now? I don’t think that if you asked contemporary pianists about Evans that they would downplay his importance in the jazz piano lineage, but you rarely hear them volunteer Evans when asked about their influences. Of course as time passes all young musicians listen to different stuff than their elders did, and that’s how it should be. But it’s not uncommon to hear contemporary pianists cite Monk, and Bud Powell, (both of whom would have been mentioned in the same breath as Evans in the roll call of great pianists by an earlier generation), as influences. And it’s not uncommon to hear people such as Andrew Hill, or even Herbie Nichols and Jaki Byard being mentioned as being important figures for several well known contemporary pianists. But it’s been a long time since I heard a young cutting edge pianist make any reference to Bill Evans. Even Mehldau got quite miffed about his trio constantly being compared to Evans’ in the early days (rightly so – it was just lazy journalism to conflate the two bands) and went out of his way to deny the influence.

Shortly after Evans died a tribute recording was released which featured many great pianists then active on the jazz scene – some older, some younger, some not so well known, some legendary. The line-up included Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Teddy Wilson, George Shearing, John Lewis, Dave Mckenna, Denny Zeitlin, Jimmy Rowles, Richie Beirach, JoAnne Brackeen and Andy LaVerne. Quite an impressive tally of great pianists, and all lining up to praise Evans and play pieces by him or associated with him. I wonder if you did the same thing today – i.e put together an ‘Evans recording’ featuring the current crop of well known contemporary American pianists – Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, Ethan Iverson, Craig Taborn etc. - what the result would be? I think the musical results could be intriguing, but I wonder how many pianists, (outside of pianists who deliberately position themselves within earlier styles of playing), would have any interest in recording Evans material these days? In these days where the music of others is deconstructed or ‘re-imagined’ or whatever the current phrase might be, by young musicians, how in sympathy would they feel in working with pieces like ‘Turn Out the Stars’ or ‘Very Early’? That harmonic world of constantly moving chords seems very far away from a lot of current pianistic concerns. Not that I’m bemoaning that – it’s just an observation.

An aside – for me the greatest Evans ‘tribute’ album was made by Paul Motian with Frisell and Lovano and Marc Johnson without a piano in sight. Frisell is just scary on this recording, the way he can distil the harmonic complexity of Evans music into a two-note guitar chord is an object lesson in accompaniment and ingenuity. John McLaughlin also made an often very beautiful Evans recording using five guitars!

In Europe there is a stream of contemporary pianism that is more clearly linked, in evolutionary terms, to Evans – for example the Scandinavian tradition espoused by the descendants of Bobo Stenson, Lars Jansson etc. and the Italian piano tradition of such great players as Enrico Pieranunzi and Stefano Bollani. But the European pianists who are influenced by Evans seem to favour the more ‘classical’ elements in his playing – the rich voicings, the impressionistic melodicism – and ignore the hard-swinging Evans. While the American pianists who these days do speak about Evans tend to focus on the swinging aspects of his playing and not be too interested in the pianistic impressionism. Of course these are generalisations, but I do detect a trend in the contemporary response on both sides of the Atlantic to Evans’ legacy.

As for me, I kind of go in and out of an Evans thing. I have a huge collection of his recordings – most on LP – and mostly collected in the early 80s when it was a given around these parts that Evans was a God and that it behoved any serious student of the music to have everything he recorded. And in collecting all these recordings I got to hear much great music that I think a lot of present-day musicians maybe don’t know since, these days, there seems to be a lot of focus on the earlier part of Evans career, and the later trios (post LaFaro/Motian, pre Johnson/Labarbera) seem to be unfashionable now.

But actually I particularly like the trio that was together the longest – the one with Eddie Gomez and Marty Morell. This trio is often accused of going through the motions, and much comment is made on their proclivity to rush. But I really like this band – I think the very underrated Morell really brought a kind of muscularity to the trio that was missing in some of the earlier versions. And yes they do rush, but it can be very exciting, and besides, other famous groups rushed – Tony and Ron with Miles for example – and never got the same opprobrium heaped on them for doing so. And Gomez, particularly in the earlier recordings by this trio, was just savage! Check out his solo on this version of ‘Emily’ - his motivic development stuff is amazing - and also check out how hard swinging this trio could be, even on a ‘sensitive’ jazz waltz like this one. (I love the setting for this clip, and the others in the series – a house in Helsinki, with the stark Scandinavian landscape outside and the clean lines of the house furnishings creating a contrasting backdrop to the rather florid music)

When I hear something like this I can easily get back into an Evans kick, because these days I can also easily go for long periods without listening to him, and sometimes I wonder how the slightly ‘rootie-tootie’ swing 8th notes of the later Evans still manages to swing, because it shouldn’t! And the over-amplified bass of the later trios bothers me, and how many times can you hear the same arrangement of ‘Autumn Leaves’ anyway?

But then something will spark me to listen again to Evans and it becomes evident again what an incredible amount of great music he was responsible for both under his own name and as a sideman – George Russell’s ‘Jazz Workshop’, ‘Blues and the Abstract Truth’, ‘Kind of Blue’, ‘Montreux’ with Gomez and Jack DeJohnette’, the first great trio with LaFaro and Motian, the intros to Nardis on the last trio’s live recordings, the poignancy of ‘We Will Meet Again’, etc. etc. He really was one of the greatest jazz musicians of his era, a huge influence on pianists whether directly or through pianists such as Herbie Hancock (the only major post-Evans pianist to openly acknowledge the influence) or Jarrett, and a true giant of the music. I think it’s a shame the 30th anniversary of his death wasn’t highlighted in a way a bit more in keeping with Evans’ stature, but I also think it’s interesting that it wasn’t – it says something about how Evans is now viewed in contemporary jazz – I’m just not sure what that something is! If there are any working jazz pianists under the age of 40 reading this I’d be interested to hear what your take on Evans is, and whether he had any influence on you as a pianist and/or improviser.

And to finish this rather rambling post – here’s the Evans/Gomez/Morell trio again burning their way through ‘Gloria’s Step’ from 1971. God bless Youtube.................

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Every (Jazz) Man Has His Price

Why do many truly great jazz musicians, musicians who over many years have played some of the greatest music in the idiom and forged reputations as being among the finest in the world, agree to make recordings with people who, in jazz terms at least, simply can’t play?

Why do many truly great classical musicians, have such a lack of respect for jazz that they feel they can hire some of the greatest players in the music to accompany them while they butcher the idiom?

These questions were prompted by listening to an absolutely dire recording by the classical violinist Nigel Kennedy called ‘Blue Note Sessions’ in which Kennedy is joined by some of the greatest jazz musicians active today, who seem quite happy to play with someone who, to descend into Irish argot for a moment, doesn’t come within an ass’s roar of the kind of level of improvisational ability, or vocabulary, that should be required for anyone hoping to come within the aforesaid braying distance of any recording studio containing the likes of Jack DeJohnette, Ron Carter, Joe Lovano and Kenny Werner. And listening to Kennedy’s playing here, he’s so far below the level of the other players – stilted phrasing, clichéd, unimaginative, throwing notes at improvisational problems – it seems extraordinary, at least on the surface, that he could make an album like this with players of this calibre. Yet not only can he be on this album, he is actually the leader on it.

I find these kids of classical ‘crossover’ recordings very both infuriating and depressing.

Infuriating because of the arrogance of the classical musicians who on the one hand claim to love jazz (or Brazilian music, or Indian music or whatever genre they or their record company feel is worthy of exploitation), yet never stop to ask the question whether, if they really respect and love the music as they claim to, they should REALLY be playing with true masters of the idiom, recording it, and putting it out under their own name? Have they no shame? Are they so immured in their own sense of self-worth that they believe themselves to be capable of playing pretty much anything at the highest level? Is it a case of ‘listen, I can play Beethoven’s violin concerto at the greatest concert halls in the world, how could I NOT be able to play a blues with jazz guys!? I’ve been touring the planet and been playing great music with the world’s greatest orchestras for over 25 years, and I’m a household name – of course I can improvise over a simple tune like Autumn Leaves!’ Do they never listen back to the recordings they make with great jazz musicians and writhe with shame at the vapid clichés, stilted phrasing, crocodile tears attempts at blues phrasing, and general corniness of what they play in these projects?

Maybe they do, maybe they’re just pressurised so much by the record company, who feel this will help broaden their appeal, that they’ve no choice but to do it. Mind you, in the EPK video for his Blue Note album Kennedy states that one of the things that persuaded him to do the album was the fact that people like DeJohnette and Carter would be on it – so, no fear of HIM feeling like he’s not worthy to play with jazz people of that calibre. He obviously sees it as a meeting of equals. Nigel Kennedy is a great classical violinist, but is, at best, a hack as a jazz musician (others can comment on the success or otherwise of his ‘Hendrix’ project), so the idea that in this milieu he has the artistic right to record with these musicians is in my opinion laughable. Just because you have the money and the opportunity, should you still do it? Not if you’ve even a shred of respect for the music or musicians involved. But I’m convinced that despite all the profession of love for jazz and respect for the tradition these players pay lip service to, underneath it all they don’t really believe this to be a serious genre – or at least as serious as theirs. Otherwise they wouldn’t record and release these awful discs.

And I find these recordings depressing because of the jazz musicians’ compliance with this disrespecting of the music to which they’ve devoted their lives, to which they’ve contributed immensely, and by which they have inspired thousands of musicians all over the world. Now of course there’s money involved here, and I’m not condemning anyone for having a big pay day. But I think that surely there must be a cut-off point – a point decided upon by a combination of the stature of the jazz musician involved and how much or how little they need the money. I can’t believe at this point in their careers that either Ron Carter or Jack DeJohnette – two musicians who command big fees all over the world – really needed the money Kennedy gave them for their involvement in this mediocre (to put it generously) project.

Nor can I believe that they did this for any other reason than the money – if they really believed Kennedy was any good as a jazz musician they’d be including him in some of their own projects – right? Has any jazz musician of any stature, anywhere, ever included Kennedy (or any other classical high-flyer for that matter) in their own creative projects? I don’t think so. The whole history of this genre is one of the classical musicians waving a wad of money at the jazz guys and the jazz guys scampering over, only too happy to lend their names and prestige to any lame ‘jazz’ project as long as the price is right. Maybe it’s a hangover from the days when you did whatever you could to get by, a gig’s a gig etc. etc. But surely there must come a point where you reach a level of financial security when you really don’t need to place your talent and achievement at the service of anyone who has the price to hire you, regardless of their ability?

Because what I find doubly depressing about this is that I don’t believe the reverse to be true. That is, in the classical world, that the true heavyweights – the Evgeny Kissins, Arturo Benedettis, Anne-Sophie Mutters etc. - , no matter HOW much money was involved, would countenance a jazz guy hiring them to play on a classical recording that he (or she) was making, listen to him butchering Brahms or Shostakovitch or whatever, and agree to have their names lent to the project in order to allow it to gain credibility, and to allow the jazz guys to pretend to their own jazz public that really could play classical music at the highest level. I just don’t believe it would happen. These people have too much regard for their own genre, their own art, their own tradition to traduce it like that in public for folding money. Why can’t the jazz equivalents of these great musicians have the same self-respect and the same respect for their own tradition?

If the greatest players in the jazz world can’t respect the music they’ve helped to shape enough to refuse to publicly appear and record with players who can’t play – no matter how well they may be known in other fields – then what hope have the rest of us got in convincing the world that what we do is serious and worthy of equal consideration with any music?