Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Bill Evans, Not Kurt Cobain

When cocksure young bassist Scott LaFaro died in a car accident in July of 1961, it sent Bill Evans into a tailspin.

The trio of Bill the ever-lyrical pianist, Scott the take-charge innovator, and drummer-perpetual Paul Motian had been together off and on for two years: touring, recording sparely, gradually probing more deeply and more freely, eventually merging and emerging as three brilliant musicians soloing together simultaneously, each following his own extemporaneous thread that somehow stayed interwoven with the others. The Evans Trio's special magic set a new standard for small-group jazz; musicians, critics, and hip listeners were all paying attention... Portrait in Jazz, issued in 1960; then Explorations (still my favorite, recorded in 1961 on my birthday, February 2); and the three had just completed recording of the live and soon-to-be-famous Village Vanguard dates.

Then Scott drove into a tree, and Bill fell from giddy heights to floundering depths in little more than a week. He closed down and stayed mum, morale devastated, supposedly not even touching a keyboard. Months went by. Meanwhile, the two Vanguard albums were released one by one to great acclaim.

About then, another young bassman that Bill had casually admired some years before suddenly popped up in New York. Chuck Israels had been playing around Europe, but had decided it was time to return to the States. I don't know who or what brought Bill and Chuck into contact, but by the beginning of December the two plus Motian were testing the waters, trying to work out the differences among them that were immediately apparent. Bill took his time--cannily wouldn't consider recording this new threesome (though he needed the money) until it was musically clear that they belonged together.

So the debut album(s) by the new, second Bill Evans Trio was(were) recorded in mid-May 1962, a number of sessions that producer Orrin Keepnews organized to create two records rather than one, the ballad set soon called Moon Beams and the up-tempo numbers gathered later as How My Heart Sings! (And both scored well with the critics.)

But wait...

In fact Bill, Chuck, and Paul had already appeared together on another album, recorded in December 1961 and early May of '62, the Herbie Mann disc titled Nirvana--which then sat on the shelf for nearly three years before Atlantic got around to releasing it--with the three tentative trio-mates circling cautiously around each other, providing decidedly, maybe desperately, quiet back-up to Mann's mournful flute. The six tunes put on tape were slow ballads for the most part, ranging from the Impressionistic title tune, to one of Satie's Gymnopedies, to "Lover Man." Static and subdued, adrift and idly modal after the new fashion shaped by Miles and Coltrane--and Bill--back around 1959 during the Kind of Blue sessions.

Nothing in this "Nirvana" to suggest the raucous grunge rockers determined to explode into the public consciousness three decades later, and very little even to suggest the peaceful, Om-niscience of some Eastern mystic contemplating Paradise. The truth is, Mann's album is pretty boring--or maybe pretty and boring. Just too quiet and too unfinished, too disparate and too dispirited. The decision to shelve it for years seems wise in retrospect.

I freely confess I'm not much for flute, whether Jazz or Classical or pennywhistled Folk. But it's not Mann who falters on Nirvana. Evans manages a few lyrical runs, but Israels and Motian sound isolated and indifferent. Compared to the artistic merger of the original three, these guys might just as well have phoned it in. Maybe the baffles were too high (a baffling development?). Maybe the drugs--Evans was struggling with heroin--didn't get them high enough. Maybe someone's higher power wasn't listening. Luckily the disjointed three ignored addictions, omens, and Mann-made obstacles, and kept at it over the winter and spring of '62 until the nascent new Trio began to get things right.

And so the History of Jazz avoided the loss of a subsequent, substantive chapter: the Bill Evans Trio (Mach 2) and the joy and gladness that Bill and Chuck and Paul--or Bill, Chuck, and Larry Bunker; or Bill, Paul, and Gary Peacock; or some other temporary variation--would contribute to live music for several years to come.

Sometimes three's a crowd. Sometimes it's the minimum number for democracy. The first Trio was Jacksonian and pushy, the second more Jeffersonian and cool--with Chuck much less demanding than Scott, Paul (or Larry, soon) powering on, and Bill having to take charge... Not three of a mind like the first Trio, but still three of a kind.

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