Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Red Garland, Bill Evans: Miles Apart

I sometimes ponder Miles Davis's place in the popular history of Jazz. Leaving his music aside for the moment, first he battled heroin, that scourge of the Beboppers, going cold turkey back in the early Fifties. Then he survived beatings by white cops, and just got surlier, taking up boxing as his voice went from a scream to a whisper. And of course, every decade or so, he reinvented the sound of the Jazz he played, at least as recorded by various Davis quintets and groups larger yet, morphing from Parker acolyte to hard-Bop balladeer, from jigsaw gingerbread-man to hot-and-cold fusionista, from hip-hop funkster to late-Seventies master of silence--and the fans (white or black, in the U.S. and around the world) seemed to follow along every step of the way.

I guess you could say he was Jazz's first superstar (post-War anyway, ignoring the popularity versus cash sales of Satch and Bing, Benny and Glenn and the Duke). Did anyone ever actually count the number of copies of Kind of Blue and Workin' and Sketches of Spain that echoed from the dorm rooms of college kids in the late Fifties and throughout the Sixties?

At the very least he knew a top side-man (and potential leader) when he heard one, whether Paul Chambers or John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter or John Coltrane, Tony Williams or Jack DeJohnette. Just think of his main men at the keyboards: Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Joe Zavinul, and the two I'm about to celebrate here, Red Garland and Bill Evans.

A pair of recent 2CD sets (recorded live in 1972 and 1977, respectively) remind us of the post-Miles stature of Bill and Red. Listening to Evans' Momentum (Limetree MCD 0043) and Garland's Swingin' On the Korner (Elemental 5990426) both
reinforces one's conviction that the two are keyboard greats and then leaves one confused as to what Miles heard or saw that told him the time had come to move on from the locked-hands punch of pugnacious Red to the airy, impressionist modes of gentle Bill. Garland was clearly a cornerstone of the so-called first quintet, the five who recorded three-quarters of all the tracks Miles cut for Prestige (and earliest Columbia); he was versatile enough to sound like Ahmad Jamal when asked to by the boss, but his own approach tended more to the Blue Note/Prestige collective (Horace Silver, Hank Jones, Cedar Walton, Wynton Kelly, Horace Parlan, et al) than to the chordal explorations of Evans.

Check out the long first track here, "Love for Sale," to hear the essence of Red. An
Errol Garner-styled a tiempo mystery-ballad opening suddenly springs into action, African-American soulful/earthy rather than European classical-attenuated, with Red's piano as an instrument more percussive than stringed. Philly Joe Jones and Leroy Vinnegar are his cohorts throughout this generous 150-minute selection of tunes (including fine versions of "It's Impossible," "On Green Dolphin Street," "Dear Old Stockholm," "On a Clear Day," "Autumn Leaves," and the inevitable "Billy Boy"), the East Coast drummer as un-shy and un-retiring as ever and the big West Coast bassman doing more "running" then "walking."

And that's the truth of Garland's solid set. It's energetic and exciting, the sound of three Jazz pros working together almost as one, sparring minimally, any solos pretty much played singly... and thus with most of the possibilities for piano-trio subtlety checked at Keystone Korner's front door. (I'm trying not to sound pejorative as I write this, because Red's lively set really is a welcome addition to his discography.) Evans' support, in contrast, came from Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morell on drums... singular Jazzmen who happened to be white and who played with a more Eurocentric approach.

After the stellar success of Bill's short-lived trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motion, he wanted all of his sidemen/partners to sound that convincingly complex and freely independent, every threesome blessed with big ears and greater understanding, the players somehow going their separate ways but still communicating with one another and moving the melody or changes forward.
There's plenty of that three-in-one going on here; follow whichever player you choose and hear an amazing "argument" sounded, point and point and not exactly counterpoint, more like deliberation and interpretation, concentration and inspiration. Eddie Gomez is especially aggressive (in rehearsal for the Eddie Gomez Trio perhaps?), but Bill and Marty insist on playing front and center as well. And the recorded sound lets each go his own way--brilliant, crisp and clear and undistortedly loud.

When Bill Evans draped himself around keyboard and bench, an evening would typically be filled with single notes and silences; but when he took a deeper breath and sat up marginally straighter, the chords and substitute chords and sideman-chasing harmonies would fly fast and furious. The list of tunes here ("Emily," "Quiet Now," "My Romance," "Turn Out the Stars," "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your
Life") sounds ballad-oriented--romantic, heartfelt, tender--but someone has fed Bill his Quaker Oats; like Eddie he tears into these tunes, shakes them every whichaway, and takes no limpid prisoners. To hear the two (or three) of them at their blended best, the opening original, "Re: Person I Knew," does more than nicely, with grace and balance and three-part invention all to the fore; but tune two ("Elsa") then comes surging at you like a battering ram. Morell lays down a continuous barrage that Bill takes up with both hands, while Eddie rips out an unstoppable solo that sounds more like a bajo sexto across his lap than a double bass under his fingers. On this particular night in the Netherlands, Eddie Gomez revised the sound of Mexico's "DeGuello," and the Bill Evans Trio took no prisoners.

Maybe, to return to the initial question about Miles' pianists, it was as simple as that. The rhythm section of his first quintet had become too familiar, too
predictable. Miles suspected (or "knew") that the Kind of Blue tunes, buttressed by Evans' chord changes and hovering modalities, would be mysterious and distinctive and open-ended, allowing for a new approach to soloing.

But if that's the case, why was there no further development, no second act, no encore? Because Miles chose not to follow up on it, Kind of Blue remains a miraculous one-off. Instead Miles went listening for a new quintet while, on their own, Red Garland just kept swinging and Bill Evans too kept on, exploring, reshaping the sound of Jazz piano, each man enjoying his own certain momentum.