Portrait in Jazz
At the end of a very busy week (during which I haven’t had much time to post), I decided to relax a bit this morning by listening to some old favourite Jazz CDs. When I got to this one, Portrait in Jazz, by the Bill Evans Trio I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t played it for so long. Surely I can’t have forgotten such a masterpiece? Anyway, I decided to write a post about this wonderful album. If it helps just one person discover this timeless music then it will have been worth it.
Bill Evans was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Jazz pianists of all time. Among other things he practically created the modern piano trio, converting it from what it had been before – a pianist with bass and drum backing – to an equal partnership of these three very diverse instruments. To make the format work required partners of equal brilliance and compatibility and it was a while before Bill Evans found the right musicians to join him. Eventually he formed his first regular trio with the superb Scott La Faro on bass and Paul Motian on drums.
Innovations based on collective endeavour rarely succeed immediately, however. It took Evans and La Faro a long time, and two or three albums, before the latter was able to work out how his bass lines might comment on and blend with the piano improvisations instead of merely underpinning them. As their relationship changed and matured, Evans’ contributions actually became a bit more fragmented, so as to leave room for the bass to burst through, and increasingly their performances became like dialogues for piano and bass. Not that we should ignore the contribution of the drummer Paul Motian either; he does far more than just keep time in the way old-fashioned drummers when playing in a trio format.
But on Portrait in Jazz, their first album together, the accent was still predominantly on Evans the soloist and because his playing here is so entrancing one has to acknowledge that the eventual change of emphasis, however justified from an artistic point of view, was in some ways a mixed blessing.
What characterises this album is Evans’ lyricism and lightness of touch. He doesn’t try to overwhelm with virtuosic flourishes. Each phrase and indeed each note is finely shaded. Confidence in his timing enables him to make subtle use of the space between phrases and bring off the most dazzling rhythmic displacements, almost casually.
I’ve picked one track to give as an example. It wasn’t an easy choice but I think this – the standard Autumn Leaves – is the best track on the album. After the opening statement there’s a fine example of the interplay between the three members of the trio that was to become more prominent on later albums, but eventually (about two minutes) they kick into tempo and Evans launches into a stunningly beautiful solo improvisation in which every note sings with a sustained emotional intensity few, if any, pianists have ever achieved in any idiom. As Miles Davis once said of Bill Evans “He plays the piano the way it should be played.” Amen.