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See Hear!: Erroll Garner and Bill Evans – Two Views of a Trio

By (December 1, 2010) 2 Comments

When the jazz pianist left the sporting house or the dinner gathering to entertain larger audiences, some musical reinforcements were necessary. Larger venues and primitive sound amplification required a few more instruments to make an impact in a listening/dancing environment.

A string bass was the most logical addition; plucked bass tones provided a pulse and freed the pianist’s left hand from the tiring dual tasks of providing both tempo and harmony. A third member could be a guitarist. Nat Cole received essential rhythmic and melodic assistance from Oscar Moore, who could strum four-to-a-bar chords like Freddie Green provided to Count Basie’s big bands (see November’s ‘See Hear!’) and provide solos and counter melodies. When Cole’s trio began record and radio work in the early 1940s, another plus was evident: a softly amplified guitar was much easier for sound engineers to balance than a set of thumping drums and splashing cymbals. The early trios of pianists Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal were drawn from this model.

Two considerations kept this idea from becoming more widespread. First, guitarists who were equal parts soloists and rhythm keepers were rare. When Herb Ellis (Peterson) and Ray Crawford (Jamal) moved on to other projects, finding replacements was difficult. Second, the piano-bass-guitar sound was a softer chamber music type ensemble. Percussive effects were limited to the clip-clop sounds of Herb Ellis’ bongo imitation, and had to be carefully monitored before annoyance replaced musicality.
Possibly a third reason was the fact that replacing the guitarist with a percussionist made the pianist the de facto center of melodic and harmonic attention; they set the tempos, created the arrangements, and selected (or composed) the melodies that best showed off their technique. Indeed, once this repertoire was in place, some pianists could tour as single artists, choosing their bassists and drummers from the best each location had to offer.

One of the first artists to be drawn to this lifestyle was Erroll Garner. Born in Pittsburgh in 1921 (some sources list 1926), Garner learned to play by placing his fingers on the moving keys of player-pianos; mechanical instruments operated by foot pedals that played perforated rolls “recorded” by pianists hired by the piano manufacturers. Pumping the foot pedals slowly enough would advance the roll incrementally, allowing Erroll to place his fingers on the depressed keys and study the structure of the chords and melody lines. Never learning to read sheet music, Garner would sometimes hire other pianists to teach him new songs, but once learned, he could play them in any key, an ability that drove innumerable bass players crazy.

Garner performed in small bands throughout the 40’s, even appearing with the venerable alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, but by the early 1950’s he was exclusively a trio performer. His mid-fifties Columbia album Concert by the Sea, was an LP that could be found in any home with a record player, whether the owner liked “jazz” or not. This was typically kept beside a copy of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, another favorite among non-jazzers. Garner was also a mainstay on the many music variety television shows that populated the airwaves, from Ed Sullivan on down. If his name seems familiar, among his more than 200 compositions is a song called “Misty,” listed by the major music licensing company ASCAP as one of the 25 most performed songs of the 20th century.

The reasons for his popularity are readily apparent on the DVD Erroll Garner in Performance produced by Kultur Video. The disc consists of two BBC TV performances from 1964. Each show is slightly longer than a half-hour, and Kultur beefs that up a little with a separate performance of “Misty,” a tune that Garner tellingly omits from both broadcasts. Garner had apparently sent his Greatest Hit on hiatus; instead “Dreamy” (despite the similar title, it is not a “Misty” clone) is the second selection in the first broadcast, and “No More Shadows” and the lovely “All Yours” are mixed into the later show.

Garner was the prototype for the piano-centric type trio. On each totally different set, veteran Garnerites Eddie Calhoun (bass) Kellie Martin (drums) are completely along for the ride. But what a ride!

Perched on his trademark phone directory (remember those?) the barely 5 ft. Garner angles his forearms at a five o’clock angle down to the keys (most pianists strive to keep forearms and wrists level to the keyboard). This unusual posture gives him torque for some amazing fortissimos, and keeps his relatively slender fingers poised above the keys.

Audibly, Garner’s style is centered around the unique propulsion generated between his left and right hands. His left hand typically strums chords four to the bar that are almost metronomically slightly ahead of the beat. At the same time his right hand offers up single note or chordal lines (at times spiced with some quite dissonant harmonies) that are ever so slightly behind that same pulse. He can vary this lag time to the point that sometimes the right hand trails the left by almost a full half beat. The tension this creates, even on a loping, lushly chorded ballad, is tremendous, and when he releases it by bringing both hands together for a roaring ensemble, the sense of relief is palpable.

Even though Garner is at the center of this world, the importance of bass and drums to this sound, is critical. Drummer Martin’s job is to keep the tempo stable, ignoring both the prodding left hand and the dragging right to keep the tune right in the pocket. In addition, he has to be alert to Garner’s tendency to follow one of those pounding choruses with a sneaky solo line at the softest pianissimo. This sensitivity to dynamics is also unique to Garner. Most contemporary pianists are content to plow the same mezzo-forte (medium loud) furrows for each tune, with the occasional climax, but very little on the soft end of the dynamic scale. Perhaps they are afraid of encouraging the performer’s greatest foe: conversation.

Bassist Calhoun has his own set of challenges. After the second tune in the first set, a tender Garner ballad called “Dreamy” (nothing like “Misty” but every bit as hummable), Garner plunges into an intro to a song he hasn’t quite decided on. Calhoun leans over his bass, focused on the pianist’s left hand, looking for some clue about what song, or at least what key they will wind up in. Calhoun has a grin and a shrug for someone off-camera before Erroll finally veers into a Latin grooved “What is This Thing Called Love”. During the second set, even Martin gets drawn into the web of uncertainty during an intro that goes through several scraps of moods and rhythms, at one point threatening to become a Mozartian gavotte. A bemused Martin tries to ‘conduct’ Erroll with one of his brushes but the pianist is having none of it, posing and batting his eyes like a ten year old giving his first recital. When Garner casts a look back at the bass player that says ‘you got this?’ Eddie’s extended arms gesture ‘no, I don’t.’ This is spontaneity, not prepared schtick and the payoff arrives when with a flash of eyebrows Garner hops into “Jeannine (I Dream of Lilac Time)” an ancient vaudeville tune possibly learned from a piano roll. Eddie Calhoun not only guesses the right obscure melody, but the correct key (out of a possible twelve, not counting the relative and harmonic minor possibilities).

None of these challenges impede the flow of music. Nor do they compromise the sheer joy of the performances. Garner’s goateed pixie face exudes genuine surprise as he finds he is able to shoe-horn “Moon Over Miami” into the middle of a romp through “Lover” in the first set; seconds later he is military-stern as he perversely wedges a series of bugle calls into a complicated modulation. The tempos in the second set are faster, to the point that Garner’s right hand has to race to keep up, particularly on the opening “Honeysuckle Rose,” where the pushing left hand threatens to leave the scrambling right hand in the dust. A second set highlight is a My Fair Lady medley consisting of a confident “On the Street Where You Live” that morphs into a pumping “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Playing with a fox trot figure during what sounds like a final chorus, Garner becomes re-energized and changes key into a wackier feel that actually becomes the real final chorus. A special ‘See-Hear ‘reader’s challenge: watch this DVD without smiling.

The picture quality is sharp black-and white; the sound is a very clean mono. The separate version of “Misty” is audio-only stereo, accompanied by a photo gallery of the very camera-friendly Garner’s forest of faces. Garner kept performing right up to his passing in 1977. His later recordings on Telarc offer the best recording quality, but Kultur’s In Performance is the only extended video evidence we have of this unique musical personality. If you enjoy any type of piano music, find a copy of this one.

Although the piano dominated trio is still with us, in the late fifties a pianist named Bill Evans started looking for ways to loosen the format. Evans (born in 1929) grew up in Evanston, Illinois with classical piano training and a love of Schubert’s piano compositions. He became attracted to jazz through the playing of Lennie Tristano a blind teacher/guru/ pianist with a love of Bach whose approach to improvisation focused on phrases that grew from stated organic ideas and not a series of memorized “licks.” Tristano’s students included underrated tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh and the still very active alto sax player Lee Konitz. On one late-fifties, 2-CD concert, once available on Verve, Bill was a last minute sub for Tristano playing in a group including Marsh and Konitz. Without ever studying with Tristano, Evans shows his pedigree by spinning out single note solo lines completely in character for this group.

Orrin Keepnews, the A&R director of Riverside Records in New York allowed Evans to spread his first three albums over three years (“I had nothing new to offer,” Bill explained with refreshing candor). From the beginning of his career Evans possessed qualities that make a more open conception possible. In particular, he could vary his lines from lean bebop accents to richly voiced chordal passages with no loss of momentum. What the pianist was looking for was a bassist and drummer to expand that lick-free concept into a three way conversation. To do so required a bassist who could add counter melodies without losing the pulse, and a percussionist able to imply that pulse without the monotonous ting-tingta-ting cymbal patterns even the best drummers struggled to vary.

The bassist he discovered was Scott LaFaro, from Newark New Jersey a young player who had bounced from the allegedly “cool” West Coast scene to East Coast sessions with the free playing saxophonist Ornette Coleman without latching on to a steady employer. La Faro coupled an almost angelic melodicism with an instinct for when the pulse should be overtly stated. Philadelphian Paul Motian had played with Evans in the quartet of clarinetist Tony Scott, as well as the aforementioned performance with the Marsh/Konitz group. His challenge was to gauge how much to engage with LaFaro’s flights of fancy and when to remain more earthbound and maintain the momentum of the piece. Still performing as leader and sideman, Motian deserves more credit for the success of this classic trio. The parade of percussionists that replaced him offers ample testimony to the quality of his contributions.

This trio’s canon consists of a mere two studio albums (Portrait in Jazz, and Explorations), and one club date that became two, and, with alternate takes, currently three CDS (Sunday at the Village Vanguard; Waltz For Debby; The Complete Village Vanguard Sessions). The importance and influence of these dates is emphasized by the fact that a mere ten days after the Vanguard date, LaFaro died in a car accident at the age of twenty five.

LaFaro’s death left an incredible void in the trio; one that sent Evans spiraling into a depression that spurred a growing dependence on heroin that eventually led to his death in 1980. It took several years before Evans felt ready to search for a bass player with the sensibilities to continue his concept.

The Jazz Icon DVD Bill Evans Live ’64-’75 allows us to trace eleven years of this process. The first notes we hear on this 98 minute document captures the complete essence of this music. Hunched over the keys, head down, gleaming dark hair, Evans pulls the melody of “My Foolish Heart” out in long, slow strands. LaFaro’s first successor, Chuck Israels comments with rich low tones; drummer Larry Bunker keeps the embers glowing with stirring brushes. The stark lighting of the Swedish TV studio emphasizes the separate-ness of the three individuals. The version of this standard on the Waltz For Debby album offered solace to many a homesick college freshman (I speak from personal experience.) This one is in the same class. Israels sets the strings on his bass further from the fretboard. This gives those low tones more air to vibrate, but requires more effort to compress and stroke. This decision costs some agility on the following medium-tempoed Israel (not composed by the bass player), so the upper register figures so prominent in LaFaro’s playing are absent, but Chuck Israels deserves credit for inspiring Bill Evans to begin performing again. Bunker, the first of four drummers to appear across the five separate sessions was a west coast vet versatile enough to record vibes solos on Henry Mancini TV soundtracks (Peter Gunn, et al), offers excellent brushwork. But his stay with Evans was not long.

The following two-tune set from France features the most unusual group of the disc. Evans was actually a sideman on this appearance.The group was nominally led by altoist Lee Konitz. The bassist is the estimable Dane Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (last seen in ‘See Hear’ offering a blistering solo on a Clark Terry DVD). The drummer is the vastly under-noticed Alan Dawson, whose resume is far too lengthy to include here, but his quality surfaces in his witty solo on, of all things, “My Melancholy Baby.” This tune offers a typically lick-free outing by Konittz and an extroverted effort by the pianist that both Tristano and bebop icon Bud Powell would have been proud of. Evans takes the trio through the Billie Holiday classic “Detour Ahead” with a calmness that makes you wish that this group had been allowed to exist beyond the contracted tour with Konitz.

The final three dates on this DVD bring in bassist Eddie Gomez. Born in Puerto Rico the Juilliard trained Gomez joined Evans in 1966 at the age of 22, and remained on until 1975-by far the longest tenure of any player in an Evans trio. The Danish performance from 1970 goes totally Hollywood with three tunes from films. A gently rhapsodic waltz through Johnny Mandel’s “Emily” is followed by a thoughtful imaging of “Alfie.” These only set us up for a very up-tempo version of the Disney standard “Someday My Prince Will Come” Switching between ¾ and 4/4 time unpredictably, new drummer Marty Morrell is given a workout on brushes and sticks as Evans flies through the changes. Multiple camera angles enhance the effect as Bill builds a solo from scampering playthings. Bass accents nudge Evans into streams of notes that remain breathtaking after many viewings.

The Swedish performance from later in 1970 introduces color to the visual palette, though the sound remains in full un-enhanced mono. This set features a slower, no less intense take on “Someday My Prince Will Come” where the changes in meter are easier to follow and the camera work reveals how high the action is on Gomez’s bass strings. In Harold Arlen’s “A Sleepin’ Bee,” Evans manages to drive around Erroll Garner’s house a few times without actually pulling into the driveway. Eddie Gomez’s solo on this song is an apparent response to already mounting criticism that he neglected the bottom of the instrument. His popping, walking solo draws generous applause. The ‘arty’ attempts to splice outdoor night time scenes throughout the broadcast are distracting, but may be a producer’s attempt to draw attention from the rather claustrophobic nightclub setting. The closing song of this set, “Re: Person I Knew” an anagram of Evans’ first producer Orrin Keepnews became a staple of the repertoire in later years.

The final set on this marathon disc is five years after the previous set and offers a long look at the final period of Bill’s performing career. Full bearded with long hair and a dapper red suit Evans offers the Danish TV audience an assortment of his own compositions, finishing with his “Twelve Tone Tune Two;” its strict tone row venturing as close as Evans ever got to an avante-garde statement. Gomez, in his last year with the group, embraces the body of the bass , the fingers of his left hand darting mantis-like up to edge of the fretboard. Drummer #4 (on this set), Eliot Zigmund, matches the Evans beard, if not quite the Marty Morrell propulsion, and seems to gain concentration through lengthy stares at the studio ceiling. Visually this small studio is the most intimate setting on the disc, and the music, though lacking a clear standout, brings the long voyage to a satisfying close.

If your interest in things Evans is ignited by the Jazz Icon disc, the Bill Evans Trio: The Oslo Concerts somehow manages to offer a significantly different experience. Clocking in at a mere 70 minutes this disc contains two concerts separated by nearly a full fifteen years. The 1966 concert at the Oslo Munch Museum offers an early look at the Eddie Gomez era, and, yes, a different drummer. This time it’s Alex Riel, a European pro frequently assigned to visiting American artists. Alex’s contributions tend to be on the sparse side, giving the new bass player a chance to learn the repertoire. Though the footage is again black-and-white, the sound maintains the same high monural standard of the Jazz Icon transfers

The second concert is from 1980 and features the last version of the Bill Evans Trio. Bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera stayed with Evans through his final two years of appearances, and their affinity for Evans’s music, and each other is evident throughout. This is full color, and though the sound is mono, the bass receives that extra half-octave of low overtones comparable to any recordings made today. Marc Johnson responds to this by setting his strings low to the fret board and letting the lowest pitches ring for all they’re worth. Although Evans had a small catalog of songs by this time in his career, only the opening “Re: Person I Knew” repeats any material from the Jazz Icon performances. The crucial song from these settings is “Nardis,” from Evans’ second LP back in 1960 with the LaFaro trio. The ’66 performance deals with the Mid-East sound of the thirty two bar melody and the solos proceed in the usual manner. The version from 1980 is an entire sound world in and of itself. With this final trio “Nardis” begins with unaccompanied solos from each musician, with the melody arriving only at the very end. Evans begins with a rumination that builds to a volcanic eruption where fragments of Schubert go flying by mixed rumblings and explosions that remain tonal but also sound like every twentieth century piano composer thrown into a cosmic blender. The camera focuses on Marc Johnson’s face through much of this and you can see his expression change from admiration to ‘how in hell do I follow this?’

That Johnson and drummer LaBarbera somehow manage to offer something worthwhile in their solo statements seems a suitable explanation for Evans’ statement in a fascinating post concert interview that this group was “my favorite trio- besides the first.”

It seems remarkable that instead of the wan, fragile looking Evans that appears in the 1966 concert, that it was the robust, smiling, bearded Evans that passed away less than a year after the 1980 performance. It is safe to say that not a single trio consisting of keyboard, bass and percussion has been able to ignore the legacy of Bill Evans. And without the exuberant talents of one Erroll Garner, the piano might have just tiptoed right back to the parlor.

Brad Jones uses his retail job to fund his career as an obscure jazz saxophonist. He’s performed over 1,000 improv shows as a member of the Proposition Theatre in Inman Square and was a founding member of Boston’s Next Move Theatre.


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