Posted by jeff on Dec 20, 2016 in Jazz
, Song Of the week
Hi Everyone out in SongofTheWeekland. As I’m sure all of you remember, way back in SoTW 035, we made a promise to stroll through Miles Davis’ remarkable voyage through the 1950s.
In 035 we talked about the reactionary revolution of his “Tuba Band” of 1947, better known as “Birth of the Cool”. Then in 041 we visited his remarkable series of albums with his first quintet, focusing on melodic, sweet, laid-back treatments of standards. And in 055, we took a look at “Sketches in Spain”, one of three stunning large-canvas collaborations with Gil Evans (who was also an inspiring force behind “Birth of the Cool”). We even recently dug up the first bud of what was to come in SoTW 244, ‘Green Dolphin Street‘, Miles’ very first recording of note with his brand-new replacement for pianist Red Garland, a young Caucasian dude named Bill Evans, precursing by 10 months the album we’re discussing. (And just a bit of subtle foreshadowing, way back in SoTW 003 we wrote about Jerry Garcia & Dave Grisman’s version of ‘So What’.)
We’ve been getting piles of letters asking for some sort of closure to this cliffhanger, so this week we’re going to close the decade with the masterpiece of masterpieces, the coup de grace of the whole shmeer, “Kind of Blue”.
How good is this album? A few quotes:
Duane Allman: “I haven’t hardly listened to anything else for the last couple of years.”
Chick Corea: “It’s one thing to just play a tune, or play a program of music, but it’s another thing to practically create a new language of music.”
Hip hop artist and rapper Q-Tip: “It’s like the Bible—you just have one in your house.”
US House of Representatives: “A national treasure.”
But my favorite appraisal is from critic Robert Palmer (liner notes from a remastered re-release):
[For music fans and critics] “no ‘great work’ is sacrosanct. Not all rock aficionados share a high opinion of Sgt. Pepper; to some, it’s uneven, self-indulgent, overproduced, underwritten—and dated.” But “Kind of Blue” is unique, he says. It has no detractors.
It’s universally acknowledged to be a masterpiece. By rockers, by rappers, by jazzists, by aficionados and snobs, by layfolk and casual listeners. By those of wooden ears. By elevator riders. It’s the prettiest background music you’ll ever not listen to. But if you do, it’s a monolith of lyric beauty and depth.
It is perfect.
It is so subtle, so nuanced, that you can listen to it several trillion times (as many have) with it sounding wholly fresh and vital every time. Ask Q-Tip.
Miles’ 1955 quintet was still playing in the throes of post bebop, complex, dense, chord-laden music, which Miles now labeled “thick”. His band was falling apart, due to a fatal mix of drugs and ego. Pianist Red Garland went his way. Drummer Philly Joe Jones was grooving in his own vein. John Coltrane was bounced from the band for abuse and unreliability. While Miles was in France, Coltrane served a tour of duty with Thelonious Monk and got himself clean. Miles returned, rehired all three in addition to new-on-the-scene alto sax Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, recording with them the experimental album “Milestones,” and then fired the drummer and pianist. So we’re left with Miles on trumpet, Coltrane on tenor, Cannonball on alto, and good old Paul Chambers on bass. Jimmy Cobb came in on drums.
L to R: Cobb, Adderley, Evans, Davis, Coltrane
Via Gil Evans, Miles had read and been deeply influenced by a book called “The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization”, which posited an entirely new approach to what notes are played. It created Modal jazz. Jazz prior to this had been based on chord changes. Modal music talked about playing within a scale, free of the fetters of chords. The artist improvises melody, without the strictures of the over-evolved, ‘thick’ post-bebop music. Think of Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’. No chords, just a series of modulating scales. Miles:
“No chords … gives you a lot more freedom and space to hear things. When you go this way, you can go on forever. You don’t have to worry about changes and you can do more with the [melody] line. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically innovative you can be. When you’re based on chords, you know at the end of 32 bars that the chords have run out and there’s nothing to do but repeat what you’ve just done—with variations. I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional string of chords… there will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.”
Okay, that may be a bit dry for a lot of normal people. But listen to this! “The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization” was written by George Russell, a 25-year old black drummer who was hospitalized in 1945 for 16 months with tuberculosis. To wile away the time, he wrote this theoretical work. Gil Evans turned all the cool young musicians onto it. So now, in 1958, Miles asked George Russell to recommend a pianist who could play this modal stuff. (Russell had just finished recording a jazz concept album/composition entitled “New York, N.Y.” Participating in the session were Art Farmer, Bob Brookmeyer, Hal McKusick, John Coltrane, Milt Hinton, Barry Galbraith, Jon Hendricks, Phil Woods, Al Cohn, Max Roach, and Benny Golson, Oh, yeah, and a young honky pianist named Bill Evans.) Russell:
I recommended Bill.
“Is he white?” asked Miles.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“Does he wear glasses?”
“I know that motherfucker. I heard him at Birdland—he can play his ass off. Bring him over to the Colony in Brooklyn on Thursday night.”
The club was in Bedford Stuyvesant, a neighborhood whites didn’t ordinarily enter. But George and Bill did, Bill sat in and got his white ass hired, and the classically-trained wimp became the pianist for the coolest jazz band in the world. Miles:
When Bill Evans—we sometimes called him Moe—first got with the band, he was so quiet, man. One day, just to see what he could do, I told him [and you have to know Miles’ raspy whisper to really appreciate this], “Bill, you know what you have to do, don’t you, to be in this band?”
He looked at me all puzzled and shit and shook his head and said, “No, Miles, what do I have to do?”
I said, “Bill, now you know we all brothers and shit and everybody’s in this thing together and so what I came up with for you is that you got to make it with everybody, you know what I mean? You got to fuck the band.” Now, I was kidding, but Bill was real serious, like Trane.
He thought about it for about fifteen minutes and then came back and told me, “Miles, I thought about what you said and I just can’t do it, I just can’t do that. I’d like to please everyone and make everyone happy here, but I just can’t do that.”
I looked at him and smiled and said, “My man!” And then he knew I was teasing.
Bill brought a great knowledge of classical music, people like Rachmaninoff and Ravel. He was the one who told me to listen to the Italian pianist Arturo Michelangeli, so I did and fell in love with his playing. Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall. I had to change the way the band sounded again for Bill’s style by playing different tunes, softer ones at first. Bill played underneath the rhythm and I liked that, the way he played scales with the band. Red’s playing had carried the rhythm but Bill underplayed it and for what I was doing now with the modal thing, I liked what Bill was doing better.
This Miles Davis sextet played standards and material from “Milestones” through most of 1958 without making any significant recordings. Miles:
Some of the things that caused Bill to leave the band hurt me, like that shit some black people put on him about being a white boy in our band. Many blacks felt that since I had the top small group in jazz and was paying the most money that I should have a black piano player. Now, I don’t go for that kind of shit; I have always wanted just the best players in my group and I don’t care about whether they’re black, white, blue, red or yellow. As long as they can play what I want that’s it. But I know this stuff got up under Bill’s skin and made him feel bad. Bill was a very sensitive person it didn’t take much to set him off.”
Bill wanted desperately to please everybody and to fit in. So although he didn’t actually service the guys, what he did learn during that time was how to shoot heroin. After seven months, he’d had it with the road. He was replaced in the band by the very competent if uninspired blues-oriented pianist Wynton Kelly. In March, 1959, Miles brought Evans back for a couple of recording sessions. Wynton was the sitting pianist in the group—Miles liked to do that, to set one band member near another, to get them nervous. Fun guy, that Miles Davis.
Only hours before the session, Miles wrote down some sketches and taught them to the musicians during the sessions themselves. No rehearsals. Here’s the modal framework, go. Five songs for release in six takes.
The very eloquent Bill Evans, from the original liner notes of “Kind of Blue” (you’ll pardon me for the extensive quote, but I have read these words hundreds of times, and find them an unplumbable source of wisdom and inspiration):
“There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.
The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.
This conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful reflections, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician.
Group improvisation is a further challenge. Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result. This most difficult problem, I think, is beautifully met and solved on this recording.
As the painter needs his framework of parchment, the improvising musical group needs its framework in time. Miles Davis presents here frameworks which are exquisite in their simplicity and yet contain all that is necessary to stimulate performance with sure reference to the primary conception.
Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a “take.”
I’m not going to wax poetic here trying to replicate in mere words the beauty that is “Kind of Blue.” If you want to read more about it, Ashley Kahn wrote an entire book called “The Making of ‘Kind of Blue’“. But if you don’t own the album, you really should. Remember what Q-Tip said? One phrase of the first song on the album, ‘So What’, is worth a thousand words. The entire song is worth a book. The album is worth a library. It’s an education in itself. And if, as one assumes, you do own the album, give it a spin. It will sound as fresh as it always does. And thanks be to He Who Created jazz musicians for instilling in these six guys the talent to create such magical beauty. Humans creating perfection. Not something you run into everyday.
Posted by jeff on Aug 26, 2016 in Jazz
, Song Of the week
‘On Green Dolphin Street’, the Miles Davis quintet (1958), featuring Bill Evans
‘Alice in Wonderland’, the Bill Evans Trio, evening set 2
I learned a new word this week. “Moledro”.
Well, it’s not really a word (apparently there’s a really cool guy who makes up these emotionally-laden situation-specific terms based on authentic etemologies) and I didn’t really learn it (keep mixing up the consonants), but it’s a zinger, especially when you’re in a Bill Evans state of mind:
n. a feeling of resonant connection with an author or artist you’ll never meet, who may have lived centuries ago and thousands of miles away but can still get inside your head and leave behind morsels of their experience, like the little piles of stones left by hikers that mark a hidden path through unfamiliar territory.
That sure resonates.
I was introduced to the word by M.E., a new reader who’s been sharing with me her experiences of digging deeper and deeper into Evans’ ouvre, into his soul. I sure appreciate her passion for Bill’s music, and it’s been a pleasure to have my own flame for him fanned.
Young Bill with glasses and shadow.
Bill Evans is a stable staple of my musical diet, the soundtrack to the first couple of hours of most of my days. Those are the colors of the world I choose to inhabit (when life allows me the choice).
I find myself listening more and more exclusively to a small number of his works, from the very beginning and the very end of his career. I’m going to share a few somewhat disparate thoughts with you today:
- 4 cuts Evans made as brand-new pianist for the Miles Davis quintet, 10 months before “Kind of Blue”
- The background noise in “Live at the Village Vanguard”
- A comparison of Evans last two bassists, Eddie Gomez (1966-77) and Marc Johnson (1978-80)
Adult Bill with glasses and shadow.
This ain’t the place for Evans beginners. I’ve blabbered on about him at length, covering all the basses:
Bill Evans was with Miles’ band from April till October, 1958, replacing Red Garland, the pianist of The First Quintet. He quit the band (tired of the racial prejudice against a white boy in a black environment and exhausted from his new junk habit), but was called back in March, 1959, for the “Kind of Blue” sessions. The working band recorded one live session at a Columbia records party, never intended for release (rightfully so).
So we have the Mile-Evans meeting of colossi, resulting in the indelible “Kind of Blue”, universally acclaimed as one of the most significant works of art of our time. Miles was at the top of his game, Bill was a virtual unknown, just beginning to make a name for himself in the New York jazz scene.
Many people have spent many hours and pages deliberating over that meeting of minds. The relatively well-known live session from September, 1958, “Jazz at the Plaza”, an exercise in gratuitous blowing, offers only frustration.
But then I recently rediscovered four tracks the same group had recorded in May, 1958, which I had previously glossed over. The tracks have been buried on a bunch of minor Miles compilation albums, so I’m guessing I’m not the only one to have overlooked them.
‘Stella By Starlight’ and ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ are stunning. ‘Love for Sale’ and ‘Fran-Dance’ ain’t bad. It’s tracks like this that feed our compulsive impulses, that give ‘trolling the trash’ a good name.
From Peter Pettinger’s indespensible musical biography, “How My Heart Sings”:
“For all kinds of reasons the musicians coalesced in an extraordinary way. Evans’ burning message – lyrical, textural, sensual – had to be released; it had long been smoldering within him, the very core of his musicality. His first studio setup with Davis gave him the freedom to express himself with some refinement away from the rough and tumble of the bandstand, and this, along with a fresh repertoire of intriguing chord sequences, lent the atmosphere an air of untapped promise. Until this moment, the world did not know the magic that Evas was holding. Perhaps only Davis suspected.”
‘On Green Dolphin Street’ (from the 1947 film of almost the same name, here in Jimmy Dorsey’s original) was introduced to the jazz repertoire in this session.
Miles’ first quintet was a seminal band, creating a stunning corpus of standards written by Jews and Cole Porter, presented in a refined but innovatively soulful context. Listen to Red Garland’s piano on a similarly melancholy tune, ‘It Never Entered My Mind’. Now listen to Evans’ piano on ‘On Green Dolphin Street’. It’s the difference between dexterity and depth, goodness and greatness, professionalism and profundity.
Four cuts from an obscure session. This isn’t a trivial pursuit. It’s a diamond in the rough, precursor of an iconic visit to the divine. Now go listen to “Kind of Blue”
I’ve discussed Evans’ first trio’s “Live at the Village Vanguard” at some length. As have many other people. (Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, 2001; Michael Bailey in All About Jazz; Orrin Keepnews, producer of the recording, in a video interview).
If I could take one album to a desert island, it would be this one, hands down. I don’t have words to describe the solace, inspiration, utter astonishment at sheer beauty that I’ve gotten from these recordings.
Well, perhaps I do. Moledero.
Throughout these recordings, two afternoon and three evening sets from June 25, 1961, you can hear the audience chatting, tittering, clinking martini glasses. Check out ‘Alice in Wonderland’, written by Sammy Fain for the 1951 Disney movie, introduced to jazz by Dave Brubeck in 1957.
Lots of great jazz was created spontaneously (duh). Both “Kind of Blue” and the Village Voice recordings were “just another date”. So I suppose it’s hard to blame that lady with the beehive hair, red nails and lips, for clinking and tittering, unaware of the momentousness of the moment. That’s nothing new.
Icarus tried to fly, fashioning wings made of feathers and wax. But he flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, and he drowned. The difference between Icarus and Bill Evans is that the former didn’t wear glasses.
In Bruegel’s famous painting (circa 1560), Icarus plunges into the sea unnoticed by the ploughman digging his earth with his horse, both equally unaware of anything beyond the current furrow, placid in their ignorance. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Evans’ music is so subtle, so restrained, so gentle and quiet – would I not have been drinking a martini on that evening? Would I not have shared a joke with my friends? Ah, Icarus.
Eddie Gomez was Bill Evans’ bassist for 12 years, more than half of his career as a band leader. They were also the nadir of his career. Students of Evans have long asked who’s to blame. Did Gomez drag Evans down, a sin of commission? Did he fail to inspire him, a sin of omission? Or does the blame lie with Evans himself and his monkey? Perhaps Gomez deserves mountains of credit for keeping Evans going during those long years of self-abusive addiction?
I don’t know, and I certainly have no interesting in bashing Gomez’s sterling reputation. But the confluence of their association and Evans’ doldrums is a fact. As is Evans’ musical rejuvenation when Marc Johnson came in, with Joe LaBarbera forming The Last Trio.
I can’t help but mention here the very talented, very beautiful Brazilian/American pianist/singer Eliane Elias, who has had intimate relationships with both Gomez and Johnson and recorded a tribute album to Bill Evans. She gets my vote as Most Committed Evans Fan Ever.
I have written an exhaustive piece on Evans’ treatment of ‘Nardis’ throughout his career, especially as the showpiece of the last trio, beginning with Bill’s solo introductions (some of the most moving, harrowing music ever recorded), followed by a bass and then a drum solo.
I recently revisited this fine video of Evans, Gomez and Marty Morell in a home concert in Helsinki, 1970. It includes an extended ‘Nardis’ (after a great interview), complete with a somewhat extended solo piano intro, followed by a 3-minute bass solo, the earliest such treatment I’ve found.
Compare Gomez’s solo there to Johnson’s here, also ‘Nardis’ in Helsinki, 1980. There’s a quantum difference. I don’t want to diss Eddie Gomez. You listen and judge.
Bass solos are tough. There’s never been a bassist who could fill a hall playing solo – not Jaco, not Ron Carter, not Mingus. (McCartney comes close here.) But Marc Johnson here? He’s got game. It’s worth listening to.
So, thanks to M.E. for inspiring me to a renewed turn around the dance floor with some of my favorite music in the world. Thanks to Bill Evans and associates for making the music. And thanks to the guy for putting a word to the experience.
Posted by jeff on Nov 12, 2015 in Jazz
, Song Of the week
Bill Evans Trio – ‘Gloria’s Step’ (1st Take), from “The Complete Live at The Village Vanguard”
From the same album, ‘All of You‘ and ‘Waltz for Debbie’
This morning, like most mornings, I started the day with Bill Evans. Not just any Bill Evans, but “The Complete Live at The Village Vanguard”. Sometimes we play music to reflect our mood, sometimes to enhance it, to complement it or to change it. But between my first and second cups of coffee, when the world is just a pre-moodal blur, I can do whatever I want. So I almost invariably start with something easy on my ears, easy on my mind, easy on my soul. Like Brad Mehldau, for example, a 40-year old pianist, one of the best young jazz artists around. And almost invariably, after a few minutes, I ask myself “Why not go for the original? It’s early, at this hour you don’t yet owe anybody anything, listen to whatever you want.” And if I’m feeling really indulgent or up or down or in the middle, I say, “Well, if we’re indulging ourselves, let’s go for the very best.” And there goes that 3-CD 1961 set, which gets us up to 10:00, on the cusp of our third cup of coffee, and the world has become a pretty tolerable place.
I have a hard time filtering all the things I want to say about Bill Evans (1929–1980). Over the past five years, this set has been the work I’ve listened to most, loved most, and appreciated most (and those are three distinct issues). It has moved me as few other works have – Bach’s Suites for Cello, Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”, James Taylor’s Apple album (a partial and admittedly disparate list) are the company it keeps in my soul.
Bill Evans’ “Live at The Village Vanguard” can be perceived in several ways. It can sound like inoffensive cocktail music. It’s very ‘nice’, pleasant on the ear. And yet jazz fans know that in this performance Bill Evans reinvented the piano trio (the jazz equivalent of classical music’s string quartet), and in my opinion single-handedly changed our perception of rhythm in modern music, evolving it from the mechanical metronome to the sublime interplay of fluid improvisation. And on a whole different level, if you look at the album cover for one of the releases, you’ll see there was something harrowing going on below the surface.
Bill grew up as a ‘nice boy’ in New Jersey, graduated from Southeastern Louisiana University with a degree in classical piano performance. But that failed to hold his attention, because he sight-read music so well, was able to perform the classical repertoire at such a level of refinement from the git-go, that he failed to maintain the necessary edge to practice hard enough to make a career of it. He played a bit of jazz in New York, served in the army and in the late ’50s returned to the scene in New York, where he quickly made a name as a highly esteemed studio musician. Although record companies were interested in recording him, he made only two albums under his own name in five years – by his own choice, maintaining that he would record ‘when he had more to say’.
In 1959, Miles Davis became interested in exploring modal music and asked his mentor Gil Evans to recommend a pianist to join his working band, someone with a solid grounding in the European tradition and knowledgeable in musical theory. The resulting collaboration between Miles and Bill Evans was “Kind of Blue”, a universally acknowledged masterpiece, some say the seminal marriage of American jazz with the European tradition.
But Bill left the band shortly after that recording to pursue two main interests –the search for a trio which would express his unique musical vision, and the beginning of what would be a lifelong addiction to drugs, beginning here with heroin, later modulating to drink and cocaine till his death at the age of 51. But he achieved also his other goal, with the 25-year old drummer Paul Motian and the 23-year old bassist Scotty LaFaro.
Evans was seeking to evolve beyond the traditional piano trio format in which the bassist, drummer and the pianist’s left hand all provided a predictable backdrop for the pianist’s right hand. He wanted to build a group of equal partners in creativity. In LaFaro, he found his musical soulmate. From the fall of 1959 till June 1961 they developed this new musical language together in two studio recordings, “Portrait in Jazz” and “Explorations”. In June, 1961, they went to the Greenwich Village jazz club The Village Vanguard for a week’s gig. Their producer, Orrin Keepnews, decided to record them on Sunday, because that included an additional matinee show (two sets, in addition to the regular three evening sets), giving him more material to choose from. Here’s Keepnews discussing the formation of the trio, here discussing the trio’s work on that legendary day.
Like many great jazz recordings, the participants felt that it was ‘really good’, but had no sense of recording for posterity. Ten days later, the car Scotty LaFaro was driving in upstate New York veered off the road and hit a tree, killing the driver. Distraught, Bill Evans sank into his heroin habit and stopped recording for a year. Fifty years later, that day’s music is universally regarded by jazz fans as a unique work of genius and transcendent beauty.
The first album released from these sessions was called “Waltz for Debby”. Evans and Keepnews focused their selection on performances written by and featuring LaFaro.
“Sunday at the Village Vanguard” followed the same year, and some years later “Bill Evans – More from the Vanguard”. In 2005, the entire day’s recordings were released as a 3-CD set, “The Complete Live at The Village Vanguard”.
The rest of Evans’ career would follow an unusual trajectory. After a year and a half of depression during which Evans wandered around wearing Scott’s clothes and recording only one solo session, young bassist Chuck Israels dragged him out of his shell to form the second trio, with drummer Larry Butler. They recorded the sterling albums “Moonbeams” and “How My Heart Sings“, and a number of fine live performances on television. Evans then teamed with bassist Eddie Gomez and a series of drummers over the next 10 years. He also recorded in other contexts, most notably in duets with guitarist Bill Hall and several groundbreaking experiments in recording himself overdubbed in two or three parts (the Grammies didn’t know whether to give him the prize as solo or group artist). Ravaged by drugs, Evans somehow managed to maintain the highest levels of musical standards (to the point of one notorious performance where his left hand was rendered useless by the excesses of the needle, but he performed admirably right-handed). His followers are so dedicated that every scrap of his recordings is released commercially. I personally own and listen to over a hundred CDs of his, even the relatively mundane years with Gomez.
Then incredibly, in 1979, he formed a new trio with two young musicians, Joe LaBarbera (drums) and Marc Johnson (bass). He developed a probing new style and recorded extensively, in a final burst of creative energy, right up to his death in 1980.
But nothing ever matched the magic of that Sunday in 1961. Nothing by Bill Evans, nothing by anyone else.
The songs that Bill Evans’ trio played that day are mostly standards (‘My Foolish Heart’, ‘All of You’, ‘My Romance’, ‘Some Other Time‘, ‘Detour Ahead’, ‘My Man’s Gone Now‘, ‘I Loves You Porgy’), with a scattering of originals–LaFaro’s ‘Gloria’s Step‘ and ‘Jade Visions’, Evans’ sublime ‘Waltz for Debby’. After much deliberation, I selected for our Song of The Week ‘Gloria’s Step‘ for several reasons. First, that was the first piece they played that day. Secondly, there’s a 10-second break in the middle where the tape recorder lost power, nearly causing the technical team heart failure. I think that interruption is fittingly emblematic of the truncated life of this trio and of the fragility of the moment of inspiration. But mostly, I chose it because of its innate beauty. I could describe at length the unusual, affective melody of the song, the revolutionary mid-keyboard blocked chords of Bill Evans’ left hand, the utterly and unutterably magic interplay between these three musicians. But I’d never do it justice. Because this is as beautiful as music gets, and no words can rival that.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
096: Bill Evans (solo), ‘Easy To Love’
124: Bill Evans, ‘Nardis’
094: Brad Mehldau, ‘Martha, My Dear’ (“Live in Marciac”)
The Real Group, ‘Monica Vals’
I was hanging with some musical friends this week, watching an old video of theirs, relaxed and routine, when – boom! – four minutes in heaven.
The Real Group. Margareta Bengtson. Monica Zetterlund. Bill Evans. Let me explain. But I’ll probably get all historical and detailed way beyond what any normal person would care about. So unless you have the patience of a stone, feel free to listen, watch, and be transported. The Real Group, ‘Monica Vals’.
In 1953, Bill Evans (1929-80) was released from the army. He’d finished a degree in classical piano at Southeastern Louisiana College and was trying to decide which direction to pursue, classical or jazz. So he took a year off, living in his parents’ home and practicing. He would visit his brother Harry (who eventually became a music professor and a suicide; here’s an mind-opening interview by Harry of Bill from 1964, very much worth studying) and his three-year old niece Debby.
Bill Evans & Monica Zetterlund
‘Waltz for Debby’ has become a jazz classic, written mostly in ¾, not a common jazz signature. It’s charming, disarming, lovely and tender. It’s the genius that is Bill Evans at his best.
Evans included it on his first album, “New Jazz Conceptions” (1956), a solo performance. Perhaps his finest treatments of it were on his masterpiece recording “Live at the Village Vanguard” (1961), with Paul Motion on drums and the immortal (but fated to die 10 days later) Scott LaFaro on bass. Here’s Take One and Take Two. Here’s a posting dedicated to that session, one of the most sublime pieces of music I’ve encountered.
The Real Group then
Evans played ‘Waltz for Debby’ throughout his career, right up to the end – here it is from 1980 (with Joe LaBarbera on drums and Marc Johnson on bass), exactly one month before his tragic but inevitable death. Well, aren’t all tragic deaths inevitable? The song is usually performed gently (1956, 1961). Here in 1980, on the edge of the abyss, he invests in it a frightening passion that I discussed at length in a blog post about another signature song of his, ‘Nardis’.
In 1963, Evans asked his friend Gene Lees to write lyrics for the song. Some people think they’re precious and wonderful, some think they’re painfully kitsch and demean a perfectly restrained song. Me? I’m so caught up in the music I don’t even hear them.
The Real Group now
I’ve found no evidence of why Evans asked for lyrics. The first version I can find a recording is a respectable treatment by Dutch singer named Rita Reyes, recorded for Dutch TV in 1964. In contrast, Johnny Hartman croons it to death in the same year (the follow-up album to his legendary collaboration John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the divine Sarah Vaughn’s version from 1966. Also unfortunately, it’s easy to find the 1975 Tony Bennet/Bill Evans duet collaboration. As my friend ML put it so well: “Tony Bennet doesn’t sing on that album, he shouts.”
Bill Evans & Monica Zetterlund
In the summer of 1964, Evans made his first trip to Europe, with his second trio – Chuck Israels on bass, Larry Bunker on drums. In Sweden he met a young singer named Monica Zetterlund (1937-2005), who had made a recording of ‘Waltz for Debby’ with lyrics by Beppe Wolgers, ‘Monica Vals’. They cut a wonderful album together, a paragon of passionate restraint (Evans) meeting icy perfection (Zetterlund). Here’s the recording, and here’s a TV video of that visit. While we’re here, here’s a beautiful ‘Some Other Time’ video from the same program. And here they are doing a beautiful, relaxed rehearsal of ‘Monica Vals’ two years later, with Eddie Gomez on bass and a Swedish drummer.
In 1984, five Swedish friends were at studying together at the Royal Academy of Music. They felt that other friends played all the instruments and styles better than they did, so they decided to try something different – singing jazz classics a cappella. Thus was born the genre I love so well, ‘modern a cappella’. They began by listening to classic jazz such as Count Basie/Quincy Jones and replicating it vocally, each voice singing a different instrument/part, resulting in a pure, breathtaking polyphony. A couple of their earliest efforts were arrangements by Peder Karlsson of early Evans’ tunes: ‘Very Early’ and ‘Monica Vals’. Here’s an extensive interview I had with Peder describing the riveting metamorphosis of the group.
And finally – our Song of The Week, our Performance of The Week, our four minutes of heaven of the week: The Real Group performing ‘Monica Vals’, live in Stockholm, 2005. The soloist is the original soprano, Margareta Bengtson, who left the group in 2006.
Scott LaFaro’s bass part written by Peder for Anders Jalkéus; the intricate, marvelous tapestry of Katarina Henryson, Anders Edenroth and Peder – this is as good as it gets. And Margareta’s solo is a simply a wonder of the world. Such precision, such love, such delicate charisma.
Here’s their reunion performance of ‘Monica Vals’ from The Real Group Festival in Stockholm, 2012, which I was blessed to be present at. If you hear someone in the audience crying from utter bliss, that just might be me.
I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know all the members of The Real Group to varying degrees. Some are warm acquaintances, some dear friends. It’s a unique experience for me to know people to whom I both feel close personally and also admire so profoundly as artists.
Hey, Margareta, how are you? When I heard and saw you singing ‘Monica Vals’ this week, in my mind I gave a slight bow and kissed your hand. I don’t know how else to thank you for touching my ears and my mind and my heart so wondrously.
When they say ‘The voice is the only instrument made by God’, this is what they’re referring to. I just can’t imagine anything more perfect.
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124: Bill Evans, ‘Nardis’
096: Bill Evans (solo), ‘Easy To Love’
060: The Bill Evans Trio, ‘Gloria’s Step’ from “Live at The Village Vanguard”