By Mike Zwerin
February 2001 - The piano is the most orchestral of instruments.
It is difficult for improvising pianists to learn to leave out some of
the many notes at their disposal. The power of the sum total of 88
keys becomes a sort of drug, like political power. Miles Davis once
advised addicted piano players to join what he called ''Notes
Anonymous'' - not a program needed by any of the following.
Evans ''The Last Waltz'' (Milestone/Eight CDs): These 65
previously unreleased performances of 32 tunes, standards and
originals, amounts to a recapitulation of Evans's 30-year career.
Included are ''Nardis,'' ''Just a Gigolo,'' ''Waltz For Debbie,''
''Spring Is Here'' and ''Letter to Evan.'' Recorded over eight nights
in the San Francisco club Keystone Korner in September 1980, these
were Evans's final recordings. He knew he was dying and he died a week
later. Like Stan Getz from the Montmartre club in Copenhagen, ''The
Last Waltz'' is a spine-tingling near-death affirmation of life.
long lyrical melody lines, the meticulous attention to form, the modal
improvising, the inventive voicings, the shifting internal harmonies,
the deftly executed gradations of touch on the keyboard, the way he
and his bandmates improvised simultaneously, and the way they could
make the music swing,'' writes the sleeve-note writer Derk Richardson.
It is not possible to listen to Bill Evans too much. The
worst that can be said about him is that sometimes he lacked will, but
not here. New interpretations by Evans of songs in his repertoire are
kind of like new versions of piano compositions by Chopin or Satie -
new takes on classics.
Keith Jarrett ''Whisper Not''
(ECM/Two CDs): With Gary Peacock, bass, and Jack DeJohnette,
drums, the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio, here at the Palais des
Congres in Paris in July 1999, was perhaps the best jazz band of the
nineties. We all know that there is no such thing as ''the best.''
Music is not football, after all. But in that decade, the competition
was either past its prime, green, egotistical or inconsistent and so
this particular ''best'' award turned out to be something of a
Listening to the Standards Trio play
''Poinciana,'' ''Prelude to a Kiss,'' ''Groovin' High'' and 11 others,
you hear an evolution of modernity that makes you happy to be alive in
the modern world. Their swing is elastic to the breaking point.
Melodic and harmonic variations are extended almost to the point of
creating another song. Indeed, another form. The drama of it all can
be nerve-wracking. The Broadway Song Form is not what it used to be.
Thelonious Monk ''The Complete Prestige Recordings''
(Fantasy-Prestige/Three CDs): Focusing on Monk as a sideman (with
Sonny Rollins, for example) and on his early career in general, the
time frame is short, from October 1952 to December 1954. (There are
also four tracks with Coleman Hawkins from 1944.) In the early 1950s,
Thelonious Monk was not yet a household name. It can be called his
''threat'' period. Monk is one unambiguous illustration of the theory
that new ideas go through three stages - the joke, the threat and the
obvious. Other musicians were beginning to be afraid that they had
better learn what he was up to. Starting with being laughed off - and
even physically thrown off - bandstands for playing what turned out to
be the same music that was to end up in conservatories, Carnegie Hall
and on elevators, he is one of our few true geniuses.
the genius is still raw; others are in charge, he struggles, some cuts
are not clean. At times he seems to be hacking a new layer of
minimalism out of the bebop jungle surrounding him. On ''The Man I
Love'' (two takes, one better than the other), he lays back on the
melody about as far as possible without falling down - at the same
time continuing the groove in the original tempo, as anchored by Percy
Heath's bass. Rhythmic alchemy.
On ''Bags Groove'' (two
takes, ditto), Milt Jackson and Miles Davis are at the top of their
dancing, melodic, clarion game. It includes the renowned squeak when
Davis shoves a Harmon mute into his bell in the middle of a solo
without missing an eighth note. Monk does not play one single chord
behind him, not a lick. It was known that the trumpeter, also the
leader here, disliked his comping. And the accompanist did not much
like being a sideman with a former disciple. The clash of egos led to
rumors of a brawl in the studio, which stopped after Monk, a big man,
said: ''Miles'd got killed if he hit me.''
Armstrong, Duke Ellington ''The Great Summit'' (Roulette/Two CDs):
Ellington and Armstrong were by coincidence both in New York
between engagements. Ellington's role is principally songwriter,
Armstrong is comfortable playing and singing his songs. Duke is
content to be the piano player with Armstrong's band, which also
includes Barney Bigard and Trummy Young. In addition to 17 master
takes reissued from two original LPs (CD One, ''Master Takes''), the
producer Michael Cuscuna also unearthed work tapes nobody seems to
have known existed (CD Two, ''The Making Of...''). His editing
provides an insight into the creative process. A good place to be a
fly on the wall.
Mike Zwerin has been
jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last
twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village
Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz
editor of Culturekiosque.com.