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Top Jazz Piano CDs

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 4 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.

Bill 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.

''The 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 no-brainer.

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.

Here 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.''

Louis 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.

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