Riffs (second set)

(Quick, unedited stuff for my NEC students who I’m teaching remotely….first set of “Riffs here…)

1. Bill Evans — Stella By Starlight, Peace Piece, Epilogue, Shades of Jade, How Deep is the Ocean

Bill Evans is often celebrated for his creative harmonic sensibility. While at times I wonder if his great stature obscures equally innovative harmonists like Ahmad Jamal and Red Garland, it’s certainly true that Bill was a genius who gave jazz a fresh set of post-bop tools.

The common practice, jam session set of changes to “Stella By Starlight” are notably different than the original harmonies by composer Victor Young. I believe those changes come from the dreamy fox trot Miles Davis recorded with John Coltrane and Bill Evans. Almost certainly Bill made the final choices about what the harmony was going to be, a set of substitutions that at this point are “the way we play the song.”

After accompanying Miles and Trane like a surreal dance band, Bill takes a great half chorus of singing melody, closer to block chords than bebop. It’s a poetic, moody solo. Not really so much blues, although there’s some blues there, but a gentle kind of wistfulness that is almost cinematic.

Miles and Bill both loved the French Impressionists like Debussy and Ravel. The slow E major movement of Ravel’s Concerto in G Major is “modal” and leads straight into late 50s jazz. Miles and Bill listened to Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s new record of the Ravel Concerto when working on the music for Kind of Blue.

Again, cinematic. French music like this is everywhere in the movies: Debussy, Ravel, and Erik Satie’s omnipresent Trois Gymnopédies.

A big influence on the French composers was the Polish genius Frédéric Chopin. A signature Chopin piece is the Berceuse, which is literally a one-bar vamp with “improvised” decoration on top.

Everybody Digs Bill Evans was Bill’s breakout album as a leader. The tracks with Sam Jones and Philly Joe Jones are great — “Young and Foolish” is definitive —  but the two solo pieces “Peace Piece” and “Epilogue” remain exceptionally striking.  As far as I know, “Peace Piece” and “Epilogue” are the first tracks on a jazz piano album to abandon beat and blues entirely. Their references are mostly European.

“Peace Piece” is a dead intersection of a Satie Gymnopédie (the cinematic sound of the harmony) and the Chopin Berceuse (a one-bar vamp with “improvised” decoration on top). At times Bill takes the right hand pretty “out,” perhaps inspired by another important French composer, Olivier Messiaen. (This left hand vamp also turns up in “Flamenco Sketches” on Kind of Blue and an arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time.”)

The very short “Epilogue” is mostly modal and references some ancient melodic idea harmonized in fourths, perhaps as if a Gregorian chant were transcribed for piano. Debussy and Ravel have examples of this kind of sound, but so do many 20th-century composers from all eras and nationalities. Indeed, almost anybody trying to write slow and mysterious “folk music” for concert performance can be in this bag, from Béla Bartók to Samuel Barber to Arvo Pärt.

Keith Jarrett liked to talk about playing and composing a “universal folk music.” If I heard “Epilogue” in a blindfold test, I might guess it was Keith.

Everybody Digs is my personal favorite Bill trio album, but the most celebrated Evans disc is probably Sunday at the Village Vanguard with Scott Lafaro and Paul Motian. Lafaro helped change the game for bassists, and Lafaro’s own pieces “Gloria’s Step” and “Jade Visions” from this album are innovative.

ECM producer Manfred Eicher told me that he loved “Jade Visions.” In hindsight, we can hear this track as one template for the famous ECM sound: Rolling cymbals (Motian later became a key ECM artist), pentatonic bass vamp in 9/8,  luminous slow moving piano harmony. Eicher also complained that they should have never put out the alternate, Take 1.  (Take 2 was on the LP.) Take 1 is faster and jazzier. The point for Eicher was that “Jade Visions” was a way to get away from jazz blowing and more into a mood.

Bill must have agreed, for he chose the material for initial release, and Bill makes a rather major mistake on Take 2, coming into the A-flat minor harmony one beat too early during his solo (at 2’22”).  However it doesn’t matter, the mood is intact.

Bill’s poetic mood remains charismatic. Of course, he was also influential as a tough and swinging jazz pianist. For me, not all of that is as compelling, but it’s certainly part of the canon. Bill’s ideas were so fresh that bits and pieces of his concept turn up everywhere.

A student brought in Chick Corea’s classic Now He Sings, Now He Sobs the other day. Chick did a nice little interview about this disc for Grammy.com. He mentions a lot of names (in general Chick is very good about giving credit)  but he doesn’t cite Bill Evans. I’m sure that’s just happenstance (Chick has done whole albums in tribute to Bill) but “Now He Beats the Drum, Now He Stops” has one of the most explicit references to Bill Evans I know.

After the piano cadenza, “Now He Beats the Drum, Now He Stops” offers deconstructed trio blowing on “How Deep is the Ocean.” Although faster, tougher, and full of McCoy Tyner’s fourth chords, this is the same stream of music Bill Evans gave us with his version of “How Deep is the Ocean” with LaFaro and Motian on Explorations.

Interestingly, Bill doesn’t play the melody until the end, he just jumps in for blowing, which was fairly rare at the time.

As with “Stella By Starlight,” the default harmonization of “How Deep is the Ocean” at a jam session is essentially “Bill Evans’s changes.”

2. Leroy Jenkins, “Space Minds, New Worlds, Survival of America.”

The synthesizer innovator Richard Teitelbaum died this past week. I was lucky to see Teitelbaum at the Village Vanguard in Andrew Cyrille’s quartet with Bill Frisell and Ben Street. That group made an excellent album, The Declaration of Musical Independence. ECM has a long track record of getting the most mellow and ambient work out of avant-garde masters, and The Declaration of Musical Independence continues in this tradition. It’s impossible to imagine a more listenable set of experimental music. Bill Frisell is a perfect choice; Richard Teitelbaum adds just enough crunch; Ben Street is wayward and mysterious.

Avant-garde jazz is important. Very important. There’s a lot I don’t know. One time I asked Craig Taborn to recommend some favorite discs connected to the AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). Craig told me to check out Leroy Jenkins’s 1979 LP, Space Minds, New Worlds, Survival of America.

Our field is not overcrowded with truly inspired violinists. Leroy Jenkins is one of the most fabulous, an artist who blends something really soulful and something really esoteric.

This suite has great playing by avant all-stars including Jenkins, Cyrille, Teitelbaum, Anthony Davis, and George Lewis. However, the real point of the track is the compositional intensity and ingenuity. A powerful first blues tune is enhanced by Teitelbaum’s synthesizer; later episodes feature a hocketing rhythmic matrix, a melancholy drone, and other diverse ostinati. At the end, marching C major thuds forth from the band as Jenkins fervently disagrees.

3. Herbie Hancock, “Succotash” and “What is This Thing Called Love?”

Above I wrote some quick words about about how Bill Evans gave jazz a kind of mood.  Herbie Hancock — who turns 80 today — took that moody Evans harmony and married it with exceptionally advanced rhythm. Most jazz students know the Miles Davis records with Herbie and Herbie’s own ’60s records like Maiden Voyage. With a few exceptions (when Herbie goes into another bag) most of the piano solos on these records essentially refresh the cinematic and moody Bill Evans model and give it more rhythm, blues, virtuosity, and a proper dollop of McCoy Tyner. It’s so impressive that many people regard Herbie Hancock as the greatest modern jazz pianist of them all.

Rhythm evolved alongside with harmony in jazz, perhaps at more or less the same pace. While the harmony comes from Europe, the rhythm comes from Africa. The rhythms arrived in the New World not just on the slave ships but also filtered up though the Latin diaspora.

In American society, fresh rhythms have accompanying social dances. All the ’50s jazz musicians were aware of forms like mambo, cha-cha, and merengue. Herbie Hancock got a big break when Afro-Cuban bandleader Mongo Santamaria recorded Herbie’s blues “Watermelon Man” in 1962. This fabulous track was a major dance hit.

More than most, Hancock has remained attuned to current dance. I remember being eleven years old and watching my friends breakdance to “Rockit” on the playground in the tiny hamlet of Downsville, Wisconsin.

“Rockit” has a strange piece of nerdiness in it. The little blues tune (which is just about the only thing in “Rockit” you could write down with European notation) goes at tempo and then at half-speed, i.e. twice as slow. A European-styled composer would call this technique, “augmentation.” As far as I know, “Rockit” is the only dance hit in history that uses augmentation.

There is definitely a weird and nerdy side to Herbie Hancock. He loves to experiment, not just with sound, but also with gear and everything else. Given a chance to record in a “trio” setting without horns for Blue Note in 1964, Herbie went straight to the lab. Inventions and Dimensions is essentially a set of ostinatos for latin percussion and bass for Herbie to improvise over. In a way, Herbie is consciously studying the potential of repeating rhythm the way Bill Evans studied the potential of repeating harmony in “Peace Piece.”

“Succotash” can be heard in six or four, either way; indeed, one is impossible without the other, as in most Afro-Cuban music. Perhaps Mongo Santamaria’s 1959 hit “Afro Blue” has a similar feel to “Succotash”; at the least, drummer on Inventions and Dimensions, Wille Bobo, was also Santamaria associate.

The two most famous rhythm sections of the ’60s were Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams (with Miles Davis) and McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones (with John Coltrane). Much of the most oblique and exciting rhythmic phrasing in both units connects to Afro-Cuban concepts. On “Succotash” and the rest of Inventions and Dimensions Herbie really spells these connections out, almost like a professor wearing a white lab coat writing equations on blackboard.

The best conventional jazz ever recorded for explicitly cinematic purpose must be the two LPs worth of sensational sessions for Round Midnight. A casual duo of “What is Thing Called Love” with Herbie and Bobby McFerrin is an enjoyable listen. This track is good for jazz students, as Herbie isn’t being anything other a good accompanist. It still sounds like Herbie playing, his personality is clear, but he’s also simply a professional taking care of business.

If you are a jazz piano student, this is my question: “Can you do this? Can you back a good singer in a standard with no bass and drums in a unflustered and unmannered way?”

On lead sheets of “What is This Thing,” the first chord is usually marked G half-diminished. Herbie ignores that. He plays a C ninth. Interesting!  On F minor, Herbie plays F minor 7. This is a real ’60s sound. Most ’60s-era jazz pianists like loved a tonic minor with the seventh, probably to bring in the associated mode and pentatonic scales. A decade earlier, ’50s jazz pianists played a tonic minor with a sixth, a real bebop sound. McCoy Tyner plays both minor sixth and minor seventh. (FWIW — and certainly not worth all that much in the context of Hancock or Tyner — I almost always play a tonic minor with a sixth.)

We often hear somebody say something like, “Herbie Hancock plays so funky.” Certainly true! Part of playing funky is simply knowing a lot of blues licks. Blues licks are not always in fashion any more — in the Bad Plus I made sure never to play a single one, and I hardly ever hear them in the halls of NEC — but when Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock were playing with Miles Davis, blues licks were an essential part of the language. Bill is not always thought of as a bluesy player, but Bill played plenty of blues licks in a swinging context.

On “What is This Thing” with McFerrin, Herbie plays some blues licks, notably a rather extreme one at 2’10”. He’s not improvising at that moment, it’s a proper honking blues lick that damn near changes the genre of the track. I personally wouldn’t have done this at that time, but who I am to judge Herbie Hancock? At any rate, alongside the very idea of playing Cole Porter duo with a singer, this bluesy moment points up a basic building block of the language.  If you’ve never learned any blues licks, now’s the time. They may be harder technically than you expect. Even if you never use them, you should know a few.