The opening strains of this classic Riverside album are pure-pure delicacy that could only come from the fingers of Bill Evans. His chiming piano, playing the original “Waltz for Debby”, is something that brings to mind a particular kind of jazz—intimate, sweet, contemplative. Then, 1:07 in, Percy Heath’s bass burbles downward and Connie Kay’s brushes start working against a snare—and the ripe sound of Cannonball Adderley’s alto sax just pops into the tune. Yummmmm.
This tune alone—the most swinging of all the “Debby”s ever recorded and one that is my all-time favorite example of a waltz suddenly busting into swinging 4/4—makes Know What I Mean? a classic, must-have jazz album. But it’s hardly the only delicious nugget.
Of course, Adderley and Evans were a tasty combination going back a few years to their joint membership in the late-‘50s Miles Davis Sextet, the group that recorded Kind of Blue. In that group, Evans was the shimmering and introspective impressionist and Adderley was the down home bluesman. But neither musician is properly pigeon-holed that way. Evans could play fast tempos with aplomb and swung ferociously. Adderley loved a ballad. But still, the combination always had a sugar-and-spice logic to it. Cannonball could never resist digging down for a raspy blues tone, and Evans made things pretty and open at every tempo. The pairing was a strong marriage of contrasts.
“Nancy (With the Laughing Face)”, a classic ballad of the period, certainly exhibits exceptional sympathy between the leaders. Evans is gently compelling, creating a solo at the high end of his instrument while “strumming” the chords with his left hand. Adderley’s statement of the theme is ripe and flavorful—a simple statement punctuated by slice-and-dice runs that add plenty of soul. “Goodbye” achieves a similar balance, with Adderley tender but soulful and Evans crafting not just a piano part in accompaniment, but really an orchestration for two hands. When Evans solos with the trio, however, the soul doesn’t disappear. These guys rubbed off on each other.
The up-tempo numbers may be even better. “Who Cares?” is more directly in Adderley’s bag, allowing him to grab that rough tone at the bottom of this range and to turn one chorus into the next with great momentum. The whole band cooks like mad as Adderley spins his web, and then Kay and Heath keep things on a brisk version of simmer while Evans continues, syncopated and interesting. “Toy”, a sprightly theme by the underrated Clifford Jordan, is playful and absolute joy.
One the most interesting tracks here is another Evans original, the title track “Know What I Mean?” It begins as a classic Evans modal ballad, with Adderley at home while playing flutters against a set of scales, then it leads to a whispered piano solo in that mode. At the mid-point, however, Kay sets up a jagged Latin groove for Cannonball’s solo, shifting gears into straight 4/4 swing only to find Evans soloing over the bolder groove as well. The shift back to brushes and ballad tempo is sudden and dramatic.
Most intriguing then, is the alternate take of this tune included on this reissue. This unused take moves into the groove section much sooner and finds Adderley stretching out more expansively and then re-entering over the groove just as the rhythm section switches into a bit of double-time 12/8. Clearly the band was fooling around with this arrangement in the studio, and it’s great to hear part of the creative process here—with the unused take making more sense, I think, of this shape-shifting tune.
The outtake of “Toy” has a less successful introduction, perhaps, with the track still oozing exuberance. “Who Cares?” also gets a second version here. They’re all worth your time, particularly if you know the original album well. With musicians as fine as these, the notion of a poor take almost seems absurd.
Looking back on Know What I Mean?, it is easy to romanticize an entire era of great jazz recordings. During the early 1960s, jazz’s original masters were still alive and recording, yet at least two other generations of masters were in the game. Artists led recording dates, but the great ones also collaborated in genuine and equal ways. The turbulent days of free jazz and then rock-influenced jazz were in the future, and it seems like every musician spoke in a similar tongue.
Of course, it wasn’t really that ideal, with “moldy figs” in bitter arguments with modernists, for example. But still, a music world in which the likes of Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley were getting together to create music this effortless and fluid is easy to dream about in fantastic ways. This was—and remains—a fine and classic jazz album. If you don’t know it, then get yourself back to the past and get listening.