It’s been said that if you really want to begin to understand jazz, you should buy Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and then buy the records of everyone who plays on it. I always thought that was pretty sound advice (pun intended), and it was through Kind of Blue that I discovered my absolute love for the music of Bill Evans and John Coltrane. There is a marriage of spirituality and technical brilliance contained in the music of both of these jazz giants, and I really never tire of listening to them.
Eagle Eye Media has recently released tributes to both musicians as part of their DVD twofer reissue series. The first, A Tribute to Bill Evans, comes from a 1991 concert at London’s Brewhouse Theatre and features interpretations of four of Evans’ compositions by Gordon Beck (piano), Stan Sulzmann (saxophone/flute), Dieter Ilg (bass), Tony Oxley (drums), and jazz legend Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, who is as sublime as ever.
While that would seem like a powerhouse line-up on paper, the group never manages to gel cohesively as a unit, and much of the blame lies in the arrangements, which are so un-Evans-like, they border on being disrespectful. Drummer Oxley, who has built his reputation as more of a free jazz drummer, seemingly has no other interest but to hit as many drums, cymbals, and assorted percussion as he can, filling every available musical space to the bursting point. He’s like a bull in a china shop.
Anyone who knows Evans’ music can tell you that it’s all about subtlety and nuance; that what’s not being played is as important as what is. Pianist Beck, who has long been acknowledged as a top practitioner of the Evans style, sounds more like Oscar Peterson in spots, with over-the-top flourishes and showy runs. The entire show is completely puzzling, and one has to wonder what they were going for when they decided on these arrangements. “Waltz for Debbie” is almost unrecognizable and unnecessarily rushed, as is “Blue In Green.” Of course, some creative license must be given to the musicians regarding their interpretations of the songs, but this is supposed to be a “Tribute to Bill Evans.” By completely ignoring his style and sense of timing, it spoils what could have been a great show.
An annoying side note concerning the Bill Evans portion of the DVD: The music and film are out of sync, with the visuals lagging about a second or two behind the audio. It becomes distracting to watch, and it’s amazing to me that no one at Eagle Eye Media noticed it before its release. I would say that this is a DVD to skip, but as disappointing as the Bill Evans tribute is, that’s how good the John Coltrane segment is.
“Live Under The Sky: A Tribute to John Coltrane” is from a 1987 performance at the Yomiuri Land, Open Theatre East in Japan. Wayne Shorter heads an all-star line-up that, oddly enough, features two men who helped shape the music of Bill Evans; Eddie Gomez was Evans’ bassist for eleven years (1966-77), and Jack DeJohnette drummed in one of Evans’ trios briefly. One can’t help but wonder how much better the Bill Evans tribute segment would have been with the inclusion of Gomez and DeJohnette, two musicians who had a complete understanding of the man and his music.
That said, Evans’ loss is Coltrane’s gain. Gomez and DeJohnette form a rock-solid rhythm section, anchoring some of Coltrane’s most difficult works, and simultaneously adding muscle and grace to some impressive re-workings of Coltrane’s already ambitious arrangements. With the dual soprano sax attack of Shorter and Dave Liebman, plus the efforts of pianist Richie Beirach, the quintet tackles four of ‘Trane’s compositions: “Mr. P.C.”, “After The Rain/Naima”, “India”, and “Impressions.”
There is a natural chemistry at work here, and the musicians compliment each other nicely, especially Shorter and Liebman, whose symbiosis is utterly amazing. Both players compliment each other so well, with Shorter being the direct descendent of Coltrane’s style and Liebman representing the generation of players that came straight after. This is not to say that both men are chained to Coltrane’s influence, they’re certainly not, but each uses Coltrane as a reference point while adding something completely original to the arrangements. Their interplay during the program is great to listen to and fun to watch, as it’s clear they have nothing but the highest regard for each other.
Another high point of the show is the duet of Liebman and Bierach on “After the Rain/Naima.” Both of these musicians know each other so well, and play as if they are one entity. In many ways, their renditions of these tunes utilize what made Coltrane and also Bill Evans such effective artists: The use of abstract voicings within a somewhat traditional jazz structure. It’s another example of how the Coltrane program is head and shoulders above the Evans tribute. Everything feels completely natural, and it’s obvious how in-sync the musicians. Given that they were only together for a brief time, it makes the success of their Coltrane show all the more impressive. It makes you wish they had played and recorded more as a group.
While I wouldn’t recommend purchasing the DVD for the Bill Evans’ tribute alone, the inclusion of the Coltrane tribute program more than justifies owning this DVD, as it’s that good. There’s not much in the way of bonus features offered here, but there is a decent, albeit brief interview with Wayne Shorter about Coltrane, biographical material on the players involved and songs featured, and on-screen notes about the concerts.