For all the attention paid to his sense of harmony and melody, one could overlook an equally integral aspect to Bill Evans' mastery: he knew how to swing.
For all the attention paid to his sense of harmony and melody, one could overlook an equally integral aspect to Bill Evans' mastery: he knew how to swing. This is what prompted the shift from his innovative work with modal technique back to a post-bop model. Rather than exploring the limits of his modal themes, Evans returned to the more traditional chord progressions of standards. This perceived step backward did not, however, limit Evans from further progress. With Scott Lafaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, Evans' short-lived group expanded the possibilities of a piano jazz trio. Only releasing two studio albums and an essential live date at the Village Vangaurd, the first iteration of the Bill Evans trio gelled quickly and successfully enough to make its lasting mark in an astonishingly short period. Sadly, Lafaro's early death ended this landmark trio just at the height of its power. Explorations, the last studio album recorded by the group, showcases a telepathic harmony between drummer, bassist, and pianist. Rather than simply taking turns soloing, in Evans' trio, the members have the freedom to play improvisational, weaving lines throughout the tunes. This looser space requires each musician's active participation throughout the songs, creating a more inspired and unified sound.
Explorations opens with John Carisi’s “Israel", a minor-blues number originally recorded by Miles Davis for his Birth of the Cool album. Motian’s improvisatory hi-hat lines, along with Evans’ and Lafaro’s joint syncopation introduce the number and the band as an integrated force. The band then dives into a hard swinging rendition of the tune, topping Miles’ prior effort in becoming the definitive version. The soloing found here, and the rest of the album, is tight, rhythmic, and in the best sense, restrained. Evans asserts “Haunted Heart” as a standard with the following track. With Motian and Lafaro’s understated accompaniment and Evans’ open voicings, this is the most space given on the album.
Throughout the album, Evans reinvents numbers that could either be seen as played out or overly sentimental. On tunes like “How Deep Is the Ocean” and “Sweet and Lovely", worn melodies are infused with new life by the melodic and rhythmic approaches the band was perfecting -- the sentimentality is restrained, while the melody is still given room to shine. “Beautiful Love” and “The Boy Next Door", vocal numbers from the '20s are given the same treatment. With “Nardis", the band delves into the Miles Davis songbook, as a showcase for Lafaro’s flexibility; his playing on this track is an album highlight. Acknowledging the band’s unparalleled ability to swing, Explorations reaches its greatest achievement with “Elsa", a gorgeous, romantic ballad that again eschews sentimentality in favor of subdued, introspective exploration. When Evans’ solo piano finds the melody just as Motian’s cymbals and Lafaro’s open bass line enter, an extraordinary level of beauty and emotion is evoked. “Elsa” serves as a peak in the trio’s short catalog.
I applaud the Concord Music Group for their treatment of this material. With their jazz reissues and treatment of the Paul McCartney solo catalog, Concord is emerging as a label of consistent quality. While the bonus cuts appeal to die-hard fans, the quality of the remastering should appeal to all. Loudness war clipping and peaking is nowhere to be found. Rather, a warm, flat transfer allows listeners to hear this great music the way it should be heard. If you already own the audiophile-level XRCD remaster, a new purchase is not necessary. However, if you are looking for your first copy of this landmark album, this reissue succeeds. Along with previously unreleased takes of “How Deep Is the Ocean” and “I Wish I Knew", this edition comes with the original vinyl liner notes as well as new, highly informative notes from Ashley Kahn. In these notes, Kahn posits that hearing Evans’ trio conjures up one of jazz’s greatest “what-if” questions: What if this band was not dismantled at the height of its form? While we will never know how this group would have progressed, jazz fans must remain thankful for the wondrous collaboration of Evans, Motian, and Lafaro -- however briefly. Along with the wonderful album, Portrait in Jazz, which precedes it, Explorations serves as the only in-studio glimpse at Jazz's greatest piano-led trio.