Jazz Piano: A Time-Lapse Round-up

For some unknown reason, my recent listening has tacked in the direction of mainstream jazz (although there’s still plenty of avant-garde, jazz/rock fusion and prog in the rotation). If I had to speculate, I’d say I might be looking for less tension and more release during my unobligated time — and for me, jazz offers that release with a cherry on top.

But what’s on offer in the current marketplace is a factor as well. Instead of baking sourdough bread or taking up acoustic guitar during the time of COVID, it’s as if jazz musicians and aficionados have all dug deep in their closets and simultaneously unearthed long lost vintage recordings — which record companies eager to fill their distribution pipelines have snapped up and launched into the wider world. A quintet of fresh releases by five masters of jazz piano serve as both cases in point and a unique, time-lapse look at the art form, from the late 1960s to today.

Currently, California-based Resonance Records is the leading exponent of this approach; in their catalog, veteran producer George Klabin and “jazz detective” Zev Feldman have assembled an impressive swath of previously unavailable live and studio sessions by giants of the genre, ranging from Nat King Cole’s swinging piano and vocal work through Sonny Rollins’ masterful extensions of bebop saxophone to an extraordinary big-band date by trail-blazing fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius. Feldman has also spearheaded a ongoing series of releases led by Bill Evans, whose graceful, innovative approach to jazz piano shaped the beating heart of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, then influenced generations of his peers throughout a fruitful solo career. The latest in this series, Live at Ronnie Scott’s (out November 27 on LP and December 4 on CD) may be Feldman’s best find yet.

Captured during a four-week residency at the legendary London club in July 1968, Evans and his trio partners (bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette, whose archive yielded the unreleased multitrack tape) are simply amazing: in tune with each other at the highest level, fearless and incisive in their approach to Evans originals, bebop classics from Miles and Thelonious Monk and the Great American Songbook. Evans’ reputation stemmed from his elevated, impressionistic lyricism, and there’s heaping helpings of that on display, but there’s also plenty of sheer rhythmic brio (often concentrated in Gomez’s resonant feature spots) and effortless, subtly thrilling swing. Liner notes that include contributions by premier British critic Brian Priestly (in attendance at the moment of creation), Gomez, DeJohnette, Chick Corea and Chevy Chase (!) provide all the context you need if you’re a neophyte in this territory. Expansive, spirited and utterly joyful, a rich blend of Evans’ veteran smarts with Gomez and DeJohnette’s youthful vigor, Live at Ronnie Scott’s really shouldn’t be missed.

Three months later and a continent away, 16-year-old Danny Seller had improbably booked Thelonious Monk’s quartet to play an October 1968 benefit concert at his suburban California high school. Though struggling with a frustrating career slump and serious health issues, the pioneer of modern jazz attracted an interracial audience, then held them spellbound through a simmering, wryly humorous set. Thanks to a enterprising janitor who tuned Monk’s piano in return for permission to record the show, Palo Alto (Impulse/UMG) lets us hear what all the fuss was about. One of the secrets of Monk’s unique appeal was his canny combination of pre-swing pianistic roots with bebop’s rhythmic innovations; the puckish, ragtime-tinged solo take on “Don’t Blame Me” and an oblique yet irresistible quartet version of “Blue Monk” are the highlights here, but every track showcases Monk, saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley locked in and listening hard to each other, channeling the spirits of jazz past and present while egging the audience on and having a ball.

Fast forward to 2010, when Dave Brubeck recorded what turned out to be his final album of solo piano, Lullabies (finally released in November via Verve/UMG), at the age of 90! His view of the repertoire available for the project — Brahms to Tin Pan Alley to Louis Armstrong, laced with plenty of career-spanning originals — was as broad as ever, and occasional snatches of stride piano reveal a bracing commonality with Monk. But as the title would suggest, this is a gentle affair overall; though melodically and harmonically sophisticated as ever, not many of Brubeck’s trademark polyrhythms and block chords are in evidence. Instead, it’s as if you’re eavesdropping on the great man playing in his living room as his kids or grandkids fall asleep in their beds. Though it may not quite be what you might expect, Lullabies is still a very special experience in itself; if you’re in search of something more typical, the upcoming Time Outtakes (the inaugural Brubeck Editions release scheduled for December 4) might be just the ticket.

To go by his prolific at-least-an-album-every-year schedule of the past three decades, Keith Jarrett’s archive of live performances seemed bottomless — but in the wake of his retirement from the concert stage due to multiple strokes, each release may now be more precious than ever. Jarrett reportedly considered titling his 2016 Budapest Concert (ECM) “the gold standard,” and a concentrated listen reveals why; monumental in scope, ringing changes from the first half’s dark, knotty webs of counterpoint to the second half’s spirited free jazz, ballads, bop and blues, this is epic stuff. As always, Jarrett works himself into the grip of a personal muse as he improvises, his groans cutting through in moments of ecstasy or struggle, the committed audience’s silence almost registering as a presence of its own. His unique combination of mysticism and braggadocio might have been off-putting in interviews, his relentlessness could be its own worst enemy at times — still, the man consistently delivered the goods, and Budapest Concert does so in a big, bold way. This may not be the best starter set if you’re coming to Jarrett afresh, but it’s an exceptional distillation of the corner of jazz he carved out for himself.

Contemporary jazz hero Brad Mehldau’s Suite: April 2020 (Nonesuch/WMG; available on Bandcamp) is both the most recent and the most idiosyncratic of this bunch; inhabiting a halfway house between composition and improvisation, between jazz and classical, its throughline is a musical depiction of 24 hours of life during early lockdown. Leaning into a sombre evocation of romantic harmony’s evolution from Frederic Chopin to Arnold Schoenberg, melancholy miniatures such as “remembering before all this” and “yearning” offer consolation without much uplift. But the contrast provided by the Bach-meets-boogie “in the kitchen” and the folk-laced “family harmony” sets up the hard won serenity of the closing “lullaby.” After which Mehldau pulls out the rug from under any remaining sourpusses with spry, whimsical covers of Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” and Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.” As a statement of what jazz piano can be now, it covers all the bases.

(Look for an interview with Resonance Records’ Zev Feldman coming soon!)

— Rick Krueger

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