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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.

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