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DVD/Video/Film Reviews

Three From Rhapsody Films featuring Bill Evans and Jim Hall

By Published: November 9, 2004
With praise coming from sources as diverse as Dan Morgenstern, Clint Eastwood and Richard Pena, Bruce Rickert's Rhapsody Films is rapidly making a name for itself as an imprint devoted to reissuing some of the more important archival jazz, blues and world music releases, originally only available on video, on DVD format. While some of their titles are currently still only available in VHS, it's but a matter of time before they've digitized their entire collection, and that's good news for collectors who have worn down their old tapes, and better news for newcomers who are looking for the opportunity to watch artists including Bill Evans, Dexter Gordon, Elvin Jones and others who, having sadly passed, can only be seen through such archival recordings. Amongst the more recent DVD issues are two releases by Bill Evans and one by Jim Hall.

The Bill Evans Trio
Jazz at the Maintenance Shop 1979: The Newly Released Encore Performances
Rhapsody Films

Bill Evans (piano), Marc Johnson (bass), Joe La Barbera (drums)

With the hindsight of twenty years honing a piano trio format which was innovative in its sheer equality of division of role between piano, bass and drums, and with a history that included some of jazz's most intuitive of players - bassists Scott LaFaro and Eddy Gomez, drummers Paul Motian and Jack DeJohnette to name but a few - it was Bill Evans's final trio, featuring a young Marc Johnson on bass and Joe La Barbera on drums, that was arguably his most fully-realized. As more live recordings of this relatively short-lived trio become available, it becomes clear that Johnson and La Barbera may well be the most sympathetic players Evans ever worked with; in particular Johnson who, while still in his 20s, was already demonstrating the dexterity, innovation and paradoxically muscular yet delicate touch that would make him one of the most in demand bassists in subsequent years with artists including John Abercrombie, John Scofield and Charles Lloyd.

Jazz at the Maintenance Shop 1979: The Newly Released Encore Performances is a companion to the original Maintenance Shop show that was broadcast on PBS television in the late '70s. The original release suffered slightly from a somewhat cantankerous Evans, who complained of sound problems throughout the performance. This release of additional performances from the same recording is more straightforward, with Evans only speaking briefly to introduce the songs, letting the music speak for itself, with Evans in a slightly more congenial, if still introspective and self-absorbed mood. It's hard to believe, in fact, when watching these three players who seem to never make eye contact, that the level of interplay and interaction is so high, but it is.

The program consists of a number of Evans staples including "34 Skidoo," "Gary's Theme" and "Someday My Prince Will Come" — most receiving somewhat shorter than usual treatments, perhaps in order to fit more tunes into the one-hour television broadcast format, but the gem of the performance is the more extended finale, "Nardis," which was a staple of Evans' for many years but seemed to receive its most vivid interpretation at the hands of this particular trio. More a series of interconnected solos than an ensemble piece, it demonstrates that "going for it" in music doesn't have to sacrifice subtlety and grace.

As remarkable as the performance is, the sound and camerawork, especially for the time, is outstanding. A number of cameras put you in the centre of the action, with the close-ups of Evans' hands being, possibly, the most interesting shots as they reveal his complete confidence. Evans was always a step ahead of himself; his thematic ideas developing with a purity of intent, and watching him play - seemingly combining a sense of abandon with complete control - is an interesting exercise in contrast. Johnson's seemingly endless ideas, combined with a rich sense of swing, are captured and conveyed perfectly.

Now if only Rhapsody will release the original Maintenance Shop recording; warts and all, combined with Jazz at the Maintenance Shop 1979: The Newly Released Encore Performances the two companion pieces demonstrate Evans, near the end of his life, making some of the most creative and sharp music of his career.

Bill Evans
The Universal Mind of Bill Evans
Rhapsody Films

Bill Evans believed that "all people are in possession of a universal musical mind that speaks to all people," and that how this mind manifests itself in terms of musical taste has more to do with conditioning and exposure to culture and style than anything else. Clearly as much a thinker and philosopher as he was a pianist and composer, some of Evans' most cogent thoughts on the subject of music in general and jazz in particular, were captured in a '66 television program hosted by Steve Allen that featured, in addition to some interesting comments by Allen, a lengthy interview of Evans by his own brother Harry, also a pianist and teacher at a music college in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The documentary is of value to musicians and non-musicians alike, as it not only gives some insight into the inner thoughts of one of jazz's most influential pianists, but through example, some very specific means of describing the process of improvisation.

Evans, for one thing, asserts that jazz is less a style and more a process, a continuation of music from the 1700s and 1800s, where music was also improvised, but committed to paper because there were no other means available. What started out as merely a method to "permanize" music, as Evans put it, became a confiner as artists began to put more effort into the process of documenting the music than the spontaneous creation of the music itself. Rather than the music being about creating "one minute of music in one minute's time," it became more about the "creation of one minute of music in sometimes as much as three months time." Jazz represents a return to the spontaneity of artists like Bach and Chopin, whom Evans asserts were jazz musicians in a way, if one is to use the concept of spontaneity, of improvisation, as the defining factor.

But it gets more complicated than that, of course. How does one deconstruct the kind of complex harmonic, rhythmic and melodic invention that advanced musical improvisers like Evans do, into components and concepts that can gradually be acquired and honed? By taking the tune "Star Eyes" and demonstrating the simple melody, adding basic harmony, and then gradually developing more advanced solo on top, it is possible to see how one can evolve a complex improvisation from the roots of a relatively straightforward tune.

One of the most important things that Evans discusses during the course of this 50-minute show, is the concept that jazz education needs to be more free in encouraging people to make their own choices. This is a particularly interesting statement considering the state of jazz education today where, while there certainly are artists who promote the concept of personal choice, all too often there is a cookie- cutter approach to teaching students, the result being players who are well-versed in the mechanics of the language, but have no real musical personality. Evans talks about the joy of self-discovery that is endemic to the jazz process, and these are words that any student of music should take very seriously indeed.

While the show, recorded in black and white, contains a number of things that date it, the concepts that Evans promotes are, indeed, both universal and timeless. The Univeral Mind of Bill Evans is an important look into the mind of a great improviser, and asserts that jazz transcends mere style and, instead, is a process that has to do with the spontaneous and real-time creation of music becoming, therefore, a more wide-reaching concept than many people would attribute. Thought-provoking and entertaining, The Universal Mind of Bill Evans should be required viewing for students and fans alike.

Jim Hall
A Life in Progress
Rhapsody Films

Featuring Jim Hall (guitar), Pat Metheny (guitar), Scott Colley (bass), Terry Clarke (drums), Tom Harrell (flugelhorn), Lew Soloff (trumpet), Joe Lovano (clarinet, soprano saxophone), Sonny Rollins (tenor saxophone), Chico Hamilton (drums), Frank Katz (cello), Jimmy Giuffre (tenor saxophone and clarinet), and many more.

Recorded during the sessions that produced Jim Hall's '98 record, By Arrangement , A Life in Progress demonstrates why, as Pat Metheny put it, Hall is the true father of modern jazz guitar. With a deceptively simple melodic approach that balances style and substance, Hall has always been the thinking person's guitarist; yet for all his care and apparent control - characteristics which also explain why he's long been considered the Bill Evans of the guitar — he's also a deeply emotional player, one for whom one well-placed note spells out volumes.

That Hall, in the latter stages of his life, has created some of his most challenging and, ultimately, enduring work is a testimony to the concept that true artists have the humility to realize there is always somewhere new to go, something new to learn. While Hall, in his early days, was thought of more as a guitarist, his work of the past ten years establishes him firmly as a composer/arranger, no surprise considering he had a solid musical education before setting forth to immerse himself in the jazz idiom. While, at the age of 74, one hopes that he still has many more years ahead of him, he has already accomplished more than most, in terms of being a compleat musician.

The documentary features fascinating footage of the recording process, with artists including Greg Osby, Joe Lovano, Terry Clarke, Tom Harrell and, of course, Pat Metheny, whose lineage to Hall is firmly established while, at the same time, demonstrating the same kind of creative drive to move the instrument and art forward in a highly personal way. Watching how Hall chooses, for example, to blend violas and celli into a darker texture than normally encountered in "with strings" projects, demonstrates just how unique Hall's conception is.

Interviews with Nat Hentoff, John Lewis and Chico Hamilton help paint a portrait of Hall as an unassuming man who is sure-footed in his conception, committed to his craft, yet humble enough to recognize the confluence of good fortune and talent that brings him to where he is today. Archival footage of Hall playing with Sonny Rollins, Chico Hamilton and Jimmy Giuffre show that, while Hall's talents have obviously evolved over the years, his personal vision was clear from the very earliest days.

What is, perhaps, most remarkable about the documentary is how virtually everyone interviewed sees Hall as a major innovator in modern jazz. This quiet, charming and wryly humorous man, through a life of dedication and constant work, has moved the art forward with subtlety and a complete lack of drama. An engaging person, Hall demonstrates that you don't have to be a "personality" to have personality, both as a human being and as an artist. Without any of the melodrama that has peppered the lives of many of the artists he grew up around, Hall has simply emerged without fanfare as arguably the most broadly influential guitarist of the past fifty years. A Life in Progress , with the same kind of honesty and lack of pretension that describes the man, paints a portrait of an artist whose contribution to music will be considered alongside the innovations of Evans, Davis and Coltrane.

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