In jazz, tribute performances like this one by the Montgomery/Okada/Smith Trio are considerably trickier propositions than those of rock 'n' roll tribute bands. The latter merely call for slavish imitation and are judged by how well they clone the original. In jazz, however, they are judged instead by how successfully an artist brings his or her own vision to the music while staying true to the spirit of the original.
William Montgomery brings both credentials and chops to this Evans homage. The list of illustrious teachers under whom he has studied is itself a veritable who's who of jazz piano. Moreover, he took occasional master classes from Evans himself and as a graduate student played in jazz ensembles directed by Chuck Israels.
In the liner notes, Montgomery recalls having seen Evans' penultimate performances in San Francisco and his disappointment in New York the following week when "it was already too late" to see him again. Montgomery (aka "Monchan") lived in Japan for many years, taught at the prestigious Kunitachi College of Music, and still resides in Kobe part-time. Like Keith Jarrett, Montgomery, born in Germany and now a Seattle native, has found a home away from home in Japan, where this live recording was made on September 15, 1995 to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of Evans' death.
Montgomery's introductory passage in "Nardis" has a distinctly Japanese tonality, employing parallel fourths and fifths to create a leitmotif that's both unique and context-appropriate. The Japanese undertones also extend to Montgomery's sidemenTsutomu Okada, considered one of Japan's premier bassists, and drummer Jimmie Smith, a long-time expatriate resident of that country.
The trademark Evans spontaneity is respected here. With no studio edits, the recording exactly reflects the concert. Rather than working things out in advance, Montgomery tells us, they played "by the seat of their pants." Sounding a lot like Evans, he writes that "no one was playing it safe, but rather taking risks, allowing the opportunity for the unexpected," resulting in "perhaps a less polished performance, but one that only a live recording in an intimate setting allows."
This recording features a nice range of selections, including some of Evans' less frequently covered tunes. Appropriately enough, the ensemble leads off with "Interplay," a term that refers to a key element of Evans' conception of the piano trio. It features a strong solo by Okada, who shows great touch, tone and taste throughout while never overplaying. "On Green Dolphin Street," "Nardis" and "Interplay" all feature Smith stretching out nicely with solos demonstrating exuberance, subtlety and polish.
Happily, Montgomery also avoids the risk of over-earnest worshipfulness inherent in such projects and does justice to Evans' wit and humor, notably on "One for Helen" and "Five," where he displays a Monk-ish splay-thumbed playfulness. Along with his obvious mastery of Evans' signature riffs and devices, Montgomery's gentle swing, crystalline touch in the high register, and resonant harmonic voicings all testify that he is well qualified to carry on the tradition and spirit of Bill Evans.