Bill's Waltz, bassist Gene Perla's well-executed tribute to his former boss, drummer Elvin Jones, is one of those albums that could only exist in this modern world of digital recording techniques and studio trickeryand therein lies the rub. Many jazz listeners are conservative in their conception of what recorded jazz is and how it should be made. To these listeners, jazz should be recorded live in the studio directly to two-track tape (just like Rudy Van Gelder did it). After all, such listeners assert, how can jazz's integrity as an improvisational form be maintained if musicians aren't playing in each other's presence, allowing them to play off of one another? These objections were raisedquite strenuously in some caseswith the release of Ray Charles Sings, Count Basie Swings (Concord, 2006). Many listeners were outraged, to put it mildly. Archival Ray Charles vocals overdubbed by the current Basie ghost band?
Imagine, then, how some listeners will feel when confronted with Bill's Waltz, an album that reunites bassist Gene Perla with the late, great Elvin Jones (as well as deceased Latin percussionist, Don Alias, for two tracks)? Even worse, how will those listeners react when the album turns out to be pretty remarkable?
As related in his liner-notes, Perla recorded the basic tracks with Jones in the fall of 1986 (with Perla on Fender Rhodes). His intention had been to orchestrate the entire album himself using MIDI and playing all the parts. Alias was later brought in to add congas to two Latin tunes. Flashing forward twenty years or so, Perla played some prelimiary tracks for drummer Danny Gottlieb, who suggested that Perla have the NDR Big Band (of Hamburg, Germany) play along with Jones's original tracks. Perla recorded some bass parts in 2007 and went to work with the band for five days, resulting in a Firewire hard drive loaded with Protools files which Perla and engineer Nick de la Motte set to work editing and mixing.
All well and good, some might say, but how does it sound? In a word: remarkable. The original 1986 recordings of Jones have been seamlessly integrated into the big band setting recorded more than two decades later. And Jones is in top form, producing his patented polyrhythms all over the place. The NDR band is fantastic, creating a provocative multilayered sound that manages not to overwhelm the work of the rhythm section. Perla himself steers the entire proceeding from the rear, everpresent but never overbearing (some consider this a defining mark of a truly great bassist). Soloists are not singled out in the notes, but everyone acquits himself admirably (one example is a particularly fine flute solo on "Eclipse"). Perla notes in the liners that Jones had more than once expressed his desire to work with a big band, and it is indeed wonderful to hear him in this setting.
But what of the improvisational spirit of jazz? How can an ensemble, however talented, interact with a prerecorded drum track? Here's a possible answer. One of the essential tenents of improv is saying "yes, and..." to a fellow performer's offer. In other words, the improvisor agrees with the offer and adds his or her own unique contribution. On the 1986 tracks, Jones is making plenty of offers and the 2007 ensemble is saying "yes, and..." to each of those offers. This is the very essence of improv. And it makes really tremendous music.
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