This last week saw the release of Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez and Paul Motian’s “Further Explorations“, a tribute of sorts to piano great Bill Evans with two alumni of Evans’ groups. As tributes go, it’s pretty good, in no small part I think because it’s only sometimes a tribute and as often as not it’s own album. As a pianist who’s had a lasting impact on the language jazz, Bill Evans has had no shortage of tribute, and we, the listening public, have never wanted for mediocre takes on ‘Waltz for Debby’ as a result. This album may not be truly groundbreaking, neither my favorite of Chick’s nor of Paul’s albums, but it has a sound its own and more than a few interesting moments.
This was basically a pickup band for two weeks at the Bluenote in early 2010, but the pieces fit together pretty well, which is not always a guarantee when people with as idiosyncratic a bent as Paul Motian or Eddie Gomez are put together. Strike of luck that they aren’t stepping on each other’s toes but actually give each other just the right amount of space. Ethan Iverson’s wonderful tribute to Paul Motian has a section which discusses Paul’s personal reminiscences to Ethan, some of which are in regards to Bill Evans. Paul, it seems, tried to get Bill to hire ‘earthier’ bassists, while Bill largely refused. Eddie Gomez, Bill’s bassist for many years, does not have what you would describe as a particularly ‘earthy’ sound. I have mixed feelings about Eddie; he has undeniable technical prowess, but so often his work sounds sort of dry and flat to me. And he is a wordy player; it’s a sound that doesn’t always play well with others. Paul Motian, despite his own proclivity to earthy bass players (see long time partner Charlie Haden) has a sound that is open and spacy enough to actually accommodate Eddie. Chick too knows how to work with Eddie, offering him counterpoint rather than chord-filled comping. Times during Eddie’s solo on the second track, “Gloria’s Step” sound almost like Eddie and Chick trading solo space. It’s the only way to work with someone as constantly active as Eddie and it works well. All in all, a fine album. Not the essential album, perhaps, but the Motian solo on ‘Hot House’ is worth the price of admission alone.
The set list contains a handful of Evan’s tunes (‘Peri’s Scope’, ‘Very Early’), or tunes that become associated with Evan’s like LaFaro’s ‘Gloria’s Step’, a handful of standards and a few original compositions. Just looking at the tracks, you might not guess it was meant to be a Bill Evans tribute; sure, there are a few Evans tunes, but there are just as many ones with no connection to Evans that I recognize. Is Monk’s ‘Little Rootie Tootie’ somehow associated with Bill? Or the bebop classic “Hot House”? Chick provides a tune entitled “Bill Evans”, which is clear enough tribute, but most of the other original songs don’t seem to be particularly Evan’s inspired. Corea also contributes “Another Tango” and I can’t remember ever hearing an Evans tango on record. (To be sure, these things may exist, but I haven’t heard them.) Motian contributes “Mode VI”, which he has recorded before. The liner notes tell us that Eddie’s contribution, “Puccini’s Walk”, is after Eddie’s dog. All in all, it’s sort of a wacky set list for what is ostensibly a tribute. Which brings me to the main impetus for reviewing this album: why I dislike tribute albums and how this album avoids the usual traps that such albums fall into.
As a rule, I don’t like tribute albums. Jazz has a long and varied tradition to draw from, and I’m all for drawing from it. I don’t mind hearing new artists tackle standards, actually I rather enjoy seeing the way different artist tread familiar ground in different ways, but a tribute album is a slightly different beast than the occasional standard (or even sets comprised of nothing but standards). My problem is that tribute albums tend to, quite frankly, not be any good because the musicians involved are trying too hard to force the tendencies idiomatic to the subject into their music or choose the blandest representation of their subject that least confines them. Everyone learns from those who came before and, mostly unconsciously I suspect, incorporates that part of the tradition into their own playing, but when people either try to change their playing to fit the subject or gerrymander their own brand of playing into music that isn’t really suited for it, things get dangerous. As an example, I’ll bring the root of probably the worst tributes and rehashes in the history of jazz: the music of Thelonious Monk.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Monk and no small part of the brilliance of Monk’s music was his spectacular compositions. That having been said, if the greatest piece of jazz ever set in wax might be a Monk tune, it’s equally likely that the worst piece of jazz ever set in wax is a cover of a Monk tune. Monk’s compositions are the most maltreated pieces of music in the modern era, abused more regularly than any other composer I can think of. How do compositions universally acknowledge to be excellent turn in to such awful pieces of music? I think there are two main problems. First, musicians who can’t really speak Monk’s language will play Monk as any other standard and the results generally sound sort of flat. Or, the exact opposite problem is the case, a musician will try their utmost to sound like Monk and fail, because let’s face it, there’s only one Monk. The key to playing a Monk tune is to understand exactly how much of Monk’s idiomatic language can be used without trying to be Monk himself.
Monk loved the blues, so it sort of makes sense that someone aiming at paying tribute to Monk might want to play one his many blueses, but I’m not sure I really understand that tendency. I’ve lost count of how many renditions of ‘Blue Monk’ I’ve heard. More than I could possibly care to remember. What is the fascination with that song? It’s just a blues, not even Monk’s most interesting blues at that. (Nor, for that matter, is it a particularly good vehicle for showcasing Monk’s idiosyncratic sense of harmony and rhythm.) It’s become the Monk standard by default, I think, because even someone who can’t really utilize Monks very idiosyncratic language can handle the friendliest looking of his blueses. More often than not, it isn’t even played with eye to the Monk aesthetic, it’s just played like any other blues. Why bother. A totally straight rendition of ‘Blue Monk’ or ‘Straight No Chaser’ is basically guaranteed to disappoint. Quite frankly, the same goes for ‘Round Midnight’. How can Monk songs be that bland?
The (small) handful of Monk tributes that are actually enjoyable are very telling in this regard. Probably my favorite Monk tribute (well, half tribute I suppose) is Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band’s “Play Monk and Powell“. The Monk material on the EBB disc works so well for a number of reasons. First, there’s the choice of material. Rather than another plodding rendition of ‘Blue Monk’ or ‘Round Midnight’, we get a spectacular take on ‘Brilliant Corners’, coincidentally, my favorite Monk tune. It has everything you like in Monk, the quirky sense of harmony and rhythm, compounded by the strange 30-bar form which alternates between dirge-speed and double time. (That also made it a relatively hard tune to navigate in the days before weird time signatures were everywhere. Robin G Kelley’s wonderful Monk biography relates some stories of the recording of the original, which include drummer Max Roach repeatedly getting lost in the form. Can you believe it? Max Roach.) You can’t just walk through ‘Brilliant Corners’ in the way that can walk through ‘Blue Monk’. ‘Brilliant Corners’ is a song that demands your attention, whether as listener or musician.
Besides just choosing worthwhile material, Motian also grapples with it in an interesting way. The Electric Bebop Band is not your average Monk tribute. Two guitars, fuzzed out electric bass, two saxophones…. no piano! It doesn’t sound like anything other than a Paul Motian album. And thank god, because it turned out great. Again pulling from Ethan Iverson’s Paul Motian tribute post, Paul Motian apparently learned a bit from Monk (which is not surprising really), and so one can kind of hear Monk in a lot of what Motian does. Yet, for all the influences Motian had, he only ever approached the music he played on his terms. He did not do half-assed tributes. Maybe that’s too high a bar to set for your average tribute album, that it be like Paul Motian’s, but Motian’s success in this case is only partly due to his superior ability; it’s also a matter of approach.
At first glance, I had my doubts about ‘Further Explorations’ but it managed to avoid the worst of tribute-syndrome. Much of the time, it doesn’t even really read as an Evans’ inspired package, hell, Evans’ name isn’t actually on the cover, just ‘Further Explorations’ which suggests a much broader approach than the average tribute. While I’m still not quite sold on Eddie, it’s not an un-enjoyable package.