Jazz at 100 Hour 53: The Piano Trios – Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal, & Bill Evans

Bill Evans, Paul Motian, Scott LaFaro

While there were influential piano trios in the 1940s (Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Lennie Tristano, or Nat King Cole, for example), the format reached new peaks in the 1950s. In particular, Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans reconceived the format to stress the interplay of three artists, rather than a primary piano soloist with rhythm support. In this hour, we will hear from these pianists and from Erroll Garner, the work of each represented by a legendary live recording – Garner’s 1955 Concert By the Sea, Jamal’s 1958 At The Pershing – But Not For Me and Evans’s 1961 Waltz For Debbie/A Sunday At The Village Vanguard. The three recordings can be heard as a progression.

Erroll Garner.
Before hearing from Jamal and Evans, it is worth noting that the best-selling piano trio of its time was by neither of these artists, but by Erroll Garner, who was a bit of a throwback stylistically. “In fact, it is difficult to pigeonhole Garner as a member of any school. His style was deeply personal, sometimes cranky, never pedestrian. He fought against the constraints of the instrument: at times making the piano sound like a guitar, with his trademark four-to-a-bar strumming chords, or like a drum, employing offbeat bombs in the manner of an Art Blakey, or even like a harp, unleashing Lisztian arpeggios accompanied by a counterpoint of grunts and groans from above. His introductions were pieces in themselves, likely to veer off in any number of directions before honing in on the song in question. – Ted Gioia

“John Coltrane’s line about Stan Getz (“We’d all like to sound like that if we could”) applies emphatically to Garner; no matter how dreamy, rhapsodic, or laggardly his playing may be, it always radiates contagious delight, gaiety, energy, exuberance. Imagine feeling as good for one hour of each day as Garner apparently felt every time he played piano.” – Gary Giddins

“Garner’s most famous album is one of the biggest-selling jazz records ever made. Concert By The Sea doesn’t advertise anything particularly special. It’s just a characteristic set by the trio in an amenable setting. It is full of typical Garner moments like the teasing introduction to ‘I’ll Remember April’ – Garner liked to keep audiences in suspense while he toyed with when to announce the melody –or the flippant blues of ‘Red Top’ and the pell-mell ‘Where Or When’. These find Garner at his most buoyant; but rather more interesting is his well-shaped treatment of ‘How Could You Do A Thing Like That To Me’.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

I’ll Remember April. Erroll Garner Trio
(Erroll Garner-p, Eddie Calhoun-b, Denzil Best-d). From A Concert By The Sea. 9/19/1955

Red Top. Erroll Garner Trio
(Erroll Garner-p, Eddie Calhoun-b, Denzil Best-d). From A Concert By The Sea. 9/19/1955

Where or When. Erroll Garner Trio
(Erroll Garner-p, Eddie Calhoun-b, Denzil Best-d). From A Concert By The Sea. 9/19/1955

How Could You Do A Thing Like That To Me. Erroll Garner Trio
(Erroll Garner-p, Eddie Calhoun-b, Denzil Best-d). From A Concert By The Sea. 9/19/1955

Ahmad Jamal.
“Ahmad Jamal’s sparse, ultracool pianism stands as the antithesis of Garner’s rocking rococo ruminations at the keyboard. And if Garner was a throwback to an earlier era, with his prebop rhythms and traditional sense of swing, Jamal was a harbinger of the future of jazz. His studied use of space influenced Miles Davis and anticipated the later work of Bill Evans. His understated approach led some to dismiss him as essentially a cocktail pianist with little jazz substance…. Jamal’s cardinal sin was apparently the substantial success of his 1958 live recording at Chicago’s Pershing Lounge, But Not for Me, which reached number three on the Billboard album chart, and remained on the list for over two years. The song ‘Poinciana,’ recorded at this engagement, would become Jamal’s signature theme, and effectively conveys the trademark virtues of his sparse, vibrant keyboard attack.” – Ted Gioia

“The charm of Jamal’s music came rather from his ability to maintain the swing, emotional conviction, and mood of his music even when playing the fewest notes. He accomplished this through a mastery of volume and phrasing, outstanding tone control, an orchestral conception of the piano, and an unfailing instinct for how to shape a solo from beginning to end. Yet Jamal’s choice of sidemen also figured into this equation. Drummer Vernel Fournier and bassist Israel Crosby were unsurpassed at swinging while retaining the most subdued dynamic level. Together with Jamal they formed one of the most underappreciated rhythm sections of the 1950s.” – Ted Gioia

“Jamal’s technique has scarcely changed over the years … concentrating on fragile textures and calligraphic melodic statements (the qualities that attracted Miles) rather than the propulsive logic of bebop piano. His reinterpretations of ‘Woody’n’You’ and ‘There Is No Greater Love’ are cool and subtle, their excitements perhaps more intellectual than visceral, but Jamal does convey a very particular energy in his work.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Poinciana. Ahmad Jamal Trio
(Ahmad Jamal-p, Israel Crosby-b, Vernel Fournier-d). From At The Pershing – But Not For Me. 1/16/1958

Woody’n’You. Ahmad Jamal Trio
(Ahmad Jamal-p, Israel Crosby-b, Vernel Fournier-d). From At The Pershing – But Not For Me. 1/16/1958

There Is No Greater Love. Ahmad Jamal Trio
(Ahmad Jamal-p, Israel Crosby-b, Vernel Fournier-d). From At The Pershing – But Not For Me. 1/16/1958

Bill Evans.
Bill Evans “is the most influential figure in piano jazz, his harmonically complex, lyrically intense playing a direct influence on two whole generations of piano-players, his iconic trios the model for slews of similarly configured contemporary groups. The recruitment of 23-year-old Scott LaFaro precipitated one of the finest piano trios ever documented. The bassist’s melodic sensitivity and insinuating sound flowed between Evans and Motian like water … the playing of the three men is so sympathetic that it sets a standard which holds to this day.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Evans, LaFaro and Motian only made two studio recordings (Portrait in Jazz in December 1959 and Explorations in February 1961), before they recorded an evening’s worth of music at the Village Vanguard in June 1961. “Evans’s own playing is elevated by the immediacy of the occasion. His contributions seem all of a piece, lines spreading through and across the melodies and harmonies of the tune, pointing the way towards modality yet retaining the singing, rapturous qualities which the pianist heard in his material. All the Vanguard music is informed by an extra sense of discovery, as if the musicians were suddenly aware of what they were on to and were celebrating the achievement.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

“The two dozen selections recorded that day achieve a telepathic level of group interplay, one in which the line between soloist and accompanist—isolated and distinct in the swing and bop idioms—often blurs and at times totally disappears. The piano work, the bass line, the percussion part weave together in a marvelous, continuous conversation. Such a description might make it seem that the music is busy, filled with content. Nothing could be further from the truth. The marvel was how this music could say so much while leaving so much unsaid. One would struggle to find a jazz recording from the day with a slower tempo than ‘My Foolish Heart,’ yet the performance never lags; indeed, it could serve as a textbook case in how to use space and silence to accentuate the forward momentum of jazz music. Other tracks are equally exemplary: the intimate dialogue between the bass and piano on ‘Some Other Time’ … [or] the pristine beauty of ‘Waltz for Debby’ … A band might rightly be willing to rest its reputation on the basis of a single day’s worth of work when it was a day such as the one the Evans trio enjoyed at the Village Vanguard; alas, as it turned out, that would perforce be the case. Eleven days later, LaFaro died in a car accident. He was only twenty-five years old.” – Ted Gioia

My Foolish Heart. Bill Evans Trio
(Bill Evans-p, Scott LaFaro-b, Paul Motian-d). From Waltz For Debbie. 6/25/1961

Some Other Time. Bill Evans Trio
(Bill Evans-p, Scott LaFaro-b, Paul Motian-d). From Waltz For Debbie. 6/25/1961

Waltz For Debbie. Bill Evans Trio
(Bill Evans-p, Scott LaFaro-b, Paul Motian-d). From Waltz For Debbie. 6/25/1961 (Smithsonian Collection of Jazz Piano)

As our survey of 100 years of jazz recordings moves into the 1960s, we will first turn to Dexter Gordon, who through a series of poor choices, spent most of the 1950s in jail. His parole in 1960 allowed him to return to performing and recording resulting in an extraordinary series of LPs for Blue Note through the 1960s. In the next hour of Jazz at 100, Dexter Gordon featuring his collaborations with pianist Sonny Clark.

Recordings.
Smithsonian Collection of Jazz Piano. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 0391.
Erroll Garner. Concert By The Sea. Columbia CL 883
Ahmad Jamal. At The Pershing – But Not For Me. Argo LP 628
Bill Evans. Waltz for Debbie. Riverside RLP 399

Resources.
Giddins, Gary. 2004. Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of Its Second Century. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 138. Swashbuckler (Erroll Garner)
Gioia, Ted. 2011. The History of Jazz. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 6. Modern Jazz
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books
Erroll Garner. Concert By The Sea
Ahmad Jamal. At The Pershing – But Not For Me
Bill Evans. Waltz for Debbie
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
Chapter 37. Erroll Garner: Concert By The Sea (1955)
Chapter 51. Ahmad Jamal: Cross Country Tour 1958-1961
Chapter 57. Bill Evans: Sunday At The Village Vanguard (1961)

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