No Stinking Badges
by Chris Kelsey
The first time I heard someone refer to “The Jazz Police,” it was the 1980s and I was a music-school undergrad. I didn’t exactly get it then, but I did before long, and over the ensuing decades, the peculiar aptness of the term would be pounded home again and again. It seemed everywhere you looked there was a self-deputized commissar ready to exile heretics to the gulag for diverging from party dogma. “Hey comrade lead alto player,” they’d say in Robin Williams’s voice from the film Moscow on the Hudson, “you’re not using enough vibrato on ‘April in Paris.’” “Hey comrade drummer, you must use brushes on ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” “Hey comrade trumpet player, when you play ‘Perdido’ you must not sound like Lester Bowie.”
Thank God things have changed. Heh-heh. Yeah, right.
It’s true that their authority has been diminished by, among other things, the splintering of jazz into infinite sub-genres (thank you/curse you, Internet), but the Jazz Police are still around. And while they’ve largely been shamed into living something of an underground existence, I suspect Pat Hall’s desecration of the Sacred Texts of St. William of the Brylcreemed ‘Do may be enough to inspire some of them to blow their cover. I can hear them now, faces reddening, eyes popping behind horn rims, rubber-gloved paws gently clutching a virgin vinyl copy of Everyone Digs Bill Evans: “You’re doing it wrong! You’re doing it … (wheeze, gasp) … WRONG!”
Some jazz musicians inspire such slavish devotion that their oeuvre becomes inviolable, something not to be interpreted but rather worshipped, something so precious that any stylistic deviation is akin to heresy. Bill Evans is that type of musician: a supremely gifted artist, certainly, but someone whose creative contribution is occasionally threatened to be subsumed by the slavering reverence bestowed on him as a jazz icon.
In a sense then, Pat Hall’s unconventional essaying of compositions by Evans can be seen as an act of almost quixotic bravery. Bill Evans’ compositions re-imagined for a band led by a trombonist – and with the keyboard chair occupied by a Hammond organist, no less! Were the fictional barrister Jackie Chiles an Evans-o-phile, he might call such an endeavor “seditious, pernicious, avaricious … inauspicious!”
Pat’s setting himself up for boatload of grief, no doubt. Only it’s like this …
Pat is like the “Everybody” in the album title. He digs Bill Evans. Digs, but doesn’t worship, in the same way that it’s possible to love one’s parent but not want to live life the same way or make the exact same choices.
Evans touched Pat on a deep level when he was in the early stages of becoming the mature, eminently soulful and inventive trombonist you hear on this recording. Yet as the years passed, Pat accumulated other influences and experiences. Some examples: He recorded an album of Ornette Coleman tunes, experimented with combining abstract computer music and live acoustic instruments, played more than his share of bebop, and – like so many New York trombonists worth their salt – played in many a salsa band. In addition, Pat was Downtown when there actually was a Downtown. He’s played in every conceivable bag and absorbed something from every one, combining them with a probing intellect and a desire to make manifest the music inside him. Perhaps most importantly, he’s given sway to a deep sense of adventure. The latter quality – the eternal question “What if?” burning inside the minds of the most creative of artists – is the quality that, to me, defines his mid-career encounter with the music of one his first and greatest inspirations.
Or maybe the question should be “Why not?” As in, why not play Bill Evans tunes on the trombone? Why can’t a jazz musician take a certain aspect of another’s work (in this case, Evans’s ingenious compositions), ignore others (the cool perfection and nearly-European/Classical approach Evans took to his own music), and add other elements (here: extroverted swing, soul, and grit), thus recasting his model in radically different terms?
Why not, indeed. Pat’s done it. He’s substituted overt passion for Evans’s quiet reserve, impulsive chance-taking for the pianist’s crystalline perfection. In place of the classic piano trio instrumentation so closely-associated with Evans, he’s used something nearly it’s polar opposite.
I would argue that such changes are inevitable if one is to pay tribute to so inimitable an artist. The ratio of the total number of pianist-led Evans tributes to those anyone remembers is roughly the same as the total number of major league baseball players to those who married Marilyn Monroe. Just as there was only one Joe Dimaggio, there was only one Bill Evans.
Repurposing Evans, as Pat does, is another matter. The absence of a pianist removes the urge to compare and contrast – a superficial, distracting practice. Without it, we’re more inclined to accept the recording on its own terms. Further, we’re able to enjoy the compositions themselves on their own unique merits. By interpreting the compositions from a fundamentally different – even oppositional – perspective, we focus on qualities removed from the composer’s personality as an improviser and bandleader. Ultimately, the endeavor becomes less a tribute to a jazz icon (fraught, as such things always are, with all manner of extra-musical baggage) and more an extension of his legacy.
No veteran jazz musician will be surprised that a composition like “Peri’s Scope” can withstand the aggressive treatment given it by Pat, organist Greg Lewis, guitarist Marvin Sewell, and drummer Mike Campenni; it’s a fake book staple, played at many a jam session. To hear an entire set of these tunes in this setting, however, demonstrates just how great they are. Evans’s sense of harmony was unsurpassed, but his melodies are every bit as resourceful. We hear that clearly in this entirely new context, perhaps more vividly than ever. Pat and company pay what is – to the writer of works for small jazz ensemble – the ultimate service: they demonstrate the quality of the work divorced from the composer-as-interpreter. Add the fact that these are highly simpatico master improvisers playing at the very highest level, utterly in-tune with one another and the material, and you have a tribute that’s more than a tribute; it’s an original work of great power, the equal or better of any acoustic jazz being played today.
So let the commissars spit and sputter. Let our imagined Mr. Chiles rhyme in comic indignation. There’s more than one way to shuck an oyster (or, as Google Translate gives it in Russian, сбрасывают устриц). In closing, I submit: Isn’t the fact that Thelonious Monk’s tunes allow for infinite possibilities a big reason why we consider them great? Would they be nearly as good if he were the only one who could play them, or if his highly idiosyncratic approach to them was the only one that worked? The answers are obvious. Jazz heretic Pat Hall asks those same questions about Mr. Evans. His conclusions are identical.
Hey, Jazz Police. Bust this cat at your own risk.