In 2011, I find myself drawn more and more to mainstream jazz of the 1950s and 1960s, and to the work of new artists who explore that tradition and that sound in the present. Players like JD Allen, Orrin Evans, Jared Gold, Ralph Bowen and David Gibson are making records I can put on and gain immediate pleasure from; I don’t have to explain to myself what I like about them. Late ’50s/early ’60s hard bop and its modern equivalents are extremely easy to enjoy. It’s a sound deeply rooted in the blues, the tunes—especially on the old albums—are quite frequently lyrical and melodic (since many of them are standards that were originally sung on the stage), and the solos and rhythmic interactions follow predictable patterns. There’s a reason this music keeps getting reissued, while more “adventurous,” “challenging” albums languish in obscurity.

The two albums under discussion here are 50 years old. They were recorded between late January and mid-March of 1961, at a total of four sessions—the Evans Trio disc was cut in a day, while the Adderley disc required three sessions to assemble. Not sure why.

Pianist Bill Evans and alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley had worked together before, on Adderley’s own Portrait of Cannonball and, of course, in Miles Davis‘s sextet, as heard on ’58 Sessions and Kind of Blue. On Know What I Mean? (buy it from Amazon), they’re joined by bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay, both of the Modern Jazz Quartet. The Evans Trio, of course, consisted of the pianist, bassist Scott LaFaro, and drummer Paul Motian. That group made only two studio albums—Explorations is the second—and some live recordings, before LaFaro died in a car accident.

I’ve never spent a whole lot of time listening to the Bill Evans Trio. I have the Village Vanguard box—three CDs worth of material originally divided among several albums—and while the music is quite beautiful, and it’s quite clearly a re-interpretation of what a piano trio was supposed to sound like, it’s also quite clearly just a piano trio, and that’s one of my least favorite jazz formats. I need an additional instrumental voice, be it saxophone, vibes, guitar…something. Play me more than ten minutes of piano, bass and drums, and I start to nod off, no matter who’s at the keyboard. Unless they’re raising an unholy clatter, in which case I stay focused, but it’s often as much out of irritation as enjoyment.

Explorations, though, is a great record. (Buy it from Amazon.) I’m fascinated by Evans’ technique. He hits individual notes in a way that implies that each finger is an independent entity, floating downward, striking, and retreating. He sounds more like he’s typing from a standing position than playing the piano. Even when he plays chords, he doesn’t seem to; it seems like multiple notes were hit purely by coincidence, and the single-note lyricism of the melodies is what he was put on the planet to explore (no pun intended). Much has been made of the unique (for its time) interplay of Evans, LaFaro and Motian, but while the bassist and drummer are slightly more than support staff on the pianist’s journeys, they’re not equal partners; they’re just more assertive than other bassists and drummers of the time were.

Contrast them, for example, with Percy Heath and Connie Kay on Know What I Mean?. The music of the Modern Jazz Quartet was a particularly contained type of swing, known as “chamber jazz” for its drawing-room qualities. The members of the MJQ performed in tuxedoes, and always sounded like it. I get the feeling that the two of them found backing a saxophonist slightly vulgar, particularly one whose lines were simultaneously as fleet and from-the-gut as Cannonball Adderley’s. But Evans’ introversion and lyricism were the ideal bridge between Adderley and the MJQ, and there’s some seriously hard-swinging, bluesy stuff on this album, particularly “Who Cares?” and “Toy.” There are also some atmospheric ballads—”Goodbye” feels like Evans exploring the possibility of founding a new trio, with occasional interjections from a neglected Adderley, while “Nancy (With the Laughing Face)” is pure late-night melancholy.

These two albums have been reissued this month, with three bonus tracks, one previously unreleased, on the Adderley/Evans disc and four bonus tracks, two of which are previously unreleased, on the Evans Trio disc. I think I’m going to be listening to them a lot.

Phil Freeman

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