Old/New Albums: Bill Evans Trio’s “Portrait In Jazz”

portraitinjazzIn the discussion of greatest jazz pianists, Bill Evans’ name is always present. He and his trio put out some of the most seminal jazz music in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and he is always cited as one of the most foundationally important jazz pianists of all time.

Portrait In Jazz is the debut album of the most well-known incarnation of the Bill Evans Trio, with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums.

As I’ve written before, jazz is tough to review for me because I don’t have the technical know-how to break down the music contextually. I’m operating solely on gut feeling here. And after two weeks of listening, my gut’s telling me that this isn’t my favorite jazz record ever. I wouldn’t even put this on randomly as background music.

And I’m not sure exactly why. Bill Evans was clearly a fantastic pianist, and his work on Waltz For Debby and especially Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue are often go-to jazz records for me.

But this specific album underwhelmed me. I feel like there isn’t anything really that notable, and the stuff I was excited about falls a little flat.

The two songs that originally piqued my interest were “Autumn Leaves” and “Blue In Green.” “Autumn Leaves” is a standard from the ’40s that I was first introduced to by Eric Clapton, oddly enough. Clapton recorded it for his 2010 release, Clapton, and it quickly became one of my most played songs in my whole music library. There was such richness to Clapton’s interpretation and a much different cadence than all the other versions I’ve heard. Which probably set me up poorly to hear other versions because of how much I fell in love with Clapton’s.

The “Autumn Leaves” cover on Portrait In Jazz has a distinctly more upbeat tempo.

The other tune I was looking forward to was “Blue In Green,” which originally showed up on Kind Of Blue. There has been decades long dispute about who actually composed this tune, with Davis taking full credit for it and Evans saying he played the most substantial role in the song coming together. Either way, if you’re looking for an alternate studio version from the Kind Of Blue version, this album has it. And it’s an interesting change from the Davis version. Losing the horn element changes the feeling of the song quite a bit. The tempo is also revved just slightly, and these two factors really lose the melancholy feeling of the original. I was excited to hear how Evans took the song and rearranged it without a horn part but it turns out that his solo version lacks so much of the distinct feeling I love about the Kind Of Blue version.

So I was a little disappointed with this record. Any of these songs would go great in a jazz mix, but put together as an album, the collective response for me was “meh.” I hate to associate sadness or melancholy with Bill Evans playing, but I think that I do, and this album certainly steps out of that vein and throws me off a little. This sounds more like a Dave Brubeck Quartet album, but without the distinct feeling of whimsy that often colored Brubeck’s recordings. It’s like Evans was going for a specific feeling but couldn’t quite hit on what he was trying to accomplish. The music is not sad enough to be sad but not happy enough to be happy.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. When I Fall In Love
  2. Someday My Prince Will Come
  3. Peri’s Scope
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