Review Summary: A restrained masterpiece that was nearly buried in the vaults if pianist Bill Evans would have had his way. Thankfully, producer Orrin Keepnews changed Bill's mind and we were gifted with one of jazz's all-time classic albums.
album, for instance, I wasn't going to release. We had a very, very bad feeling within the group that night for reasons which I won't bother to explain." -- Bill Evans on Explorations
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February 2nd, 1961, was a night remembered by the Bill Evans Trio and Riverside Records owner and producer Orrin Keepnews as difficult and painful. Details of this session are few and not fully divulged. Bill Evans had a headache. Scott LaFaro's regular bass was being repaired and he wasn't happy with the inferior replacement. Worst of all, Evans and LaFaro had a beef with each other: LaFaro quite possibly confronted Evans (again) about the pianist's increased heroin use and the problems it created. Keepnews was sick of the arguing between Evans and LaFaro, as was drummer Paul Motian. Despite everything negative that night, the result was what I believe to be the Bill Evans Trio's finest studio moment: Explorations
The Bill Evans Trio was often lauded for their instrumental prowess and seamless performances. Each member excelled at their instrument, and when they performed, they produced a sound and feel much greater than the sum of their parts. It was as if they were involved in a deep, intelligent musical conversation with spirited highs and beautiful, sensitive lows. It was expressive and soulful, and each member contributed greatly without ego or precociousness. Evans and LaFaro were leading the way in exploring new ways to express themselves on their chosen instruments. Critics, musicians, and the public were noticing all of this, and yet, despite the Trio's talent, momentum, and acclaim, they turned out a rather controlled album. Despite that, it works.
Unlike other artists' jazz workouts, Explorations
doesn't burn. Instead, it skillfully smolders. Evans didn't compose anything for this album, and his choice of material consisted of many pieces and standards written by others, with most of them considered tired and “old fashioned”. As always, the Trio gives us more than the sum of their parts, but they do so with some restraint. They manage to work up a sweat on swinging opener "Israel" and "Nardis", providing some drive and improvisation to the proceedings; in fact, Bill Evans claims Birth Of The Cool
's "Nardis" as his own, a fact even acknowledged by Davis himself.
"Sweet And Lovely" is standard Trio fare with its easy shuffle and instrumental dialogue. Compared to earlier versions from other artists, the Trio deconstructed it and rebuilt it in the image of themselves. On this song, Motian turns in some tasty, swinging snare work on this song, and drum breaks are fantastic, showing off his skill as an all-around player. LaFaro's replacement bass wasn't allowing him the proper access to higher notes, but he still is able to provide proper low-end support and some great solo breaks. One of my favorite instrumental moments is the final third of "How Deep Is The Ocean". Here, the band comes to a complete musical consensus: the tempo slows, LaFaro plays walking half notes against Motian's cut-time hi-hats, while Evans breaks it all down with the melody over some harmonically-sophisticated, gorgeous chording. They’ve found the depth of the ocean, and they are floating over it. Outstanding.
The real gems of Explorations
are the ballads "Elsa" and "Haunted Heart". "Haunted Heart" is a haunting piece of loneliness and longing, with beautiful melody and counterpoint courtesy of Evans and LaFaro. "Elsa" breaks the listeners' hearts without schmaltz and sentimentality, especially once Motian and LaFaro come in. Evans' sparse voicings give "Elsa" an introspective, ethereal quality for the duration of the song and its modal shifts, yet the band constantly comes back into the orbit of the tonal center, with LaFaro even getting in a sublime bass solo.
A large portion of great art comes from pain and suffering. February of 1961 found the Bill Evans Trio teetering on the brink of disaster, and yet, Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro, and Paul Motian turned this stressful situation - albeit with some restraint - into their greatest studio album. The world should be grateful that Orrin managed to convince Evans to release Explorations
because despite the controlled performances, it still manages to push the boundaries of jazz and show us how vital and important this short-lived version of the Bill Evans Trio was to the music world.