Bill Evans & Jeremy Steig: So What

When Denny Zeitlin was brought in by producer John Hammond to play piano on Jeremy Steig's 1963 debut recording, Flute Fever, as Zeitlin recalled in a recent interview (see Marc Myers' JazzWax blog), Steig "was very frank about his raw emotional approach to playing. He said to me, 'Sometimes I just like to have a tantrum out there.' " Bill Evans first met and heard Steig in 1964, and in his original liner notes for the 1969 What's New album wrote, "Jeremy's playing also has a side of intensity that occasionally might defy belief. I played flute and piccolo for fourteen years and therefore feel a justification for my high estimation of Jeremy's exceptional scope as a flutist." Evans, who had once recorded with flutist Herbie Mann (Nirvana), was well aware that Steig was taking the instrument to places untouched emotionally and technically by even Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It wasn't until 1968 that Evans and Steig played together, Steig sitting in with the Evans trio at club dates in New York, which logically led to their recorded collaboration on What's New.

Steig had already performed "So What" on his Flute Fever session with Zeitlin [see review], and of course Evans had played it on the album that introduced the now jazz standard, Miles Davis' revered Kind of Blue. Evans and Steig essay a diverting free-form intro and play the theme together alongside Eddie Gomez's bass vamp. Steig's breathy tone and swirling, tenacious attack is encapsulated in his first brief solo, which gives way to Evans' lengthier improv. Evans' pronounced McCoy Tyner-like left-hand figures, two-handed unison exclamations, and unyielding momentum are all a far cry from the pianist's contemplative, subdued side. Steig's second solo seems to be propelled to greater and greater heights by Gomez's driving, variegated bass lines. The flutist's tonal inventiveness is boundless, including the use of overblowing, humming, and vocalized overtones. Even at his most possessed, however, Steig's phrasing retains logic and relevance. Gomez's feature prior to the theme restatement is an excellent early example of his deliberate yet elaborate modus operandi.

August 13, 2009 · 0 comments


Jeremy Steig (with Denny Zeitlin): So What

This was the debut recording of two precocious talents, Jeremy Steig (then 21) and Denny Zeitlin (then 25 and on the verge of completing Johns Hopkins Medical School). Producer John Hammond paired them with the seasoned Ben Tucker (b. 1930) and Ben Riley (b. 1933).

Flute Fever is an inspired ”blowing session” with a repertoire of standards and 1950s jazz classics. Steig’s personal spin on the Roland Kirk/Yusef Lateef school of jazz flute probably will not appeal to those who relish a pristine “classical” approach to the instrument, but on his own terms Steig is a more-than-convincing player. Zeitlin does ear-catching things on every selection, but his most forward-looking solo is on “So What”. The highlight of this track is a piano/drums duet perhaps inspired by John Coltrane and Elvin Jones—Coltrane was already one of Zeitlin’s varied influences.

Though briefly reissued on CD, Flute Fever is hard-to-find and a collector’s item. Here’s hoping that some label will make it available once again.

June 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Marc Copland: So What

Pianist/composer Marc Copland and his trio's interpretation of Miles Davis's "So What" doesn't jibe with the expected. Sure, Drew Gress's opening bass pattern is familiar. (You can compare it with Miles's arrangement, circa five years after his original recording, for as long as YouTube maintains this clip of his 1964 appearance on the Steve Allen Show.) But that pretty much ends the similarities. Copland takes the staccato opening chords, makes some minor, adds legato and a spacey feel. Miles's approach was direct. Copland comes in through a crack in a side door. His notes waft head-high to be breathed in. The tune's midsection features a long and exploratory Gress solo, as drummer Bill Stewart brushes his way through. Copland, a truly gifted musician and interpreter, then offers a lengthy melancholic mood to song's end. The famous head of the arrangement is never revisited. It just floats in the air of your memory.

I don't know about you, but I love the unexpected. The more surprising a jazz standard's treatment, the better. Taking a musical masterpiece to places previously unknown is the sign of someone, or a group, unsatisfied with playing by rote. Copland and his New York Trio take this music out for a long and rewarding walk. I suggest you tag along.

February 06, 2009 · 0 comments


Bill Evans: So What

Sometimes I wonder how hip a crowd is. If I were there for this concert, I would have started applauding when bassist Eddie Gomez kicked into the famous opening "So What" riffs that give the song its identity. There was only silence from this audience. From all accounts, it was a very chilly evening. Perhaps that explains things.

Evans, Gomez and drummer Marty Morell do Miles Davis proud with this aggressive rendition. The trio plays a swinging version full of creative improvising from Evans and Gomez. The best musicians play with a flowing ease that makes it all seem so simple. You don't think until afterward what great skill was required to pull off what you just heard. You too get caught in the flow. The finest music happens when you are bowled over without realizing it. The greatest musicians understand that and exploit it.

As this performance ends, the audience finally erupts. I guess they just needed to be warmed up a bit.

January 05, 2009 · 0 comments


Herbie Hancock: So What / Impressions

Listeners expecting stylistic imitation (as in many past tributes) will be disappointed, but those who welcome a fresh interpretation of the Davis and Coltrane concepts will love this record. “So What / Impressions” is more introspective and melancholic than 1960s performances by the respective composers, allowing each improviser to reference the styles of their masters, but not be bound by them. Hargrove’s solo is astounding—contemplative and brilliantly paced, eventually reaching a rousing climax. Hancock’s comping is busy and detached at times, but more often faultlessly complementary. Blade adds powerful rhythmic dialogue throughout, especially at the end of Brecker’s inspired chorus. Spectacular playing all around.

November 03, 2007 · 0 comments


Miles Davis: So What (1964 version)

Miles Davis, artwork by Michael Symonds

In 1963, Miles Davis reinvigorated himself by forming a new quintet with younger, energetic, progressive-minded musicians. They stretched the boundaries of hard bop with harmonic and rhythmic adventures, yet maintained a ferocious sense of swing. With his new rhythm section—especially drummer Tony Williams—lighting a fire beneath him, Davis responds with fierce and blazing intensity of his own. His solo on this live version of “So What” is filled with sudden screams into the high register, snaking lines and deceptive starts and stops. Davis confronts and conquers his own limitations, and his playing is volatile and thrilling.

October 24, 2007 · 0 comments


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