CD REVIEW: STEPHEN D. ANDERSON
Stephen D. Anderson- Electric guitar
CD review by JAN STEVENS
The many compositions of Bill Evans are notable for their melodic invention, which is related to their often complex, harmonic density and tonal shifts. So many of his tunes have such beauty and undeniable logic, and they prove irresistible to the seasoned player. If one is a musician, one can rarely play a phrase within an Evans tune and not admit that the next one after it is the only possible “right one”. You can play through these tunes, marveling at Evans’ various compositional devices, and wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself. Yet they present great challenges for even studied players. It is the rare artist who can overcome them, and capture the real spirit of this music, retaining their compositional integrity, while somehow imprinting them with one’s own individuality as an instrumentalist.
I write as a pianist myself, one who is familiar with the inherent pianism of Bill’s tunes. Living with the transcriptions and various lead sheets over much time, an experienced pianist senses how Evans worked over these -- honing the inner voicings, the melodic phrases and the moving intervals and chordal extensions. On paper, it’s quite the experience to see the thematic coherency unfold, noting the counterpoint at work, the legendary Evans voicings working in tandem. The often cited echoes of Ravel, Satie, Chopin, Debussy et al are all apparent with Bill, yet with the jazz sensibilities of a true craftsman. These tunes are intrinsically piano music, i.e., written at a piano. But over the years, we’ve heard them done by many instrumentalists, sometimes in larger settings like those of Jim McNeely with the Danish Radio Orchestra, and even sung by a handful of jazz vocalists like Tierney Sutton, Roseanna Vitro, Karen Gallinger and others. These takes on Bill’s work have had wildly differing degrees of success as varied as the sensibilities of the artists who recorded them. Most have approached this music quite seriously, and though several have a purely technical precision, others have little emotional impact. In some of the better attempts, one can hear a deep affinity for Bill’s work. However, in some cases the arrangements or the execution doesn’t seem to reveal it. It’s all about heart.
Be prepared to be very surprised. Stephen D. Anderson, a fine guitarist I was unfamiliar with until this recording --- has released a solo-guitar album of Evans compositions (except “Haunted Heart”, which Bill did on "Explorations" – a great choice) that is one of the most refreshing albums of Bill’s music I’ve heard in years. (John McLaughlin did one a while back on acoustic guitar, and as professional as it was – and noting it took four other classically trained guitarists to do it with him – I found the results to be interesting listening, yet with a certain stiffness.)
I don’t quite know Stephen Anderson has pulled it off, but after four listenings so far, I find a new freshness each time, with nuances and textural complexities that went unnoticed before. With a clear, clean tone and unpretentious style on the electric, Anderson also has an advanced, naturally musical instinct working here. There is a deep respect and love for the music and that comes through to the listener. He’s light and airy when it’s needed (“Only Child”) and more reflective and plaintive when appropriate (“Blue in Green”). Considering there is no bass, and of course, just the six strings of the fretboard, he gets satisfyingly close to indicating the ways in which Bill moved around chords on a piano, yet with an individual flair. And it’s always rewarding to hear the right changes right where they should be. “The Two Lonely People” is a good example of this – the tune moves all over various tonal centers by way of what we call two-five-one progressions. Mr. Anderson deftly handles it all, tritone substitutions intact, and knows when to keep it simple and direct, within the already tricky harmonic context, yet it’s always clearly presented. He often makes great use of harmonics on the guitar – and quite tastefully too, never overbearingly or gimmicky. He creates rich sound canvases with this and other techniques, especially on the sustaining endings, which often serve as a facsimile of Evans’ own signature codas of arpeggiated and melodic runs. Anderson takes his time with the music, aware of nuance and color, paying heed to the glorious melodies, though never coming off as self-indulgent or formulaic. When he takes a rare occasion on some tunes to add his own musical comments to the heads – whether hanging on a chord, or playing the uppermost extensions without a direct sense of its root, it’s always done honestly and for a good musical reason. The listener is always aware that it’s Bill Evans music happening, and not just a set of chords to blow on. There is no studied “cuteness” here, just a warm and forthright, almost classical approach that makes all these songs sound on guitar like the old friends they always were on piano.
Over the years, more of Bill’s tunes continue become prime jazz standards. “Waltz For Debby”,” Very Early”, and “Turn Out the Stars” have long been staples of the repertoire, and they are here too, of course. Anderson does “Debby” in D Major, a logical key for guitar, and it sings nicely. He solos maturely, without pyrotechnics, and that is challenging enough on this and other of Bill’s structures, but keep in mind he is also chording at the same time -- yet never gets in his own way. And that can require a concentrated effort, considering all the musical information going out at once. I particularly enjoyed his brief “Emily” quote too – and his adding his own take on the last cadence; it differs from Bill’s but fits right in beautifully. (A note on the sound: this track and maybe one or two others don’t seem to have as wide a stereo “spread” in the sound spectrum, as say, “Remembering” and “Blue in Green” do. It’s nothing major, but considering the overall excellent sound quality of the CD, it does seem to make an audible difference when listening over good headphones.
“Very Early” has certain elegance to it in Anderson’s rendition, and there is nicely flowing phrasing in the solo, in what is also a set of complex, moving chords. You almost believe for a moment that it could have been written for guitar, and that can’t be too easy of thing to achieve either. His version of “Remembering the Rain”, one of the composer’s later tunes (1978), rewards the listener with the original’s melancholy and contemplative mood, and the guitar’s natural affinity for the key of A -- in which Bill wrote it -- brings out the colors and sonorities of the instrument. As Anderson writes in the liner notes:
“There's another significant presence drifting through the music on "Remembering the Rain". Stephen's old friend, the late Lenny Breau, was the first to capture Evans's musical ideas on guitar and in the process created a whole battery of innovative guitar techniques. Stephen makes use of some of these innovations in his own playing, particularly Lenny's simultaneous chord/melody technique in which two and three note; rhythmically independent chords support the melodic line. It's easy to imagine how delighted Lenny would have been to hear Stephen apply this device so beautifully and successfully to interpreting the music of the man who inspired the technique.”
If this reviewer has any minor criticism, it would be Anderson’s allowing the lowest string to sometimes resonate a bit awkwardly in a few places, after the harmony has changed, which can be a bit disconcerting at times. Perhaps this is an unavoidable and intrinsic part of doing these tunes on guitar using some of the specialized techniques Anderson uses. Its effect, though noticeable to these ears, most often doesn’t detract significantly from the overall excellence of the performances, but should be noted.
A favorite of many musicians is Evans’ landmark “Peace Piece”, originally done in 1958 as an on-the-spot introduction to “Some Other Time” and then extended in the studio once Bill got inspired and kept going. His melodic invention was so heartfelt and unique that it was later transcribed, and now gets performed as if it was a written melody to begin with. Such was the power of Bill’s creativity! Some who have covered the tune, like Herbie Mann (incredibly awful) and new age pianist Liz Story (not bad) will play the first 24 bars or so, and move into their own improvisations. Mr. Anderson does that here too, but he lingers a bit longer on Bill’s lines, or cleverly inserts them here and there for rhythmic interest – a nice touch. Using three overdubbed tracks sparingly, the results of these quasi -conversations with himself are contemplative and inventive, without any showing off. He also makes good use of detuning, and employing carefully placed harmonics or sustaining or sliding melodic figures, even placing the descending notes of the early C-B-G-E motif (that Bill played on piano) in their proper octaves. After the final dominant chord, (voiced just like Bill’s) Anderson retreats to silence, without the final resolution to the tonic of the original – another very effective editorial comment, ending the album.
This website has made it a general practice not to review non-Evans releases, keeping rather to the pianist’s own voluminous work. There are just so many CDs by Evans’ former sidemen and tribute releases by those who profoundly felt his influence, that too many would get lost in the shuffle. A while back, we made an exception for Tierney Sutton’s album of Evans compositions “Blue in Green”, because it was simply a special and unique recording. We make that exception again here for the talented Stephen D. Anderson, a gifted guitarist who musically conveys deep personal warmth and a profound empathy for Bill’s music. He’s been able to creatively translate some of the master’s pianism and aforementioned compositional magic to his guitar. That he has done this in such a delightfully captivating and genial spirit is a far better and a far truer tribute to Bill Evans than has been done in a very long time. Don’t miss out on this one!
Tracks: The Two Lonely People, Very Early, Only Child, Time Remembered, Turn Out the Stars, Remembering the Rain, Blue in Green, Waltz for Debby, Haunted Heart, Peace Piece.
Jan Stevens is a professional pianist and teacher in NJ. He is also the
webmaster of the Bill Evans Webpages.
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