EVANS with CLAUS OGERMAN ORCHESTRA: "Symbiosis"
Bill Evans- Steinway piano and Fender-Rhodes electric piano
Eddie Gomez (Bass)
Marty Morell (Drums)
Arranged and Conducted by Claus Ogerman
Produced by Helen Keane
Engineer: Frank Laico
Recorded at Columbia 30th Street Studios, NYC. Feb. 11, 12 & 14, 1974
(LP originally issued on MPS-Germany. CD resissue: Verve Polygram 314-523-381-2)
(Europe [original LP release]: Pausa PR 7050)
With orchestra consisting of:
Mel Davis, Johnny Frosk, Bernie Glow, Marky Markowitz, Victor Paz, Marvin Stamm (tp) Paul Faulise, Urbie Green, Tom Mitchell (tb) Ray Alonge, Jim Buffington, Earl Chapin, Peter Gordon, Al Richmond, Gruce Tilotson (frh) Don Butterfield (tu) Don Hammond, Hubert Laws, Bill Stapin (fl) Phil Bodner, George Marge (ob) Wally Kane, Don McCourt (basn) Danny Bank, Ron Janelly (cl) Jerry Dodgion, Harvey Estrin, Walt Levinsky, Phil Woods (sax), David Nedien (concertmaster)
Doug Allan, Dave Carey, George Devens, Ralph MacDonald (perc)
(Cover art on lower left is from the original release. Top photo is the Verve re-release.)
Symbiosis, recorded in 1974 for the German record label MPS (since available on Verve/Polyram, currently out-of-print but available from these sellers) is a superbly performed and beautifully recorded project, despite being one of Bill Evans’ more overlooked and vastly underrated albums. In the fusion-intensive years of the early 1970s, the emphasis in the jazz media -- and especially the record companies, was on musicians who involved themselves with electric music and jazz-rock. These were heady times with new sounds and then-upcoming new talents like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Mahavishnu, Jean-Luc Ponty, Weather Report, et al, garnering the attention of jazz critics. It was the day of new electric keyboards and often exotic instrumentation. These were increasingly difficult times for straight ahead jazz musicians of stature and “name” artists like Bill Evans were no exception. Symbiosis seemed to come in under the radar, and was simply not given much marketing effort or critical attention. But it is a recording that deserves far more scrutiny than it’s received, even among serious Evans fans. Claus Ogerman composed and orchestrated the work with Evans in mind as keyboard soloist. He had worked with Bill on two previous albums. The first in 1963 (the strictly commercial “V.I.P.s Theme…”) and in 1965 (Bill Evans with Symphony Orchestra). Symbiosis is harmonically and rhythmically adventurous, and an often hauntingly gorgeous work in two movements.
The first movement is in three sections, but is a unified whole. It opens with woodwinds as the tight-knit ensemble bounces through the long, knotty eighth-note configurations here, with a nice taste of mid-fifties George Russell in the voicings. In fact we don’t even hear the piano until about two minutes in, when the trio (Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morell on drums) enters. They run through some inventive harmonic territory as they roll along, further developing the medium-up paced swing. Bill sounds in good form, his lines clean and melodic. It all draws you in, but the third section of the first movement, after some percussive Latin-feel from the orchestra, the real treats begin. Bill plays long, inventive and often fast- moving lines on electric piano that catch your ear with their shimmering beauty and complexity. He works over a gentle, lilting swing with Ogerman’s sweet but surprisingly muscular strings backing him. Evans’ musical logic is impeccable here, as usual, as the chord structure is strewn with lots of challenging whole -tone and diminished harmonies. It is a lengthy section, and as Bill scampers freely across his Fender-Rhodes, weaving in, around and through the complex yet smooth harmonic movement, one marvels at how he keeps the interest going. But he makes it all sound easy and almost inevitable. Soon after, this rhythm seems to ebb away, and we then hear the playful side of Bill as he alternates staccato jabs on both keyboards as the section closes.
In the next part, Ogerman writes lush but not maudlin strings (and a few flutes) in dense often poly-chordal combinations underneath -- creating a perfect cushion for the pianist’s swirling right-hand lines. The sleek Latin rhythms return (this time with saxes alternating various two and four- bar phrases), until a recapitulation of the chordal theme returns, this time against a C pedal tone. But there’s more, as the trio returns on its own, smoother than silk, with the earlier thematic material now in recapitulation. The Rhodes fits in particularly well in the Symbiosis’ framework. It is often used as punctuation at the end of a written ensemble phrase, or as a smooth and dreamy ensemble texture. Evans’ choices as to when to use the Rhodes or the Steinway are wise indeed, throughout, and with great sensitivity towards integrating the parts seamlessly within the composition. It takes a wise pianist to distinguish between serving the composition as an effective ensemble player, and yet putting one’s personal stamp on it, as Bill does so skillfully here. If you’re listening carefully, you’re drawn into the work itself, always aware of Ogerman’s substantial compositional skill on its own terms --yet never losing the sense that out front, it’s Bill Evans being Bill Evans. I mention this merely since this is almost exactly opposite of the sense one gets listening to the ambitious, yet ultimately abysmal “Living Time” suite he recorded with George Russell’s Orchestra two years prior.
Ahh, but the best has yet to begin! The second movement alone is worth the price of the CD itself. Evans begins alone on piano in B minor, beginning with a lovely, simple three note theme (D down to F#, then G), and as it ever-so-slowly develops a note at a time in a scale motion, its naked simplicity - and how the melancholy harmonies open up --is breathtaking. ( If you’ve ever seen the popular 2005 Paul Giamatti film “Sideways” – a tiny part of this very opening section was used at a critical plot juncture in the film, and the placement of it at that moment -- at the end of a touching conversation in the film--was revealing and dramatic. And yes, it is this recording that was featured, and Bill’s piano that captures that bittersweet movie moment so well. )
Listen to a brief sound clip for this section... (957K)
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After a few tender expositional phrases, Ogerman’s signature strings return, in a profoundly mature restatement, until Bill’s chords mingle with the ensemble, followed again by just the trio, gently moving the section along. Eddie Gomez plays intelligently and with elegant restraint, once again anticipating the pianist’s phrases and spaces so well. This whole little sub-section by itself would have been considered a stellar performance on any Evans trio album of the period. When the strings do return, its just glorious, but there is a bit of an obvious tape edit that is quite audible over quality headphones. Yet the seamlessness of Ogerman’s writing here, with its shifting colors --with Evans doing octaves --makes up for it.
The valedictory-sounding Andante of this second movement (track 4) has more orchestral prominence than keyboard, and builds in an almost Mahler-esque grandiosity, as the pianist cleanly plays the scored single-line part. The march-like quality of the music may be somewhat off-setting here for a little bit, until you start to pay close attention to all the richness of Ogerman’s underscoring. The piece concludes triumphantly, and one thinks it’s all over, but then the sweet serentity of that exquisite solo three-note piano figure returns, and over Bill’s heartfelt playing, a sweet-cream orchestral passage lilts us to the real close of the work -- as Evans’ gently cascading and sparkling fifths coming down from the upper register to remind us of what we heard before in the piece, and what we came for in the first place.
As biographer Keith Shadwick (In the book "Bill Evans - Everything Happens to Me") noted:
“Evans brings to the work the consummate artistry and sensitivity that occurs when he is stretched and stimulated. His rubato playing in the opening and second movement sometimes alone, sometimes in unison with the strings, is both moving and immensely accomplished in a way that few jazz or classical pianists could have countenanced."
The still-active Claus Ogerman succeeds marvelously here as composer-arranger with a work of great harmonic and rhythmic interest that showcases Evans’ lyrical jazz expressiveness, and his inherent classical strengths – and all without compromise. Along with the attention to detail and textures on both piano and Rhodes that Evans brings to this endeavor, this is where the real “symbiosis” occurs. Yet with all its modern European classical flavor, it shows what jazz should sometimes be more about -- at least in large scale works like this -- when it presents a mix of elegance and function; improvisational freedom within a clearly defined structure. It’s music that was made to last, which, in retrospect, cannot be said for much of the fusion music that was at the forefront of jazz when this album was recorded.
If you can locate a copy, don’t delay. If we compare “Symbiosis” to the various other albums Bill Evans did within an orchestral contextt –whether his own dates or others -- it may well be his most successful achievement of its kind.
Jan Stevens is a pianist-vocalist and teacher in northern NJ, and webmaster of The Bill Evans Webpages.
©Jan R. Stevens 2008. All Rights Reserved
Sound ex.cerpt is © 1974 Helios Music, Inc.(Renewed)All Rights reserved.
Excerpt usage for educational purposes only under the Fair Use Doctrine (USA)