Magic Numbers vol. 2
(This companion post to the GJT celebration looks at all the other trio recordings with Ron Carter and Tony Williams.)
The Great Jazz Trio albums with Sadao Watanabe and Jackie McLean are not as special as when the GJT is alone. With Watanabe or McLean the group steps down into "horn and rhythm." Good horn and good rhythm, sure, but the band isn’t working as hard, or at least not in the same way. For them, three really is a magic number.
Many pianists would agree, except perhaps Herbie Hancock, who has seldom focused on playing with just bass and drums. He’s preferred being a sublime band pianist instead. However, two of his early Blue Notes come close to being trio albums: Inventions and Dimensions and Speak Like a Child.
Dimensions remains one of Hancock’s greatest albums, a dissertation on how to highlight the Afro-Cuban element of modern jazz. Willie Bobo, Osvaldo Martinez and Paul Chambers (whose playing on this album should be mentioned in any jazz history textbook) support humble but convincing etudes in feel.
Speak Like a Child has some great horns on it but they don’t solo. (I’ve never understood this, really, with Thad Jones right there in the studio playing the melodies.) There are also two proper and really great trio tracks with Ron Carter and Mickey Roker, Ron’s “First Trip” and Hancock’s “Sorcerer.” Ron and Herbie know the same information acquired playing with Miles Davis; Roker swings hard without the kind of interaction they had with Davis bandmate Tony Williams. At one point I regretted that Williams wasn't on Speak Like a Child instead of Roker, but now I relish the chance to hear Herbie and Ron dig into pure swing with a comparatively conservative drummer.
A year later there are three cuts of Herbie, Ron, and Billy Cobham together on Ron’s 1969 Uptown Conversation. “Half a Row” is a tricky blindfold test, a long free piece that seems a bit self-conscious today, and on “Doom” Herbie doesn’t get a solo. The winner is clearly “Einbahnstrasse.” It’s actually my favorite Herbie trio track yet, full of fire, freedom, and swing. Cobham sounds good and the way he plays allows for more disruptive interaction between Ron and Herbie than with Roker on Speak Like a Child. An alternate take is excellent but the master is “it.”
While Hank Jones got there first, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock weren’t far behind, both recording trios with the Rolls-Royce in 1977.
Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams: Third Plane
Herbie Hancock: Trio
(July 13, 1977)
It must have been a killer: two whole records, two different leaders, two different labels, one day to do it all.
Herbie, Ron, and Tony are justly celebrated as one of the great rhythm sections. But not as one of the great trios: They were best at galvanizing horns like they learned to do playing for Miles Davis. I doubt many musicians (or HRT themselves) would regard this ’77 session as representative of their best work.
But there’s more meat here than sometimes thought. It is HRT, after all! By default, it is important music.
The sound is part of the problem. It’s got all the worst elements of mid-’70s jazz engineering thrown together – even the piano sounds metallic. Listen to any GJT date back to back with these sessions at the Automatt in San Francisco and see how the stadium-rock drums and amped-up bass fit much better with a well-recorded piano on the East Wind sessions.
“Third Plane” A cheerful latin-ish number from Ron. Nice bitonal blocks from Herbie over the vamp.
“Quiet Times” Ron’s ballad. It’s solid but...
“Lawra” The record is just sitting there on the turntable so far, but this song gets the blood going at last. They were playing it on the V.S.O.P. tour, so maybe that’s why there’s more juice. There’s no comparison, really, with the GJT. This version is much better. Herbie doesn’t blow so much as maintain a heraldic mood against the Rolls-Royce.
“Stella By Starlight” is played in six instead of four. I’ve heard this performance many times but it never makes much of an impression. It’s good (of course) but something is missing. Perhaps you can’t ask these major artists to go backwards. I’d have preferred to hear them play a standard they didn’t play with Miles Davis, like "Stablemates" and "That Old Black Magic" on the 1981 trio session below.
“United Blues” is the highlight so far: short, swinging, and killing. Tony stays on brushes throughout. Ron’s blues tunes are always good. I like the duo version with Kenny Barron on 1+1+1, too.
“Dolphin Dance” is discussed below.
Those tracks came out with Ron’s name listed first and produced by his company Retrac for Milestone. The rest of the session became the Japan-only Columbia Hancock Trio – Herbie’s first proper trio date as a leader since becoming a major force in jazz piano at least fifteen years ago. It’s all his tunes plus “Milestones.”
“Watch It” is in the “Empyrean Isles” tradition of composition: Herbie comes up with some cool chords, maybe one brilliant line or a vamp, and the rest of the melody is improvised.
“Speak Like a Child” I defend V.S.O.P., I defend Ron’s amp, I defend Tony’s kit, I love plenty of the “stadium jazz” HRT participated during this era. However, good ammunition for those that don’t like this style is provided here. A lovely tone poem from 1968 is now a glossy, over-long exercise in chest-thumping.
“Wat’cha Waiting For” is possibly influenced by “Lawra.” The piano blowing on this one is really excellent. Herbie digs into the time in a way that is undeniable.
“Look” is a long waltz...quite long...
“Milestones” is probably the highlight of the whole day. The band roars and rollicks, several times almost tipping over into chaos. As mentioned before, Herbie resolves the last A on F lydian. You can tell Herbie doesn’t think about the incredible very last high chords; they just happen.
Herbie Hancock: Trio
(July 27, 1981)
There are two albums with the same name four years apart. Both were made for the Japanese market, but I think this one got to America a bit more. It’s probably better overall, especially sonically. It’s also Herbie’s final statement about trio playing to date. (There’s a few other things on video and individual tracks, but this is the last full-length studio album.) The great Herbie trio record has yet to be made. He could still do it. Serious jazz players worldwide would rejoice.
Here (and in 1977 too) my biggest problem is the no-man’s-land that often happens after the main solos are over. It feels like they have one eye on the clock, hoping to make long enough tunes to fill out an LP. Admittedly, that can happen with the GJT as well.
“Stablemates” Now we’re talking: HRT takes on a Benny Golson classic that they’ve never recorded before. Killing Herbie lines in his solo. For those that want to transcribe his trademark voicings, there’s something very clear about Herbie’s left hand on this record.
“A Slight Smile” is a Ron Carter waltz that flirts between major and minor like his more familiar “Little Waltz.” This version is fine, but I prefer Cedar Walton’s more regal and “classical” interpretation of the melody on yet another Japanese import, Cedar Walton – Ron Carter – Jack DeJohnette.
“Dolphin Dance” has Herbie in full throttle, but strangely Tony doesn’t really take the bait to get interactive. Tony’s quite reserved on this session overall.
This is kind of a deep question: Which is better, “Dolphin Dance” here or on Third Plane? Some fans might argue that it’s impossible to say; that whatever these three get up to is beyond reproach. Others might claim that the 60’s version with Freddie Hubbard and George Coleman is “the one,” that these less purely acoustic versions are nowhere.
On Trio, only Hancock is going for it, so he sounds a bit aggressive as a result. But on Third Plane, everyone sounds like they are having more fun, and the track is shorter and more focused as well. The Hancock commentary behind the bass solo really works; on Trio it’s a bit watery for my taste.
Sure, the original on Maiden Voyage is great, especially Freddie’s solo. But the piano solo on Third Plane might be better than the piano solo on Maiden Voyage. For now, I think the “Dolphin Dance” on Third Plane is the best of the three.
“That Old Black Magic” is this session’s highlight and my vote for “best trio HRT track.” The arrangement is obviously influenced by Ahmad Jamal. Rolls-Royce and piano lines that spring from impossible harmonic corners without sacrificing deep swing. Why the fuck didn’t they play like this all the time? Or at least more often?
“La Masion Goree” Tony’s tune is good but could benefit from a little bit of Hank Jones-style compositional clarity. Herbie varies the melody from the gate. That can work but, like on “A Slight Smile” above, I would have preferred to hear the unadorned tune before ornamentation.
The very next day, HRT would back Wynton Marsalis for the Hancock double LP Quartet. I think Trio is very good indeed. But Quartet is better. Wynton is a bit green – he would be the first to agree! – but the band, forced to deal with a horn, locks, loads and throws down.
McCoy Tyner: Supertrios
(April 9 and 10, 1977)
As far as I know, McCoy Tyner didn’t play much with Tony Williams. On record, there’s only this session, a corresponding date for Toshinari Koinuma’s Live Under the Sky festival, and Wayne Shorter’s The Soothsayer from a decade earlier.
It’s too bad. On Supertrios the two are on the same page: Go for it! It’s as close to heavy fusion or rock as piano, bass, and drums had gotten thus far.
Ron Carter is therefore a little lost in the mix. Ron has jokingly told pianists, “Don’t play below the ‘S’ on ‘Steinway.’” Uh, McCoy Tyner would never abide by that rule. Hank Jones wouldn’t, either, but McCoy crashes out a low bagpipe about every two bars and keeps the pedal down. Ron contributes to the deep groove on Supertrios, but the highlight of the disc is probably the duet without bass.
In addition to this session, Supertrios contains another full LP of Tyner with Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette. That's worth hearing also but the first LP is undoubtedly the one that is Super.
“Wave” is no pretty bossa: It’s a full-on display of pentatonic piano virtuosity. The very first melodies McCoy improvises on the opening vamp are astonishingly beautiful.
“Blues on the Corner” is rather jagged. Indeed, Supertrios has more minor errors than any other studio album on this list. On “Blues,” McCoy is unruffled by running ahead of the Rolls-Royce for a second: he awkwardly stops, listens, finds his place, and dives back in, headlong. What finger strength he has!
It’s fair to say that the version of “Blues” on 1967’s The Real McCoy with Ron, Elvin Jones and Joe Henderson remains definitive. When I interviewed him on the phone a couple of years ago, Ron told me that he had just listened to that canonical record for the first time. Ron said: “I was taken aback. Wow! We really got to it there. I was like, let's try to get there again!”
I doubt he’d say the same about Supertrios. I really like listening to Supertrios sometimes, though, except “Blues on the Corner,” the only track that doesn’t sound comfortable with its time and place.
“I Mean You” has nothing to do with Monk, but refracts into something perverse and special. Ron sits out for one of the great moments in both McCoy’s and Tony’s discography. Without bass, their primeval joy in summoning forth as much noise as possible makes even more sense. I wish they had toured as a duo.
“The Greeting” The second side of Supertrios continues the vibe but all three tunes have better live versions from a set a year later. McCoy’s “Greeting” is a good tune but this take could have been shorter. B-minor modal madness. I wonder if McCoy wrote any swing tunes in these years? All the originals I can think of from this era are even-eighth or waltzes.
“Prelude to a Kiss” is without Tony. The non-Ellington chord progression is distracting. Still, the two musicians’ sonorities together and the time feel are essentially indisputable.
“Moment’s Notice” It’s always interesting to hear McCoy play pre-modal Coltrane repertoire. A sleeper track for students of the music is the 1960 trio of “Lazybird” from the same marathon session that produced Coltrane’s Sound and Coltrane Plays the Blues, available on the Atlantic compilation Chick Corea – Herbie Hancock – Keith Jarrett – McCoy Tyner.
On this version of “Moment’s Notice,” McCoy plays a rigorously accurate interpretation of the arrangement on Blue Train. (Most covers since leave off the introduction, which is surprisingly similar to the tune proper.) He then burns through the changes in fine pentatonic style. When the flame still isn’t hot enough, Ron and Tony stop, and McCoy goes all out in a free-modal fantasia.
Tony is really bashing here. It’s probably too much overall. This approach to “Moment’s Notice” works better for a screaming Japanese audience than in the small California studio for Orrin Keepnews.
That screaming audience is heard constantly on tracks recorded at Live Under the Sky on July 28, 1978. I deduce that there was a solo piano set and a trio set, with the results spread out over Passion Dance (which came out at the time) and Counterpoints: Live in Tokyo (which was only available recently).
The repertoire for the trio set was the second side of Supertrios plus two more McCoy pieces . It’s exciting music. The details are more or less the same for “The Greeting,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” and “Moment’s Notice,” but the live versions have more juice and focus.
“Song of the New World” I remember hearing for the first time as a teenager. When the anthemic tune comes in, the audience goes crazy. “I want to do this, too!” I thought.
“Iki Masho (Let’s Go)” is a fast churning waltz that barely holds together. The unexpected highlight is the long, abstract unaccompanied Ron Carter solo. He’ll surprise you sometimes! Just this past spring, I saw him take this kind of avant-garde solo on “Strike Up the Band” with a straight-ahead quintet. It made everybody sit up and listen.
Tommy Flanagan, Ron Carter, Tony Williams: The Trio (originally, The Master Trio and Blues in the Closet)
(June 16 and 17, 1983)
These band names are really something else! First “The Great Jazz Trio” for Hank with the Rolls-Royce. Put in the same situation for Baybridge, Tommy gets “The Master Trio.” I’ve also seen it listed as “The Ultimate Trio.” The Gambit edition I eagerly bought as soon as it came out – like so much music on this list, it was only available in Japan until recently – is called "The Trio." Whatever.
Comparisons are odious, right? Somehow I don’t need to compare Herbie and McCoy...
...But Hank and Tommy: sheesh. When listening to all these records carefully back to back, it’s hard not to start making judgments about which of those two was really the baddest cat, at least in terms of interfacing with the Rolls-Royce.
Nobody will be surprised that I vote for Hank. He’s got a rhapsodic approach with some kind of theatrical sheen that ties Ron and Tony together even as they are encouraged to take flight themselves.
Not to say that Tommy sounds anything but wonderful on these sessions. He’s clearly come to play, speaking pure bop lines that are always both authentic and surprising. But by their normal standards, Ron and Tony sound like docile sidemen. That’s my biggest problem with this record, actually: Ron and Tony are never just sidemen.
Again, the engineering is important. My CD doesn’t say who manned the board or where it was recorded, but this session is too dry. In particular, Tony’s bass drum sounds like cardboard. The East Wind production team did much better.
Ron and Tommy Flanagan had played a lot together already. The list of their sessions together in 1960 alone (Ron’s first real year as a top-flight studio musician) is frankly bewildering: Coleman Hawkins, Pony Poindexter, Milt Jackson, Benny Golson, Art Farmer, Yusef Lateef, Howard McGhee, and Nat Wright. In trio, Ron is on Flanagan’s Positive Intensity with Roy Haynes, a good date from late 1976 with problematic sound. (There’s also Sugar Roy with the same cast but led by Haynes from early 1976 – I haven’t heard that one; it’s extremely rare.)
But Tony Williams and Flanagan didn’t have anything do to with each other apart from this session, and it sounds like it. Tony is reserved to the point of nullity, especially on ballads. The exquisite beat is the same but only once in a while does he let loose with the kind of challenges he constantly gave Hank Jones.
“It Don’t Mean a Thing” is in D minor for some reason. Really excellent piano solo – bop is in house! – and Ron and Tony trade phrases, always a good idea.
“St. Thomas” Flanagan was on the original with the Colossus. It’s interesting to hear Tony’s interpretation of the Caribbean beat.
“Angel Eyes” is played in A minor. Compare with any of the GJT ballads to see what I mean about Tony’s lack of engagement here.
“New Song #3” Ron’s tune has some tricky phrase lengths unfortunately not carried over into blowing. The band perks up at an original, though.
“Minor Mishap” Again, there’s this amusing ostentatious declaration of “minor” in the title like Hank’s “Minor Contention” previously. Both were written in the ‘50s before minor would automatically mean modal for the lingua franca. This has a hip AABA structure: First A in B-flat minor, second in F minor, bridge, last A in B-flat minor.
“Misterioso” Why change Monk’s melodies? To me, the whole point of “Misterioso” is the “incorrect” voice-leading at the end of bar 10. The last two notes are G# and E. Flanagan plays the more “normal” G and Eb. Whenever I hear something like this, I think of that sad story of Randy Weston asking Monk to keep writing music even though he was done performing. Monk said no, why should he, since people couldn’t play the music he’d already written?
Good piano solo on some slow blues, though. Not easy to do! Just play another head next time.
“Milestones” The Rolls-Royce can’t get enough of trying this out with different pianists. No surprise that Tommy resolves to F like the others. He doesn’t play the Red Garland accent on C in the bass register in the A sections, though, which Herbie and Hank both did.
“Good Bait” is surprisingly fast and really quite great. Ron’s solo is excellent.
“Afternoon in Paris” It’s always been hard for me to take this genial song completely seriously. That inaccurate Real Book chart I first learned it from is part of the problem. However, when listening to this version I hear how seriously all three of these musicians (including Tony) take “Afternoon in Paris.” I’m still not all the way on board, but maybe someday I will be.
It seems like Ron has a special feeling about Lewis. There’s something Lewis-ish about his compositions and solos sometimes. He even quoted “The Golden Striker” in “Good Bait” from this session, and his recent trio with Mulgrew Miller and Russell Malone is named after that same Lewis tune.
“Giant Steps” Flanagan was on the original and took a solo that didn’t keep up – not that anyone else could have done any better at the time. He learned how to play on it later. This version is fine, and there’s one with George Mraz and Al Foster that’s good too.
“Blues in the Closet” is one of the best tracks from the date. Ron’s solo is inspired and Tommy really deals with the blues.
So it’s all the more irritating that a bad edit takes off two bars of one of the choruses. It’s clearly not any of the musicians's mistake, but studio magic gone awry.
This error prompts a reminder of how professional and mistake-free the musicians are. Look at these bad motherfuckers: Two days, 14 tunes, almost no errors, everything swings, probably all first takes, done.
“Sister Cheryl” is one of Tony’s most familiar songs. It’s probably his “hit.” Tommy sounds fabulous getting in there for a taste. He’s a long way from his hometown hardbop Detroit right now! Immediately something of the GJT's magic is present.
“My Ship” Flanagan is lovely but the band sounds like they are reading a newspaper. Tony even screws up the form on the coda before the second chorus (he splashes the high-hat in the wrong place). Maybe Tommy could have done it solo instead.
“Moose the Mooche” is transcribed in the companion post on Hank Jones. Thankfully, Tony’s kicking it along.
I am probably sounding more critical of this music then I ought to be. Hank set the bar so high, and I’ve also lived with the GJT’s music so much longer. In terms of their New York club appearances and working bands in the 80’s and 90’s, Tommy was Hank’s equal – or, at least, no comparisons need to be made. They owned completely personal territory.
The first time I heard Tommy Flanagan live I was 16, when he played the Jazz Showcase in Chicago with George Mraz and Kenny Washington. The highlight of the set was “Tin Tin Deo.” Some of us timidly introduced ourselves afterward and I asked him how he got that marvelous sound out of the instrument. He unsmilingly replied, “It’s an old piano.”
Geri Allen: Twenty One
(March 23 & 24, 1994)
Ron and Tony’s last recording together was in support of Geri Allen. There’s no “great trio” funny business this time: It’s all the leader’s tunes or heavily-arranged standards, and the bass and drums barely solo.
I approve of this tightness, actually. There’s nothing wrong with doing something just so, with no messing about. Of all these records, Twenty One shows what phenomenal readers and instant conceptualists Ron and Tony are. We know this from the Miles Davis studio records, of course, but it’s nice to know that they still have the same facility decades later. Paradoxically, being sidemen to Allen unleashes something in Ron and Tony that being in an all-star trio with Flanagan didn’t.
Geri Allen’s story is still unfolding. When she first appeared in the 1980's she was a surreal x-factor; unafraid of straight-ahead jazz but committed to playing her own concept.
That was a message I took to heart as a teenager. I automatically bought Olvier Lake, Franco Ambrosetti, and Ralph Peterson records just to hear how she would make any context her own. Craig Taborn and Jason Moran also consider her work in this era to be vitally important.
It’s a shame that her trio with Anthony Cox and Pheeroan Aklaff didn’t make a proper recording. Their gig at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis circa 1989 or ’90 was a crucial event for me and David King. An album with Cox and Andrew Cyrille, The Printmakers, has some of that music, and another great place to check out her early trio approach is under Ralph Peterson’s leadership, Triangular, with Essiet Essiet or Phil Bowler on bass.
My favorite Geri Allen, though, is on several records with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. This unexpected and uncompromising stylistic mix made that trio something like the GJT: in this case a young pianist connected to Monk, Herbie Nichols and Andrew Hill met two older musicians connected to Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and Lennie Tristano. Their Soul Note date Etudes remains one of the best records of the era.
On Twenty One she is very much in a Herbie Hancock bag. She does it very well. However, I’m thrilled that her most recent album, Flying Towards the Sound, is a return to abstraction, and also that’s she’s been gigging with Trio 3’s Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman, and Andrew Cyrille. For me, that's more like the “real” Geri Allen than most of the tracks below, good as they are.
“RTG” lasts less then three minutes. A bright quartal fanfare gives Tony plenty to dig into.
“If I Should Lose You” has a nice hemiola intro and deep swing from the Rolls Royce.
“Drummer’s Song” Here we go! This is the Geri Allen I love. The interlocking parts sound vaguely “African.” It’s great to hear Ron and Tony play a style they aren’t associated with.
“Introspection – Thelonious” is a weird medley: they play both tunes back to back in the same tempo. The solo is done in the same way. Geri Allen is someone who really can and should play Monk (see a couple of tracks on Triangular) but this “doubled form” makes no sense to me. What she plays on the doubled form is really nice, but I just don’t understand the big picture.
“A Beautiful Friendship” Probably the best standard on the date, with some intense interaction between all three musicians in the blowing.
“In the Morning” has Ron’s soulful sonority in the lead.
“Tea for Two” The intense drum intro recalls the GJT years. The band plays this fast with chromatic II/V substitutions.
“Lullaby of the Leaves” is in a nice dark F minor. Great blindfold test: who’s this pianist? Never a doubt about the bassist in the solo, though! Ron does plenty of his superb “delayed resolutions” when walking as well.
“Feed the Fire” One of Geri’s most familiar tunes is close to an extended minor blues rendered as minimalism. This is a good performance, Tony really lifts off.
“Old Folks” The superb surreal intro promises more than the fairly straight-ahead performance delivers. It’s interesting to compare with a less self-conscious “Old Folks” George Cables’s Phantom of the City, a record more people should know about, and another great place to hear Tony Williams in piano trio context.
“A Place of Power” is exciting. Again, it's fascinating to hear Ron and Tony play some different rhythms. If there had been more of this kind of music on Twenty One I’d listen to it more often.
“In the Middle” is a phenomenal solo piano piece with impeccable rhythm and a unique melodic concept. Only Geri Allen can play this way.
Mulgrew Miller: The Countdown
(August 15 & 16, 1988)
While Geri Allen is in the surreal tradition of jazz pianists, Mulgrew Miller is uncompromisingly down-the-middle. Many musicians regard him as the standard-bearer for the post-McCoy and Hancock bag, and he certainly knows his Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan too. I always enjoy his own projects and albums, but perhaps the greatest Miller I've heard is when he cleans up following a bunch of horns on standard repertoire in a fairly jam-sessionish context. I doubt any of the members on the Freddie Hubbard-Benny Golson Stardust would regard that album as their best, but Miller's solo on the title tune is simply dangerous.
Could there be somewhere tapes of that last Birdland gig in December 1996 of Mulgrew, Ron, and Tony? Williams would suddenly die two months later: jazz hasn’t been the same since. Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter would be his pallbearers.
I knew about that gig but couldn’t afford to pay my rent in those years, let alone go to Birdland. I did see Miller in Tony’s quintet at the Artists’ Quarter while still in high school. Tony played too loud behind the horns but always listened carefully his pianist..
I bought The Countdown when it first came out. The two trio tracks of Miller originals are good but the songs with Joe Henderson are why I still keep this album in rotation.
“Exact Change” features a headlong series of complex changes. Ron never walks and Tony roars. There could be more drums in the mix, actually – Tony’s hitting harder than it sounds. Mulgrew sounds comfortable dealing with a fairly intimidating situation!
“Ambrosia” is a polychord waltz, the kind that Wayne Shorter popularized in the 1960s. These cats do this style as well as it can be done.
That's all for Ron and Tony in trio with piano, except for a 1977 session with Takehiro Honda that I haven't heard. There's also a Live in the Sky "Ron Carter night" with both Hank Jones and Herbie Hancock that might have come out as 1 + 3 on JVC. I will update these posts if I can ever find it.
Of course, Ron and Tony recorded with horns with all sorts of people. In addition to aforementioned albums with Miles Davis, V.S.O.P., and Herbie’s Blue Notes, there are dates led by Chet Baker, Charles Lloyd, Sam Rivers, Terumasa Hino, and each other. The results are always at least interesting.
After listing all these discs with pianists, I’ll conclude with one of the Rolls-Royce’s few albums with no piano at all, Etudes. Ron’s 1982 album was self-produced (still a rare event at that time), and was planned to combine his first leader, Art Farmer, with Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams. However, Wayne sent in Bill Evans as his replacement. Evans told me it was done in all first takes, from 11 to 1:30 at Rudy Van Gelder’s, and then they had lunch.
It’s hard to believe they did all this so quickly and casually. Not having a pianist was a smart move. The flamboyantly fabulous connection between Ron Carter and Tony Williams is brought forward and the absence of thick conventional jazz harmony brings out the best in Ron’s sing-songy tunes. Etudes should be recognized as a jazz classic more often than it is. It's my favorite music on this page.
“Last Resort” is medium tempo 32-bar AABA bluesy item. Art Farmer’s solo is pure improvised melody. The second chorus of bass solo has some cherries and whipped cream commentary from the horns. Bill Evans sounds good too, delivering jagged phrases before wrapping with a lovely paraphrase of the head. (Chris Cheek told me that Evans on this album was an early influence.) A bit of old-fashioned horn counterpoint wraps it up.
“Bottoms Up” Charlie Haden and Ron are very different bassists, and as far as I know have had very little to do with each other. So I doubt Charlie is an influence here, but nonetheless he’s who comes to mind: Ron plays a soulful folky-bluesy tune in D that repeats around and around while the horns and drums play free.
“Arboretum” begins with a funky diatonic line. Only Ron and Tony could play this feel. You can hear Ron’s philosophy of “only first takes” pay off on this track. The head is sloppy, but has some intriguing mystery because of it. Of course, Ron learned this approach from Miles Davis. No horn solos.
“Rufus” The second side of Etudes is really the heart of the matter. “Rufus” begins with uptempo lines in surprising phrase lengths, follows with a memorable half-time phrase, and closes with a call to arms. Ron accompanies the start of the tenor solo with those famous slides before settling into some serious Rolls-Royce action, although he and Tony always acknowledge the slightly odd form together with a bar of faux-latin that interrupts the swing. Art Farmer’s solo is perfection. Before the head out, Tony and Ron trade lines together – it’s so swinging and so modern at the same time. After the concluding herald, the final note is Ron’s extra-low “C,” which resonates alone like an ancient king.
“Echoes” There’s no borrowed forms on Etudes; each chord progression is original. “Echoes” is in G minor and provokes Evans’s loosest and wildest solo of the date. Farmer never repeats himself while endlessly placing fresh melodies next to each other. The little bit of funk and grit in those melodies insures their jazz charisma. I’m going to transcribe all the trumpet solos from this album someday; each seems better than the one before. Again, there is some fun arranged horn commentary behind the bass solo.
“Doctor’s Row” combines the whole-tone scale with John Lewis-style counterpoint. The horns solo over the changes but Ron explores a flamenco-ish vibe over an A pedal. While Tony solos Ron keeps peeking his head back in, wondering if it’s alright to play along, and Tony clearly doesn’t mind. They sound so damn good together, after all, as they always did.