Bill Evans and Jim Hall – Undercurrent
(Pure Pleasure/United Artists PPAN UAJS 15003. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)
Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is a hard act to follow, but when compelled to find something to succeed it in a late night listening session, there is one distinctly worthy contender, Undercurrent, featuring one of Kind of Blue’s pianists in a starring role beside a jazz guitar great.
Jim Hall had already long been an admirer of Bill Evans when the two men convened in April 1962 under the auspices of United Artists to record this remarkable duet album. They were part of a circle of musicians in New York in the early sixties, centred on George Russell, and including Jimmy Giuffre and Gil Evans, all united in a common aesthetic. Bill Evans and Jim Hall in particular were kindred spirits, sharing a love of chamber jazz, and Hall had already demonstrated his skill in Jimmy Giuffre’s trio. But there was a danger attached to their proposed recording; as Peter Pettinger points out in his Bill Evans biography, How My Heart Sings, both the guitar and piano are chordal instruments and a duet presented the risk of overcrowding and acoustic collision. The results of these sessions were quite the opposite, though, thanks to the tranquil and poetic use of space which gives Undercurrent its uniquely relaxed, and relaxing, quality.
This is one of the great jazz recordings, now reborn on vinyl in a state of the art package. The record is noise free, but does an impressive job of capturing musical nuance and delivering a deep emotional experience. Romain has a tense, relentless, quality. You can hear the dirty strumming of the guitar strings and the lonely loping of the piano notes. The tune is drenched in bluesy character and ends with Hall conjuring bell-like tones. On Skating in Central Park that chiming guitar sound becomes a dominant feature and, set against it, Evans is wittily wistful and melancholy, each piano note precise and clear cut until he smoothly recedes into the background and lets Hall take centre stage. Here, as elsewhere on the album, it is often difficult to believe there are only two musicians at work. Evans’s left hand and Hall’s batterie effects frequently conjure up the impression of a phantom drummer at work.
My Funny Valentine is a darkly, neurotically insistent take on the tune, tugging at you with Hall’s descending runs on the guitar which turn into a triumphant and defiant chant, while Evans’s superbly judged commentary watches his back all the way. When Evans solos, Hall reduces his playing to harsh, isolated strikes on the strings. And then both musicians come together in a fierce dash, matching one another stride for stride. I Hear a Rhapsody is an extraordinary exercise in leisurely poise, forming a seamless musical statement. If it was hard to believe earlier that there weren’t three players, here it’s difficult to accept there’s more than one, so unified and harmonious are Hall and Evans in their playing. Dream Gypsy shows them separating again, fashioning fragments and jigsaw puzzle-pieces of a tune, scattering them for the listener to assemble.
This reissue does an outstanding job of reducing noise from the master tapes — now well over fifty years old — without sacrificing musical detail. It gets you in the heart the way the original recording did. There have been a fair number of releases of Undercurrent on vinyl over the years, but Pure Pleasure’s 180 gram audiophile incarnation is the first to combine notably high quality sound with packaging that does justice to the eerie, enigmatic beauty of the original. The cover of the album doesn’t feature any names or even a title, just a mysterious black and white photograph of a woman floating, Ophelia-like, in dark water. At the time it was as distinctive as the record it contained, indicating — as far as jazz was concerned — we really were no longer in Kansas.
They don’t make LP art — or music — like this anymore.