CD review

Bill Evans ft. WDR Big Band Cologne – The East End

Bill Evans ft. WDR Big Band Cologne – The East End
(Jazzline Records. Album review by Rob Mallows)

Each week, LondonJazz News reviewers receive an email with the latest album releases needing reviews. When I saw there was a new cut featuring Bill Evans, my first thought was: a newly discovered, unreleased recording from the pianist Bill Evans who helped make Miles’ Kind of Blue album the wonder it was?

Then I remembered the other Bill Evans. The sax player whose music was some of the first jazz I listened to growing up and who was one of the first artists I saw live, but who I haven’t listened to at all since way back when. So I thought, let’s reminisce.

Listening to The East End was like being transported back to being a teenager and listening to albums my mate Vic recommended I listen to (I looked up to my neighbour musically: he knew what was ‘cool’): Bill Evans, Stanley Clarke, David Sanborn, Becker Brothers, Lonnie Plaxico (though the less said about his early albums, the better!)

Bill Evans has, like his pianist namesake, a connection to Miles Davis, having started his career on four of Davis’ ‘80s albums. This is something like his 25th album as a bandleader, and it shows that, at 61, he’s maturing like a fine wine.

What lifts this recording up is his collaborators: bassist Etienne Mbappe and Wolfgang Haffner on the drums, plus the latter’s colleagues from the WDR Big Band Cologne. It is the second collaboration with them after 2009’s Vans Joint, and records a live concert in Cologne from 2011 (the album’s released under the WDR ’The Cologne Broadcasts’ collection).

Bill Evans’ sax is imbued with that ’80s/’90s highly produced, clear sound that mixes elements of soul, fusion, funk and most of all groove, and reflects the influence of Michael Brecker, David Sanborn and Bob Berg among others. Like a good wine, too, it goes with lots of different stylistic ingredients.

The East End offers all these wonderful sound tastes on ten tracks with Evans, Mbappe and Haffner truly locked in tight. The arrangements by the then WDR band leader Michael Abene are like the béarnaise sauce to Evan’s jazz steak dinner – emphasising the succulent grooves, adding smoothness and also embellishing the dish with some high-end piquancy.

It opens with Big Fun, which has the simplest, dirtiest of bass tracks into which Evan’s sinewy tenor sound warps and weaves and the WDR players amplify with thick slabs of brass buttressing complemented by sweet, sweet crescendos.

Road to Bilbao shows why Etienne Mbappe is a future jazz hall-of-famer: he provides the tautest of funk and R&B canvases onto which Evan’s soprano paints the catchy melodies from his 2002 album. It goes from sing-song extemporising in the high registers to full-on blowing – great fun.

Older Days slows the concert to walking pace and cleanses the palate after the raucous opening, while Working the Line is somewhere in between, and the WDR’s backing comes into its own as counterpoint to Evans.

Little Hands, Little Feet offers little excitement as it veers somewhat towards the cloying and sickly sweet, but Kwitcherbeliakin punches back strongly as the WDR Big Band screech their tyres and hit fourth gear in seconds; this has some super creative solos from Evans and tremendously athletic drumming from Haffner.

Title track The East End is all cosmopolitan brightness, soul and energy (so, presumably is not written about Tower Hamlets) and offers something from everyone on stage, and it’s the one track where you cannot help tap your foot incessantly. And like the wine I mentioned early, lovely finish!

The crowd’s electric response to each track is audible, and adds to the listening experience: this is a live album that’s truly alive.

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