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One of the most absorbing and enjoyable Evans albums
on 26 February 2003
Portrait in Jazz was the first of only four (official) albums made by what Evans fans know as "the first trio" - the one with Scott La Faro and Paul Motian - which introduced a new approach to the music of a jazz piano trio. Whereas the conventional trio tended to feature the pianist as a 'star soloist' with bass and percussion essentially as 'accompanists' with a fixed and limited role, Evans, La Faro and drummer Paul Motian aimed to develop more of a sense of equal and spontaneous interplay. Scott La Faro was the right man in the right place: his virtuoso technique and strong musical personality enabled him to play the more active, assertive (but compatible) role Evans wanted for the group. By the time this trio played its famous sessions at The Village Vanguard (Live at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby) this 'collective improvisation' was well developed. Portrait in Jazz being the first album by the trio, there's a strong sense of discovery and enthusiasm which, I think, gives the music a greater freshness and vitality than the subsequent albums (even if in other ways they may be preferred by some listeners), and it's those qualities, along with the sensitive, alert musicianship of the trio which makes this surely one of the most absorbing and enjoyable of Evans's many albums.
Part of its appeal is also the excellent choice of material, but much of the interest lies in what Evans in particular does with it. Often this is mainly a matter of the unusual chord voicings and adjustments of rhythm and phrasing he gives to a familiar tune, which open up wider harmonic and rhythmic perspectives for improvising. You hear this from the opening bars of the first number, "Come Rain or Come Shine" and it is evident also in the slower ballads, a haunting version of "Spring is Here" and a probing reading of "When I fall in Love". Notice for example how, on the latter very familiar tune, Evans's slightly 'off-centre' harmonies create a different kind of emotional tone from the suave, sentimental one which singers usually give it.
Among the other high spots are the famous up-tempo version of "Autumn Leaves", with its infectious swing and lively interplay between piano and bass, similarly propulsive readings of "What is this Thing Called Love" and "Some Day My Prince Will Come" and a marvellous "Blue in Green" on which the rapport between Evans and his partners is especially close.
A classic piano jazz album.