You don’t have to know a lot of jazz history to enjoy Further Explorations, the two-CD live set from Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez and Paul Motian. Anyone can hear the graceful lyricism-not just from the pianist but from the bassist and drummer as well. Anyone can hear how that lyricism is tested again and again by disruptive digressions and sneaky shifts in rhythm and harmony, as if the themes were dancers trying to retain their grace on a storm-tossed ship. The result is a great drama: How far can melodic beauty be stretched before it disintegrates?
If you do know your jazz history, however, the pleasures are even greater. Motian was Bill Evans’ drummer from 1959 to 1964, and Gomez was Evans’ bassist from 1966 to 1977. Corea was such an Evans disciple that he sought out jobs in the ’60s with the iconic pianist’s employers Miles Davis and Stan Getz. Corea even wrote a tune called “Bill Evans” and presented the lead sheet to his hero at the Top of the Gate nightclub in the ’70s. Ten of the tracks have direct ties to Evans, being composed by, recorded by or titled after him. All 19, culled from the 24 90-minute sets the trio played in May 2010 at Manhattan’s Blue Note, awaken welcome echoes of the many ties of influence and collaboration among the six men mentioned above. The historical resonance only deepened when Motian died shortly before the release of this album, a project that thus ties the end of his career to its beginning.
What jazz pianist wouldn’t want to play with a Bill Evans rhythm section? Evans not only pioneered new ways of improvising on modes and new ways of voicing and fingering chords, he also reinvented the piano trio. A lot of pianists talk about making their bassists and drummers near-equal partners in a trio, but Evans actually did it. Between 1959 and 1961, Evans, Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro created a sound in which the bassist took over some of the melodic content and the drummer could be brought up in the mix because he was playing with such restraint, openness and invention.
You wouldn’t want every bassist and drummer to play this way, but neither would you want this approach to pass out of jazz. Corea, Gomez and Motian prove that the Evans trio concept hasn’t been exhausted: It can still provide surprises, especially when Corea brings his personality and strengths to the mix. Further Explorations opens with the Evans composition “Peri’s Scope,” from his very first album with Motian and LaFaro, and it starts off sounding very much like that trio, though Corea has a more percussive attack. Before long, though, Evans’ jaunty theme is broken down, first by Corea’s eighth-note tangents, then by Gomez’s prodding, sprinting bass runs and finally by Motian’s alternating cymbal splashes and kick-drum bombs. The tune thus sets the template for the album: Everything is rooted in Evans but it branches out in directions the late pianist never had the time or the inclination to pursue.
The trio takes the opposite approach on Irving Berlin’s ballad “They Say That Falling in Love Is Wonderful” (never recorded by Evans), beginning with their own sound and working their way back to Evans. Corea’s long piano intro, full of gliding runs and abrupt two-handed chords, is soon shadowed by Gomez’s own runs and Motian’s impressionistic brushwork. Only halfway through does the melody and a swinging momentum finally appear. The trio takes this approach even further on a 10-minute version of Thelonious Monk’s “Little Rootie Tootie,” with abstract experimentation evolving into stop-and-go phrasing and finally into a bop groove. Little pieces of Monk’s theme are dropped here and there, but it’s not till the very end that we hear the song.
If Gomez is the least famous of these three musicians, he is best served by this project, a splendid showcase for his brisk, melodic runs, aggressive improvisation and fat, gorgeous tone-just listen to his intro on “Alice in Wonderland.” On several ballads, such as Evans’ “Laurie” and Motian’s “Mode VI,” Corea mixes in cascading ripples of notes that sound very much like a classical harp and reinforce the tunes’ dreamy romanticism. The biggest surprise of the set is “Song No. 1,” an Evans composition that he never recorded. Dug up by son Evan Evans and archivist Frank Fuchs and transcribed by Corea, this slow, moody number is full of bold gestures that never quite resolve, always darting down new alleys instead.
The highlight of the album, though, is the nine-minute version of “Turn Out the Stars,” Evans’ moving 1966 elegy to his father. It’s perhaps the ultimate example of the composer’s famous melancholia, a mood captured by Gomez’s bowed bass intro and amplified by Corea’s harp phrasing and Motian’s sandpaper brushes. Along the way, however, this trio adds aspects to the piece that Evans never suggested. The agitation that death can cause is evoked by Gomez’s furious sawing, and in the number’s final third, the lingering affection for the departed is conjured up by a jaunty celebration pushed along by Motian’s slap-happy beat. It’s proof that the best tribute to the past is not the recapitulation of old triumphs but the development of leftover, untapped possibilities.