Review: Kate Williams Trio/Bristol Ensemble: Bill Evans and the Impressionists at the Bristol Jazz & Blues Festival, Colston Hall

Kate Williams. Bristol Jazz Festival 2014. Photo credit: Ruth Butler

Kate Williams Trio/Bristol Ensemble: Bill Evans and the Impressionists
(Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival, Colston Hall, 9th March 2014. Review by Jon Turney. Photos by Ruth Butler - above - and Mick Destino- below)

Something a little more restrained in the middle of a jazz and blues festival that was heavily (and very enjoyably) weighted toward swing, gospel, funk and all things groovy. Here we are on Sunday afternooon to hear Ravel, Debussy, Satie… and Bill Evans.

The affinities between the French musical impressionists and the lastingly influential pianist inspired this project, which was receiving its world premiere performance, devised by Kate Williams and Bristol Ensemble conductor William Goodchild. As listeners to this LondonJazz News interview/podcast with Kate Williams will know, she happened upon some chord voicings in Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin which were strongly reminiscent of Evans, doubtless a result of his studies at Southeastern Louisiana College in the early 1950s.

That was the seed for a collaboration between Williams’ own piano trio and Goodchild, who between them have arranged a set of Evan’s best known tunes for expanded ensembles. So we hear familiar themes like Song For Helen, Very Early (written while Evans was still a student), Turn out the Stars and 34 Skidoo with backing from the orchestra. The programme also includes Debussy’s Danse, and the four parts of the Ravel (Le Tombeau’s prelude, incidentally, has appealed to at least one other famous jazz musician – being recorded long ago by Gary Burton, playing piano).

If this highlights the role of classical harmonies in jazz, the results sound pleasing rather than surprising. Evans wrote wonderful tunes. The orchestral arrangements are done with a nice, light touch, and performed immaculately by the Bristol players. They never quite swing, although an excellent rendering of Walkin’ Up, arranged by Williams for just the trio and pizzicato strings, comes closest. And there are several trio excursions which certainly do, driven by William’s regular partners Oli Hayhurst on bass and Tristan Mailliot on drums. Two pieces for the trio alone, Time Remembered and Miles’ Nardis, remind us what the stripped down jazz instrumentation can do unassisted by wind and strings.

Overall, this 90 odd minutes of not quite third stream music-making was absorbing, with many quietly thoughtful touches in the playing and arranging, altough perhaps not helped by being so different in mood from most of the other things going on in the festival that surrounds it. The modest audience were very happy, though.

And what do we learn about Bill Evans? I am left with a keener appreciation not of the technical sources of his music, but more for the moods that moved him most deeply. That crystallises during Goodchild’s affecting arrangement of Satie’s Gymnopedie No 3. It has a quality which I associate more strongly with Evans than any other jazz musician. It isn’t the precise harmony, or the way he took trio interaction to new heights. It’s that slightly introverted, bruised romanticism which Evans developed over his entire career. As the whole concert suggests, it is not about the blues, but somehow a more European sensibility. The Satie brings it into focus for one piercing moment – that stays with me after the echoes of all the festive funk have faded.

William Goodchild conducting the Bristol Ensemble
Photo credit: Mick Destino 
The second Interplay presentation of Bill Evans and the Impressionists will be at Milton Hall Concert Hall in London on Monday March 24th, with Kate Williams Trio and musicians from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama conducted by William Goodchild. The series has received support from Arts Council England and is produced by Peter Conway Management

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