By Michael Katz
Jazz on the Westside found a cozy nook to curl up in Monday night, as radio station KCRW presented an Up Close event with pianist Alan Pasqua and music host Tom Schnabel at the New Roads School in Santa Monica. The goal of the evening, a one hour tour of the history of jazz piano, was nothing if not ambitious – it takes Ken Burns an hour just to say hello. And unlike Burns, Messrs. Pasqua and Schnabel elected not to leave out everything after 1950. The idea was to focus on a dozen or so icons, and naturally there were a few interesting inclusions and omissions. Most enjoyably, there was some exquisite solo playing by Pasqua, particularly in celebration of a new CD dedicated to Bill Evans.
Pasqua began with a nod to Jellyroll Morton. Playing a brief version of “Tomcat Blues,” circa 1920, he gave the audience a demonstration of how Morton moved the music from its ragtime roots to the edge of stride and what would become the trademark sound of Louis Armstrong and others. Progressing to the era of Basie and Ellington, Pasqua discussed how Duke used his piano style to recreate the full sound of his orchestra, through brief interludes of “Take The A Train” and “Sophisticated Lady.”
There are certain players who can’t be left out in a Tour De Jazz Piano: Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Errol Garner. Their contributions are found in various combinations of brilliant compositions and technical and harmonic stylings. Monk, in particular, has a trove of compositions that invite contemporary interpretation. Given the relatively brief time of the show, it was nice that Pasqua chose to explore one Monk tune fully. He filled in the opening bridge of “Round Midnight” with a flourish and extended the standard with his own lively adaptation. Whereas with Bud Powell, he discussed jazz contrafact, demonstrating how Powell took the chord changes from “How High The Moon” and converted them to his own dense style in Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology.”
The one name that most in the audience were unfamiliar with was Jaki Byard, best known for his work with Eric Dolphy and, through much of the sixties, Charles Mingus. More significantly to this evening, he was a teacher and mentor to Alan Pasqua, so if his presence in this list seems slightly biased, that’s quite all right. “Tribute To The Ticklers” was a nod to Fats Waller and the stride pianists. It is noteworthy that in the turbulent sixties, when Byard wrote this piece, he was able to reach backwards and create something contemporary, a reminder that jazz is a living time machine, able to go in every direction in ways unlike most other musical forms.
There were nods to others, including McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, and time constraints didn’t allow Pasqua to get to Dave McKenna and Keith Jarrett. Not surprisingly there were some notable omissions, most obviously Dave Brubeck. Pasqua allowed in the Q and A afterward that he didn’t think he could attempt to approach Brubeck without a rhythm section, though I don’t think you can leave him out of the conversation. Same with Oscar Peterson, ditto Mary Lou Williams. And the show’s format had such a resemblance to Marion McPartland’s Piano Jazz series, that she probably deserved a mention as well.
I’ve left Bill Evans for last, because he’s such a clear influence on Pasqua. There was a brief quote from “Green Dolphin Street,” followed by a lovely medley of Evans’ composition “Very Early,” and his classic interpretation of “Sleepin’ Bee.” Evans’ use of harmonics, his ability to sound almost lush and yet breathtakingly simple at the same time, challenge any type of written transposition. Pasqua’s new CD Two Piano Music is a nod to Evans’ Conversations With Myself, consisting of dual solo piano tracks. Pasqua’s composition “Grace” is on that CD, and that is how he concluded the hour long performance Monday night.
KCRW host Schnabel provided a bright counterpoint throughout the evening, offering a wealth of jazz knowledge to go along with Pasqua’s own musical history. He’s planning a similar evening focusing on Brazilian music later on this year, and that is good news for jazz fans in Santa Monica, and one assumes listeners of KCRW as well.
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