The Piano Jazz Trio

Most often, the term piano jazz trio refers to a group that consists of a pianist, a double bass player and a drummer. The pianist is normally the group’s leader and such trios are usually named after their pianist.

A famous example of a piano jazz trio is the Bill Evans Trio. Evans was on piano, with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums.

Up until his death in 1980, Evans had achieved recognition as one of the most influential American jazz pianists of the 20th century. His jazz trio made great use of impressionist harmony and was constantly inventive in its interpretation of the traditional jazz repertoire. He influenced a generation of jazz pianists.

Growing up in the 1930s and 40s in Plainfield, New Jersey, Evans’ mother (of Russian ancestry) was an amateur pianist who played modern classical composers. This exposure quickly led to Evans’ training in classical piano. By the age of 13, Evans had also become proficient in flute as well as he had taken up the violin. Being left-handed probably explains why he developed such a rich low end in his sound, which would become a trademark sound for his jazz trio.

After earning a degree in piano performance and teaching from Southeastern Louisiana University in 1950, Evans did a stint in the army before returning to New York’s nightlife where the jazz trio scene was making its mark.

During the 1950s in New York, Evans emerged as a sideman in traditional and what became know as Third Stream jazz bands. The jazz trio itself also began to gain momentum in its popularity.

When 1956 arrived, Evans arrived, too. He produced his debut album, “New Jazz Conceptions,” which featured the original version of “Waltz for Debby.” No longer was Evans playing second fiddle. Even though producer Orrin Keepnews had to push the reluctant Evans to record, the new kid-on-the-block’s time had come.

Two years passed and in 1958 Evans was hired by Miles Davis—and became the only white member of his well-known sextet. It was Miles himself who stated, “Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got, was like water cascading down from some clear waterfall.”

As a jazz trio, Bill Evan’s ensemble breakout came at the beginning of the 1960s. The group of Evans, Scott LaFaro,and Paul Motian were on their way to becoming one of the most praised piano trios of all time. With this jazz trio, the concentration was on traditional jazz standards and original compositions, resulting in a sound that involved interplay among the band members and quite often approached collective improvisation, blurring the line between accompanist and solo artist. Simply put, this jazz trio raised the bar.

Of notable comment is the interaction that developed between Evans and LaFaro, his young bassist. The collaboration proved to be unusually fruitful, leading this jazz trio to record four albums. Two of these albums, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debbie, were recorded live and are considered to among the greatest jazz trio recordings of all time.

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