Bill Evans and Jim Hall

album cover

Summit Meeting, No Grandstanding

What happens to jazz when the drummer and the bass player take five? Does the music go all gooey and formless, a balladic tone painting? In the case of Undercurrent, one of the most famous piano-guitar conversations in music history, the opposite occurs: Pianist Bill Evans and guitarist Jim Hall discover just how intense jazz rhythm can be when it is implied (and danced around) rather than overtly stated.

The two start with "My Funny Valentine," which is usually played as a slow ballad but here moves at a demandingly brisk medium swing. The opening chorus features Hall. Instead of providing conventional backing, Evans throws Hall a series of short stop-time chordal jabs, each landing on a jarring offbeat. Hall responds with sentence fragments that bounce off the syncopations yet somehow maintain the tempo. Then the tasks are reversed, and Hall takes a different approach in the supporting role—he uses florid, open-ended chords to lure the pianist into a more contemplative state. Again the tempo isn't strictly followed. But it's always there—as a steady undercurrent, the driving taskmaster of a drummer who's felt but not heard.

Evans and Hall both have unflappably solid notions of time, and they behave like dancers freed from the tyranny of a chorus line. They're also expert listeners, and unlike most summit meetings of jazz heavyweights, this collection (and a 1966 postscript, Intermodulation) is a lesson in restraint. On each of these extended conversations, from the syrup-slow "I Hear a Rhapsody" to the yearning "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You," the two slide between soloist and accompanist roles, taking turns extending and reinventing the themes. Theirs is jazz interaction at its most elemental, stripped of gratuitous razzle-dazzle.

Genre: Jazz
Released: 1962, Blue Note
Key Tracks: "My Funny Valentine" (both takes), "I Hear a Rhapsody"
Catalog Choice: Intermodulation
Next Stop: Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron: Sempre amore
Book Pages: 264–265

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