Falkner Evans Trio: Climbing the Gates
New York jazz pianist Falkner Evans once again joins forces with bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Matt Wilson on the second Falkner Evans Trio album, Climbing the Gates, a fresh approach to mainstream jazz with some diverse play upon the tradition. The CD is full of music that features what Evans calls "complex structures with discernible melodies laid over the top, and lots of improvisation."
JazzReview: Discuss your eclectic musical background growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from your high school days to the time you moved to New York in 1985.
Falkner Evans: When I was in high school, I had a group together and I became really interested in Bob Dylan, The Band and Van Morrison, that kind of music. Also around that time though, I started listening to John Coltrane, Miles Davis and things like that. I just loved that stuff! I never dreamed I would become a jazz player though. I thought it was above me. Then out of high school, my group was playing things like Chicago and Blood, Sweet & Tears, all the jazz-influenced rock groups. So we started adding in some jazz songs to the set and that just started snowballing into becoming a full-time instrumental jazz band. The group was called Essence and we were very successful. In the seventies, we were playing five nights a week in Oklahoma! This is a real feat.
Then I got a call from Ray Vincent to join Asleep At the Wheel (one of the top western swing bands). I did that, not so much that I was in love with their music, but just to get out of Tulsa and see the world. There was a lot of road work; I really got to see a lot of the world with that group. Then in 1984, I left the group and went back to Tulsa. The writing was on the wall, because I had always loved New York. In 1975 through 1977, I would travel to New York to study with pianist Dan Hurley, who used to work with Clark Terry. I just loved New York and I told myself one day I am going to move here--and in 1985, I just did it.
JazzReview: How has your diverse musical background shaped your playing as a jazz pianist?
Falkner Evans: It is something that is very subtle, but it is there. I think that playing in all those groups not only influenced my playing, but my writing too. I don’t think that you can escape the things you grow up with.
JazzReview: Would it be correct to say that it gave you a more lyrical style of playing?
Falkner Evans: It did. Like I said, it’s something you can’t get away from. I remember right before I did my first album, I was having dinner with drummer Matt Wilson and he said, "You should think about those times when you were with Asleep at the Wheel and draw on those influences." I told him, "I do because I can’t escape them!" (Laughs) whether I like it or not!
JazzReview: What qualities in your personality have enabled you to achieve such success as a musician?
Falkner Evans: Well, I hope I have a good personality. I am someone that is easy to get along with; I don’t try to be a dictator on gigs. Especially with people like Matt Wilson and Cecil McBee, it is far beyond me to tell them what to do. It is interesting, especially here in New York, personality plays a big part in who gets the call for the gig. For the most part, everybody I’ve been involved has been just great.
JazzReview: How do you keep music fun?
Falkner Evans: That is a very good question! I do a lot of solo work in New York and that is challenging to keep things fresh. I remember reading that Keith Jarrett, well of course he has the luxury of doing this, goes three or four months with out touching the piano, just to get out of patterns. Keeping it fresh is something that is difficult, especially playing solo piano. When I play with a group, I play off the musicians. Whereas when are playing solo piano, it is tough to make it fresh. Keeping it fresh is essential though, otherwise that gets out to the audience.
JazzReview: That brings me to your latest project, which will be your 2nd CD. Can you tell us about the new Falkner Evans Trio Climbing the Gates release on CAP records?
Falkner Evans: Yes, we did it out at a great studio called Systems II in Brooklyn, and Michael Marciano did the engineering. It is all direct live-to-two-track and the piano there is just great! I also did my first CD there and we also have a third one in the can. I am really pleased with Climbing the Gates. We are getting a lot of great feedback about the choice of the standards we used. The lesser known ones like "October" by Milton Nascimento or "I’m Through With Love" by Sam Kahn. I thought the originals turned out great also.
With this CD I was really trying to get into the writing aspect of music. When I wrote the stuff I thought it would be impossible to play. We had a rehearsal, and with players like Matt and Cecil it was nothing, they where able to not only read the chart, but interpret it to make it musical. They also had great musical ideas about some of the music and how it should be. I thought it just turned out great.
JazzReview: The traditional piano trio has a magical purity in the jazz lineage. Can you discus your own unique way of approaching playing in the trio?
Falkner Evans: I approach it with a really open mind. I want the moment to happen. I try and be as free and flexible as I can be.
JazzReview: Can you tell us about your bassist, Cecil McBee, and his role in the trio?
Falkner Evans: I’ve known Cecil for a long time. We are both from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He told me to look him up if I ever moved to New York City. So when I moved here in 1985, I did. He was playing at the old Sweet Basil on 7th avenue with Chico Freeman and Billy Hart. It was my first week in town and he put me on the guest list to come hear them play. So I went and the first thing he said was, "You’re gonna sit in, aren’t you?" And I thought, "Boy, I hope they call a blues!" They were playing some very complex tunes. Anyway, I sat in on a couple of tunes and we’ve been really good friends ever since then. It is not just about the music either; we will get together for dinner and have great talks. He is a great person and I have a lot of respect for him.
JazzReview: I have had the opportunity to watch him perform many times, and he would always take the music to new and exciting places, and you could tell everyone in the group would be saying. "Wow! This is new; we’ve never been here before!"
Falkner Evans: Oh yeah! I remember the trio was playing an afternoon brunch gig and we where playing the tune "Our Love is Here to Stay" and Cecil was playing this incredible solo for like three or four choruses, and then he stopped in the middle of it and looked at Matt and I and he said, "You know what I mean?" (Laughs) I almost fell off the bench!
JazzReview: Can you tell us about your drummer, Matt Wilson, and his role in the trio?
Falkner Evans: I’ve know Matt for about ten years now, and there is another geographical link here, Matt’s wife is from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Matt is a great guy. The thing I like about Matt is that he is just so creative. I just love his drumming and his personality. We always have fun together.
JazzReview: You penned five of the nine compositions on Climbing the Gates. Can you tell us about your compositional process and site a few examples within the new CD?
Falkner Evans: I love tunes that are simple, but deceptively so. I use the words "deep simple" to describe it. In the tune "Climbing the Gates," the changes are fairly complex, but the melody is very simple. I like to be able to bring that to a listener because that is something they can hear the first time through. The complex changes allow for repeated listening and provides more depth to the music.
Writing is not easy for me. It takes me a long time to write a tune. I find it really rewarding though. On the jazz scene today, I don’t find a lot of really great writing. There is a lot of stuff that sounds like exercises; lots of time changes and modulations and stuff like that, but not a lot of tunes that just really grab you and make you remember them. Writes like Horace Silver or Wayne Shorter, I don’t here a lot of that right now.
JazzReview: Speaking of writing and on a side note here, your third cousin is the famous novelist William Faulkner.
Falkner Evans: That’s correct. He was incredibly talented and totally into the arts. I actually have a floor to ceiling length mirror that was in William Faulkner’s house. I just finished a biography on Faulkner and he talks in it about how much he hated to write and that it was really unrewarding. In a way, I can relate to that!
JazzReview: How does this release represent an evolution in your music and the trio as a unit compared to your first release, Level Playing Field?
Falkner Evans: I just hope it is deeper and more genuine. I am pleased with the way everything came off. I thought everyone really brought their best to the session.
JazzReview: How would you describe the music on Climbing the Gates to someone that has never heard you or the trio play?
Falkner Evans: Mainstream jazz with some eclectic twists to it. Tunes like "Floating From Florence" have a very non-jazz like sound quality. I like that. We get so hung up on the jazz canon as it were, that every thing has to sound a certain way. You have to break out of that sometimes.
JazzReview: In your opinion and experiences, what qualities do all great improvising musicians have in common?
Falkner Evans: Daring! I think that taking chances and not being afraid of being simple is a part of that daringness too.
JazzReview: What is next for Falkner Evans?
Falkner Evans: I have a new CD that we just did with Matt Wilson on drums and I used a different bass player, Belden Bullock. I met him about ten or twelve years ago and I just love the feeling that he gets. We will be releasing the CD sometime around the middle of July.
JazzReview: Does it contain all originals?
Falkner Evans: No, you won’t believe this, but it ended up being just like Level Playing Field, with four standards and five originals and a solo piece at the end. I do a solo rendition of Kurt Weil’s "Lost in the Stars." I am really pleased with it.
JazzReview: Is there anything else you would like to add to our conversation here today?
Falkner Evans: I hope everyone enjoys the CD!
For further information on tour dates and sound samples please visit the CAP website: http://www.jazzbeat.com