Monday, August 23, 2010

Israels On Israel

Say what you want about Chuck Israels as a musician; as a man, he must be applauded for his sheer guts. I happen to hardily admire Israels as a bassist, particularly his 1960s work with Bill Evans -- the gig that, like it or not, Israels will be most remembered for. A straightforward player with a sturdy tone and an ever musical imagination, Israels nonetheless never stood a chance when it came to critical reputations. His guts had much to do with that. In 1962 Israels took on one of the most challenging roles a jazz player has ever placed him or her self in. After the sudden death of the bassist Scott LaFaro, his employer, Bill Evans fell into an understandable funk. LaFaro had not only revolutionized the role of the jazz bass, granting it an unprecedented independence, he and Evans (as well as trio mate drummer Paul Motian) had also developed a group concept that similarly liberated established roles within a small group. With his colossal technical skills and fearless inventiveness, LaFaro was a phenomenon who, like Jimmy Blanton, showed what could and should be done, and then, in the blink of an eye, was gone.
Who could replace LaFaro? Who would want want to? It was a thankless job, but someone had to do it. Enter Israels, who, while influenced by LaFaro, as was every open-eared young bassist, was already quite comfortable with his own more conventional style. He urged Evans to resume playing and became the anchor of the pianist's trio, with only intermittent gaps, between 1962 and 1966.
Israels was no revolutionary like LaFaro, but he remained a dependable and engaging player during his entire tenure with Evans. One of my favorite bass solos is his fleet and melodic turn on Johnny Carisis' "Israel," the beautifully crafted blues he recorded with Evans and drummer Larry Bunker on "Trio '65". (Numerous polished solos and solid accompaniment by Israels can be heard on other significant Evans recordings including the stunning "At Town Hall.") Bassist Eddie Gomez comes on board in 1966. According to Evans himself, as well as a legion of fans, Gomez's entrance signals an artist rebirth for the pianist. I tend to believe that Gomez, with assistance from early 70s Ron Carter, sends the acoustic bass into a maelstrom it has yet to ascend from, but that's another story ...

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