Two agendas come into play on the splendid new all-star jazz releases Further Explorations and Come Sunday. One is exact and purposeful. The other could not have been more unplanned.
Both albums come to us as tributes. Further Explorations honors the music of jazz piano giant Bill Evans. But since these New York performances were recorded at the famed Blue Note, one of the recording's three participants has died. Come Sunday is a quieter but even more reverential nod to traditional hymns and spirituals. Similarly, one of its two co-leaders departed between the album's completion in 2010 and its release last week.
Further Explorations is the sublime concert brainchild of pianist and jazz journeyman Chick Corea. In assembling an Evans tribute for the Blue Note engagement, Corea recruited bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Paul Motian. Both served celebrated tenures with Evans, but not at the same time.
Wisely, the trio shies away from overt imitation of Evans' gifted lyricism. Instead, it embraces a melodic playfulness all its own, starting with the mischievous shuffle that Motian employs to ignite the album-opening Peri's Scope.
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The magic, though, is exerted in the pure warmth of tone that Corea summons on piano that mirrors Evans' instrumental delicacy (and complexity) without blatantly appropriating it. Cases in point: side-by-side readings on Further Explorations' second disc of Corea's giddy Another Tango and the beautiful Evans classic Turn Out the Stars. The former struts to a quirky march, the latter is positively elegiac with Corea playing off Gomez's bowed, chamber-style bass.
Although Evans is the intended honoree (Further Explorations follows his album Explorations by 50 years), the recording also is a memoriam to Motian, who died at age 80 in November. For a crash course in Motion's compositional cunning, give an ear to Mode VI (which precedes Another Tango). It now stands as a tribute to the industrious drummer/band leader as much as it does to Evans.
Come Sunday is the second duet album of spirituals from bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Hank Jones. The first, Steal Away, dates back 17 years.
Like its predecessors, Come Sunday's spiritual streak is gloriously subdued. Jones is a master at conjuring light, spacious piano phrases (a quality Evans also possessed). Such a style is put on lovely display during an immensely emotive (and almost haunting) Going Home.
Throughout the album, Haden largely stays in the passenger seat, adding ultra-tasteful support and unfussy solos to stately versions of The Old Rugged Cross and Were You There When They Crucified My Lord. As a result, the subsequent duets are churchy, inviting and, above all, contemplative.
Jones died in 2010 at age 91. It's hard to imagine a more graceful requiem to his extraordinary career than the elegant spiritual solace of Come Sunday.
Walter Tunis, contributing music writer