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What’s On Your Playlist: Falkner Evans

By Christian Wissmuller

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Originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, Falkner Evans is an extraordinary New York-based jazz pianist with an eclectic musical background. A third cousin to iconic author William Faulkner, Evans grew up on classic ‘60s rock and R&B before getting hooked on jazz in high school. After touring for four years with the Grammy-winning western swing band Asleep At The Wheel, he moved to New York City in 1985.

In 2001, Evans made his debut as a leader with Level Playing Field. Two more trio recordings followed – Climbing the Gates and ARC – before Evans expanded his horizons in 2011 with the quintet outing, The Point Of The Moon. His 2020 release of Marbles continues to highlight his deftly tailored compositions and his singular voice on the piano.

1. Keith Jarrett The Melody at Night with You

The music on this record is some of the most heartfelt, unrushed, and beautiful I have ever heard.

Jarrett plays standards along with some surprises – “Shenandoah,” “My Wild Irish Rose!” Jarrett only improvises on one tune, Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad.” It’s a beautifully constructed improvisation that goes in and out of the chord changes. A dramatic reading of “I’m Through with Love” inspired me to record the tune, myself. It hardly matters what Jarrett plays here. He owns the music. In this case, the melody is all that’s needed. I have had several conversations with fellow musicians who didn’t “get” the record. They felt that Jarrett’s playing wasn’t aggressive enough. He was very sick when this music was recorded. Perhaps some people’s opinions were affected by that reality.  To me, Jarrett still lays it out in a timeless fashion. I love this record.

2. John ColtraneCrescent

The Coltrane quartet at its peak! Trane wrote all the music for this record. The title tune, Crescent, is at once beautiful and relentless. His playing surges on this track, propelling the entire group forward. The playing of recently departed McCoy Tyner, one of the most influential pianists in his own right, is dark and astonishing, especially on “Wise One.” The relatively short track “Bessie’s Blues” is buoyantly swinging. The group seems to enjoy romping through this straightforward blues. This was the last classic quartet record before Coltrane entered an entirely new phase in his career, and he never looked back. He only played what he saw and felt. I have always found Coltrane’s music mysterious and spiritual. My first exposure to him happened when I was in high school, and that experience got me into jazz. I could listen to this recording every day.

3. Till FellnerDas Wohltemperierte Klavier

Not jazz, but harmonies for the ages. This pianist displays a wonderful touch. Of course, this music has been recorded by countless musicians over the years. What sets Fellner’s interpretation apart is that he plays the preludes on the piano instead of the clavier – a wise choice in my opinion. Fellner achieves a dynamic result that is much different than what the clavier, which doesn’t have sustain pedals, can produce. Fellner also conveys his own personal vision of this obvious masterpiece – a valuable lesson. This is seamless music played by an enthusiastic advocate of Bach. It is hard to believe these works were composed in the 1700s. When people say that Bach is the father of all music, here is the proof. As a pianist, I can attest that playing Bach will certainly clean up your technique!

4. Roland Hanna – Roland Hanna Plays the Music of Alec Wilder 

I originally bought this record when record shops were still plentiful! Even then the CD was hard to find because it was a Japanese import. I have been a longtime fan of Alec Wilder’s impressionistic music. Many people have heard his tunes without realizing who the composer is. “While We’re Young” and “I’ll Be Around” have become standards. This music is so familiar that nobody thinks about how the tunes originally came about. Did they write themselves?!?  Roland Hanna gets to the heart of Wilder’s music with his dazzling solo playing. The second track on the album, “Mimosa and Me,” is joyful and swinging. “It’s So Peaceful” could only have been written by Wilder. Hanna extracts deep harmonies from this graceful piece. I originally heard Hanna at The Village Gate playing with The New York Jazz Quartet, and I have always been struck by his versatility. A bonus – vocalist Helen Merrill joins Hanna for the hauntingly beautiful “The Sounds Around the House,” which ends the record. Delightful, visual stuff. Search for this album and you will be rewarded.

5. Miles Davis – Miles In The Sky 

In 1968 change was sweeping America and the Davis quintet was changing as well. It’s obvious that the sounds of that turbulent time had influenced Miles and he was hearing things in a different way. Miles decided to make a real departure from what he had been doing. An example of this change, the Davis original, “Stuff,” opens the record. I love the rhythmic groove of this tune and the way the melody almost seems to roll over on itself. From what I have read, this was the first time Herbie Hancock played electric piano. It wouldn’t be the last. Hancock was the inspiration for me buying my first Fender Rhoades. The Wayne Shorter composition “Paraphernalia” is wide open, and the group takes its time and sits on the melody, leading up to the dramatic time changes. Although there are outstanding solos from all quintet members, the compositions really shine. This record is about originality  There are only four tunes on this monumental recording. I wonder how that went down at Columbia Records!

6. Marilyn Crispell – Vignettes 

Marilyn Crispell’s playing is so natural. I love this record for its achingly beautiful simplicity. At times it is folkloric. Track two, “Valse Triste,” is outstanding for its global vibe. This approach is appealing to me. As a jazz musician, I think we can get hung up in a harmonic limbo when a dominant 7th chord is all we need. Crispell’s music is classically influenced and always accessible. I was fortunate to see her in a trio setting with Mark Helias and the great Paul Motion a few years ago at the Village Vanguard. The trio played a combination of structured and loose compositions, much like the music on this record. A wonderful gig! There is nothing forced about this almost painterly music. Another ECM record with an amazing piano sound. Crispell is a great example of an artist letting the music breathe in daring fashion.

7. Rick Germanson – Turquoise Twice 

This pianist has great taste and a wonderful touch. The disc showcases Germanson’s original compositions, along with his interpretations of standards including the Bill Evans tune “Very Early.” I love the way this tune unfolds – it’s like two compositions circling and connecting. Not an easy tune to play. But Germanson seems at home and never over-reaches. “Thanks for What,” one of his originals, is delightful. The trio grooves. The mood is up and straight-ahead. You also have a top-notch rhythm section with Gerald Cannon on bass and the great Willie Jones III on drums who produced the record. The music is mainstream jazz and shows great depth on repeated listenings. The album closes with “Ann Elizabeth,” another original. The playing is spare. This tune is all about the melody and the rich harmonies that Germanson coaxes from the piano. Refined and swinging piano trio music.

8. Eric Revis – Sing Me Some Cry 

Eric Revis has put together a uniquely rhythmic and starkly beautiful record. To be honest, I have never heard anything quite like it. Revis is probably best known as the bassist in Branford Marsalis’s quartet. This music is a departure from the music that group plays. It is apparent that all four musicians on this record understand Revis’s vision. There are so many highs here. The tune Good Company showcases Kris Davis’s soulful, kinetic playing. Sure, there are echoes of Cecil Taylor and Don Pullen, but she clearly has her own voice at the piano. The quartet is playful as Revis’s walking bass line anchors the music. “Solstice….The Girls” is an impressionistic march and features the underheard Ken Vandermark on clarinet. I love the spiritual vibe which is like the darkness before the sun comes up. As in all great art, there is an element of magic here. Deeply original, enlightening, and fun.

9. John Coltrane – Stellar Regions

This is late-period Coltrane recorded five months before his death, and quite different from what he had been doing in his final years. Coltrane’s focus was moving away from the long free-for-alls that we heard in the previous year of 1966. This music is concise and almost gentle at times. I can’t imagine why it took so long to get this recording released, but it was well worth the wait. This music offers a glimpse into the evolution of Coltrane and his constant search to move forward. “Seraphic Light” opens the record with a B minor theme. It is fascinating to listen to Coltrane’s thought process on this tune and the following ten tracks. With the exception of “Sun Star,” the tunes are relatively short. Not much happens when Coltrane is not playing, but when he steps into the music, the results are majestic. I am particularly interested in listening to musicians who are on the brink of transition. 53 years later this music is still fresh and joyful.   

10. Dave McKenna – Dave McKenna In Madison 

I believe this record should be required listening for all pianists. I was fortunate to see McKenna live on several occasions in various venues. Even though some of the events were formal concerts, like his impressive appearance at the JVC New York Jazz Festival, he seemed to prefer a smaller “saloon” atmosphere, never minding conversations among audience members. At many gigs, even ones in churches, his wife was always there selling CDs in the back. McKenna wore his heart on his sleeve and it shows in his playing, which harkens back to the days of two-handed pianists. Just listen to his take on “You’re Driving Me Crazy.” It is all about feeling and melody here. In this sense I have been influenced by him in my own solo playing. The album was recorded in the back room of a piano store. When Timothy Farley, the owner of Farley’s House of Pianos, approached McKenna he told him that other pianists called the piano he would be recording on “the voice of God.” Here’s the proof. The rousing “Time After Time” finale is alone worth the price of the album. It is hard being in a bad mood when listening to this music. Uplifting!      

Falkner Evans’ latest album, Marbles (Coordinated Artists Productions), was released on April 17, 2020. www.falknerevans.com

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