Bill Evans is one of the most important pianists in jazz. He attained this stature by playing to his strengths. His distinctive tone at the instrument allowed him to wring large amounts of emotion from just a few notes. Evans was the pianist on Miles Davis’ landmark album Kind of Blue, and in his autobiography, Davis includes an oft-quoted remark that sums up Evans’ sound particularly well: “Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.” The beauty that Davis describes was present from Evans’ work early until the end.
Evans’ career spanned from the mid-1950s to his death in 1980, a time of rupture in the jazz world that saw the birth of free playing and the creation of electric fusion, among other innovations. But Evans barely touched on these developments. Instead, he made his way through these tumultuous decades by performing in familiar settings – mostly trios – and continually refining and expanding his approach to jazz standards. In his case, his unwillingness to chase trends turned out to be a strength. And though his work was beloved by his fellow musicians – his breakthrough album, 1959’s Everybody Digs Bill Evans, featured on its cover testimonials from Davis, Ahmad Jamal, George Shearing, and Cannonball Adderley – his music was unusually accessible and is frequently an early stop on a curious listener’s journey into jazz.
Bill Evans was a diligent student of American popular song, but he also had a deep interest in classical composers, including Chopin and Debussy. He brought his wide-ranging influences to bear on his own compositions. Evans wrote originals steadily throughout his career, and a handful of his tunes eventually became standards. “Very Early” was one of his first pieces, written when he was studying at Southeastern Louisiana University, and it debuted on record on 1962’s Moonbeams, a trio set with bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Paul Motian. After a slow and lyrical opening, it opens up to a mid-tempo groove that finds Evans offering rich and surprising chords.
“Blue in Green,” from Evans’ 1960 album Portrait in Jazz, was cut for Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue the year prior. It was initially said to be written by Davis, but the consensus now is that Evans composed the tune following a prompt from Davis. Evans’ own version, laid down with his classic trio, featuring Scott LaFaro on bass and Motian on drums (more on that band in a moment), drips with mystery and longing.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum is “Waltz for Debby,” a song reminiscent of Rogers and Hammerstein with its bright and bouncy theme. The melody is so irresistible it’s been recorded hundreds of times in different settings. The definitive version comes from the 1961 LP album Know What I Mean?, on which Evans plays and has co-billing with saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. Adderley has an intuitive grasp of the tune and his voicing of the melody is sunlight rendered in sound, and Evans reaches new heights with his solo. “A Simple Matter of Conviction,” the title track from a 1967 trio record with bassist Eddie Gómez and drummer Shelly Manne, shows Evans’ inventiveness on a hard-charging uptempo piece – check the flourish with which he ends his initial solo in order to yield space for Gómez to improvise.
“Turn Out the Stars” is an aching ballad Evans’ regularly returned to throughout his career, and you can hear a terrific early version on Intermodulation, his 1966 duo set with guitarist Jim Hall, a kindred spirit. After an impressionistic opening section, Evans and Hall up the pace slightly and begin an extended conversation that finds them working through the implications of the tune to gorgeous effect. Over the years, Evans also found inspiration in lyrics. “The Two Lonely People,” from Evans’ 1971 trio LP The Bill Evans Album, was written by the pianist and lyricist Carol Hall, and Evans mentioned how much her words shaped his development of the melody.
The Unforgettable Trio
Bill Evans found an inexhaustible store of creative possibility in the stripped-down form of the piano/bass/drum trio, and his work in this setting is his best known. In the waning days of 1959, Evans first entered the studio with bassist LaFaro and drummer Motian, and the group quickly became one of the most important in modern jazz. Evans’ idea was to have the band improvise collectively, rather than the rhythm section supporting the pianist as each soloed in turn. In LaFaro, a superb technician with a far-reaching harmonic imagination, he discovered his ideal partner. “Israel,” from 1961’s Explorations, shows what the trio can do with trickier uptempo material. Listen to how LaFaro adds accents to Evans’ melody in his instrument’s upper register, sometimes seeming to be the pianist’s third hand.
As remarkable as the trio’s studio dates were, the best showcase for their interplay was cut live at New York’s Village Vanguard in June 1961. These astonishing recordings formed the basis for Waltz for Debby and Sunday at the Village Vanguard, two of the finest albums in jazz. They’ve since been compiled and reissued in various configurations many times. From Sunday at the Village Vanguard comes the Cole Porter song “All of You,” given a breezy reading at a fleet tempo. Evans and LaFaro play together like two halves of one musical mind, as Motian’s crisp brushwork and subtle accents give the tune shape.
Just as sublime is the ballad “Some Other Time,” a standard tune Evans would return to throughout his career. His delicate treatment, which finds him focusing more on the right-hand melody as LaFaro extemporizes on the chords, is poetry in sound. Alas, LaFaro died in a car accident shortly after the Village Vanguard date, a monumental loss to music that devastated Evans.
Though Evans’ greatest pleasures as an improviser came when working with other musicians, he cut a handful of solo albums. “Love Theme From Spartacus” comes from 1963’s Conversations With Myself, one of several LPs he cut using multi-tracking to improvise with himself. The swirl of notes gives the piece a harp-like feel, lending the simple romantic tune a layer of grandeur that builds in intensity as it progresses. “Midnight Mood” is a wistful highlight from Alone, Evans’ first album of solo piano, without overdubs. Each hand works independently, and he sounds like his own band.
Evans was so obsessed with the four-note opening refrain of the aforementioned “Some Other Time” he incorporated it into other pieces. One of these was “Flamenco Sketches” from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and another was “Peace Piece,” a solo improvisation over the vamp that takes up nearly seven minutes of Everybody Digs Bill Evans. “Peace Piece” is so beautiful it’s almost painful to hear, as Evans uses sustain and silence to transport the listener to another realm. As it unfolds, it goes from achingly pretty folk-like melodies into dissonance. The piece held a special place for Evans and he never recorded it again.
Bill Evans Interprets Standards
As great a composer as Evans was, much of his most fascinating work came from his lifelong study of standards. He was constantly interrogating the melodic and harmonic implications of his favorite tunes, and he heard possibilities in them other musicians didn’t. In early 1959, using extra studio time following a date with Chet Baker, Evans laid down “On Green Dolphin Street” with bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. The trio had recorded the tune the year before with Miles Davis and their take is laid-back but swings hard, with Evans’ adding off-beat accents to the melody.
In 1962, Evans cut “My Funny Valentine” for Undercurrents, his first album with guitarist Jim Hall. Some give the piece a languid treatment, but Evans and Hall find joy in a rhythmic give-and-take, where one player will present a phrase as a question that the other answers. “Stella by Starlight,” cut live in May 1963, is a terrific showcase for Evans’ melodic thinking, as he solos in a linear, horn-like manner that brings to mind Bud Powell.
The following year, Evans formed a brilliant trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Motian, and they recorded Trio ’64, which featured a lovely reading of “Everything Happens to Me” as the last cut. Evans seems energized by Peacock’s bass articulation, which often sounds guitar-like with his upper-register runs, and he draws a great deal of longing out of the original melody. By 1968, Evans included bassist Eddie Gómez and young drummer Jack DeJohnette in a new trio, and they joined him on a European tour that eventually yielded the live album on Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival. “I Loves You Porgy,” another tune that never left Evans’ book, comes from that record, but on that particular recording the rhythm section sprawls out, allowing Evans to tell a story that veers from ache to triumph and back again.
Though Evans continued to work primarily in a trio setting throughout the 70s, there were plenty of non-trio highlights. One such LP was his terrific first album with singer Tony Bennett, and another was Crosscurrents, cut in early 1977 with saxophonists Lee Konitz (alto) and Wayne Marsh (tenor), alongside Evans’ trio members Eddie Gomez (bass) and Elliot Zigmund (drums). Konitz and Marsh first made their mark working together alongside pianist and theoretician Lennie Tristano, whose unique approach to harmony was an important influence on Evans, and their presence gives Evans’ performance a bit of edge – you can hear him exerting energy to keep his balance amid the sax players’ unusual harmonic excursions.
Recorded that same year, but not issued until later, was You Must Believe in Spring, a terrific trio album with Gomez and Zigmund. Evans’ playing on the gorgeous title track is soft and patient, stretching the contours of the melody to squeeze extra pathos from each chord change.
Also featured on You Must Believe in Spring is Evans’ take on “Suicide Is Painless,” the theme from the hit TV show M*A*S*H. Evans was fanatically devoted to the show, and often requested to watch it backstage before gigs on nights it aired (incidentally, Evans was drafted into the service in 1951 during the Korean War but served in bands stateside). On an early run-through of the piece he kept the tempo in check to enhance its inherent melancholy, but live he would play it much faster and turn it into a flowing vehicle for improvisation.
On Getting Sentimental, recorded in early 1978 at the Village Vanguard, Zigmund’s drums are high in the mix and pushing the song forward as Evans comps excitedly, ripping off imaginative runs as he toys with the structure of the chords with his left hand. He sounds joyful and engaged, but by this time, life offstage was a struggle. And, eventually, Evans’ chronic health problems caught up with him a few years later. After a week-long residency in San Francisco and an appearance on the “Merv Griffin Show,” he played the first of several planned gigs in New York and then canceled the rest. Evans was hospitalized with a hemorrhaging ulcer and died on September 15, 1980, age 51.
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