Bill Evans

TrackAlbum
Blue In GreenKind Of Blue
Peace PieceEverybody Digs Bill Evans
IsraelExplorations
Gloria's StepSunday At The Village Vanguard
My Man's Gone NowIntermodulation
Never Let Me GoAlone
NardisAt The Montreux Jazz Festival
Quiet NowAt The Montreux Jazz Festival
A Face Without A NameIntuition
Some Other TimeThe Tony Bennett / Bill Evans Album

Bill Evans photo

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Contributor: David Tanner

So, cards on the table. I’m not a musician, I don’t play an instrument. If you want a technical explanation of Bill Evans use of the “locked hand” technique, it won’t be found here. For me jazz and, in particular, the music of Bill Evans engenders an emotional response. With that proviso here is my primer on the great jazz pianist, ten tracks featuring his work solo, duo and in his award winning trios.

Bill Evans was born in 1929, in New Jersey, and studied the piano from an early age, with twentieth century classical music being an early influence on him.

It’s via Miles Davis (see Toppermost #157) that many people – including myself – were introduced to him:

“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. I had to change the way the band sounded again for Bill’s style by playing different tunes, softer ones at first.”
Miles Davis (“Miles: The Autobiography”)

Bill Evans joined Miles Davis’s band in April 1958, but only stayed a few months, returning early in 1959 to record the sessions that would become one of the most famous and influential jazz albums of all time.

Kind Of Blue, the seminal 1959 album by Miles Davis showcased the talents of pianist Bill Evans, especially on Blue In Green accredited to Miles on the album, though later versions give Davis-Evans as the composers. Here are the hallmarks of Evans style; impressionistic, melodic and space, acres of space.

Before returning to record with Miles Davis, Evans recorded his second album, Everybody Digs Bill Evans. Peace Piece is a solo piano track of great beauty, based around an improvisation on the first chords of Some Other Time from the Bernstein musical On The Town. Miles Davis liked it so much he reused it on the Kind Of Blue track, Flamenco Sketches.

In late 1959, Evans formed his first and arguably greatest trio with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. Explorations (1961) is probably my favourite Evans album and featured this new trio. Israel has a ridiculously catchy tune and wonderful interplay between the musicians, a hallmark of this trio.

In 1961, Sunday At The Village Vanguard was released by the same trio, often listed as one of the greatest jazz albums of all time. I was torn here between the sprightly opener Gloria’s Step and the modal majesty of My Man’s Gone Now. However, Gloria’s Step won out with its uplifting melodic groove and the supreme brushwork of Paul Motian.

Sadly, ten days after this album was recorded, LaFaro died in a car accident and Bill Evans withdrew in shock and grief and stopped performing for several months.

Emerging eventually back into the jazz world, Evans formed a new trio in 1962 with bassist Chuck Israel and drummer Paul Motian – eventually replaced by Larry Bunker. Critics agree that his output during this period was erratic, possibly due to his growing heroin habit, started back in the late 1950s. He described his addiction as:

“… like death and transfiguration. Every day you wake in pain like death and then you go out and score, and that is transfiguration. Each day becomes all of life in microcosm.” Gene Lees “Meet Me At Jim & Andy’s: Jazz Musicians And Their World” (1988).

In 1966, Bill got together with guitarist Jim Hall and recorded Intermodulation, the follow up to their successful 1963 duo album, Undercurrents. My Man’s Gone Now is a perfect distillation of the duo’s work, each complementing the other as they weave around the lyrical melody.

Still searching for the perfect trio sound, the Puerto Rican bassist Eddie Gomez joined Bill Evans in 1966 and would remain for the next eleven years. At last, Evans had found a worthy replacement for the much missed Scott LaFaro.

As well as his trio and duo work, Bill Evans made many solo recordings; my particular favourite is 1968’s Alone and especially the track Never Let Me Go, an introspective exploration that never flags through its gorgeous fourteen minutes.

The trio performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1968, with the explosive Jack DeJohnette on drums. Luckily, the performance was recorded and went on to win a Grammy for Best Instrumental Album. Nardis was recorded many times by Bill Evans especially in his last performances, but this is my favourite version. It’s fronted – after the theme – by a bass solo from Gomez, though this is Evans in fine rollicking funky style. For a contrast and from the same album we have Quiet Now, a meditative solo performance of great subtlety.

In 1970, Evans and his wife were caught at JFK airport with a suitcase containing heroin. They were not charged, however they did have to start methadone treatment. This was surprisingly successful and friends and fans commented on a more relaxed and communicative pianist while off heroin.

Away from the trio, one of his finest albums is 1974’s Intuition, a duo with his long term bass player Eddie Gomez. A Face Without A Name finds them enjoying the space and freedom of a duo with great interplay between the pair.

The following year gave us the apparently unlikely pairing of Bill Evans and Tony Bennett. However, the resulting album was a tour de force with the stripped down setting bringing the best out of both artists, particularly Bennett.

Some Other Time returns to the song from On The Town used by both Evans and Miles Davis in the past on different tunes (Peace Piece and Flamenco Sketches respectively). Bennett’s world-weary, wracked vocal performance perfectly complements Evans’ piano.

Where has the time all gone to
Haven’t done half the things we want to
Oh well, we’ll catch up some other time

From now on until his death in 1980, for me, his performances go downhill, possibly influenced by his new drug of choice, cocaine. Many people praise his later performances, especially Turn Out The Stars: The Final Village Vanguard Recordings. In my opinion all the subtlety and melody that was a hallmark of his earlier work, has gone, replaced with a clinical, technical approach that leaves me cold. Compare and contrast these two versions of Nardis, the first from 1966 and the second from 1978.

 

 

Bill Evans, like many jazz artists of the time, has left us a huge collection of studio and live recordings and I hope these ten inspire you to explore more. After Miles Davis, he’s the artist I have the most albums by, which says a lot for his long lasting appeal to me and many other jazz fans.

 

 

Bill Evans (1929–1980)
Scott LaFaro (1936–1961)
Paul Motian (1931–2011)
Jim Hall (1930–2013)
Larry Bunker (1928–2005)

 

Bill Evans official website

The Bill Evans webpages

Bill Evans Trio – Blue In Green (1962)

Bill Evans Trio – complete last performance (1979)

Bill Evans biography (iTunes)

David Tanner hails originally from South Wales and spent 40 years working as a librarian – the last 30 in Yorkshire – and is now happily retired in France. There are not many music genres he doesn’t like and he’s never stopped seeking out good music. Always another unknown band around the corner! He writes about music and random culture at Other Formats Are Available.

TopperPost #511

4 Comments

  1. David Shaw
    Apr 5, 2016

    Nicely done! Evans is frequently overlooked because his playing was “too cool.” No other pianist had his command of internal chord voicings.

  2. Ian Ashleigh
    Apr 11, 2016

    Many thanks for this essay and the selections. I’ve enjoyed listening to the list and other music that I’ve found recorded by Bill Evans. On the strength of hearing Peace Piece (which is sublime), a friend of mine has ordered the 6 disc box set from e-bay.

    • John Chamberlain
      Apr 19, 2016

      Very enjoyable read. So difficult to know what to select. Never let me go, a favourite of mine. (Do listen to the Nancy Wilson vocal)

  3. Ian Ashleigh
    Apr 20, 2016

    An adjunct to my comment above, my friend Mark posted this on Facebook today: Special thanks to Ian Ashleigh for introducing me to the fabulous Bill Evans (1929-80): just bought a boxed set of 12 albums on 6 CDs. Nearly eight hours of bliss for a tenner!

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