on 26 October 2011
Bill Evans is rightly acknowledged as one of the greatest Jazz pianists of all time. He mostly performed and recorded in the Piano trio format, going through many different trio lineups during his years. Although Evans played with literally dozens of different combinations of bassists and drummers, his most well-known trios were the early trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian (1959-61), his long-standing trio with Eddie Gomez and Marty Morell the late 60s and most of the 70s, and his final trio with Marc Johnson and Joe Labarbera, heard here. Evans' first trio with LaFaro and Motian is generally regarded as his best; if the second trio with Gomez and Morell was a stable and consistent group then the music Evans recorded with the final trio represents an unusual case of Evans embarking in a new direction, producing music of markedly different character to what he had produced before. If the earlier trios were characterised by a sense of calm beauty, then by comparison this trio is frenzied and busy. Many tunes, such as Nardis and Theme from MASH are played at much higher tempos than Evans had played them before; and although Evans is still incredibly agile and virtuosic there is a heavy-handedness to his later playing that is both surprising and troubling. While undeniably very exciting, the music here lacks much of the beauty that people associate with Evans' playing: this may be a turn-off for fans of his earlier music but conversely, if you are one of those who think of Evans as an excessively sentimental balladeer perhaps this music will change your mind and bring you an appreciation of the great man.
Evans had a relatively small and stable repertoire and consequently there is a lot of repetition of tunes here: six hours of music, but at least three versions each of Days of Wine and Roses, Nardis, My Romance and several others. If you are the kind of fan who likes to obsessively analyse every last performance of a tune (a kind of fan Evans seems to have in abundance) then you will love this; casual listeners however will get tired of the repetition and long for some change; especially in light of the frenzied, almost angry playing. You might also be put off listening to the whole because this much quantity is rather overwhelming. This is no criticism of the artist as he would never have intended to release this material in this form (the material here was recorded over several nights); in fact, there is a 1CD sampler of the artist's choices from this set out there (which would have formed his next album), which is a much better bet if you don't want such a great quantity of similar material. Alternatively, there are several other live albums that give a single-set idea of what the band would have sounded like in a concert.
Bill Evans may have been the greatest jazz pianist ever, but his life was, unfortunately, too short. Born in 1929, he died on September 15, 1980, of a bleeding ulcer, cirrhosis and pneumonia. A drug addict for much of his career – he had periods where he was hooked on heroin, and others on cocaine – his death was what a friend called “the longest suicide in history.”
Yet when Bill Evans sat down at the piano, magic come from his fingers. From playing piano as a sideman, such as on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, widely considered to be the best jazz album of all time, to his first live recordings, Live at the Village Vanguard, made in 1961, and through dozens of solo and trio recordings over the following two decades.
In 1980, Evans didn’t know he was at the end, but there is a feeling of wistful nostalgia in his live performances of those last months. Fortunately, many of them were recorded, and there are three essential box sets of music from this period.
In June 1980, Evans played several dates at the Village Vanguard, and a six-disc set of these performances, Turn Out the Stars, was released in 1996. Recorded from June 4 to June 8, with bass player Marc Johnson, and drummer Joe LaBarbera, there is just over six and a half hours of music on this set, with notably a number of very long performances of Miles Davis’ Nardis, which was Evans’ signature jamming song. (It allowed both the bass player and drummer to take extensive solos.)
From August 31 to September 8, 1980, Evans played a series of dates at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco. Again, there are extensive recordings of these shows, with two 8-CD box sets available: The Last Waltz contains music from the first sets, and Consecration has tracks from the second sets. Just a week before his death, Evans was playing some of his finest performances. These were recorded on the sly, but the quality of the sound is excellent.
Evans played a combination of standards and his own compositions, and his improvisational ability is such that you barely notice it at times; it often sounds like the songs were written exactly as he played them, but as you listen to different versions, you can hear the changes.
I have long loved Evans’ music, and particularly these recordings from the end of his life. I first bought Turn Out the Stars in 1996, after listening to bits of it at a record store. My knowledge of jazz was quite limited then (and isn’t a whole lot more extensive now), but I immediately heard Evans’ masterful playing. When the other two box sets came out in 2000 and 2002, I bought them immediately. I have many Bill Evans recordings – I bought a couple of box sets of his complete recordings on different labels – but these are the ones I return to most, along with the 1961 Village Vanguard recordings. If you like jazz piano, these are essential recordings to own. If you just want one of the sets, I’d recommend Turn Out the Stars, which, with six discs, covers a wide variety of the songs Evans played.