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Bill Evans: At the Village Vanguard

Sunday, March 20th, 2005 by Martin Hester


The Bill Evans Trio: At the Village Vanguard
With Scott LaFaro (bass) and Paul Motian (drums)
Recorded in June 1961. Riverside FCD-60-017

Ever since I first heard it in 1962, Bill Evan’s jazz piano playing has been a source of wonderment to me. How does he get a piano to sound like that – it’s the same instrument as everyone else’s, isn’t it? Listening superficially, you can be attracted by his light touch, the enigmatic, wistful harmonies, the lyrical melodic line. But listen to him with greater understanding of what he is doing, and you discover an amazing inventiveness and variety, pushing the bounds of the jazz idiom.

The artist’s early years
Bill Evans was born in New Jersey in 1929, studied music from age 6, and graduated in piano, flute and violin from Southeastern Louisiana College in 1950. He then studied composition at Mannes College of Music in New York, and began working as pianist and accompanist in various orchestras. His first album New Jazz Conceptions was recorded for the small Riverside label in 1956 – and sold then only about 1000 copies (jazz was still a minority taste!). By 1958, working in New York City, he had definitely been noticed by the best jazzmen, and he was invited to join the Miles Davis Sextet – he being the only non-Afro-American in a really outstanding group. In December of that year, he recorded an album they called Everybody Digs Bill Evans, packaged with laudatory quotes from most of the leading jazzmen of the time. His discography at this time shows he played in an enormous number of different groups, but he also recorded Portrait in Jazz in 1959 with the Trio formed with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. This group was widely recognised as being outstanding and innovative, to the point where “it was hard to find any piano player who didn’t show he’d been listening to Bill Evans”. At the Village Vanguard was recorded live on a Sunday in June 1961 at that piano bar in NYC, and was the last time this Trio played together.

The development of Jazz
Jazz, as we know, started out as black music from the Deep South of the United States (especially New Orleans). Some of the oldest recordings are of the Blues, a lament which uses a 12-bar sequence of harmonies, repeated many times with variations from the singer, and often interspersed by musical comments from a trumpet, clarinet or trombone, made up on the spur of the moment. This grew to encompass other more cheerful themes, often with collective improvisation, which we know today as Traditional Jazz. In fact, most of the non-blues themes are 24 bars long, in an AABA pattern. The sequence of harmonies is repeated time and again by the “rhythm section”  – often piano, banjo or guitar, double bass and drums – while the solo instruments can invent freely, making what they play fit the chords – and swing irresistibly! Popular through the 20s, the music spread up to Chicago and then New York, where it began to be taken up by white orchestras, where it might gain in sophistication and showmanship but lose its undercurrent of revolt and lament.

Show tunes came into the jazzman’s repertoire, often bringing more sophisticated harmonies and melodies. Now the language of revolt became expressed by deliberate dissonances and jagged, sweeping phrases from the soloists – pioneered by the saxophonist Charlie Parker around 1946 and 47, and taken up as Modern Jazz by many leading musicians.

By now, the role of the rhythm section had become much more subtle – usually just piano, bass and drums, the bass pushes the rhythm forward, carrying the original sequence of harmonies, while the piano seeks to accompany the flights of the soloist, changing the chords a bit to make them more dissonant, or changing the way one resolves to another. In this setup, the soloist creates phrases and patterns on the spur of the moment, always with the original melody in the back of his mind, but rarely stating it, usually dragging behind the beat, often being deliberately dissonant. And of course, none of this sort of small-group jazz uses written music: it is played by ear, spontaneously. If not recorded, it is gone for ever.

This is the musical context in which Bill Evans grew. Right from early on, he showed a special talent for changing the sound of the chords, and resolving from one to another in a different way. When working as a soloist, he put on top of this flowing, original phrases, with much more variety that most pianists, as well as mixing in runs of chords with both hands together. The tracks of Portrait in Jazz are a fine example of this.

By the time we get to the Village Vanguard recordings, there had been two other developments: the extraordinary bassist, Scott LaFaro, played his instrument not only as a low-voice accompaniment to the piano, but also ran notes out of it as if it were a saxophone, so agile and inventive was he. So, far from being a backing instrument, he carries on a continual dialogue with the piano of Bill Evans, as if they were of equal stature. The other development was that more of the numbers played became abstract “improvising environments” rather than recognisable tunes from show business. The theme would become not really a melody, just a pattern played in a certain way, fitted over a sequence of chords (perhaps 16 bars long, perhaps 24). So the music moves to another level of abstraction. To follow really what is going on, you have to memorize the original theme and the way the chords change, and sort of play this over in your head as the music moves along. Then you begin to pick up where a new idea is developed, when one musician interacts with another, when the tension is winding up, or the piece is coming back to rest. To listen to Bill Evans himself explaining about improvisation, check out   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jm6V7bWnVpw .

The CD.
On the CD, the tracks Solar, Gloria’s Step, Milestones, and Jade Visions are of the genre of abstract improvisations. There are many amazing contributions from the bass, during which Bill Evans sketches out the chord sequences lightly and with great skill. Waltz for Debby is a Bill Evans composition with an opening theme which is easy to recognize, so the improvisations can be perceived more easily. My Romance, My Man’s Gone Now, and All of You are show tunes given completely new clothing and sound. But the slow ballads are for me the high point – the poignant I Loves You Porgy from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and the opener, My Foolish Heart. This track is perhaps the synthesis of Bill Evan’s art at that time – the quietly placed dissonances, the deeply-felt phrases, the silences…. a sadness and stillness which is never quite resolved.

This is great jazz from an outstanding musician.

Good listening!