Discovering an unknown Bill Evans recording is to lovers of jazz piano a momentous event – rather like discovering an unknown score of Mozart would be to classical music lovers. But it has just happened! This outstanding jazz pianist recorded for a small German label in 1968, in a hi-fi studio setting, and the tapes have been unknown for nearly 50 years. Now a 2-CD album is available from Resonance Records.
William John Evans was born in New Jersey in 1929 of a Welsh father and Russian mother. He 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. He helped Miles transition to modal jazz, freer in form, as reflected in Kind of Blue, considered the best-selling jazz record of all time. In December 1958, Bill 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 in mid-1959 he formed a Trio with Scott LaFaro (bass) and Paul Motian (drums), whose first album was Portrait in Jazz. This group was widely recognized 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”. The album At the Village Vanguard was recorded live on a Sunday in June 1961 at that piano bar in NYC, and has become a jazz classic, not only because of Bill’s piano playing, but also because of the interplay with a bass player of remarkable skill.
Immediately after this recording, Scott LeFaro died in a car crash, which seriously unsettled Bill Evans, and although he continued working with other trios and in varied musical settings, he became addicted to heroin, and his work was uneven. In mid-1966 he teamed up with Puerto Rican bassist Eddie Gomez, with whom he worked for 11 years; drummer Marty Morell played with them from late 1968 to 1975, and during this time Bill overcame his addiction, married again, and worked all over the US and Europe.
After Gomez and drummer Eliot Sigmund left the trio in 1978, Bill worked with several other musicians in the trio setting, became a cocaine addict, and after his brother’s death in 1979, he lost his zest for life and died in September 1980.
Contribution to jazz piano
Jazz at its origins was an Afro-American music, very strongly rhythmical, with the musicians improvising freely within a “chord sequence” – a series of harmonies used by a popular song – and very often by the sequence of the 12-bar blues. When played solo, the piano kept the rhythm going with the left hand, often in “strides” – a bass note followed by a chord in the middle of the piano – while the right hand played the melody and improvised. In the band setting, the piano played the chords backing the other musicians, except when it had a chance to solo. In the big bands, the piano was hardly used at all, while in small group settings it was very important in maintaining the harmonies and supporting the transitions between phrases as the other musicians improvised. As jazz evolved to dissonances and long jagged phrases through the influence of Charlie Parker, so the chords and phrasing of the jazz piano changed. Bill Evans was starting out at this time, and he began to use modulations of the basic chords, stringing them together in original and subtle changes which nevertheless held to the basic structure of the song. As for the right hand, while sometimes playing the long angular phrases of the jazz wind instruments, he would put in phrases with filigree patterns ranging up and down the piano, or cram thirteen notes in the space of four, break out into chords, all while retaining a strong rhythmic impulse. In a way, he brought the evolution of classical piano to the jazz idiom. In early days, he used block chords like George Shearing, and as time went on, he left more of the basic harmonies to the bass player, his left hand playing those ethereal harmonies in the middle of the piano, while his right hand ranged freely.
Bill Evans’ piano is good listening on a superficial level, because of his touch, his phrasing, the muted but strong emotion – and sometimes the sheer poetry of his slower numbers. (Listen to My Foolish Heart from the Village Vanguard album). But to really understand what is going on, it helps to know the tune he is playing by heart, and keep it going through your mind as he plays. Then his inventiveness may leave you simply amazed – and this is the reason for the longevity of his music, and the admiration of other musicians.
The Lost Session
Thirty-six years after his death, it is to be supposed that all Bill Evans’ work is extant – and releases after his death have included live recordings never intended for commercial release. So what a surprise to know that on June 20 1968, Bill had gone to the MPS studios in Villingen, Germany and recorded in perfect conditions for almost 2 hours. He had played a few days before at the Montreux jazz festival, and was persuaded by lovely countryside and great cooking to record for Hans Georg Brunner Schwer, who never obtained permission to put the music on commercial release. So the tapes stayed in storage for 50 years, until Hans Georg’s son told Zev Feldman of Resonance Records about them, and he engaged in a multi-year crusade to arrange permissions to make these recordings public. So here they are – a real find indeed!
In the session, the bassist is Eddie Gomez, and the drummer Jack DeJohnette (who played with them only for 6 months). It is particularly interesting because of the songs which were not part of their standard repertoire – My Funny Valentine, Baubles, Bangles and Beads, Some Other Time, for instance. According to the musicians, some pieces they had not played before! The music is very fine – vintage Bill Evans very well recorded, and 21 songs in all.
You can buy this 2-CD pack online from www.arlequim.com.br.
For me, Bill Evans is one of the greatest piano artists. He created on the spot, and the transcriptions of his interpretations are a real challenge, because of the rhythmic subtleties and unusual chords. Although he is mostly known for his Trio work, he was a great accompanist, and could play in different styles with ease (apparently he played Bach to hone his technique). However, the idiom which he worked was not of wide popular appeal, and the behaviours of its participants hard to live with. His intellectual, retiring and sensitive nature were against his becoming famous. That he did is because of the lasting value of his music. We cannot do better than remember the valedictory poem by Bill Zavatsky:
Music your hands are no longer here to make
Still breaks against my ear, still shakes my heart.
Then I feel that I am still before you.
You bend above your shadow on the keys
That tremble at your touch or crystallize,
Water forced to concentrate.
My life you found, and many other lives
Which travelled through your hands upon their journey.
Note by note we followed in your tracks, like
Hearing the rain, eyes closed to feel more deeply.
We stood before the mountains of your touch.
The sunlight and the shade you carried us
We drank, tasting our bitter lives more sweetly
From the spring of song that never stops its kiss.