THE DOZENS: ESSENTIAL BILL EVANS by Ted Gioia

Bill Evans’s career as a jazz pianist started with little fanfare. His first leader date, New Jazz Conceptions from 1956, only sold 800 copies during the first year after its release. In time, Evans would become one of the most popular jazz artists of his generation, but even before then the leading musicians of the day came under the sway of Evans’s distinctive approach to the keyboard, and enlisted the pianist as sideman on many memorable sessions.



                        Bill Evans, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

The most famous of these projects, Kind of Blue, is reportedly the biggest selling jazz release of all time, and certainly one of the most cherished. But Evans made important contributions on a host of provocative LPs from the late 1950s and early 1960s. These include historic dates by Oliver Nelson (The Blues and the Abstract Truth), Cannonball Adderley (Know What I Mean?), Art Farmer (Modern Art), and Charles Mingus (East Coasting), as well as projects by Tony Scott, Don Elliott, Hal McKusick and other forward-looking bandleaders of the era. The range of the pianist’s efforts during this period was impressive, and often forgotten by fans in later years when Evans rarely played outside the context of his working trio. The young Bill Evans was at home whether working on the Third Stream compositions of Gunther Schuller and George Russell (check out, for example, “All About Rosie” and “Concerto for Billy the Kid”), or mixing it up with Coltrane and Adderley in the Miles Davis band.

These efforts alone would assure Bill Evans an important place in the history of American music. Yet the pianist would come to exert even more influence as the leader of a remarkable trio that reshaped the nature of jazz rhythm sections and the role of the piano in jazz. Few jazz ensembles have moved me as deeply as Evans’s short-lived trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. The almost telepathic level of interaction between the musicians and the pathos of their performances still stand out even close to a half century after their historic live recording at the Village Vanguard.

LaFaro’s tragic death in a car accident in 1961 ended this unique partnership. But Evans continued to express his potent vision of jazz pianism in a series of classic recordings for Verve, Fantasy and other labels. His impact on the jazz world was all the more surprising given that, in an age of experimentation and avant garde tendencies, this artist continued to focus on conventional song forms—usually pop standards from the pre-World War II era—which remained clearly in the tonal camp. He kept to traditional waltz and 4/4 meters, and showed little interest in adding unusual instruments, World Music flavors, or rock-fusion elements to his work. His tremendous creativity and improvisational brilliance always operated within these tight constraints, and perhaps even required them in order for his personal genius to take flight.

Bill Evans’s life was cut short at age 51 (amid circumstance I have discussed at length here). But he left behind hundreds of recordings as a leader and sideman, as well as a musical vision that continues to inform the work of countless jazz artists today. Below I have selected twelve essential tracks from Evans’s oeuvre. This list is far from exhaustive, but these tracks will provide an excellent introduction to this seminal figure.


Bill Evans: Gloria's Step (take 2)

Track

Gloria's Step (take 2)

Artist

Bill Evans (piano)

CD

Sunday at the Village Vanguard (Riverside RCD-9376-2)

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Musicians:

Bill Evans (piano), Scott LaFaro (bass), Paul Motian (drums).

Composed by Scott LaFaro

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Recorded: Village Vanguard, New York City, June 25, 1961

Albumcoverbillevans-sundayatthevillagevanguard

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Fans who want to appreciate the artistry of Bill Evans must start with the great live Village Vanguard session from June 25, 1961. Evans never led a better band, and this ensemble never performed at a higher level than on this date. It is no exaggeration to claim that the essence of the piano trio in jazz was permanently altered by this seminal event. The idea that bass and drums should support the piano is replaced here by a different conception—one in which each instrument enters into a musical conversation with the others. The trio also adopts what Evans called the "internalized beat" in which each musician feels the rhythm, but doesn't always emphasize it in his playing. As a result the music floats over the bar lines in a way that no previous jazz ensemble had attempted.

But these are more than conceptual breakthroughs. What sets this music apart is how brilliantly these concepts are realized in practice. This music doesn't sound like anyone is out to prove anything. Its innovations are subservient to the intense emotional experience of the music itself.

One can only wonder what this trio might have accomplished had it stayed intact for several more years. But a senseless tragedy intervened. LaFaro died in a car accident on July 6—less than two weeks after these recordings were made. A great career was cut short—no bassist since Jimmy Blanton had done more to expand the expressive range of the instrument. Evans, for his part, would never completely recover from this loss, although his later ensembles always attempted to emulate (with varying degrees of success) the musical E.S.P. and interactivity of this path-breaking trio.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Bill Evans: Peace Piece

Track

Peace Piece

Artist

Bill Evans (piano)

CD

Everybody Digs Bill Evans (Riverside 30182)

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Musicians:

Bill Evans (piano).

Composed by Bill Evans

.

Recorded: New York, December 15, 1958

Albumcoverbillevans-everybodydigs

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

This is a unique entry in the Bill Evans discography: a pastoral improvisation built on a gentle two-chord vamp. "Peace Piece" is more a mood than a composition. Evans was often asked to perform this work in later years, but he usually resisted, claiming that it had been the inspiration of the moment, and not something that could be recreated.

Yet there are many ways of fitting this lovely, if peculiar, performance, into the overall flow of Evans's life and times. He would rely on a similar harmonic structure in other settings -- for example, on "Flamenco Sketches" from the seminal Kind of Blue album or in Evans's moving interpretation of Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time." We can also look at this work as anticipating the trend toward fewer chord changes that Miles and Trane would champion over the next several years. One could even focus on "Peace Piece" as the birth of New Age music, where sweet, two-chord vamps would come to reign supreme.

But Evans is not interested in providing unobtrusive background music or exploring simple modal improvisation. Halfway through his performance he starts incorporating more and more dissonance into his right hand lines. Soon we are in deep polytonal waters where the Windham Hills are just a blurry dot on the horizon. This is jazz music, my friends . . . But a type of jazz that no one else was playing, circa 1958. If more people had been listening, the jazz idiom might have been influenced by this performance. As it stands, only a few thousand copies of Everybody Digs Bill Evans were sold at the time of first release. But a few months later, when Evans participated on the Kind of Blue sessions, he would find a setting that would not only display his artistry but also change the art form.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Bill Evans: Never Let Me Go

Track

Never Let Me Go

Artist

Bill Evans (piano)

CD

Alone (Verve 833801)

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Musicians:

Bill Evans (piano).

Composed by Raymond Evans and Jay Livingston

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Recorded: Webster Hall, New York, September-October, 1968

Albumcoverbillevansalone

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Bill Evans is best remembered for his trio work, although he participated in several outstanding solo piano sessions over the years. But he never dug more deeply into a solo performance than on this version of "Never Let Me Go." At 14:28, it is more than twice as long as any other track on the Alone LP. Even by Evans's standards, this track is introverted and introspective. If I didn't know better, I would guess that someone caught the pianist making music for his own enjoyment and taped it surreptitiously. In the liner notes, Evans writes that "the hours of greatest pleasure in my life have come about as a result of the capacity of the piano to be in itself a complete expressive musical medium." Evans returns again and again to the melody, and you can sense how he seems to align his own psychological state with the flow of the song. This is a very profound performance and a timeless example of a jazz artist completely immersed in the emotional landscape of a composition.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Bill Evans: My Foolish Heart

Track

My Foolish Heart

Artist

Bill Evans (piano)

CD

The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 (Concord Records)

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Musicians:

Bill Evans (piano), Scott LaFaro (bass), Paul Motian (drums).

Composed by Victor Young and Ned Washington

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Recorded: Village Vanguard, New York City, June 25, 1961

Albumcoverevanscompletevanguard1961

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

"My Foolish Heart" is another landmark performance from the June 25, 1961 live recording at the Village Vanguard. This trio altered the rhythmic essence of modern jazz with its use of space and time. This was evident in virtually every track recorded at the Village Vanguard on this date, but the ballad performances are especially noteworthy. I am unaware of any previous piano trio attempting a ballad at such a slow tempo -- if the beats were any farther apart you might doubt that there was any strict tempo on this track.

Many otherwise stellar 1950s and 1960s jazz bands would have died trying to attempt this in live performance. But Evans, Motian and LaFaro are liberated by this slo-mo approach. This ballad breathes in a way that few jazz performances have ever achieved. If musicians such as Parker and Gillespie showed how jazz could move faster than anyone thought possible, this trio achieved the same extraordinary results at the other end of the metronome range. But, as with other Evans tracks from this period, the music itself is much more than an experiment or attempt to prove some theory about jazz performance. The sheer beauty of this version of "My Foolish Heart" transcends its origin as a sentimental soundtrack theme from a Hollywood film and transforms the piece into art song of the highest order.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Bill Evans (with Zoot Sims): Funkallero

Track

Funkallero

Artist

Bill Evans (piano)

CD

The Interplay Sessions (Riverside 5712)

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Musicians:

Bill Evans (piano), Zoot Sims (tenor sax), Jim Hall (guitar), Ron Carter (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums).

Composed by Bill Evans

.

Recorded: New York, August 21, 1962

Albumcoverbillevanstheinterplaysessions

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

This tune always brought out a different side of Bill Evans. Even Evans seemed to realize it. He would pull out "Funkallero" when he needed a gritty jam-session tune, suitable for horn players. He took pride in how tenorist Zoot Sims was inspired by these changes on this version, and Evans relied on "Funkallero" on several occasions when the pianist joined forces with Stan Getz. Sims's solo is masterful, but Evans follows in a driving, hard-bop groove that may surprise you. If you think that Bill Evans was only worth hearing on dreamy ballads, check out this track.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Bill Evans: Solo - In Memory of His Father

Track

Solo - In Memory of His Father

Artist

Bill Evans (piano)

CD

Bill Evans at Town Hall (Verve 831 271)

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Musicians:

Bill Evans (piano).

Composed by Bill Evans

.

Recorded: Town Hall, New York, February 21, 1966

Albumcoverbevanstownhall

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Two weeks before Bill Evans was scheduled to make a live recording at Town Hall, his father, Harry L. Evans, died suddenly in Ormond Beach, Florida. Evans considered canceling or postponing the concert, but instead went ahead with the event, but composed an extended solo work dedicated to his father to be premiered at Town Hall. The central section of this 14-minute composition later surfaced as the song "Turn Out the Stars," but Evans would never play it with more warmth or beauty than on this live performance. This pianist is well known for drawing on the inspiration of impressionist classical composers such as Ravel and Debussy, and in this setting these influences come to the fore. If you lifted out the improvisation, the rest of this piece could show up in a concert hall recital and most listeners would hardly realize that it was supposed to be jazz. No wonder the great interpreter of Ravel, Satie and Debussy, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, has added this Bill Evans composition to his repertoire. Evans was such a brilliant interpreter of popular standards and so prolific in his output, that it is hard to have many regrets about his recorded legacy; nonetheless, I am disappointed that he didn't do more extended works of this sort during the 14 remaining years of his life.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Bill Evans: A Face Without a Name

Track

A Face Without a Name

Artist

Bill Evans (piano)

CD

Intuition (Fantasy OJCCD470)

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Musicians:

Bill Evans (piano), Eddie Gomez (bass).

Composed by Claus Ogerman

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Recorded: Berkeley, November 7-0, 1974

Albumcoverbevansintuition

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

I generally prefer Evans's earlier trio work over the projects he pursued during his longstanding collaboration with bassist Eddie Gomez. Evans often struck me as too comfortable alongside Gomez, and during the 1970s he tended to play the same songs over and over again in his concerts and club performances. Yet the best of the music with Gomez demands our attention, and it is hard to find any Evans recording from this period that does not reward close listening. The pianist continued to advance his craft during these years, but in small and subtle degrees. The way he would anticipate a chord change before the bar or construct a melodic line revealed a penetrating mind that continued to grapple with the music at hands, even if it was a pop standard he had played hundreds of times before. Here he tackles a little known composition by Claus Ogerman with an unusual tempo change in the middle of the form (something that had always attracted Evans—check out, for example, his recordings of Earl Zindars's "How My Heart Sings" for a similar example). Evans is in fine form here, and even though the track stretches out to almost six minutes, one could easily imagine him continuing for several more choruses. It is interesting to note that one of Evans's other standout recordings from the era also comes in the context of a Claus Ogerman composition, the dramatic and sadly forgotten Symbiosis.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Bill Evans & Claus Ogerman: Symbiosis

Track

Symbiosis

Group

Bill Evans & Claus Ogerman Orchestra

CD

Symbiosis (Pausa 7050)

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Musicians:

Bill Evans (piano, electric piano), Marvin Stamm (trumpet), Bernie Glow (trumpet), Irving 'Marky' Markowitz (trumpet), Urbie Green (trombone), Jimmy Buffington (French horn), Phil Woods (alto sax), Jerry Dodgion (alto sax), Hubert Laws (flute), Danny Bank (reeds), Eddie Gomez (bass), Marty Morrell (drums), Ralph MacDonald (percussion),

John Frosk (trumpet), Victor Paz (trumpet), Mel Davis (trumpet), Paul Faulise (bass trombone), Tom Mitchell (bass trombone), Don Butterfield (tuba), Bruce Tillotson (French horn), Earl Chapin (French horn), Ray Alonge (French horn), Al Richman (French horn), Peter Gordon (French horn), Walter Levinsky (alto sax), Harvey Estrin (alto sax), Bill Slapin (flute), Don Hammond (flute), George Marge (oboe), Phil Bodner (oboe), Ron Jannelli (clarinet), Wally Kane (bassoon), Don McCourt (bassoon), George Devens (percussion), Dave Carey (percussion), Doug Allen (percussion), David Nadien (concertmaster)

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Composed, arranged and conducted by Claus Ogerman

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Recorded: New York, January 11-14, 1974

Albumcoverbevanssymbiosis

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Bill Evans was working in familiar territory on most of his 1970s recordings, playing standards and his own compositions with his trio. But many of his fans looked back with fondness at his works from the 1950s when he had been challenged by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, George Russell, Cannonball Adderley, Charles Mingus and other great musical minds in settings not of Evans's own choosing. Symbiosis, a long orchestral composition by Claus Ogerman from 1974, is a throwback to that earlier period. Evans has his familiar friends, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morrell, in tow, but the music is adventurous and a radical departure from what the pianist normally played in concert. The result is one of the neglected masterpieces of the decade, and a high point in Evans's discography. Ogerman contributes one of the most interesting extended works in the jazz repertoire, and Evans plays at top form. Yet for all its virtues, Symbiosis quickly disappeared from the record stores after its initial release, and it has been years since I have seen a copy anywhere. But thanks to the world of Internet shopping and digital downloads it is now accessible again—and is a must-have for jazz fans who are not familiar with this stellar work.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Tony Bennett & Bill Evans: Young and Foolish

Track

Young and Foolish

Artist

Tony Bennett (vocals) and Bill Evans (piano)

CD

The Tony Bennett - Bill Evans Album (Concord 6023)

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Musicians:

Tony Bennett (vocals), Bill Evans (piano).

Composed by Albert Hague and Arnold B. Horwitt

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Recorded: Berkeley, CA, June 10-13, 1975

Albumcovertbennettbevansalbum_

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

With the passing of time, this recording has taken on the luster of a classic. But when the collaboration between Bennett and Evans first took place in the mid-1970s, both artists were at a low ebb. A few years earlier, Evans and Bennett were on the roster of the preeminent Columbia label—Tony for a long period and Evans just for a couple projects—before being discarded by label execs in the youth-oriented spirit of the times. Few people paid much attention when this LP was released; it wasn't seen as a meeting of the masters, just another sign that down-and-out artists had to join together to add to their declining drawing power.

But time has a way of improving our vision. Bennett is now a lauded elder statesman of the entertainment industry and Evans a jazz legend from the past, and—as the old saying goes—they made beautiful music together. Evans had recorded "Young and Foolish" before, back in 1958, in a meditative trio performance with Sam Jones and Philly Joe Jones, and did more than anyone to establish this song (from the musical Plain and Fancy) as a jazz standard. Bennett sings with his heart on his sleeve, and entices Evans into one of his more emotionally sustained performances from this later period in his career. If someone asked me to pick a jazz performance that completely realized the sensibility established by the lyrics of the song, this would be one of the first tracks I would select.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Bill Evans & Stan Getz: The Peacocks

Track

The Peacocks

Artist

Bill Evans (piano) and Stan Getz (tenor sax)

CD

The Bill Evans Trio Featuring Stan Getz: But Beautiful (Milestone MCD-9249-2)

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Musicians:

Bill Evans (piano), Stan Getz (tenor sax), Eddie Gomez (bass), Marty Morrell (drums).

Recorded: Antwerp, Belgium, August 16, 1974

Albumcoverbillevanswithstangetz-butbeautiful

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

The first time I met Stan Getz, at his California home in 1983, he made a tape of a Bill Evans recording for me as a gift. Getz, who was typically sparing in his praise, spoke with genuine respect and admiration that day for the pianist, who had passed away in 1980. This live performance was still sitting unreleased in the Fantasy vaults at the time, and would not be issued until 1996. Getz and Evans reportedly had an onstage spat a few days before this recording was made—with Evans even refusing to play the piano at one point in their concert. But one could never guess it from the remarkable musical rapport the duo demonstrated on this delicate ballad performance. For comparison, listeners are urged to check out Getz's 1975 duet recording of this same song with its composer Jimmy Rowles. Both versions rank among the saxophonist's finest work of the decade.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Bill Evans: B Minor Waltz

Track

B Minor Waltz

Artist

Bill Evans (piano)

CD

You Must Believe in Spring (Warner Bros 3504)

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Musicians:

Bill Evans (piano), Eddie Gomez (bass), Eliot Zigmund (drums).

Composed by Bill Evans

.

Recorded: Hollywood, August 23-25, 1977

Albumcoverbillevansymbis

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Back in 1977, Warner Bros. was peddling records by Black Sabbath, Fleetwood Mac, the Doobie Brothers, the Sex Pistols and . . . Bill Evans. Guess which one of these artists had a great trio album kept on the shelf, forgotten until the musician's death created enough buzz to justify its release?

If you guessed Sid Vicious, you have come to the wrong website. With You Must Believe in Spring, Bill Evans delivered one of his finest late-career trio outings—even if the brothers Warner were hardly paying attention. And unlike most of the other 1970s releases from the Evans trio, this one sets a pensive mood in its opening track, "B Minor Waltz," and maintains and sustains it for the rest of the CD. This waltz is one of Evans's finer compositions, and he plays it with intense feeling, a throwback to the great Evans-LaFaro-Motian trio.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Bill Evans: Reflections in D

Track

Reflections in D

Artist

Bill Evans (piano)

CD

New Conversations (Warner Bros. 3177)

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Musicians:

Bill Evans (piano).

Composed by Duke Ellington

.

Recorded: New York, January-February, 1978

Albumcoverbillevansnewconversations_1

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Some of Bill Evans's most stylized late-period work came during his brief tenure with the Warner Bros. label. This impressionistic version of a little-known Duke Ellington composition served as the cornerstone of Evans's 1978 New Conversations. I recall Evans mentioning in an interview that he had not heard Ellington's original 1953 recording at the time he made this track. If so, it is uncanny how much Evans's version evokes the same ambiance and sonic landscape that the composer achieved on his original performance. This recording captures the beauty of Evans's voicings and touch, and is a good starting point for fans from the classical music world who are coming to this artist for the first time -- perhaps after hearing Jean-Yves Thibaudet's concert hall reworkings of his music. If Debussy or Ravel had played jazz, this is how they might have sounded.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


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