The Jazz.com Blog
June 17, 2009 · 22 comments
Here is a jazz paradox. Most great jazz artists make their best music before the age of 40. Yet—and here is the irony of the matter—they usually get the most glowing reviews after the age of 40.
There is a certain amount of justice in this state of affairs. Jazz fans venerate the elders of the art form—and thank goodness they do. Most of pop culture, and virtually everyone in a position of power at the major record labels, worship at the fountain of youth. I am happy to see the respect given the older musicians in jazz, if only as symbolic compensation for this imbalance in the rest of society.
Yet I also pity the beginning jazz fan who is trying to learn about the music—and is steered to Dizzy Gillespie’s 1980s recordings, and not his 1940s masterpieces. (If you haven’t enjoyed early Dizzy, check out this track for starters.) Or who encounters the widely available Lester Young sides on Verve from the 1950s, but never hears the Commodore Kansas City sessions, the Keynote sides, or Prez’s early collaborations with Billie Holiday. These late offerings are not without their merits—but they are not the place to start in learning why these artists were so admired and emulated.
And then we come to the case of Bill Evans. The importance of his early work is widely acknowledged. From his contributions to "Concerto for Billy the Kid" (1956) and “All About Rosie” (1957) to his solo piano album Alone, recorded a little over a decade later, this artist established himself as a towering figure in jazz music, the inventor of a new musical vocabulary and—just as noteworthy—an unconventional emotional sensibility. Along the way, we find him on Kind of Blue, the justly famous 1961 Village Vanguard sessions, and on a host of important sideman and leader dates for Verve, Riverside and other labels.
Yes, a few critics have grumbled that his playing from this period is “too European” or “not bluesy enough”; but the Evans skeptics have been forced to do a lot of grumbling, because this body of work has exerted a tremendous influence on other players. You hear Evans’s harmonic colors and conception everywhere these days—and not just in the jazz world. In any attempt to gauge the impact of keyboardists from this era, only Monk can rival Evans, and that only in the deepest inner sanctum of jazz. To some degree, the contrary gravitational pull of these two artists continues to shape jazz piano styles a half-century after their seminal work for Orrin Keepnews at the small but devastatingly smart Riverside label.
But Evans’s later work is more problematic. Marc Myers recently expressed his view of the superiority of the earlier work, and others have stated similar opinions, although many fans have countered in defense of late-vintage Evans. I have written elsewhere about my reactions to a Bill Evans performance I attended ten days before pianist’s death, which was as acerbic and biting as the early Evans was introspective and dreamy.
Now two reissues give us an opportunity to explore late period Evans at greater length. The Complete Tony Bennett-Bill Evans Recordings from Fantasy brings together the controversial 1975 and 1976 collaborations by the pianist and vocalist—which some will tell you are classic works, while others puzzle over the pairing of two such conflicting musical personalities. Alongside this, fans can consider the massive CD set Turn Out the Stars, which captures Bill Evans’s June 1980 appearance at the Village Vanguard on six CDs.
I wish someone had recorded Bill Evans’s 1961 appearances at the Vanguard with such devotion. To my mind, that early trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian set the gold standard for Evans, and inevitably one compares later performances with the work of that seminal band. Evans himself invited these comparisons—since he continued to play the same songs in the same trio format up until his death. Many artists go to great efforts to get out from under the shadow of their early work, but Evans returned to the same changes, night after night, for two decades. Even when he added new songs to the repertoire, they tended to be similar to the 32-bar tunes he had played as a young man. This was all the more striking, given the turbulence and clamor for experimentation that permeated the rest of the jazz world during these years.
But the way Evans played these songs in the final months of his life represented almost a renunciation of that previous body of work. Compare the 1961 version of “My Romance” with the 1980 rendition, and see how Bill Evans at age 50 worked to squeeze the romanticism out of “My Romance.” The same comes across if one compares 1980 performances of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” “My Foolish Heart,” and other songs with his classic recordings from the past. The later works are jittery and aloof, at times almost savage in their undermining of any vestiges of sentimentality.
One might even conclude that Bill Evans no longer liked playing ballads in 1980. Time and time again, he pushes at the tempo, and can’t wait to double up the pulse. On “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera try to maintain the relaxation of the beat as long as possible, but about midway through the song they decide to follow the leader and they are off to the races. Even a heartfelt Evans original such as “Turn Out the Stars”—which the pianist had written as a tribute to his father a few days after Harry Evans’s death—is now treated like just another set of changes for a brittle medium tempo solo.
If this were your only experience of Bill Evans, you might think his sense of time was faulty. On “Emily” his shift from the rubato intro into the trio section is awkward, and even after the tempo settles in at 168 beats per minute—too fast for this waltz, in my opinion—Evans can’t hold it there for long. Soon he is charging ahead at 200 beats per minute, and then beyond. He constantly rushes on these performances, and Johnson and LaBarbera get high marks for adapting to their boss’s nervous and uncentered guidance from the piano bench. What a dispiriting contrast with Evans’s work from the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he was nonpareil in his sense of time and group interaction.
Perhaps most surprising of all, Evans no longer shows his grand conception of space and silence—trademarks of his early work—on these late vintage recordings. His version of “Quiet Now” here might very well be renamed “Busy Now,” and his block-chords-gone-amok solo is certainly impressive from a conceptual point of view, but it destroys the mood of a composition that is essentially a jazz tone poem. Time and time again on these performances, Evans fills up the bars. Sometimes he shows restraint for the first 60-90 seconds of a performance, but he can’t seem to maintain it.
There is a certain brutal intelligence at work here, and a raw beauty that surfaces now and again. A student of jazz piano would find many interesting phrases and interludes on these tracks—well worth studying and memorizing, perhaps. Yet the overall impression these recordings convey is of a musician who was working from his intellect and not his heart.
Hence, it is all the more surprising to compare these works with the Tony Bennett –Bill Evans collaborations from the mid-1970s, and now released by Concord under the Fantasy imprimatur. Here Evans is the one showing restraint, and Bennett pushing for the grandiloquent gesture. Here Evans is content to maintain the mood, while Bennett is changeable and likes to raise the level of intensity as the performance develops. You can tell that neither artist is perfectly comfortable in this setting, but both are deeply “in the moment,” trying to make the best of the proceedings.
In this instance, the conflicting aesthetic visions enhance the final product. Bennett adapts to his understated companion, and delivers perhaps the most delicate performances of his career—which is quite a claim, given this artist’s rich body of work. Evans, for his part, is forced out of his comfort zone. For once, he sounds like a sideman, not a leader, and the change is benefical one—fans sometimes forget what an exceptional sideman this pianist could be back in the 1950s. Evans constantly adapts his conception in response to what Bennett is singing, and I suspect that he probably surprised himself more than a few times during the course of this short but fertile collaboration.
The contrast here is indicative of the paradox of late period Bill Evans. As a whole, this body of work does not match the output of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet there are enough gems in the mix—as the Bennett sessions make clear—that serious fans will want to delve deeper into this music rather than try to dismiss it with a quick generalization.
In addition to the Bennett partnership, outstanding music from this period can be found on Evans’s You Must Believe in Spring (recorded in 1977), his solo project New Conversations (1978), the duo album with Eddie Gomez Intuition (1974), and the ear-expanding Claus Ogerman composition Symbiosis (1974).
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia