The Jazz.com Blog
June 29, 2009 · 9 comments
A few days back I wrote an piece in this column entitled "Late Period Bill Evans: Genius or Decline?” Bill Kirchner, a noted saxophonist, jazz scholar, and editor of The Oxford Companion to Jazz, contributes a response to this article below. (Be on the lookout soon for Kirchner's "Dozens" article for jazz.com on pianist Denny Zeitlin.) T.G.
Bill Evans, artwork by Suzanne Cerny
On May 12, Nonesuch Records reissued a 6-CD boxed set by pianist Bill Evans, Turn Out The Stars: The Final Village Vanguard Recordings, June 1980. The box contains music recorded by Evans's last trio (with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera) on June 4, 5, 6, and 8, 1980—only three months before his death on September 15 at age 51. It was originally co-produced by Jeff Levenson and myself for Warner Jazz and issued in 1996. Prior to that, the music had never before been released.
Readers of this site and JazzWax may have read recent postings by Ted Gioia and Marc Myers about this music and late-period Bill Evans in general. Both writers, despite their overall admiration for Evans, have repeatedly voiced reservations about his playing in his last years. As one might expect from my involvement with Evans' 1980 Village Vanguard recordings, I see things rather differently.
I take a back seat to no one in my affection for the Evans / Scott LaFaro / Paul Motian trio; their 1961 Village Vanguard recordings in particular are among my "desert island" treasures. But we all need to be mindful that the music of that trio was created under a distinctive and rather narrow set of parameters, especially with respect to dynamic range. No doubt this was partially due to esthetic choices, but another reason was that during LaFaro's lifetime, jazz bassists played gigs without amplification. To play the way he played, LaFaro used what bassists call a low action, which limited his volume. So if Motian had played much louder than he did, LaFaro probably would have been inaudible.
A few years later, when bassists regularly started using amplifiers, the nature and balance of jazz rhythm sections understandably changed. Bassists could be heard better—sometimes too much—and Evans gradually returned to the relative extroversion of his pre-LaFaro playing. When I first heard Evans live in 1972 with Eddie Gomez and Marty Morell at New York's Top of the Gate, I was surprised and thrilled by the often downright ballsy nature of his playing. (For a recorded example of what I heard, listen to the Evans album Montreux II.)
With all enormous respect due to Ted Gioia and Marc Myers, I have a modest proposal: it's time to lighten up a bit about Bill Evans. Great music can often serve as a kind of Rorschach test, and Evans' Village Vanguard recordings—both from 1961 and 1980—are a perfect example of this.
Marc in particular seems to be bringing "stuff" to the table—this statement, for example: "Evans' anger and stormy frustration is way too evident and disconcerting." My reaction to that bit of armchair psychoanalysis is a series of questions: Really? How do you know that? Did you talk to Evans? Did you read something that he or someone who knew him said that would lead you to believe that? (I'm reminded that John Coltrane was at one time described as an "angry" player, which apparently puzzled the gentle Mr. Coltrane no end. Intensity in music is often mistaken for anger.)
Let's go with something we know: i.e., Evans' own words. In a 1980 interview, he declared: "This trio is very much connected to the first trio. Different things have begun to happen with material that I've been playing for years. Things that were more or less static have gotten into motion and are developing." Whatever the frequent turmoil of Evans' personal life (most recently including the suicide of his brother in 1979, as well as Evans' own cocaine addiction that eventually killed him), Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera were inestimable sources of inspiration for him. Clearly, the direction this trio's music was taking was a most positive force in his life. Far from being angry or frustrated on the bandstand, Evans was delighted to be there.
Ted Gioia's objections to Evans' playing are more specific. Let's take this example: "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." There are, in fact, three versions of "My Romance" in this set; it was a tune that the trio played almost every night in a multi-tempoed arrangement. What Ted hears as "jittery and aloof" I hear simply as a common practice among jazz musicians with repertoire they play frequently for years—the tendency to play the pieces faster. (Compare 1940 and 1966 Ellington recordings of "Cotton Tail" or 1954 and 1965 Miles Davis versions of "Walkin'".)
(Joe LaBarbera made a revealing comment: "That give-and-take was always there, that room to keep the music spontaneous. [Drummer] Jake Hanna came up to me after one gig and asked what I was doing on 'My Romance.' I said, 'Go ask Bill, I'm just following him.' So Jake asked Bill, who said 'I don't know, I'm just following Joe.'")
Ted makes similar complaints—including ones about Evans rushing—about several other performances in the set, and furthermore laments that "Evans no longer shows his grand conception of space and silence." In a collection of over six hours(!) of music recorded live in a club, unevenness is inevitable. But for every perceived shortcoming someone finds in this music, I'll point out multiple instances of great beauty, spaciousness, and spontaneity. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are often found in the newer pieces in Evans' repertoire, including Paul Simon's "I Do It For Your Love" and four then-new Evans compositions: "Tiffany," "Your Story," "Yet Ne'er Broken," and "Knit For Mary F."
Most of all, though, the centerpieces of the set are four extended versions (each 15-16 minutes long) of "Nardis," a piece that became a nightly highlight of any Evans trio performance. I've often remarked to students since Turn Out The Stars was released in 1996 that if they want to do a great doctoral dissertation, transcribe and analyze the Evans solos on these four versions—all different, and all mind-boggling. I regularly play one of them for my jazz-history classes, and the students are always dazzled. If proof be needed of Evans' phenomenal artistic growth in his final years, these will more than suffice.
I do not use the word "phenomenal" lightly. When Bill Evans made these recordings, he was 50 years old—past the age when most jazz musicians make major changes in their playing. Not even Miles Davis altered his own playing significantly past his late forties. So to hear Evans at the twilight of his career taking the risks he did, and succeeding as often as he did, is inspiring to me as a musician/listener/fan. Pianists like Harold Danko (who along with critic Bob Blumenthal did exemplary notes for this set), Jim McNeely, and others who heard Evans at the Village Vanguard at that time have expressed similar feelings.
In any case, for anyone with a serious interest in the art of Bill Evans, Turn Out The Stars is must-hear music.
This blog entry posted by Bill Kirchner