Playing jazz on a piano means many different things. From ragtime to stride to darting bebop to atonal clusters, “jazz piano” means many things. Ellington and Garner and Tatum and Monk are as unmistakable as Wilt and Clyde and Bird and Jordan.
Among the many singular jazz pianists, Bill Evans is super-singular. His touch, his impressionist harmonies, his lyricism, and his rhythmic approach had relatively little precedent when Evans arrived on the scene in the late 1950s. And while virtually every jazz pianist since has been influenced by Evans, his own recordings remain utterly identifiable. Often copied, sure, but still one of a kind.
The Sesjun Radio Shows offers us 19 previously unreleased tracks by Evans—five in duet with bassist Eddie Gomez, five more adding Eliot Zigmund on drums, four featuring his final trio with Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbara, and five more that add harmonica great Toots Thielemans to that band.
Any concern that, as radio broadcasts, these are low fidelity recordings needs to be tossed aside. The monotone covers from this series do not indicate any cheapness on the inside. The bands are captured beautifully. The 1973 duets are crystal clear and rich, with Gomez singing beautifully in tone and Evans striking both clear and gently in his unmistakable attack. ““The Two Lonely People” is an Evans original that seems as good a summary of his art as any. Evans’ piano intro is masterful, but when Gomez enters in support he seems to be playing a critical melodic role, improvising lines against the leader’s that are every bit as gorgeous as the “lead” improvisation.
This version of “Some Other Time”, a Leonard Bernstein tune that Evans turned into a jazz standard, is a bit quicker than most, and it demonstrates nicely how Evans’ reputation for being a lugubrious player is unfair. As mournful as “Some Other Time” may be, Evans and Gomez infuse it with the tickle of dance time as they wind their lines around each other. It’s thrilling and delightful to hear these partners trip lightly around such a delicate and beautiful tune.
Zigmund’s role in the trio come 1975 is gentle and balanced. He plays dynamically in dialogue with the band—no mere timekeeper. It’s intriguing to hear the group have a go at “Morning Glory”, a gentle pop tune written and performed by Glen Campbell and Bobby Gentry in 1968. Evans reharmonizes the song substantially, giving it an incandescence that belongs as much to Evans as to the songwriters. The group sounds even better on Mercer Ellington’s “Blue Serge”—pensive but swinging, mysterious and very free despite being utterly inside normal tonality.
The 1979 trio (recorded less than a year before Evans would die from the many complications of decades of heroin and cocaine use) sounds even more balanced and adventurous. Johnson is less busy and overtly melodic than Gomez, but his more rounded sound is a wonderful foil to Evans, and LaBarbara’s drums are constantly responding to the action around them. The Evans trio that set the standard for all the others is his early group with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, but this last group seems equally capable of engaging in continual conversation in which no one player dominates. The band plays another signature Evans tune, “My Romance”, at a swinging clip, giving it more contrapuntal snap than it would seem to inspire. Evans’ solo unleashes all three players into what is essentially a collective improvisation. Spectacular.
The band’s “Nardis” is also a masterpiece. Evans played this original composition at nearly every concert and club date, and it’s wonderful to hear it played with such freedom here. The pianist’s five-minute solo introduction is built on a series of rumbling left-hand fifths over which Evans spins loosely. The band swings it precisely before Johnson and LaBarbara solo with strength.
When Thielemans joins the trio, the balance is thrown back toward a more conventional jazz group, but a spectacular one. “Blue and Green” (the Kind of Blue tune that surely should have been credited entirely to Evans) swings lightly but quickly here, with the harmonica acting as a gentle lead sound. “I Do It for Your Love” is another contemporary pop tune—this one by Paul Simon, demonstrating that Evans was all over the “new standards” idea a decade before nearly anyone else—that takes a great advantage of the melancholy sound of the harmonica.
But the tune that suits everyone mostly pleasingly here is Thielemans’ best-known number “Bluesette”, which allows the trio to play in a skipping waltz time that eventually becomes hard-driving swing. It’s all so breezy and breathless that it’s hard to imagine that the leader was a mere nine months away from a death that was famously referred to later as “the longest suicide in history”. Evans’ music was so fluid and crystalline that the torture of the artist’s life seems veiled if not entirely hidden. The man’s touch on the piano keys was graceful and tender, driving but always logical. When you hear Bill Evans play the piano, it makes you believe that you could probably do it—so natural and organic was the sound. “Bluesette” certainly epitomizes the Evans sense of ease.
But playing with the intelligence and skipping speed of Bill Evans is no simple feat. As many imitators as there have been, few have come close to Evans’ edge-of-the-seat grace. No mere ballad player, Bill Evans infused every note with a deliberateness and sharp clarity.
On these three radio broadcasts, the full range of Bill Evans’ artistry is on display. It doesn’t get any better.