Jazz pianist Bill Evans was famously introspective: a junkie and an innovator, reserved by all accounts and tortured too. It’s a great story. You hear his impressionist jazz, his gossamer touch on ballads and his refined ability to swing, and the sense of the man drips through to your ears.
But no one is that simple or unified. In fact, Evans was also a football star—leading his college team to a championship. Did he play light and high on the piano at times? You bet. He went off to college on a flute scholarship, though. Maybe the psychological explanation is not always the thing.
Moonbeams was the first recording that Evans made after the tragic early death of his brilliant bass player, Scott LaFaro. By all accounts, Evans (and the trio’s drummer, Paul Motian too) was devastated by the loss. No surprise then that Moonbeams was a collection of ballads. A sad record, a tender piece of art.
But there is some of the quarterback present in this record too. Evans may have suffered a blow, but his game comes back strong and clear in this recording. Made in the studio and possessing a much clearer sound balance than the more famous “Live at the Village Vanguard” records with LaFaro, Moonbeams is an 80-yeard touchdown pass. It is one of best piano trio records in the history of the music. It’s a classic, a template for the future, a slice of pure genius.
This reissue comes on the 50th birthday of this record. But every listen is like the first time: delicious.
The new bass player is Chuck Israels, and he is marvelous. On “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”, for example, he plays the role that seemed to be LaFaro’s—being an equal partner to Evans, melodically, sustaining a near continual counterpoint that is equally adept at being accompaniment and independent invention. There is very little sense here that Evans has brought in the second string. This is an utterly complete trio. Not that Israels works as feverishly as LaFaro at being in a continual conversation with the leader, but he’s capable of it when that action matters.
More clearly, though, Moonbeams finds Evans taking charge in the best way. Not that this is an aggressive record. In fact, the program of ballads here is essentially the blueprint for this kind of lush, contemplative jazz in the modern idiom: Evans originals such as “Re: A Person I Knew” and “Very Early” and standards that Evans defined by his approach such as “It Might As Well Be Spring” and “Stairway to the Stars”. But amidst this session of beauty and slow tempos, Evans is completely masterful and in full control. It is an . . . assertive performance by the leader, a clear statement that his art within this impressionistic realm is rich with directed intention and clarity. There is nothing mushy about Moonbeams.
One super-specific example might make my case best. “Stairway to the Stars” is tune from the mid-1930s that evolved from a Paul Whiteman chart written by Matt Melneck and Frank Signorelli and became a hit for Glenn Miller in 1939. It has a lovely melody, and Evans reharmonizes it beautifully, of course, particularly on the rising first phrase of the A section. But the theme alone doesn’t make this recording a classic. It is the continual invention and surprise of the piano solo that is timeless. Evans begins improvising about two minutes into the track. From the start, the pianist’s right-hand melody is strong and syncopated, carving out surprises that turn your ears at almost every bar. Evans has a way of creating momentum in each melodic phrase—a kind of breathless pianistic rushing—that then pivots as the phrase breaks off suddenly or turns to a different angle.
At the 2:30 mark he plays a run of swung 16th notes that are perfectly fluid and thrilling, but he then cracks off the flow and makes the time jagged and odd, almost Thelonious Monk-ish. He then builds up a series of phrases that alternate between flowing swing and twisting surprise, leading, at 3:00, to a flurry rising runs that go up a step ladder of scalar tones like a bird flapping its wings through a cloud. Once he has you up there with him, all the phrasing becomes jabbing and sharp, with repeated notes being poked or hammered like a trumpet player, climactically.
And that is just the first minute of this logical, assertive, intelligent piece of improvised music. Though it’s a ballad—and though it is impeccably “pretty” in the way that Evans’ music so often was—it is also dynamic and bold. It’s a statement that this kind of subtle, sinuous jazz is also an adventure.
This kind of “taking charge” can be heard throughout Moonbeams. “It Might As Well Be Spring” is a pitch-perfect performance. Motian’s work on the cymbals sends a shiver up your spine, and the fluid sense that time is moving with pure relativity never lets up: Evans and his trio don’t really speed up and slow down, but then rhythmic accents vary so much that every moment is imbued with surprise. As pretty as the tune is, there is a shocking skip in its step too.
Of the Evans originals here, it is the gentle waltz “Very Early” that gets me, as it shifts from an almost lazy solo piano introduction to the tumbling groove of the trio, with pull-and-tug between Motian, Israels, and Evans becomes something playful and irresistible. You get to hear alternate take of this tune (plus “Polka Dots” and “I Fall in Love Too Easily”) which do nothing to erase you sense of the group’s brilliance.
There is one interesting side note to Moonbeams having nothing to do with the music. The album cover features a woman’s face and neck, apparently reclining backward, with blond bangs and light pink lipstick. The model for the cover was Nico, the fashion model and (later) singer who became associated with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. I mention this because, in 2012, the distance between jazz and hip, pop culture is so vast that it may be hard for young folks to believe that all this instrumental improvising ever meant anything to the culture. In 1962, however, folks had yet to hear of The Beatles, and a searching sense of swing meant as much on college campuses as a backbeat. I’m not that suggesting that those were better days, but fifty years from now it will interesting to see what replaces hip hop (as it has replaced rock) as the day’s pop currency.
And, of course, the ultimate question is this: what pop art lives on as permanent art past its contemporary hipness date? Moonbeams is certainly something permanent, something to keep enjoying on its 50th birthday. I predict many will still love it at 100, and onward, which is the sign of its greatness.
And it is great.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.