The way the piano was played, like almost everything else in jazz, changed during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. With a new crop of young virtuosos churning out one momentous work after another, the piano arguably reached a level of prominence that was never duplicated. It was during these years when legends like McCoy Tyner (who also famously worked with John Coltrane) and Herbie Hancock (who also famously worked with Miles Davis) established themselves as major figures on the scene.
While there were plenty of other notable players who made their mark (and icons like Art Tatum, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk who had each already taken the instrument to unprecedented levels of brilliance and glory), Bill Evans is one of the most important, if somewhat overlooked, geniuses in jazz history. This is in part because, despite the universal and enduring appeal and praise his work engenders, his personal story generally lacks the drama and mystique so inextricably associated with many (if not most) of the jazz icons of that era. Indeed, everything about Evans could easily, if facilely be described as understated. Everything, that is, except for his legacy and influence. Indelible, in his way, as Coltrane or Coleman, Evans helped instigate a calm and very cool revolution that subtly but unquestionably helped shape the jazz that came.
Certain words are invariably used when discussing Evans, and they are often meant well: introspective, intellectual, impressionistic, serene, understated. These descriptions, however genuine their intent, are inadequate. Think about how frequently the words quirky or irreverent are used in discussions of Monk or the words bombastic or passionate are used to describe Mingus. In each of these instances, the man’s craft and complexity gets shortchanged.
Much rightly gets said about Evans and the impact he had on piano, but not enough is perhaps said about how musicians, regardless of what instrument they played, were profoundly impacted by his style. Not for nothing was his second album as leader — and first masterpiece — entitled Everybody Digs Bill Evans. Evans remains a challenge for any writer who hopes to avoid uncritical acclaim or worse, cliché. The reality is that the depth of feeling and emotion in his work is difficult to adequately convey, but it’s all there in the recordings. The Definitive Bill Evans on Riverside and Fantasy does a commendable job of assembling, on two discs, some of his most memorable and important work.
Bill Evans, whose life was abbreviated as the result of extended drug abuse, made music in three decades, but it his work in the last years of the ‘50s and the first years of the ‘60s that garners the most discussion and approbation. No serious jazz collection can be considered complete without copies of the aforementioned Everybody Digs Bill Evans, as well as Portrait In Jazz, Waltz for Debby and Sunday at the Village Vanguard. The last three, all recorded with Paul Motian (drums) and Scott LaFaro (bass) as part of the Bill Evans trio, represent high points not only in Evans’s career, but in all of jazz.
Before forming his first — and best — trio, Evans had already made a considerable impression. Even before his revolutionary work on Kind of Blue (1959), Evans had played on Charles Mingus’s minor masterpiece East Coasting (1957). He would later make contributions on some of the crucial albums of the ‘60s, including George Russell’s Jazz in the Space Age (1960) and Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth (1961). It is possible that Evans would warrant discussion even if he had only recorded “Peace Piece”, a solo piece from Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1958). Not only is it a perfectly realized composition, it is an ideal point of entry for the Evans aesthetic. The second selection on this set, following “Speak Low” (from his debut New Jazz Conceptions), “Peace Piece” is an early culmination of the type of sound Evans was working toward. This was, not coincidentally, during the same time he was employed by Miles Davis. Both men, circa 1958, were bored with convention and obsessed with freedom. The aim was to elevate feeling above all else; to achieve an unfettered, inevitable style that could only be the result of seamless improvisation. This, of course, is only possible through the result of ceaseless practice and reflection.
The masterworks ensued. Those trio albums continue to be cited by critics and musicians alike. The almost telepathic interplay achieved a pinnacle of sorts for the form. Jazz history is, unfortunately, replete with truncated careers, but the Bill Evans Trio must be ranked near the top of this dubious list of what-might-have-beens. When Scott LaFaro died in a car accident, jazz lost one of its best bass players, and the trio instantly became another tantalizing story interrupted by tragedy. Like Charles Mingus after Eric Dolphy died, Evans was inconsolable. It could be proposed, for understandable reasons, that this was a loss he could never fully recover from.
His supporting cast changed often during the next decade and a half, but Evans continued to make remarkable music. It’s his work after the trio, and all through the ‘70s, that tends to get short shrift. This collection does a commendable job showcasing how productive and significant he remained, right up to his death in 1980. Songs from more than a dozen subsequent albums are collected (one from each), providing a more than adequate sampler of lesser-known Evans. Some highlights have to include the spectacular “Medley: ‘Spartacus Love Theme’/Nardis” (from The Solo Sessions, Vol. 1), “On Green Dolphin Street” (from The Tokyo Concert), “Re: Person I Knew” (from Re: Person I Knew) and “The Touch of Your Lips” (from Alone (Again)).
This collection may serve as a timely refresher course for the fans, but it is an ideal primer for would-be enthusiasts. If you are among that latter group, pick this up without reservation or delay. Allow the rest of us to envy you for being on the verge of falling under the spell of Bill Evans for the first time. Enjoy the journey; it will last the rest of your life.