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DVD/Video/Film Reviews

Bill Evans: The Oslo Concerts

By Published: March 28, 2007

Many great players, ranging from Arthur Rubenstein to Michel Petrucciani, have overcome the handicap of an unlikely physical structure and developed techniques of applying unforced weight to the keys without unproductive elbow movement and undue stress to the hands. Some pianists compensate for inadequate shoulder strength by elevating the body's fulcrum as much as possible above the keyboard (Erroll Garner conjured up full-textured orchestral sonorities by playing with the piano virtually in his lap!) or, as in the case of a player like Keith Jarrett, looming over the instrument while applying the concentrated gravitational force of a few fingers to the reduced surface area of an equally concentrated group of keys. Bill Evans, on the other hand, resembles in his posture and positioning a Vladimir Horowitz, the Russian-born performer more acclaimed than any other in my lifetime for his pianism. I retain a vivid memory of a televised concert of Horowitz, sitting low, his face close to the keyboard, the weight from his arms and long fingers sufficient of themselves to allow negotiation of notoriously difficult passages—not only with consummate ease but with definitive, clarion tones consistent through each note of a sequence demanding identical pressure from each finger of both hands.

The historical accounts of Sergei Rachmaninoff's playing suggest a parallel that's no less apt. The legendary Russian pianist-composer stood over 6'3" with fingers capable of reaching a thirteenth, one of the reasons a Symphony such as the Rachmaninoff Third would provide such a challenge to anyone except its composer. Bill Evans' hands, I believe, were no less exceptional—not for the span but the sheer width of his fingers. Make a point of observing the thickness, or diameter, of his fingers on both the '66 and '80 performances: they're not so much digits deriving force from the pianist's shoulder area but ten discrete and powerful engines, efficiently drawing full-bodied textures at any volume level, delineating passing tones, controlling secondary and even tertiary inner voices, and making instant changes in dynamics, no more preparation required than one finger following another. Small wonder that without sacrificing any forcefulness he could place his head at the level of the keyboard (sometimes lower, as if in worship), drawing from it the most complexly nuanced or full-bodied voicings, making the instrument whisper spritely arabesques one instant and resonate with gnomic, ominous thunder the next.

But on to both performances in their entirety, the challenge for Evans' followers being one of not pre-judging the early date. Granted, it's not the '61 trio with LaFaro and Motian, but it's substantial Evans nonetheless, recorded shortly after bassist Eddie Gomez had joined the group and with Alex Riel, a European "guest" drummer, sitting in. No matter. The pianist is in command yet letting the music take him where it will. His lines are sharply etched on a resplendent "Very Early," cut a deep and incisive groove on "Stella by Starlight," and take the melodic lead for a richly voiced, unashamedly emotive "If You Could See Me Now." Those Evans' detractors who criticize his playing on the earlier, celebrated Vanguard sessions as overly ethereal, withdrawn, and "cloudy," should find on this occasion a more definitive, extroverted pianist suggestive of his '50s recordings with his own trio or with the Miles Davis group.

Practically exiled in a corner of the stage, Riel stays with brushes throughout and, apart from seeming somewhat at a loss during "Nardis," inflicts little damage, catching the Powell-like groove favored by Evans on the occasion. Gomez's solos soon represent a letdown to my ears, each another virtuosic exhibition of questionable musical purpose. Understandably, he had not as yet had time to absorb the democratic role Evans had in mind for the instrument with LaFaro. Yet it would seem that throughout the later bassist's comparatively long tenure with the trio, Evans' reliance on him for solos, often of equal duration to the leader's, was an invitation for midstream stasis. At the same time, his clean, well-defined sound on the instrument is captured with utter verisimilitude (including soundboard clicks), and he lays down a smooth carpet for each of Evans' solos as well as a reassuring walking path for Riel.

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