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DVD/Video/Film Reviews

Bill Evans: The Oslo Concerts

By Published: March 28, 2007

The second date is another miraculous performance of the many that have surfaced by Bill Evans' final trio. I don't find it surprising that some current piano "stars," exhibiting what literary critic Harold Bloom calls the "anxiety of influence," go out of their way to distance themselves from the Oedipal threat represented by the formidable predecessor. On the other hand, it can be perplexing to read criticisms such as those by the normally astute jazz critic, Larry Kart (scroll to end of first article in thread), who identifies Evans as the most influential of all musicians, then a sentence or two later dismisses him as a "minor artistic figure." For Kart, Evans' weaknesses are his subservient-like fondness of beautiful melody, his conservative adherence to conventional song form, and his insistence on "discipline" and "restraint" (in addition to the familiar sniping at Evans' drug use, reputed rushing of tempos, alleged aversion to twelve-bar blues). As tempting as it is to use this space to respond to each misguided charge (remarkably, the "models" Kart singles out to expose Evans' deficiencies are not other pianists but Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman), for most readers the music on this disk should be all the evidence required to support Evans' artistic preeminence.

As the later of the two dates reveals, with the last trio Evans reaches places that few if any in the jazz idiom have ever visited—dark, unsettling, achingly beautiful regions of the innermost psyche. Bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe La Barbera are with their mentor and guide for each step of the journey. Though the fledgling bassist employs an exaggerated sustain and overdoes the left-hand portamentos, he's clearly building on the pianist's ideas, and he's always "grounding" his statements with recurrent lower-string reminders of a working tonal center. Johnson doesn't merely impress; he draws you into the music. La Barbera, moreover, picks up his sticks and plays with the emotional power that Evans' thick and swirling textures call for. It's music of oceanic force, creating a vortex that threatens not so much to overpower as to draw the listener in beyond the point of return. If the early trio made the listener work hard to discover the music's fragile, precarious beauty, the music of the last trio presents the greater challenge of extricating oneself from its peremptory Dionysian pull.

An interview with Evans following the second date is telling on several levels. His mannerisms may betray his drug addiction to some viewers; the questions he receives about the general public's musical tastes draw from him the most extended and thoughtful answers. The audio is virtually pristine on both dates. Perhaps La Barbera's cymbals are attenuated more than necessary, but that's a small quibble. The filming, in B&W and color, is equally crisp and professional on both occasions, with stable camera set-ups and judicious shot selections, the few gratuitous audience cutaways insufficient to detract from the music.

In short, the only thing that would make this DVD any better would be the inclusion of a set from the '61 Vanguard sessions. Incredibly, Evans to my mind would reach even greater heights on the recordings made the week before his death—the swelling dynamic contrasts of "Your Story" and breathtaking pyrotechnical explosiveness of "Someday My Prince Will Come" (Consecration, Disc 3, Milestone, 2002) and the eight extended reworkings of the introduction to "Nardis" (The Last Waltz, Milestone, 2000). But it's understandable if many viewers of the present, extraordinary disk choose to work backwards rather than forwards in the pianist's career.

Upon deeper reflection, "extraordinary" as a comparative term is inadequate to describe Evans' music, which is a category, a universe unto itself. If comparisons are required, start with Mozart's or Verdi's Requiem, Mahler's or Rachmaninoff's Third, the final pages of Joyce's "The Dead" or the "Quentin Section" of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Mann's Death in Venice, Keats' Odes, Shostakovich's Danse Macabre, Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy—with its revelations about the inseparability of music, darkness and the Dionysian, or Ravel's expressionism in the once-controversial manic second half of La Valse, literally a "last waltz" in the frightening beauty of its spectacular unraveling. Like these high priests of the imagination, Bill Evans simply took a popular form of expression to another level, generously leaving behind an example of what is "possible"—whether a blessing or a curse remaining to be settled by all who are beneficiaries of the gift's fearful symmetry.

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