Bill Evans (1929-1980) was a musician of the highest caliber. He delved into the art of jazz and took it apart, dissecting it with an appreciation for the music of Ravel and Debussy, a superior command of the piano, and a God-given talent for jazz that was augmented by stints with the greatest musicians of his era, including Miles Davis, John Contrane, and Cannonball Adderly.
Evans released his first album as a leader, New Jazz Conceptions, in 1956. But it wasn't until he joined Miles Davis' group in 1958 that he achieved notoriety. Evans is credited with helping realize Davis' vision that was to become one of the true masterpieces of jazz, Kind of Blue. Evans had studied classical music all of his life, and it never ceased to provide him with inspiration in his music. Nowhere is that more evident than on Kind of Blue, where the lyrical touch and lush chord voicings acquired from Ravel and Debussy perfectly complemented Davis' goal of avoiding dense, thickly chorded passages and instead focusing on melody. On Evans next solo album, Everybody Digs Bill Evans, Davis is credited on the cover as saying: "I've sure learned a lot from Bill Evans. He plays the piano the way it should be played." Fine praise, indeed, especially considering the source.
After leaving the group Evans went on to record in a variety of formats, most notably with a series of trios. While most of his albums included at least one or two solo pieces (a preferential luxury he afforded himself), it was within the realm of a trio that Evans made his most significant contributions. Having a bassist play the root of the chord allowed Evans more freedom in his choice of chord voicings. He could stack notes on top of one another in clusters or build them up in intervals of fourths (as opposed to the more common chords built in intervals of thirds), depending on the song and mood that struck him. Evans was also a master of using the inner voices of his chords in such a way that he almost seemed to have three or four separate melodies weaving through his improvisations. Whereas most drummers and bass players helped to keep the time and rhythm in a typical jazz trio, Evans freed his bandmates from any such limitations.
He became among the first musicians to advocate what has become known as the "floating pulse," where the steady beat of the beat of the song was allowed to ebb and flow with the mood of the collective improvisation. Not only was Evans a supreme balladeer and hard-swinging bebopper, but he was also a composer of the highest caliber. "Funkallero," "Blue in Green," "Peri's Scope," and "Waltz For Debby" are among his many compositions that have become part of the standard jazz repertoire.
Evans' most famous trio was with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, who played together from 1959-1961 and developed an almost-telepathic sense of interplay. The albums Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby, recorded in June of 1961, are considered to be among the finest jazz trio records of all time. Sadly, LaFaro, a phenomenal bassist with a unique style, passed away 10 days after recording these albums. The loss deeply affected Evans, and it took a full year before Evans would play again in a trio.
Evans went on to play with several other talented musicians in a trio format, including bassists Chuck Israels, Marc Johnson, Eddie Gomez, and Ray Brown, and drummers Philly Joe Jones, Larry Bunker, and Joe LaBarberera. Other unique pairings included recording situations with harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans, vocalist Tony Bennett and guitarist Jim Hall. Evans also recorded two albums of solo piano (Grammy winner Conversations with Myself and New Conversations ), on which he overdubbed the piano two or three times using the newest current studio technology. In the 1970s, Evans' playing adopted a more forceful tone, and he began to lose his reputation as a balladeer.
Evans passed away on September 15, 1980, finally being overwhelmed by the addiction to cocaine from which he had suffered from for the last few years of his life. The jazz world has saluted him with numerous tribute albums, but his true influence can be heard in the music of every musician today who would claim to be a jazz pianist. Evans' impressionistic chords, interweaving melodic improvisations, and lyrical touch have become a part of the jazz lexicon, and that is his legacy to the musical world.
As a Leader:
Portrait in Jazz
Everybody Digs Bill Evans
Sunday at the Village Vanguard
Waltz For Debby
Conversations with Myself
Affinity (with Toots Thielemans)
Intermodulation (with Jim Hall)
As a Sideman:
Miles Davis - Kind of Blue
Oliver Nelson - The Blues and the Abstract Truth
Click here for the complete Bill Evans' catalog on the Fantasy Jazz record label.