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Bill Evans: 1929-1980

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The four of us in the control booth-Ray [Hall, the engineer], Creed, Helen, and I- were constantly openmouthed at what was going on. On the second track Bill would play some strangely appropriate echo of something he'd done on the first. Or there would be some flawless pause in which all three pianists were perfectly together; or some deft run fitted effortlessly into a space left for it. I began to think of Bill as three Bills: Bill Left Channel, Bill Right, and Bill Center.

Bill Left would lay down the first track, stating the melody and launching into an improvisation for a couple of choruses, after which he would move into an accompanist's role, playing a background over which Bill Center would later play his solo. His mind obviously was working in three dimensions of them simultaneously, because each Bill was anticipating and responding to what the other two were doing. Bill Left was hearing in his head what Bill Center and Bill Right were going to play a half hour or so from now, while Bill Center and Bill Right were in constant communication with a Bill Left who had vanished into the past a half hour or an hour before. The sessions took on a feeling of science-fiction eeriness.

When Bill had completed the first two tracks, Creed and Helen and I all thought that he shouldn't do a third-that another one would only clutter what he had already done. We were wrong.

As the end of the track neared, the "third" Bill took the opening figure and extended it into a long fantastic, flowing line that he wove in and out and around and through what the other two pianists were playing, never colliding with these two previous selves. That final line seemed like a magic firefly hurrying through a forest at night, never striking the trees, leaving behind a line of golden sparks that slowly fell to earth, illuminating everything around it. I think Helen and Creed were close to tears when he completed that track. I know I was (Lees, Meet Me, 160).

Evans left for Florida, where he successfully kicked his habit for a while, then returned to New York in time to receive a Grammy Award for Conversations with Myself. Later Evans created two more overdub albums, Further Conversations in 1967, also on Verve, produced by Helen Keane, and New Conversations in 1978 on Warner Brothers, which opens with his tribute "Song for Helen," includes a tribute to his second wife Nenette ("For Nenette"), reinforced by the Cy Coleman standard "I Love My Wife," and the Ellington rarity "Reflections in D." It is generally considered to be the best of the three.

Evans' Fortunes on the Rise

Evans became better known and sold more records as the decade went on. He was soon making enough money for him and his wife to move out of Manhattan to a comfortable section of the Bronx called Riverdale. Meanwhile Creed Taylor had left Verve and started his own label CTI, and it fell to Helen Keane to take on the role of producer. Gene Lees helped set up the Montreux Jazz Festival and arranged for Evans to play in it in 1968 and thereafter, recording his performances from that year and 1970. When Evans left Verve he spent some time briefly recording for Columbia, but did not consider it very productive. At one point its president, Clive Davis, tried to get him to make a rock album, which Evans flatly turned down.

After that Evans went to Fantasy, which turned out to be a much more fruitful association. He produced some of his most mature satisfying work there. His fame only continued to grow as he acquired more fans among music lovers and disciples among pianists everywhere. Lees tells the story of a piano-playing Toronto dentist he had called when Evans had a toothache there. Lees had been turned down by the nurse because the call had come in after hours. When the dentist heard about it, he was appalled. "What," he said, "Do you realize you turned down God?" and rushed down to the Town Tavern where Evans was playing, tools in hand, to fix his ailing tooth (Lees, Meet Me, 166).

Personal Tragedy

It was also around this time, 1970, that Evans' wife Ellaine committed suicide by throwing herself under a subway train. As a result, he went back on heroin for a while, then got into a methadone treatment program, and stayed away from drugs for almost the last decade in his life. He married again, to Nenette, and had a child by her, whom they named Evan. His son became the inspiration for the beautiful tune "Letter to Evan." The marriage did not last, however, and soon he was living by himself in Fort Lee, New Jersey, right across the George Washington Bridge.

Last Decade of Recording

Evans' last decade of recording showed him growing even more as an artist. His 1974 live LP, Since We Met, is one of his very best, containing new versions of his ruminative ballad in memory of his father, "Turn Out the Stars," his radically beautiful "Time Remembered," the Earl Zindars beauty "Sareen Jurer," performed in both 3/4 and 4/4 time, and Cy Coleman's waltz "See-Saw," among others. In 1979 he gave a magnificent concert in Paris which Helen Keane later turned into two LP releases on Musician, called simply Paris Concert, Edition I and II. They reveal him with an unmatched rhythmic drive, summoning up all his stylistic resources, filling the entire musical space with an expanding energy. He takes fruitful risks, such as when he opens his classic "Nardis" with a solo piano improvisation, a kaleidoscopic exploration of figures and forms, finally landing on the familiar middle-Eastern sounding melody, bringing in the rest of the rhythm section in a triumphant release of suspense. The audience was ecstatic.

Last Addiction and Death

In 1980 Bill Evans began using cocaine, the fashionable drug that he imagined was "safe." But actually it demands replenishment in the bloodstream every few hours rather than just once a day like heroin, and as a stimulant, it wears you down that much faster. At the end of summer of that year, Bill asked his drummer Joe LaBarbera to drive him to the hospital, since he was having severe stomach pains. He calmly directed Joe to Mount Sinai, checked in, and died there the 15th of September.

The tributes poured in, and by 1983 a double album had been assembled with pianists who had been influenced or touched by Evans, each contributing a single piece. His stature has only continued to grow, with a newsletter devoted to his music and followers edited by Win Hinkle in North Carolina, and now on the Internet. He has become, along with Oscar Peterson, one of the major enduring forces in jazz piano.

~ Joel Simpson



Bibliography

  • Aiken, Jim. "Bill Evans." (Contemporary) Keyboard Magazine, June, 1980, pp. 44-55.
  • Davis, Miles with Quincy Troupe. Miles: the Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.
  • Enstice, Wayne and Paul Rubin. Jazz Spoken Here: Conversations with Twenty-two Musicians. Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 1992. (Bill Evans)
  • Evans, Bill. "Improvisation in Jazz," liner notes on Kind of Blue, Columbia PC 8163, starring Miles Davis, 1959.
  • Keepnews, Orrin. "The Bill Evans Sessions." from Bill Evans: The Complete Riverside Recordings, accompanying booklet. Berkeley, CA: Fantasy, 1984.
  • Lees, Gene. Meet Me at Jim & Andy's: Jazz Musicians and Their World. New York: Oxford U. P., 1988. (Bill Evans)
  • Lyons, Len. The Great Jazz Pianists-Speaking of their Lives and Music. New York: Quill, 1983. (Bill Evans)
  • Lyons, Len and Don Perlo. Jazz Portraits: The Life and Music of the Jazz Masters. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1989. (Bill Evans)
  • Williams, Martin. "Homage to Bill Evans." from Bill Evans: The Complete Riverside Recordings, accompanying booklet. Berkeley, CA: Fantasy, 1984.
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