Yale University Press
New Haven 1998
This is an exhaustive trawl through the work of Bill Evans, with characterizations of virtually every recorded track, whether created for posterity or bootlegged from a concert or broadcast. Evans’ work schedule gets a similar treatment, although the author implies that there are quite a few more performance dates than the many which he does characterize or at least mention. There are also many quotations from Evans, who was that rarity among musicians, someone who was articulate and thoughtful enough to be a good speaker and writer.
Evans (1929 - 1980) was born and raised in Plainfield, New Jersey, the second of two athletic and piano-playing sons. Already a working pianist by the time he graduated high school, he attended and graduated Southeastern College in Louisiana as a music and music education major, making an impression on his teachers by both his excellence as a classical pianist as well as his lax attitude towards technical studies. After a stint in Herbie Fields’ big band, and a couple of years as a US Army musician where he met his later employer Tony Scott, Evans took a year in Florida to study, then moved to New York City. Here his adaptability and skills found him a variety of club gigs and record dates, including the beginning of a long association with the Village Vanguard. Evans describes his work there as an intermission pianist for the Modern Jazz Quartet:
“Nobody knew me, of course, and you could hear a pin drop during their sets, and despite the fact that Milt Jackson gave me a really fine introduction every time, this intimidated the audience into about five and a half seconds of silence, and from then on it was thunderous din... And while I was playing one night, the maitre d’ brought a party of four up while I was playing I stopped, he said excuse me and he led them between me and the keyboard to that table [behind the bandstand].”
But other professionals spotted and used this talent, among them Charles Mingus, Art Farmer, George Russell, Tony Scott and most significantly, Miles Davis. Evans also recorded as a leader during this period, showing what he would describe as his major influence: Bud Powell, with his long and energetic lines.
As a sideman with Miles Davis, Evans got significant exposure, not always favorable. Many of Davis’ fans preferred the energetic work of Red Garland to the more subtle Evans. Constant travel and lack of audience appreciation contributed to Evans’ decision to leave Davis, recuperating for some weeks at his parents’ retirement home in Florida. But by this time he was in fairly constant demand for recording, including a call from Davis that led to KIND OF BLUE, which Pettinger treats as a collaboration of equals between Davis and Evans. Davis, knowing that Evans wanted to work as a trio leader, was also instrumental in recommending him to agents, and in finding him collaborators: Jimmy Garrison and Kenny Dennis. Their gig at Basin Street East in New York City turned out to be an extended audition: “I think I went through four drummers and seven bass players... during that gig,” ultimately ending with Scott LeFaro and Paul Motian. Thus was born the unit which made the seminal live recordings SUNDAY AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD and WALTZ FOR DEBBY.
Following immediately upon the group’s breakthrough into a new realm of collaborative performance, LeFaro’s untimely death in a car wreck was devastating for Evans, who was unable to work for some months. Ultimately he picked up again, and the biography becomes increasingly a record of musical relationships formed and developed mostly with bass players and drummers in innumerable club and concert dates, broadcasts, and recording sessions. Among the post-LeFaro bassists, Gary Peacock appears briefly; Chuck Israels grows to be an equal collaborator; Eddie Gomez works in the trio for over a decade, ultimately carrying the burden of improvisational interest as Evans coasts; Marc Johnson helps kick Evans back into gear through the last brilliant dates. Among the drummers, Philly Joe Jones, an Evans soulmate, moves in and out of the group intermittently, both pre- and post-Motian; Larry Bunker, Arnold Wise, Jack DeJohnette, Marty Morrel, Eliot Zigmund, and Joe LaBarbera participate for in turn.
Evans’ sometimes difficult personal relationships get some play as well: his long-time girlfriend whom he abandoned because of her infertility; his wife and mother of his son who left him because of his cocaine use; his beloved older brother whose suicide briefly preceded Evans’ own demise. But the book is largely about Evans’ career, session by session, in some cases phrase by phrase, and seems true to Evans’ own intentions and devotion in this way.