Bill Evans: The Oslo Concerts


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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.
Bill Evans Trio
The Oslo Concerts
Shanachie Entertainment Corp.

Arguably sharing with John Coltrane the distinction of being the primary shaper of the language of jazz over the past fifty years, Bill Evans was also a remarkably focused and consistent artist who paradoxically manifested different musical personae, each capable of attracting its own cadre of followers or detractors. Despite the spatial proximity of these two Evans' concerts, released for the first-time on this stunning and illuminating DVD, the temporal distance between them offers the spectator-listener some difficult if enviable choices—not unlike a reader trying to decide between the sensuous beauty of Keats and the vatic poetry of Shelley or, keeping Evans' attraction to Blake's poetry in mind, between the comforting harmonies of "The Lamb" from Songs of Innocense and the "fearful symmetry" of "The Tyger" from Songs of Experience.

The Miles Davis quotation on the back cover of the DVD, eloquently describing Evans' playing as notes of "crystal" and as "sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall," is obviously in reference to early Evans, the Keatsian aesthete of Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) and the French impressionist of the first Vanguard sessions (Riverside, 1961). But this disk also gives ample evidence of the expressionistic, Promethean genius presiding over the music of the final trio. If, like the idealist Shelley, the pianist's daemon inevitably comes up short in its grand Romantic quest, resonating with the fallen poet's anguished cry in "Ode to the West Wind" ("I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed"), it's an artistic failure of such scope and ambition as to constitute its own triumph of the creative human spirit, producing a dark and dangerous, deeply disturbing but undeniably compelling, mesmerizing beauty.

A key to understanding early and late Evans, as well as appreciating his unique relationship with his instrument of expression, is the visual component. If Michael Jordan inherited a body optimally suited to his talents, the same can be said of Bill Evans. Admirers of the pianist's music practically owe it to themselves to view this singular artist at work: not only a gifted player of seemingly boundless imagination and extraordinary powers of concentration but a physical specimen drawn up by a Blakean divine smithy for one purpose—to play the piano.

Before viewing either of the two concerts on this disc, I couldn't resist an initial sampling (much like my immediately looking up the Monica references in the Bill Clinton autobiography), but nothing could have prepared me for the shocking consequence. From the 1966 concert, I went directly to "Nardis," viewing the performance in its entirety. Then I returned to the menu and summoned up the same tune from the 1980 performance, filmed approximately one month before Evans' passing. Could the person photographed in profile by an upstage camera possibly be Bill Evans? Coatless, gangling, slouched in a C shape, looking like an outsized Jeremiah, or Abraham, with the piano serving as an altar awaiting the ultimate sacrifice of the priest-artist's creative offspring?

Serious pianists appreciate above all the difficulties of extracting singing tones from a percussion instrument, which is why they devote countless hours to establishing a relationship with the instrument that is organic, indivisible, and "natural"—so integral that the piano's voice is inseparable from the player's. You simply cannot force, or "leverage," the sounds of the piano; its levers must be in complete synchronization with the player's own mechanics or the result is a strident tone, elbow tightness and the rapid onset of finger fatigue. The fortunate ones are those few pianists born with an anatomy that is a complement to, or an integral fit with, the mechanical assemblage of the instrument itself.

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.

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.

Oslo Munch Museum, October 1966

Very Early; Stella By Starlight; If You Could See Me Now; Autumn Leaves; Time Remembered; Nardis; Five

Bill Evans: piano; Eddie Gomez: bass; Alex Riel: drums.

Molde Jazz Festival, August 1980

Person I Knew; Days of Wine and Roses; Your Story; Nardis

Bill Evans: piano; Marc Johnson: bass; Joe La Barbera

Production Notes: 70 minutes. Produced by Norwegian Broadcasting Company. Color/B&W. Extras: After concert interview with Bill Evans.

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