Bill Evans: The Oslo Concerts

Samuel Chell By

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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.


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