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Bill Evans: Time Remembered (The Life and Music of Bill Evans)

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Bill Evans: Time Remembered (The Life and Music of Bill Evans)
A Film by Bruce Spiegel
2016

In the opening segment of Bruce Spiegel's splendid Bill Evans documentary, Time Remembered, Evans explains in an early interview: "Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that all I must do is take care of the music. Even if I do it in a closet. And if I really do that, somebody's going to come and open the door of the closet and say, 'Hey, we're looking for you.'" It's an assertion both typical of Evans's self-effacement and also an ironic understatement, as there have been very few pianists who have exceeded Evans's impact in shaping, and not simply preserving, the world of jazz music. But that is characteristic of Evans himself, a complex set of contradictions: someone who was one of the most gifted musicians ever to play jazz piano who also resorted to heroin as a way to cope with his insecurities as a performer, and someone responsible for bringing so much beauty into the world who at the same time lived an emotionally isolated, self-absorbed existence that brought pain and hardship to many of those closest to him. To his credit, Spiegel captures these tensions powerfully, while still ensuring that Evans's musical accomplishments remain at the forefront of our consideration of this superlative artist.

Eight years in the making, and with over 40 interviews of musicians, friends and family members, Spiegel's documentary is a comprehensive journey from Evans's boyhood in North Plainfield, New Jersey to his death at age 51 in 1980. We learn about his close connection with his older brother, Harry, who also studied music and was a capable pianist who ended up becoming a music teacher; his long-term relationship with Ellaine Schultz, who became his common-law wife for 12 years during some of his most prolific years in the 1960s and early 70s; and his gradual decline as the 1970s wore on, due largely to his persistent difficulties with substance abuse. Family members Pat Evans (Bill's sister-in-law) and Debby Evans (his niece) provide a good deal of the insight into Bill's personal life, giving us an opportunity to learn about the man behind the music.

But of course for fans of Evans, it's really the music that will be most important, and Spiegel doesn't disappoint in that regard. Evans's decision to join his brother Harry as a music student at Southeastern Louisiana University in the late 1940s would prove transformative in exposing him to music theory and classical composition, and in helping him to develop his own voice. Drummer Paul Motian, whose interview with Spiegel is one of the highlights of the film, sheds light not only on his work with Evans in the seminal trio with bassist Scott LaFaro, but his first experience in playing with him in New York in the mid-50s with clarinetist Tony Scott. Bassist Connie Atkinson discusses his work with Evans even earlier, as they played together in big bands doing "Tuxedo gigs" in dinner clubs; Atkinson would go on to become the bassist in Evans's first piano trio.

All of this was before Evans's big break with Miles Davis in 1958, as he became part of the band that would increase his visibility and forge a partnership that would result in Evans's participation in making Kind of Blue in 1959. Fittingly, this record is given extensive commentary in the film, both for its own significance and for the role it played in cementing Evans's legacy: in his interview for the film, author Ashley Khan credits Evans as the central creative force (along with Miles himself) of that masterpiece. The trio with Motian and LaFaro which produced the landmark recordings Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby is also covered heavily, and it is a delight to encounter the creative process behind those magnificent records. The film's discussion of the amazing talent LaFaro brought to that trio is a particular revelation: when Gary Peacock describes his astonishment at first hearing LaFaro it is eye-opening, to say the least.

The subsequent trios were all accomplished in their own right, of course: bassists Chuck Israels and Marc Johnson, and drummers Marty Morell and Joe La Barbera speak powerfully of their respective stints with Evans. But the latter half of the film, in which these trios are explored, feels bittersweet, as it was becoming clear by the later 1960s that Evans's best years were behind him; in some ways, he never fully recovered from LaFaro's tragic death in a car crash at age 25 in 1961. To be sure, much of Evans's life seemed dogged by intermittent tragedies: some of the film's more poignant moments involve the suicides of Ellaine Schultz (who took her own life soon after Evans left her for the woman who became his next wife, Nenette Zazarra) and Harry Evans (who suffered from schizophrenia). Spiegel also refuses to shy away from Evans's self-inflicted troubles, noting the extent to which his drug addiction impaired his personal and musical life throughout the 1960s and 70s. Even so, the film does an admirable job of avoiding wallowing in these depths, always seeking to salvage Evans's lasting legacy by celebrating the timelessness of his music.

Interviews with legendary Riverside producer Orrin Keepnews (who comments helpfully on the debut 1956 trio record, New Jazz Conceptions, with Motian and bassist Teddy Kotick) and writer Gene Lees are invaluable in tracing Evans's trajectory. Lees, Evans's longtime friend, is a presence throughout the film; he is especially insightful in noting the importance of manager/producer Helen Keane in bringing stability and direction to Evans's work after LaFaro's death. And the musical titans who share their reflections are a treasure: in addition to the aforementioned Motian, we have Jim Hall, discussing his duo record with Evans, Undercurrent, and Tony Bennett, expressing what it was like to work with Evans on their Tony Bennett/Bill Evans album. Indeed, one of the film's most touching aspects is the number of musicians interviewed who passed before the film's release: Motian, Hall, Billy Taylor, and Bob Brookmeyer, as well as Keepnews and Lees, are unfortunately no longer with us.

One can quibble a bit with avenues that might have been explored further in the film. For instance, the racial dynamics that emerged when Evans joined Miles's group in 1958 were perhaps covered too briefly. Evans mentions in a recorded interview in the film that "this was a very heavy black pride band," and that "Miles called me a white pianist," but beyond mentioning some of the challenges that accompanied Evans's presence on the bandstand with the group in some of the clubs they played, Spiegel moves on before those elements are fully fleshed out. And hard-core Evans enthusiasts will probably want more discussion of the nuts-and-bolts of Evans's music and the evolution of his musical concepts as he departed from conventional bebop; a passing mention of Evans's early work with George Russell could have been expanded upon in this respect. But these are minor reservations, as so much of this film is superbly made and highly illuminating.

For his dedication to Evans's legacy and his unmistakable love of his music, both of which are vividly demonstrated in this fine document, Spiegel is to be commended. This film is essential viewing, not only for Evans's fans but for all lovers of modern jazz.

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