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

Troy Dostert By

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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.

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