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.