“The last two years I was here were perhaps the happiest years of my life.” This was Bill Evans, talking about Southeastern Louisiana College, where he graduated in 1950. You know what happened: he went to New York, had a memorable stay with Miles Davis, and became one of the most influential pianists in jazz. His school also knew; now a university, they gave Bill their first Distinguished Alumnus award in 1969. Ten years later came a special event: a concert in the hall he gave his senior recital, now named for the man who brought him to S.L.C. It also was special for Bill: leading his final trio, the tunes are attacked with surprising vigor, and it shines with a joy that can’t be denied, almost a year before his death. In a way, this is kind of a swan song – and sing it does.
The sound is bad, no doubt about it. If I read the notes right, this was recorded from an aisle seat in the seventh row: the echo is big and the notes cloudy. As a result, Marc Johnson suffers: the sliding lines of his first solo are blunted, and when Evans goes soft, it’s hard to hear him. (Some of his announcements are also faint.) “Midnight Mood” starts lush and gets stronger; Joe LaBarbera whooshes behind him with great slapping brushes. Evans climbs the stairs in a giddy way, Joe pushes, and Johnson bounces large. At one point the brushes envelop Bill; he recedes and Johnson goes high, tiny guitar notes Bill responds to. The sound improves a little and the ballad “Laurie” goes fast, a two-fisted intro that goes spare when the band comes in. After some meditation, the chords get thick, and the lyricism grows. Hear Johnson creep; without a solo his presence is stronger than the earlier efforts. And then it leaves, in a final burst of sunshine. The crowd sees the beauty.
“Song from MASH” is the first highlight: with big hands, new chords, and a bit of blues, it goes its own way. Taken fast, it sounds like jazz (Johnny Mandel wrote it, after all) and Bill decorates throughout. Tossing notes in as Joe goes huge on the cymbals. “You TV watchers might have recognized that,” he says at the end. Thus invigorated, “Turn Out the Stars” comes out punchy and ornate, but not sleepy. There’s a glimpse of “Surrey With the Fringe” and also “But Beautiful”, which he’ll do later. Serene and elegant, like a lot of his best. Johnson’s turn near the end sounds clear, and it adds to a sterling finish – the sound of a hug. The crowd hugs back.
Something really special is here. The ballads glisten with lushness, the faster tunes surge, and when he gets heavy, watch out! The power is impressive on things like “Up With the Lark”; try as Johnson might, he cannot surpass the leader, who takes it with gusto. “Minha (All Mine)” is many things: reflective for Johnson’s turn, boisterous for Bill. This is all his, and the crowd acknowledges. “I Do It for You” is in the expected mode, reflective and spare. It’s lush in spots, but it’s a prime example of an Evans specialty: the ultra-slow ballad. Johnson’s notes light up the sky, and the shimmering end is a keeper. Almost at once he breaks into “Someday My Prince”; twice the crowd tries to thank him, but Evans will not be denied. Faster and furiouser: this is “MASH” again, only stronger. He makes the tone harder, and Joe keeps stoking the fire. Johnson’s solo is the release, and the crowd explodes. He keeps fairly fast, but Bill is impatient, and the fury soon returns, replete with exchanges. A frantic, impossible ending, and the crowd thanks him. They got their money’s worth, and so will you.
There’s also a radio extract, an interview made on the eve of the concert. The questions are obvious but Bill’s answers are worth hearing, and it gives a look into why Southeastern, and this concert, were important to Bill Evans.