Helen Merrill and Bill Evans


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In February 1958, singer Helen Merrill recorded five tracks backed by Bill Evans, who was part of a superb quintet. The tracks would be their only studio recordings together. Evans would move on to the Miles Davis Quintet and Sextet that May and then form his own trio at year's end. Helen would spend 1958 and '59 recording jazz albums and touring before moving to Italy, where she'd spend the next four years.

Helen and Evans were close friends. During their coming-up years, in the mid-1950s, they became each other's support systems, spending long phone calls consoling each other and offering each other professional and personal advice. As Helen told me in 2009:

I was there for Bill when he needed to talk. He called me the night Miles asked him to join his group in '58. Bill said, “Helen, do you really think I'm good enough? Do you think I'm good enough to play with Miles?" I said, “Of course." Bill knew he was great, but he needed the encouragement. I was very touched by what he asked me, and I knew exactly how he felt. It was a big move for him. Even when you know you can do something, you want to hear it from someone who feels the way you do, someone who understands what you're going through inside.

The five tracks recorded that February with Evans would complete Helen's The Nearness of You album for Emarcy Records. The first session was recorded in December 1957, with Mike Simpson (fl,cl,ts), Dick Marx (p), Fred Rundquist (g), Johnny Frigo (b) and Jerry Slosberg (d).

My guess is that by the time the next studio date came around after the holidays, the earlier musicians above were busy with other projects. So producer Bob Shad pulled together a different quintet with a similar hip, sensitive sound. He chose Bobby Jaspar (fl) (above), Bill Evans (p), Barry Galbraith (g), Oscar Pettiford (b) and Philly Joe Jones (d).

What a stunning group. Evans is glorious on all of the tracks, as are the other stellar musicians. It's hard to know who came up with the arrangements. My guess is they were by Dick Marx from the earlier session. Helen and the quintet recorded Let Me Love You, When the Sun Comes Out, All of You, The Nearness of You and Just Imagine, a 1930 song by Buddy De Sylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson for a movie of the same name.

Evans's intros and solos are soft and luxuriant. His brief solos are on All of You and The Nearness of You, and on Just Imagine he has a terrific intro. So good, you wish the Bill Evans Trio had accompanied Helen on an album.

The reason I love Helen is she never exhibits any pretension. She falls completely into a song and her commitment is complete. There's a bruised coyness about Helen's delivery, breathlessness with moody power. I miss chatting with her.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Helen Merrill's The Nearness of You here or on the Complete Helen Merrill on Mercury here.

JazzWax clips: Here's Let Me Love You...

Here's When the Sun Comes Out...

Here's All of You...

Here's The Nearness of You...

And here's Just Imagine...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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