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Pianist Bill Evans: A Retrospective


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Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.
—Miles Davis
Key Recordings
Boxed Sets
Individual Albums


Arguably the greatest jazz pianist of the 1960s and '70s, Bill Evans is a remarkable study of extraordinary discipline and disorder clashing to form some of the most beautiful music of all time.

He played an equal role with Miles Davis in composing Kind Of Blue , the top-selling jazz album ever, yet the association proved disastrous as Evans' shyness and pressures of the stage fed a drug addiction that led to his death in 1980. His intelligence allowed him to surpass other players with more raw talent and he inspired a rare cult-like following, but also endured critics who saw him as a fraudulent lightweight.

Evans is generally acknowledged as the most influential pianist since Bud Powell, and a primary influence on players such as Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea. Many consider his Sunday At The Village Vanguard the best piano trio album ever and compositions such as "Waltz For Debby" are all-time standards. He is also credited with advancing harmonic and voicing structures. and pioneering modern trio format elements such as giving sidemen equal interplay during improvisations.

His career peaked early during the late 1950s and early 1960s, then went through a series of peaks and valleys for the rest of his life. The best of those latter periods were probably during the early 1970s and right before his death, although neither reached the pinnacle of his early days.

Evans, born in 1929 in Plainsfield, N.J., grew up in a family with strong music inclinations. He started playing piano at age 6, but also studied violin (which may have influenced his melodic approach on piano), flute and piccolo. He heard jazz for the first time at age 12, motivating him to form bands and play nearby venues while still in high school.

He won a scholarship to Southeastern Louisiana College, continuing to perform in his spare time. He attacked his studies, stating in later years he didn't consider himself as talented and therefore was forced to be more analytical. He graduated in 1950 with praise from one recording engineer for playing the "smoothest piano he had ever heard."

He was inducted into the Army from 1951 to 1954 due to the Korean War, which he said was an annoying career interruption and undermined his self-confidence even though he spent his service time in the Army band. He spent a year honing his skills on a piano at his parents' home before reemerging to play with local dance bands and as a sideman with small jazz groups. Association with performers such as clarinetist Tony Scott and guitarist Mundell Lowe brought him to the attention of the emerging independent Riverside Records.

His debut trio album New Jazz Conceptions , recorded in 1956 when Evans was 26 years old, sold only 800 copies its first year despite good reviews. He continued working as a sideman during the next few years, working his way up in stature and receiving an enormous self-confidence boost when Miles Davis asked him to join his band in 1958. Evans toured and recorded with the group for about a year, enduring considerable discrimination from the trumpeter's fans along the way as the only white member of the band. But he also became one of the few whites to influence black jazz musicians with his understated lyricism. The most obvious example of this is the emergence of modal jazz on Kind Of Blue , where scales instead of chords shape performances.

But the stress took a heavy toll on Evans, who started using marijuana in the Army and had experimented with heroin. Now surrounded by a number of addicted players, the habit developed into full-blown addiction - "he was determined to be the worst junkie in the whole band," according to one member.

His second album, Everybody Digs Bill Evans , recorded in 1958, again won critical acclaim but relatively limited sales. A year later he formed his most acclaimed trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian and recorded Portrait In Jazz , the first in a series of albums that highlight his career.

He won Downbeat magazine's "New Star" award in 1958 and 1959, with readers eventually warming to him as he rose from 20th in a 1958 poll of pianists to sixth in 1959. But not everyone was sold - a New York Times critic called Evans one of the "major con jobs of recent years" whose recordings were merely "superior background music."

Evans reached his peak during five sets at the Village Vanguard on June 25, 1961, with his two landmark albums Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby released that year. But a crushing blow followed almost immediately, as LaFaro was killed in a car accident a few weeks later. Evans retreated into seclusion for months, and when he reemerged both his life and playing became more erratic.

He made a large number of recordings during the next few years to support his drug habit, which among other hazards had loan sharks threatening to break his fingers. He also for creative and commercial reasons began doing more work beyond the trio format, with results varying from abysmal to exceptional. Among the performers he recorded with were Charles Mingus, Tony Bennett, Stan Getz, Toots Theielmans and Jim Hall.

His resurgence during the early 1970s was sparked after bassist Eddie Gomez became a member of the trio in 1966. Gomez's inventive fast-paced playing stood out much more forcefully than previous sidemen, and this presence and influence on Evans' playing grew throughout their 11-year association.

Brilliance in Evans' playing is found throughout this period, but he also often turned to increasingly erratic reinterpretations of early material, playing more notes but not saying as much with them. Ventures into instrumental pop and playing electronic keyboards also rank far from his finer moments.

Evans formed his final trio in 1978 with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera, which would capture much of the spirit of the pianist's original landmark group, especially during the months preceding his death. There is probably no better example of this than a nine-day series of concerts recorded at the Village Vanguard a week before his death (see The Last Waltz below), when Evans knew the end was near and performed what many said was his most moving work in years.

He continued playing for a short time after until deteriorating health forced him to be admitted to New York's Mount Sinai Hospital, where he died on Sept. 15, 1980, from a combination of ailments including bronchial pneumonia.

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Key Recordings

There are nearly 200 albums in the Bill Evans discography, the best of which are generally duo and trio collaborations from the first decade of his career. There are some successes as a soloist, playing electric keyboards and with larger ensembles, but they are much more erratic in quality and even the acclaimed albums are subject to widely divided opinions.

New listeners should buy one or both of his landmark Vanguard albums instead of any of the numerous so-called "best of" collections. Those taking the next step should listen to Evans' development in early albums from New Jazz Conceptions through Conversations With Myself , plus a limited selection of subsequent recordings. Completists can stay busy for a long time hunting down obscure early sessions, fan-taped performances and "so awful they're collectable" recordings (try 1963's The VIPs Theme , available only as a Japanese import, as an example of the latter).

Those into the legal music download scene can take advantage of a bargain featuring nearly all of his strongest material. See the online category at the end of this section for details.

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Boxed Sets

These are listed first because they also provide some insight into the individual albums released during the years involved. Virtually all of the boxed material is available separately and, except for the Riverside set, may be the best bet for all but the most devout fans.

The Complete Riverside Recordings

For those able to purchase one boxed set, this 12-disc collection covering Evans' career from 1956 to 1963 is the unquestionable pick. His early development and landmark Vanguard dates provide the highlights, while sessions toward the end of the collection featuring somewhat ill-matched larger groups and two tentative solo recordings provide insight into the struggles he would experience throughout the rest of his career.

The Complete Bill Evans On Verve

The Verve set is the largest with 269 tracks over 18 discs mostly recorded between 1962 and 1969, but is uneven due to commercial demands by the label and Evans churning out material at a hectic pace to support his drug habit. It is more diverse than the Riverside set, with some of the more interesting collaborations featuring guitarist Jim Hall, drummer Shelly Manne and flautist Jeremy Steig. Various solo recordings, including some double- and triple-tracking himself, are also prominent.

The Complete Fantasy Recordings

The nine-disc Fantasy collection represents Evans' work from 1973-79. The material remains diverse, including a performance with singer Tony Bennett and an hour-long discussion of his work with Marian McPartland on her "Piano Jazz" radio program. But the uneven quality also persists, making individual albums from the label a better buy.

The Secret Sessions (1996)

This eight-disc set is for listeners as devout as the fan who recorded it. Mike Harris surreptitiously taped every Evans session at the Vanguard from 1966 onward and, after resolving some legal issues, the sound was cleaned up and the collection released on the Milestone record label. Devotees will likely find it more interesting than inspiring, as performances vary widely in quality and the bootleg sound quality often gives the drummers too much prominence and puts Evans too far in the background.

The Last Waltz (2000)

This is probably for devoted fans only, but almost certainly one they'll want if they can afford it. The eight-disc set from a nine-day stretch of performances in San Francisco a week before Evans' death is regarded a final rise to triumph, a claim fueled by both merit and sentiment. There is no question Evans, who knew death was near, tries to take many of his classic reinterpretations to the next level. There is a tense aspect to much of his playing - the beatific and haunting expressions of a tortured soul, say those who love this collection. But there's also plenty of spark and diversity; the six extended versions of "Nardis" vary considerably in pace and phrasing, for instance. The middle discs are somewhat stronger overall, as Evans settles in and isn't marred by a bit of fatigue that seems to affect the final performances. Those thrilled with this collection can also obtain - and probably already know about - Consecration , featuring the opening sets each performance ( The Last Waltz is from the subsequent sets).

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Individual Albums

New Jazz Conceptions (1956)

Evans' debut album is recommended for those who are already a fans of the pianist, as it largely allows them to track his development. Here he is playing largely mainstream bop in the Bud Powell tradition without much of a distinct individual voice. Hints of future development are in his first recording of "Waltz For Debby" and his treatments of "Displacement," where few notes fall on the beat, and "Five," featuring a frenetic quintuplet-based beat in 4/4 time.

Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1958)

The cover of this album is hardly indicative of a shy and reclusive musician, as it consists entirely of quotes raving about Evans from the likes of Miles Davis (the first time he ever allowed such a quote), Cannonball Adderley and others familiar with him. But it also reflects the stellar reputation he had achieved among musicians and critics - if not quite yet the public - and this album is a clear step toward the more relaxed and meditative style he is famous for. Particularly strong pieces include "Young And Foolish," as moving as any ballad he's written, and the famous melodic improvisational experiment "Peace Piece."

Kind Of Blue (1959)

Most jazz fans probably already have Davis' landmark album, but many may get a new perspective listening to it again to hear Evans' contributions as a sideman and composer. Many songs are among the simplest in jazz, with two-chord structures and melodies any school-age band member can play. Furthermore, Evans notes the group recorded all of the pieces without playing them through first in rehearsal. Years later the pianist said both factors infused fresh energy into the session. "Blue In Green" remains one of the most beautiful ballads of all time and "Flamenco Sketches" is a masterpiece of harmonic composition.

Portrait In Jazz (1959)

Evans reaches a pinnacle that would last through his Village Vanguard albums with this album. It is the first to feature his famed trio of bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, and also where the pianist's concept of dividing solos more evenly among the players is fully realized. The album is nearly all standards, but there's plenty of originality to their playing. Their fast-paced interplay on "Someday My Prince Will Come" and interpretations on two versions of "Blue In Green" are among the many highlights.

Explorations (1961)

Considered among the essential Evans albums, but maybe the first hesitant buyers should pass up. There was some tension between players during the session and LaFaro had to play a replacement bass since his regular one was being repaired. The playing is solid, especially on ballad standards toward the end such as "Israel" where they finally get a good repoire going, but more restrained than their other "elite" albums.

Sunday At The Village Vanguard (1961) and Waltz For Debby

The pianist's definitive albums. They are masterpieces of phrasing in melody and solo lines, and a revelation how other members of a trio can interact with and shape a song. LaFaro in particular captivates with his bass lines on the Sunday album, making his death 10 days later all the more tragic. On Waltz "My Foolish Heart" is unmatched in its aching beauty, while the more swinging "My Romance" might be the trio's strongest interactive effort. A warning: don't confuse these with At The Village Vanguard a 10-song compilation of songs from the two live albums, both of which stand up better on their own.

Conversations With Myself (1963) and Further Conversations With Myself (1967)

These albums featuring Evans double- and triple-tracking himself on piano are the subject of much critical debate. Some simply don't like the albums, while others disagree about which is superior. Evans won his first Grammy for the triple-dubbed Conversations and those who prefer this album say its originality and energy is superior to the more refined follow-up. Fans of the double-tracked second album say it's less cluttered and superior in composition, reflecting Evans' development during the interim.

At The Montreax Jazz Festival (1968)

Evans won his second Grammy for this trio album, featuring Gomez and drumming legend Jack DeJohnette. Evans is lured into playing freer than usual by his co-players, both of whom are in top- notch form. Gomez is particularly worth listening to, as many felt he was taking over as the driving and creative force of the group by now.

Alone (1969)

Evans won his third Grammy for his first solo album, but opinions run the entire range from worst to best among listeners. That controversy alone might make this worthwhile for collectors, who can decide if this is 1) a rambling effort caused by the lack of discipline sidemen might have provided or 2) a triumph of the piano as a "complete expressive musical medium," which Evans said was one of his greatest musical pleasures.

Intuition (1974)

Those wanting to hear Evans on electric keyboard might find this their best bet - or at least a safe one - as he alternates between electric and acoustic on this duo collaboration with Gomez. The interaction between the two is superb and most of the songs are new compositions.

The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album (1975)

This seems like an unlikely collaboration, but those intrigued by the concept will find the results hold up on merit. Evans largely plays a supportive, but strong role as Bennett delivers emotionally sincere efforts on songs like "The Days Of Wine And Roses," "Young And Foolish" and "Waltz For Debby."

You Must Believe In Spring (1977)

Evans' debut for Warner Brothers is one of his easier to find latter-day releases and does a better job than many '70s albums of capturing his brooding and melodic strengths. The title track and "B Minor Waltz" are fine examples of his ability to wring deceptively simple melodies from complex structures, and there's a surprisingly diverse feeling for an album of ballads. Some misfires keep this from ranking among his best trio albums. It's strange to hear "Blue Bossa" morph into a ballad on "We Will Meet Again" and, in retrospect, it's a bit disconcerting to hear his "Theme From M*A*S*H" - a fine song, but too much a reminder of his willingness at times to play purely commercial stuff to pay the bills.

Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz (1978)

This early episode of McPartland's long-running radio series is considered one of her best. Their half- dozen duets are fine, but the real strengths are the detailed discussions Evans provides about his techniques throughout his career and the stellar examples he plays to demonstrate them. Obviously not the first album a newcomer should purchase, but a must-have early on for those serious about starting a collection.

The Paris Concert, Edition One (1979)

Those who can't afford The Last Waltz can find a strong example of Evans last trio on this album (plus Edition Two from the same concert). Marc Johnson isn't the bassist Gomez was and the trio was still relatively new and finding its niche, but they nonetheless breath new life into standards like "My Romance" and "I Loves You, Porgy." Edition Two may appeal more to hardcore Evans fans, since it focuses mostly his compositions.

A Few to Avoid:

  • From Left To Right : His first recording using a Fender Rhodes is easy listening, not jazz.

  • The Bill Evans Album and Living Time : Evans said he dreamed of signing with a label like Columbia, but the short-lived association was a huge disappointment for him and his fans.

  • Just about any single-disc "best-of" compilation - especially those at bargain prices. Far too many are quick-buck efforts featuring substandard performances.

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For Evans fans, there's no better reason to embrace the world of legal music downloads. Imagine getting a $200 18-disc boxed set of his finest material for about $20. Or a full album of him discussing technique and playing examples for mere pennies.

The music service eMusic.com offers all of the pianist's recordings on the Riverside and Fantasy labels, plus a number of others that generally rank among his best. Among the boxed sets are the Riverside and Fantasy collections, The Secret Sessions , The Last Waltz and Consecration. Available by the album and by the song, it's a way for casual fans to sample the fare with minimal investment. Another bargain is the Piano Jazz album, sold here as a single-song download.

The music service charges varying fees for a set number of monthly downloads ($20 for 90 downloads is the most expensive) and gives 50 free downloads to new members, who can purchase additional downloads if they run out. The songs are in unprotected MP3 format and the service works with Macintosh and Windows operating systems. Drawbacks to the service include the loss of unused monthly downloads, a lack of modern top-selling artists due to its focus on independent labels and a somewhat confusing download process involving proprietary software.

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How My Heart Sings by Peter Pettinger.
This is more than a biography of Evans; it is also a stellar analysis of his playing and compositions. Pettinger, a concert pianist, shows a gift for providing exceptional musical insight while not writing over the heads of inexperienced listeners. He will described, for example, how a song's Debussy-like "parallel diatonic motion" resulted in an off-kilter recording where "the musicians were too busy counting to make music." In another section he devotes more than a page to a single note that opens "Spring Is Here," exploring the question of "How did (Evans) make it sing?"

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Related Articles
Building a Jazz Library: Bill Evans
Incomparably Quiet: Bill Evans
Remembering... Bill Evans
Bill Evans: 1929-1980

AAJ Book Reviews
The Pianist as an Artist
Everything Happens To Me - A Musical Biography
How My Heart Sings

Discuss Bill Evans's music on the AAJ Bulletin Board .



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