Pianist Bill Evans: A Retrospective

Mark Sabbatini By

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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
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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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