Milestone Record’s extraordinary 8 CD set ‘Bill Evans Trio the last waltz’ was recorded on eight successive evenings at Keystone Korner in North Beach, San Francisco in September 1980. Just thirty-two different compositions are featured in the nine hours of music, and nine of those are Bill Evans (right) originals.
This is literally music making on the brink. Miles Davis’ Nardis makes five obsessive appearances. Several of these include epic piano solos, and the longest Nardis cut lasts for seven seconds short of twenty minutes. Evans knew he was on the edge, and he wanted to leave his definitive version of Nardis before he went over.
The final Keystone session was on September 8th 1980. Seven days later Evans was dead from the effects of cocaine dependency.
It is a mark of the importance of Bill Evans that Gyorgy Ligeti cited him as one of the influences on his seminal Etudes for solo piano. The other eclectic influences credited by Ligeti are traditional African music, the player-piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow, and the jazz piano writing of Thelonious Monk.
The classical connection comes as no surprise. Recalling his childhood in New Jersey Evans said: “I can remember, for instance, the 78 album of Petruschka which I got early on in high school as a Christmas present – a requested Christmas present. And just about wearing it out, learning it. That was the kind of music that at that time I hadn’t been exposed to, and it was just a tremendous experience to get into that piece. I remember first hearing some of Milhaud’s polytonality and actually a piece that he may not think too much of – it was an early piece called Suite Provençale – which opened me up to certain things.”
Evans went on to a musical scholarship at Southeastern Louisiana College fifty miles outside New Orleans. His studies there included sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven, and works by Debussy, Schumann, Rachmaninov, Ravel Gershwin (the Piano Concerto in F), Milhaud, Khachaturian and Villa-Lobos. His senior recital included a group of Dmitry Kabalevsky’s recently published Preludes. Literature was another passion. He was something of an authority on Thomas Hardy, and his heroes included the visionary18th century artist and poet William Blake.
Bill Evans carried heavy emotional baggage through his 51 years. He played on Miles Davies’ iconoclastic Kind of Blue, and then pretty well defined the jazz trio format. Without a doubt his two greatest trio recordings are Waltz for Debby and Sunday at the Village Vanguard, both recorded live in one day in June 1961 at Seventh Avenue South, New York. These are two of the greatest jazz CD’s ever. No, they are two of the greatest CD’s ever. The trio plays as a totally integrated unit underpinned by the masterly bass playing of Scott LaFaro. Ten days after the recording LaFaro was dead, killed in an automobile smash.
If you don’t know the two Village Vanguard recordings I urge you to buy them. Forget about the fact that this is jazz. This is intimate chamber music making that is up there with the greatest trios like the Beaux Arts and Florestan. These are two recording classics, and they should be in everyone’s collection.
Following LeFaro’s tragically early death Evans spent years trying to put another dream trio together. In those years he produced some fine music, but never attained the heights of his work with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. The solo recordings from this period are worth exploring, including his pioneering work with over-dubbing.
During the 1970’s Bill Evans creative flame burnt less brightly. Many recordings from these years seem to be no more than re-workings of his own compositions and standards. But towards the end of the 70’s a renewed energy and drive emerged, fuelled by working with the younger bass and drums team of Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera.
Those final Keystone sessions revitalise Bill Evans classics like Letter to Evan, Turn Out the Stars, and Waltz for Debby. But that is where we joined this overgrown path…..
Bill Evans would have been seventy-six on August 16th.
Bill Evans' recorded legacy is considerable. The Fantasy catalogue is the best starting point for exploration. The written literature is also comprehensive. Peter Pettinger's 'Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings" is the definitive biography. Keith Shadwick's "Bill Evans, Everything Happens To Me - a musical biography" is more sumptuously produced, but is less scholarly in its approach.
For further exploration of jazz piano as a musical form Robert L. Doerschuk's 'The Giants of Jazz Piano' and Len Lyons' 'The Great Jazz Pianists' are a good starting point.
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