This article appeared as a sidebar to the May issue cover story.
Explorations established the Bill Evans cult. Evans’ greatest interpreter, the critic Gene Lees, once described the experience of hearing his first Evans album: “Until then, I had assumed, albeit unconsciously, that I alone had the feelings therein expressed.” Those feelings are implicit in the silences between Evans’ chords, and in the quietude of his touch, and even in drummer Paul Motian’s ambiguous, fleeting relationships with time. On “Nardis,” Evans barely touches the theme and then trusts those feelings to bassist Scott LaFaro. With long, flowing lines derived from inner darkness, LaFaro takes those feelings deeper, and the piano trio is set free forever.
Waltz for Debby
Along with Sunday at the Village Vanguard, its companion LP culled from the same sets, this is the most beloved piano trio album in jazz. Somehow (unlike Kind of Blue) it does not lose its magic through overexposure. Perhaps all the clinking glassware and chattering people in the Vanguard place this music in an eternal present. “My Foolish Heart” casts a spell so intense that the crowd feels its hush and temporarily quiets. LaFaro and Evans are now coequals, commingling ideas, dancing on Motian’s shifting currents of air. The motivic development of “Some Other Time” is an objective correlative for otherwise inexpressible emotion. They never played together again. LaFaro died in a car crash 10 days later.
At the Montreux Jazz Festival
For 11 years, the Bill Evans Trio had Eddie Gomez on bass and many different drummers. Some were undistinguished, but not the one here. Evans’ first Montreux album is unique in its pure, buoyant joyfulness, and Jack DeJohnette is the upthrust. Because of him, “Some Day My Prince Will Come” and “A Sleepin’ Bee” take off and fly. Because of him, ballads accelerate, like “I Loves You, Porgy” and “The Touch of Your Lips.” “Nardis” even includes a nasty drum solo. As for Gomez, he has been insufficiently recognized as a major badass. By himself for six minutes, he annihilates “Embraceable You.” Five days later, the band entered the studio to record what would become Some Other Time.
I Will Say Goodbye
(Fantasy; rec. 1977, rel. 1980)
On the two takes of “I Will Say Goodbye,” a Michel Legrand melody melts into the night, in a domain apart from time. This album by a stable Evans trio featuring Gomez and drummer Eliot Zigmund has everything the pianist is famous for: the rootless, pensive chord voicings, the revelatory key shifts, the subtle shadings of tone color. But technical descriptions cannot explain an artist’s hold on us. For that we need metaphor. Gene Lees once described Evans’ music as “love letters written to the world from some prison of the heart.”
The Paris Concert: Edition Two
(Blue Note, 1980)
After Evans’ death at 51 in 1980, recordings from his final years, authorized and otherwise, continued to appear. Two albums from a Paris concert with his last trio are among his permanent achievements. Evans was in failing health, but the young energy of bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe La Barbera inspired him to play with unprecedented daring and freedom. Perhaps Evans knew the end was near. He can barely keep up with the music that pours from him. Edition Two ends with a monumental 18-minute “Nardis,” a song he played all his life. It is breathtaking when, at 6:36, following Evans’ wild freeform prologue, Johnson and La Barbera enter and the trio ascends and walks the sky.Originally Published