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Bill Evans: The Last Waltz

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This eight-CD set was cut at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner from August 31 to September 8, 1980, by Evans, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera. Evans died on September 15, a week later. There is no indication on these recordings, however, that he is ill; in fact, his playing is consistently brilliant, imaginative, vigorous and technically outstanding. Actually, Evans performed with a consistent passion and intensity during 1980 that he had not displayed since 1956 and ’57, e.g., on George Russell’s “Concerto for Billy the Kid” and “All About Rosie.” In that sense, his career on record has evolved full circle.

On the first volume of Very Early (E3), a series of private recordings made by Evans and soon-to-be released by his son, Evan, Bill can be heard on selections cut from 1943 to 1953, from the ages of 14 to 23. His first important influences were Art Tatum and Nat Cole; his block chordal style is rooted in the playing of Milt Buckner, Cole, George Shearing and Red Garland. Romantic classical composers also marked him. But on the last track of this private recordings CD, an April 1949 selection entitled “Piano,” which is based on the chord progression of “Just You, Just Me,” Evans plays a fascinating modern jazz solo, which has something in common with both the bop and Lennie Tristano styles. His use of triplets and rhythmic displacement here is Tristano-like. The question is: Was he influenced by Lennie, who, in 1949, had influenced virtually no one aside from men in his inner circle, including Lee Konitz and Billy Bauer, although he’d been recording commercially since 1946? Or was Evans marked by Tristano through George Shearing, who Evans dug and who definitely picked up ideas from Lennie? Evans says he was marked by Tristano’s March 1949 Capitol sextet recordings, but how could he have heard and assimilated them one month later? It may be that Evans had been already developing toward a Tristano-like style independently, and that after getting into Lennie’s work he evolved even more rapidly in this direction. The similarity between Tristano and Evans can also be accounted for by Art Tatum influencing them. Tatum anticipated both harmonically, as in the area of reharmonization, as well as rhythmically.

When Evans made his impact on the jazz world in 1956 his solos were rooted in both bop and Tristano traditions and were loaded with pyrotechnical brilliance. In the late 1950s, however, when he was a pioneer of modal jazz, his improvising became more impressionistic and spare, as he opened up his spots like Ahmad Jamal and Jamal’s precursor, Count Basie, to let the bass and drums come through. Evans always possessed prodigious chops, but from about 1959 to 1979 remained an economical, lyrically oriented soloist, although there are plenty of tracks during this period that demonstrate his technical brilliance and drive.

In the last months of his life, however, with Johnson and LaBarbera, Evans’ playing became markedly more aggressive. This was illustrated on the wonderful Turn Out the Stars set (Warner Bros.), recorded in June 1980, and is again on these equally outstanding performances.

Many of the tunes here are from Evans’ standard repertoire: “Waltz for Debbie,” “My Foolish Heart,” “Nardis,” “Five.” He performs some more than once. There are six versions of “Nardis,” running from seven to 20 minutes, but there’s never a dull moment on them or any other track. Evans constantly challenges himself; more, in fact, on “Nardis” than any other selection. Even a number of his ballad performances are aggressive. The laid-back approach of the 1960s and ’70s was laid aside.

Give Johnson and LaBarbera a lot of credit for the success of this set as well. Johnson’s time is rock solid, his articulation very precise. He plays with springy strength and always does what’s appropriate. His solos are both explosive and well-developed. LaBarbera’s there all the time, too, doing the right things in the right places, playing quietly or loudly as the occasion demands. In fact, this is among the greatest of jazz-piano-trio recordings.

A bargain at any price.