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Bill Evans Trio: Consecration

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Around 1970, when Bill Evans was playing at that long-defunct Hollywood landmark Shelly’s Manne-Hole, the drummer-club owner told me, in reference to Evans, “a real jazzman is a guy who never plays the same thing once.” This eight-CD collection, the sister set to The Last Waltz box set, not only epitomizes that definition but also has the added tragic realization that they contain Evans’ final recorded statements. Like The Last Waltz, the CDs were recorded live at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner (another long-shuttered jazz venue) over the course of eight nights, from Aug. 31 to Sept. 7, 1980-that gig ending just eight days before Evans’ death. The tapes were digitally edited in Tokyo during the summer of ’97 and in late 2002 Fantasy issued them as Consecration on its Milestone label.

What is so remarkable about this collection is the concept of releasing the first sets from each of those eight nights. Fortunately, but not surprisingly, there are many repeats of tunes. Given Evans’ improvisatory genius, no devotee of his playing-for that matter, no first-time listener-has any legitimate excuse for complaining. The reality is he simply could not play the same thing once. An eloquent example comes to mind on track two of disc two: at no time during the first two choruses does he play the melody of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” and even the out chorus is characteristically oblique. Ditto for the very next cut, “Like Someone in Love.” After fragmenting the original melody and analyzing it thoroughly from different angles and prisms in various keys, he may, or may not, glue the pieces together and allow the mist to dissipate.

Gaining insight into Evans’ first-set mentality, it’s informative to note that he closed six of the eight sets with “My Romance” and repeated four tunes five times-one of them, an original called “Re: Person I Knew,” was a set-opener five times. In all there are 16 repetitions and eight single performances. That’s where the strength of this collection lies: there was no end to the variations on the themes he chose. Little wonder that Glenn Gould, the brilliant concert pianist, was quoted as calling Evans “the Scriabin of jazz.” That reference to the obscure Russian pianist/composer segues to a more understandable comparison as quoted by Gene Lees: “It was said in their own time that Liszt conquered the piano, Chopin seduced it. Oscar [Peterson] is our Liszt, and Bill is our Chopin.”

With very few exceptions, that poetic link to Chopin is evident through all eight discs, particularly Evans’ gossamer approach to ballads. Of course, in this study of repeated performances, one night’s ballad is another night’s uptempo excursion. So let’s focus on some of those incarnations. “My Foolish Heart” on discs one and seven are strongly balladic; on disc six Evans removes his self-restraint and encourages bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera to insert a jazz pulse to imply a double-time feel; on disc seven, Evans produces a totally unambiguous jazz chorus, albeit a form of light, poetic jazz. On his first attempt (disc two’s “Days of Wine and Roses” at 2:08), he sneaks in a quote from “Surrey With the Fringe on Top.” He must have been a bit more playful that night; during the same set, on “Letter to Evan,” he interpolates “I’m Beginning to See the Light” at 3:30.

Motifs play a huge part in the Evans aesthetic, as he demonstrates on Johnny Mandel’s theme from M*A*S*H, turning its familiar opening seven-note theme into a rare excursion in the idiom of funk. His waltz “Tiffany” is introduced all five times with heavy use of its opening three-note motif; another original, “Your Story,” has a prominent four-note filigree that Evans labels “Diddly-Ah” during one of his occasionally humorous announcements. “Diddly-Ah” effectively captures the rhythm of the motif, and it is amazing how he can build a varying harmonic foundation under that phrase. His five versions are the closest Evans comes to consistency. Each is a broad tableau reminiscent of a late Romantic piano concerto, but not totally solo: Johnson finds openings for some very supportive root tones, contrapuntal lines or pedal points, and LaBarbera shows incredible sensitivity, deft brushwork and sparing use of his cymbals.

Regarding Johnson and LaBarbera: In 1980 they were probably still being compared to Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian from Evans’ legendary 1959 to 1961 trio. But while they perpetuated the concept of providing air and space for Evans, as opposed to the conventional, metronomic straitjacket, they had their own way of interacting with the pianist. That interaction involved an uncanny instinct for contributing just the right nuances without getting in his way. Ironically, they could not have interfered with Evans on portions of discs one and two even if they had tried; the miking virtually obliterated them as a trio. Evans’ comping on Johnson’ solo during “Days of Wine and Roses” actually overshadows the bass. Another engineering mystery at the end of disc seven sounds as if “But Beautiful” fades prematurely. The remaining tracks, however, are well balanced, allowing Johnson and LaBarbera to shine in their solos on “Days.”

But complaining about questionable sonics is nit-picking in view of the overall picture. This is Bill Evans at his lyrical peak. There’s not one hint of diminution-each of his searching, contemplative intros setting an unforgettable mood-even though everyone, including Evans, knew his health was fading fast. Keystone owner Todd Barkan is quoted in the accompanying booklet with an eloquent theory about Evans’ performances there: “Like what you see before a light bulb goes out-that extra-bright incandescence.”