Bill Evans changed the face of jazz.
But in typical self-effacing fashion, he did it quietly and unassumingly, presiding over a musical revolution characterized by gentleness and lyrical romanticism rather than bombast and self-promotion. His many innovative contributions whisper rather than scream and are cloaked in understated beauty.
Bespectacled and painfully shy, torn by the self-doubts and insecurities that eventually led to decades of heroin addiction, Bill Evans played the piano as if he were trying to tame a fearsome beast. In his typical concert pose—hunched over the keys, head bowed low—he looked more like a humble supplicant than a star. But make no mistake. Bill Evans is a jazz giant, as influential as any musician in the genre’s history, and he casts a large shadow over pianists as diverse as Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Brad Mehldau. His nuanced touch is unparalleled, and he plumbed the depths of a highly evocative lyricism that remains uncommonly intimate, yearning and lovely.
Trained on flute and piano from an early age, Evans majored in music during college and later pursued graduate piano studies in New York City. He seemed destined for a teaching or classical-performance career. But an exploratory stint in Tony Scott’s Quartet and an encounter with modal-jazz theorist George Russell set him on another course. After two fine but largely unnoticed albums as the leader of his own piano trio, Evans got his big break in 1958 when Miles Davis asked him to join the now venerated sextet that included John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly. The yearlong apprenticeship in Davis’ band was a marvelous learning laboratory. Just as importantly, though, Evans added his own distinctive stamp to Miles’ music, and he was instrumental in steering the group toward the modal experiments that culminated in 1959’s Kind of Blue, arguably the greatest, most important jazz album ever recorded. If he’d stopped there, his place in the jazz pantheon would’ve been assured.
But he didn’t stop there. Restless, and eager to pursue his own musical ideas, Evans soon recruited drummer Philly Joe Jones and bassist Paul Chambers from Miles’ band to record Everybody Digs Bill Evans, a fine but still somewhat tentative album of standards and originals. Severing the Miles connection entirely, he quickly replaced Jones with drummer Paul Motian and Chambers with bassist Scott LaFaro. The results were more far-reaching and sublime.
Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby—both culled from a Greenwich Village concert in 1961—showcase Evans at the top of his game, with his finest working trio. Evans brought the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel to jazz, and his solos are wonders of construction, by turns melodically ruminative and sweeping, impossibly romantic and beautiful. But for all its nuanced delicacy, Evans’ piano work still swings in the best post-bop fashion, and there’s an insistent pulse to the music that belies its genteel exterior. “Accompaniment” is too weak a word for what bassist LaFaro and Motian contribute to the proceedings. Here they’re egalitarian collaborators, and the almost telepathic interplay between the instruments is thrilling. If you want to hear the jazz-piano-led trio at its finest, you can do no better than to pick up these albums.
Unlike his compatriots Davis and Coltrane, Evans’ musical vision didn’t evolve significantly over the years, and you won’t find the dizzying stylistic changes that characterize their music. There’s a temptation to think that the Evans catalog is somewhat monochromatic, and that if you’ve heard one Bill Evans album, you’ve heard them all. But the flip side of this argument is that Bill Evans made one great album after another, and that his collected work—now anthologized in numerous box sets—is an extraordinary monument to uncompromising excellence. He did what he did, recording countless illuminating takes on the standards of the day, writing several dozen original compositions (a few of which—“Waltz for Debby,” “Turn Out the Stars,” “Peace Piece”—are now themselves recognized as standards), and playing them all with a prodigious technique.
Evans died far too young, in 1980, his body finally rebelling against the decades of abuse he’d inflicted on it. When I heard the news I returned home and listened to “Peace Piece.” It’s a work for solo piano, improvised in the studio, and it emerges fully formed as something altogether fragile and miraculous. When he wrote it, Evans was deep in the throes of heroin addiction. He had no money, no food; the electricity had been shut off in his apartment because he was unable to pay his bills. I don’t know what was on his mind. I don’t know what inarticulate groanings of the heart emerge when a genius places his hands on piano keys. But “Peace Piece” sounded then, as it sounds now, like a whispered prayer. It’s a quality that permeates all of Evans’ music—in the quiet, in the stillness, beauty shines forth.