Sunday, September 19, 2010
Bill Evans - A Forgotten Man?
Bill Evans a forgotten man? Seems like an absurd thought – but with the arrival of the 30th anniversary of Evans’ death on September 15th, I definitely got the feeling that his one-time huge profile as one of the most influential, important, and admired, pianists in jazz had taken a serious tumble. Yes there were jazz blogs which mentioned him and marked the anniversary, but they were in general blogs that have a stylistic leaning towards the music of the 50s and earlier, rather than blogs that deal with contemporary jazz and its doings. It was a combination of reading these blogs, noting the absence of mentions of Evans in others, and watching some Youtube clips of Evans that gave me this feeling that as far as the contemporary jazz world is concerned his star has fallen considerably in recent years.
But a forgotten man? This post is more me thinking aloud rather than me coming to any definite conclusion.
There was a time when Evans was ubiquitous, where he was mentioned in any serious discussion of jazz piano, when everyone could list their favourite Evans albums (which in those days were NOT just ‘Everybody Digs Bill Evans’ and the trio recordings with LaFaro and Motian). And of course up to 1980 he was touring and recording, so I knew many people, even in Ireland, who had seen him play. I just missed that particular boat myself, he died just as I started to get around, get out of Dublin and go to NY and London to see international artists who, at that time, never appeared in Ireland. So at that time his reputation and influence were enormous – it was very much accepted as a sine qua non that he would be always mentioned in the pantheon of jazz piano Gods alongside such deities as Art Tatum, Bud Powell etc.
But now? I don’t think that if you asked contemporary pianists about Evans that they would downplay his importance in the jazz piano lineage, but you rarely hear them volunteer Evans when asked about their influences. Of course as time passes all young musicians listen to different stuff than their elders did, and that’s how it should be. But it’s not uncommon to hear contemporary pianists cite Monk, and Bud Powell, (both of whom would have been mentioned in the same breath as Evans in the roll call of great pianists by an earlier generation), as influences. And it’s not uncommon to hear people such as Andrew Hill, or even Herbie Nichols and Jaki Byard being mentioned as being important figures for several well known contemporary pianists. But it’s been a long time since I heard a young cutting edge pianist make any reference to Bill Evans. Even Mehldau got quite miffed about his trio constantly being compared to Evans’ in the early days (rightly so – it was just lazy journalism to conflate the two bands) and went out of his way to deny the influence.
Shortly after Evans died a tribute recording was released which featured many great pianists then active on the jazz scene – some older, some younger, some not so well known, some legendary. The line-up included Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Teddy Wilson, George Shearing, John Lewis, Dave Mckenna, Denny Zeitlin, Jimmy Rowles, Richie Beirach, JoAnne Brackeen and Andy LaVerne. Quite an impressive tally of great pianists, and all lining up to praise Evans and play pieces by him or associated with him. I wonder if you did the same thing today – i.e put together an ‘Evans recording’ featuring the current crop of well known contemporary American pianists – Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, Ethan Iverson, Craig Taborn etc. - what the result would be? I think the musical results could be intriguing, but I wonder how many pianists, (outside of pianists who deliberately position themselves within earlier styles of playing), would have any interest in recording Evans material these days? In these days where the music of others is deconstructed or ‘re-imagined’ or whatever the current phrase might be, by young musicians, how in sympathy would they feel in working with pieces like ‘Turn Out the Stars’ or ‘Very Early’? That harmonic world of constantly moving chords seems very far away from a lot of current pianistic concerns. Not that I’m bemoaning that – it’s just an observation.
An aside – for me the greatest Evans ‘tribute’ album was made by Paul Motian with Frisell and Lovano and Marc Johnson without a piano in sight. Frisell is just scary on this recording, the way he can distil the harmonic complexity of Evans music into a two-note guitar chord is an object lesson in accompaniment and ingenuity. John McLaughlin also made an often very beautiful Evans recording using five guitars!
In Europe there is a stream of contemporary pianism that is more clearly linked, in evolutionary terms, to Evans – for example the Scandinavian tradition espoused by the descendants of Bobo Stenson, Lars Jansson etc. and the Italian piano tradition of such great players as Enrico Pieranunzi and Stefano Bollani. But the European pianists who are influenced by Evans seem to favour the more ‘classical’ elements in his playing – the rich voicings, the impressionistic melodicism – and ignore the hard-swinging Evans. While the American pianists who these days do speak about Evans tend to focus on the swinging aspects of his playing and not be too interested in the pianistic impressionism. Of course these are generalisations, but I do detect a trend in the contemporary response on both sides of the Atlantic to Evans’ legacy.
As for me, I kind of go in and out of an Evans thing. I have a huge collection of his recordings – most on LP – and mostly collected in the early 80s when it was a given around these parts that Evans was a God and that it behoved any serious student of the music to have everything he recorded. And in collecting all these recordings I got to hear much great music that I think a lot of present-day musicians maybe don’t know since, these days, there seems to be a lot of focus on the earlier part of Evans career, and the later trios (post LaFaro/Motian, pre Johnson/Labarbera) seem to be unfashionable now.
But actually I particularly like the trio that was together the longest – the one with Eddie Gomez and Marty Morell. This trio is often accused of going through the motions, and much comment is made on their proclivity to rush. But I really like this band – I think the very underrated Morell really brought a kind of muscularity to the trio that was missing in some of the earlier versions. And yes they do rush, but it can be very exciting, and besides, other famous groups rushed – Tony and Ron with Miles for example – and never got the same opprobrium heaped on them for doing so. And Gomez, particularly in the earlier recordings by this trio, was just savage! Check out his solo on this version of ‘Emily’ - his motivic development stuff is amazing - and also check out how hard swinging this trio could be, even on a ‘sensitive’ jazz waltz like this one. (I love the setting for this clip, and the others in the series – a house in Helsinki, with the stark Scandinavian landscape outside and the clean lines of the house furnishings creating a contrasting backdrop to the rather florid music)
When I hear something like this I can easily get back into an Evans kick, because these days I can also easily go for long periods without listening to him, and sometimes I wonder how the slightly ‘rootie-tootie’ swing 8th notes of the later Evans still manages to swing, because it shouldn’t! And the over-amplified bass of the later trios bothers me, and how many times can you hear the same arrangement of ‘Autumn Leaves’ anyway?
But then something will spark me to listen again to Evans and it becomes evident again what an incredible amount of great music he was responsible for both under his own name and as a sideman – George Russell’s ‘Jazz Workshop’, ‘Blues and the Abstract Truth’, ‘Kind of Blue’, ‘Montreux’ with Gomez and Jack DeJohnette’, the first great trio with LaFaro and Motian, the intros to Nardis on the last trio’s live recordings, the poignancy of ‘We Will Meet Again’, etc. etc. He really was one of the greatest jazz musicians of his era, a huge influence on pianists whether directly or through pianists such as Herbie Hancock (the only major post-Evans pianist to openly acknowledge the influence) or Jarrett, and a true giant of the music. I think it’s a shame the 30th anniversary of his death wasn’t highlighted in a way a bit more in keeping with Evans’ stature, but I also think it’s interesting that it wasn’t – it says something about how Evans is now viewed in contemporary jazz – I’m just not sure what that something is! If there are any working jazz pianists under the age of 40 reading this I’d be interested to hear what your take on Evans is, and whether he had any influence on you as a pianist and/or improviser.
And to finish this rather rambling post – here’s the Evans/Gomez/Morell trio again burning their way through ‘Gloria’s Step’ from 1971. God bless Youtube.................