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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.................


  1. Nice post--it seems to me that for many of the pianists in my generation (I'm a trumpeter but I'm thinking of my peers), Keith Jarrett supplanted the role you talk about Evans playing in earlier generations as the go-to guy for post-bop inspiration. (I specifically remember players speaking admiringly about Bill's records but decrying the rushing and rootie-tootie feel of his later years you mention--or as one friend said bluntly "I prefer heroin Bill to coke Bill.") One factor in that might be trend towards "edginess" that's become the rage in recent decades, a conscious effort to avoid any comparison with "your parents'" jazz--and despite his energy, I don't think the word that would come to most folks' minds when describing would be "edgy." Fortunately I think there are still plenty of players who've taken his lessons to heart (a review of my last CD specifically said the pianist, Adam Shulman, "understands Bill Evans"), even if he doesn't hold quite the titanic spot he used to.

    (BTW, I just recently picked up the Motian album you mentioned, and it is definitely some of the greatest versions of those tunes I've heard.)

  2. Bill Evans was a genius and a transformative force in the music. I saw him only once, in 1979, and it was unforgettable.

    I love "We Will Meet Again", and "You Must Believe in Spring", two late and incredibly beautiful albums. "Affinity", is, to my mind one of the great records of the '70's. Like all the truly elect artists of Jazz, Bill was One of a Kind.

  3. You may have set the bar too high in terms of what kind of 'celebrations' can be expected for departed jazz greats. Bud and Monk were cited by you as more influential to current pianists and that indeed may be true, but to what extent were their birthdays or deathdays noted and celebrated?

    There really are very few people in jazz history that the jazz culture-and certainly the culture at large-chooses to mark.

  4. Thank you for an interesting article, and for posting "Gloria's Step," from my old Jazz Set series. I also did an interview with Bill, which you will find on my blog. He talks about working with George Russell.

  5. Great post!

    Agreed with Provizer's comment,
    also with your observation, RG, that few musicians want to associate with Bill Evans these days. I think there has been too much worshipful commentary heaped on him, much of it deserved (Hancock, Corea, McLaughlin, other musicians), but a lot of it from people who are too easily drawn to this figure - for reasons you can spell out. The fact of the matter, besides, is that there is an astonishing amount of repetition (tunes, "improvised" lines within tunes, figural patterns) in his work. Different takes of same tunes are not varied in the way Jarrett plays standards. Which points to another matter: rhythm. People are dead wrong to say Evans can't swing. But it's very particular to him, and he's rather stubborn about it. Jarrett, Corea, Hancock!, all are up, down, around the beat in ways that modern pianists rightly find more stimulating. They shouldn't forget, though, just how much Evans opened up the piano - as an instrument - to his successors.

    Would like to know more what you mean by "rootie-tootie"? For my money, the energy of the last trio surpasses all of them. Evans sounds more comfortable than ever. Before LaBarbera joined, Affinity *is* a marvelous album (what affecting music). Paris Concert, Turn Out the Stars, Consecration (DISC 3!!!) + Last Waltz box sets. Very sincere, fresh, the whole band speaking. Like that arrangement of "Gloria's Step," which thankfully features a lot of Morell and Gomez.

  6. Thanks to everyone who took the time to write. Good points made by everyone.

    Ian I think you're right about Jarrett - he has taken on the 'godlike' role for some people that I remember Evans having when I was just starting to play.

    Steve, that's a good point that maybe I shouldn't be so surprised by the lack of recognition of Evans since so few of these dates are marked in general. But I think the decades are usually given a little more prominence, so in this case, being Evans 30th anniversary, I thought there might have been a bit more exposure for the significance of the date.

    Yetneverbroken - what I mean by 'Rootie - Tootie' is a very heavy leaning on the first beat of each pair of 8th notes - which is the opposite of what most people do. It's very hard to make that swing since it's very 1st beat-heavy

  7. And Chris - thanks for the great show!

  8. Thanks for the post, it made me want to listen to Bill Evans again, it's been a while... I put Affinity on top of my neverending list of what to listen to next week.
    Jazz musicians are en vogue or not, aren't they? As anywhere else, there are "hot or not" lists. Sad of course, but sort of a social darwinistic phenomenom. In swiss jazz schools, Bill Evans is not very high on the It-List - but let's also say that for young jazz aficionados there's just so incredibly much to listen to, you can get lost.
    So a broad hint once in a while can be very helpful, thanks :)

  9. I enjoyed the post and appreciated the insights. (It's nice, too, to read something a little less angry than some of your other posts, although uncensored opinion is definitely welcome, too). For what it's worth, Downbeat ran a cover feature in its June 2010 issue called: 'Chick Corea Explores Bill Evans' to tie in with his stint at NYC's Blue Note with Gomez and Motian. (Actually, the article's intro mistakenly says '...marking the 20th anniversary of jazz piano hero Bill Evans' death.') In the piece, Corea clearly indicates a big debt to Evans. And his two-week run at the Blue Note sure seems like a tribute to me. The fact that it happened in May and the feature was in June is, I suspect, probably due to Chick's hectic tour schedule and Downbeat's desire to use it as a recent story.

  10. Thanks for the post. I've been listening to and studying Bill Evans heavily this past year and I think the question of whether Bill "swings" is an interesting one. I believe one of the big jazz influences on Evans style (other than Bud Powell/Sonny Clark) was Lennie Tristano who put a lot of emphasis on rhythmic displacement. Some of the things Lennie (and his students Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh) played were in fact bebop lines, but displaced by a beat so that the upbeat becomes a new downbeat. When I listen to Bill I hear a lot of this, in nearly every period of his playing. For me the question of whether Evans could swing like Bud or Bird or not is not the big issue. For the record, he could...though had he depended primarily on a seductively-easygoing swing feel to win his listeners over(like his good friend and heroin addict Sonny Clark) I don't think we'd be talking about him in quite the same way today. Evans contribution to jazz rhythm is a kind of "commentary" on the swing tradition using polyrhythms and rhythmic displacement to a degree rarely seen before that in jazz. He was a man at a crossroads in jazz who, though totally conversant in traditional swing, mostly used it as a springboard for his modern conceptions. As to why he isn't talked about more today...I mostly chalk it up to current fads in jazz. His influence on jazz pianists was so vast, I think it would be fair to say that no pianist was completely untouched, and untold numbers of pianists based their own style primarily on his.

  11. One more thing about "swing" that I think is worth mentioning is the wrongheaded connection people make between liking a musician and assuming that they "swing". I recently got re-interested in Keith Jarrett and decided to figure out how to imitate the rhythmic feel of his lines. The first thing you need to do is play long lines of extremely straight eights...even when the drummer is playing and thinking swing eights. Sure...he swings his eighths every so often, but usually they're very straight, even at medium tempos. If you're playing straight eighths when the drummer is playing and thinking "swing" eigths, I think it is fair to say that you "don't swing". A lot of Keith Jarrett fans would take this as an insult (how can you say my favorite jazz musicians doesn't swing?... but by definition he doesn't swing. The band swings (a lot!), but Jarrett's relationship to the beat sends a mixed message. Of course jazz musicians have always "played with the time", playing slightly ahead or behind the beat, but what Jarrett does is decidedly a modern conceit, and one which Bill Evans had a very important role in establishing. Keith Jarrett is famously quoted as saying that he never heard Bill Evans' records when he was learning to play jazz, but I think it's clear that the general conceptual framework of Jarrett's art owes a lot to Evans view of how the pianist and the rhythm section relate to each other.

  12. September 15th 2010 on the 30th anniversary of Bill's ascension ~ Jed Distler and I paid homage to him with a performance of spoken word and music. It was a small but appreciative crowd at The Cornelia Street Cafe in New York, mostly jazz pianists and a few of Bill's close friends. I read text from my memoir "The Big Love ~ Life & Death with Bill Evans" and Jed played an underscore of Bill's music to accompany me.

    I had waited 30 years to give Bill this kind of spiritual send off ~ writing the book was my contribution to his legacy.

    On August 16th 2011, I will be hosting a celebration of what would have been Bill's 82 birthday at the Muttart Hall in Edmonton Alberta where Bill and I first met 32 years ago.

    Part of the proceeds from this event will go toward establishing a permanant home for Bills piano which I recently learned is about to be auctioned off by Bill's son Evan Evans.


  13. "...and how many times can you hear the same arrangement of 'Autumn Leaves' anyway?"

    Let's check that one out, Ronan. I'd say about 12 times according to the track listing in the exhaustive discography section of Peter Pettinger's excellent biography of the great man 'How My Heart Sings' (Yale University Press 1998)which lists approximately 164 recordings featuring Evans as leader or sideman.

    Let's break down those 12 recordings.

    As leader:

    Portrait in Jazz (1958)
    The 1960 Birdland Sessions (1960)
    What's New (Spring 1969)
    The Secret Sessions (released 1996)
    Bill Evans Trio in Oslo (Norwegian TV, 1966)
    Piano Perspective/Autumn Leaves (July 1969, Pescara Italy on Philology)
    Jazzhouse (November 1969, Copenhagen)
    Quiet Now (November 1969, Amsterdam)
    Live in Paris 1972 Volume 2 (February 1972, Paris)
    Turn Out The Stars: The Final Village Vanguard Recordings, June 1980 6 cd Box Set (Warner Brothers)

    As sideman:

    Just Jazz (Benny Golson arr. & cond. 1962)