Bill Evans was on an upswing in 1968. There had been tragedy and depression and demons to bear, but the jazz pianist had made his way forward over the previous few years. He had collaborated fruitfully with such peers as Jim Hall, gained a devoted new manager, signed with the high-profile Verve label, and won his first Grammy Award. Evans had also developed rapport with a virtuoso young bassist, Eddie Gomez, and they eventually added an up-and-coming force of a drummer, Jack DeJohnette, for a new trio — one that seemed to hold a dynamic promise that the pianist’s groups hadn’t quite shown since his famously inspired trio with drummer Paul Motian and short-lived bassist Scott LaFaro in 1959–61. A European tour by Evans, Gomez, and DeJohnette in the summer of ’68 would yield an ebullient live album, At the Montreux Jazz Festival, that garnered the pianist his second Grammy. Then Miles Davis broke up the band.
That is, Davis lured DeJohnette away to his own group. Evans could scarcely blame the drummer for leaving him to join the era’s most iconic jazz bandleader. After all, the pianist had made his own name as the trumpeter’s kindred-spirit collaborator on Kind of Blue, the LP that would turn on more people to jazz than any in music history. (DeJohnette would end up playing on Davis’s Bitches Brew, an album almost as epochal for the late sixties as Kind of Blue was for the late fifties.) But it seemed like a missed opportunity, as the Evans trio with DeJohnette and Gomez, having been together for just six months, was only able to make that one live recording, nothing in the studio. Or at least that’s the way the story went until 2016, when Resonance Records released Some Other Time: The Lost Session from the Black Forest, a two-disc set derived from impromptu recordings made by the trio in a German studio just five days after that celebrated Montreux concert. For reasons not quite clear, the recordings had never been issued before Resonance’s sleuthing. But all’s well that ends well, at least for today’s Bill Evans fans.
Then lightning struck twice. Last year, Resonance followed up Some Other Time by releasing a second, contemporaneous discovery: Another Time: The Hilversum Concert, which presents a pristine recording of Evans, Gomez, and DeJohnette performing for an audience in the intimate hall of the Netherlands Radio Union, just two days after that studio session in Germany. Moreover, the set list for that Dutch broadcast recording only features two numbers in common with the Montreux concert from the week before. Suddenly, we have two valuable “new” albums — recordings never even bootlegged before — by one of the most beloved and widely influential pianists in the annals of jazz.
“Bill Evans has shaped the harmony of every jazz pianist of the past fifty years, whether they want to admit it or not — because even if they didn’t listen to Bill, they listened to players who did listen to him, from Herbie Hancock on down,” says ace jazz pianist Frank Kimbrough, who teaches at the Juilliard School. “And for the public, the beauty of his music, particularly his early work, has always been accessible — easy to listen to, even if it isn’t ‘easy listening.’”
For the cover of the 1958 studio LP Everybody Digs Bill Evans, the Riverside label had some famous names sign testimonials for the up-and-coming pianist. Prime among them was Miles Davis, who said: “I sure have learned a lot from Bill Evans. He plays the piano the way it should be played.” This was coming from a man who had played with the cream of the swinging keyboard crop, from Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk to Horace Silver and Red Garland. Decades later, in his autobiography, the trumpeter put it more evocatively: “Bill had this quiet fire that I love on piano.” In an interview, Evans alluded to this introspective intensity, saying: “Even when I’m playing in public, I try to create the feeling that I’m alone.” Critic Whitney Balliett noted a tension in Evans, “a contest between his intense wish to practice a wholly private, inner-ear music and an equally intense wish to express his jubilation at having found such a music within himself.”
Evans was classically trained as a kid in New Jersey, his ear attuned to the contrapuntal lines of J.S. Bach and the impressionistic harmonies of Debussy and Ravel, as well as the works of Russian composers, Romantic and modern. “As a pianist, Bill’s calling card — beyond that great touch he had and his poetic way with the music — was his voice-leading,” Kimbrough explains. “That’s what I point out to my Juilliard students. You can hear that this is someone who grew up playing Bach chorales. He was someone who knew how music really works.”
When it came to jazz, Evans was keenly influenced — like every improvising pianist in the postwar era — by Bud Powell, who was the fount of bebop at the keyboard. Evans also listened early on to such diverse pianists as Earl Hines, Nat King Cole, George Shearing, and Lennie Tristano. After various apprenticeships, Evans made notable appearances on such LPs as East Coasting by Charles Mingus and had begun recording under his own name by 1956. Everybody Digs Bill Evans included his Satie-like original “Peace Piece,” and Kind of Blue featured his impressionistic ballad “Blue in Green.” Discussing him a few years ago in DownBeat Magazine, jazz pianist and Steinway Artist Bill Charlap stressed how Evans had “developed an original language” at the instrument, fusing the classical tradition with bebop improvisation.
In Bill Evans — Everything Happens to Me: A Musical Biography, Keith Shadwick detailed what went into his subject’s soundprint at the keyboard, including “his study of scales and modes as an alternative to the obsessive negotiation of standard or expanded chord changes that drove most bop players. This interest in using related scales to provide musical building-blocks and to redefine jazz form provided Evans’s route into his distinctive modern jazz playing.” Shadwick added: “He also benefited from a straightforward fact: Like Erroll Garner, Evans was left-handed. This gave him an unusually even natural balance in touch and weight between both hands. Regardless of repertoire, Evans could, through the medium of his unique touch and phrasing, apply his theories of harmonic reduction and the role of the leading harmonic voice to evoke his own distinctive sound and approach.”
‘Bill Evans has shaped the harmony of every jazz pianist of the past fifty years.’
Going beyond theory, Evans himself offered something of an artistic credo: “The simple things, the essences, are the great things, but our way of expressing them can be incredibly complex. It’s the same thing with technique in music. You try to express a simple emotion — love, excitement, sadness — and often your technique gets in the way. It becomes an end in itself when it should really be only the funnel through which your feelings and ideas are communicated. The great artist gets right to the heart of the matter. His technique is so natural it’s invisible.”
In his trio with LaFaro and Motian, Evans performed with a heightened, even brooding lyricism, even as the group pioneered a method of interplay that went beyond the standard operating procedure of a pianist constantly leading the way. Evans and company improvised in a more conversational, exciting manner. After releasing two studio albums together, the trio recorded live at New York City’s Village Vanguard in 1961, yielding two classic LPs from the single date: Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. These albums, some of the most influential piano jazz ever recorded, not only epitomized the Evans brand of pensive romanticism; they captured what critic Ira Gitler called the “truly magical aura” the group achieved. LaFaro died in a car accident before the albums were released. Stunned, Evans went into seclusion for months, heroin his chosen balm.
But Evans rose from shock and grief (and managed his addiction, though a lifetime of drug use contributed to his death at age fifty-one). Becoming a marquee artist, he worked with varying incarnations of his trio, recorded with orchestras, and won his first Grammy, for the 1963 solo LP Conversations with Myself. Three years later, Evans drafted Eddie Gomez into his trio. With session drummer Shelly Manne, they recorded the album A Simple Matter of Conviction on the day the bassist turned twenty-two. Evans, talking with pianist and broadcaster Marian McPartland, said that having the native New Yorker in his trio was “a tremendous thing for me.... He’s just bubbling over, and his ideas come pouring out.” The bassist would stay with Evans for eleven years, the longest musical association of the pianist’s career.
Jack DeJohnette started out playing jazz in Chicago as a pianist, before shifting his emphasis to the drums. He recalls being influenced on both instruments by Everybody Digs Bill Evans, listening closely as a pianist and playing drums along to the LP. He had been working with saxophonist Charles Lloyd before joining the Evans trio. At the time, the pianist said: “With Charles, Jack was playing all-out freestyle, and many people wondered how I could even conceive of selecting him to come with the group. But Jack is very intelligent and has a wide scope musically. He has been fitting in beautifully, and he has a tremendous creative mind. He has something going on like no other drummer would conceive of.” Talking to McPartland, Evans put it more colorfully: “He’s getting me off my musical ass.”
Reacting to the energy of Gomez and then DeJohnette, Evans entered what Marc Myers describes in his liner notes for Some Other Spring as the “percussive poet” phase of his pianistic evolution, marked by “a more robust, confident” approach to the keyboard, with “pronounced chord and finger strikes and increasingly agitated, almost rushed feel.” The new trio performed at the second annual Montreux Festival on June 15, 1968, and the resulting live album for Verve more fully captured “the bright side” of the pianist than had been done on record before, according to lyricist and longtime Evans friend Gene Lees.
Highlights of the Montreux album included “Embraceable You,” which served as an extended solo feature for Gomez. Peter Pettinger, author of the biography Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings, saw the trio when it capped its European tour with a monthlong stand at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. He describes Gomez’s soloing in “Embraceable You” as a “powerhouse of dynamism.” On the Montreux album, as in London and throughout the tour, the showcase for DeJohnette was his long, kinetically rich solo in the Miles Davis tune “Nardis.” As Pettinger reports, it was at Ronnie Scott’s where Davis came to check out the trio — and was inspired to poach DeJohnette. But, of course, the star of the tour remained the pianist, with the Montreux album including a solo take on “I Loves You, Porgy” that was a shade more rhapsodic than when Evans recorded it at the Vanguard with LaFaro and Motian. Performances like these led critic Brian Priestley to say: “When Bill Evans is in town, one goes not so much to listen as to worship.
Reflecting back on the trio’s European tour, Gomez recalls that “the audiences there fervently appreciated Bill, with everyone so warm and hospitable — and that felt good for him, I know. I think of Bill’s music as thoroughly American, and the trio was completely a jazz expression. But to be microscopic about it, his music didn’t come totally from the blues. He loved classical music like Ravel and Debussy, of course, and I remember us discussing Prokofiev and Scriabin. I’m sure European listeners could sense that connection.” Gomez adds that Evans was mostly an introverted presence, keeping to himself rather than enjoying extended post-gig hangs. “But we had a good time traveling across Europe together,” the bassist says. “Jack and I especially — we were about the same age and got along really well.”
Having witnessed the trio’s Montreux concert, German music journalist and producer Joachim-Ernst Berendt arranged for the group to stop into the Black Forest village of Villingen to record a session at the MPS Studio of engineer Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer. Along with recording European jazz artists in his studio, Brunner-Schwer had made a series of well-regarded live recordings in his living room with pianist Oscar Peterson. Five days after the Montreux performance, Evans and company settled into the German studio, the pianist using the low-key occasion to perform tunes beyond the usual band book, such as “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads.” Along with trio numbers — including a take on Leonard Bernstein’s sad-eyed “Some Other Time,” a signature Evans piece — the session saw Evans and Gomez record several duets for the first time. The pianist also played solo, as on a lyrically ruminative “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?).”
Two days after the Black Forest session, the Evans trio was in Hilversum, playing live for Dutch radio. The set list for that broadcast was completely different from Montreux, except for the solo features of “Embraceable You” for Gomez and “Nardis” for DeJohnette. Among the other tunes are two melody-rich Evans originals, “Very Early” and “Turn Out the Stars,” plus the upbeat opener of André Previn’s “You’re Gonna Hear from Me.”
For Kimbrough, the pick of the two new releases is the Hilversum disc. “It’s an excellent live set,” he says. “You can tell that the audience energizes them. Having people to play for really makes a difference for any jazz musician. Jack’s long solo in ‘Nardis’ is pretty volcanic, and the sound engineering really captures it. You wonder what Jack would’ve brought to Bill’s music had he been in the band longer. But throughout the set, the three of them are having a three-way conversation, and it’s a lot of fun to hear the way they end the set with ‘Five,’ which was Bill’s ‘break tune.’ He fits in quotes from ‘Oleo’ and ‘The Theme,’ plus a rhythmic allusion to ‘Milestones,’ all in a fast, two-and-a-half-minute number. Bill’s playing was always so disciplined that it’s nice to hear him off the leash there.”
‘When Bill Evans is in town, one goes not so much to listen as to worship.’
DeJohnette describes Evans’ playing in Hilversum as “a lot looser” than in the Black Forest. Kimbrough agrees. “In the studio session, Bill sounds a bit tight at times, maybe slightly on auto-pilot,” the pianist says. “Maybe he was tired from traveling, or a bit strung out — who knows what was going on for him in Europe when it came to his habit. Also, Jack is under-miked, or maybe he was playing extra quietly because of the room. That said, it’s nice hearing them play tunes they didn’t usually do. Most of all, I love hearing him play ‘Lover Man’ solo and, even though it’s an incomplete take, ‘It’s Alright with Me.’”
Gomez regrets the fact that the trio wasn’t able to make a studio album following the extended tour finale in London. “We really stretched out there,” Gomez recalls. “Although Jack was reacting to us, he almost played as if it were a larger group, with that kind of energy and impact. As for listening to my younger self on these ‘new’ records, well, I remember the pressure I felt to measure up. I hear myself being a bit careful, particularly knowing that I was being recorded. Perhaps I’m being hard on myself. Now, Bill’s playing was nearly always on a high level, and he was on good form that summer. The poetic impulse in Bill was always there — I loved the way he played melodies. That lush piano sound, his expressiveness — few pianists get a sound like that, even classical pianists. Each of his fingers was a voice. His piano orchestrations, his voicings, are so artistic. He was engrossed in the music, especially onstage.”
Labor of Love
Since 2008, Resonance Records has released a series of live recordings by guitar icon Wes Montgomery, along with archival finds of Stan Getz, Charles Lloyd, Larry Young, and groovy piano trio The Three Sounds, among others. The label’s first Evans release, in 2012, was Live at Art D’Lugoff’s: Top of the Gate, a double-disc set of the pianist performing at the Greenwich Village club with Gomez and drummer Marty Morell in the autumn of 1968. The Top of the Gate set was a big hit in jazz terms, selling more than thirty thousand copies. Unlike the mountains of European bootleg jazz releases on the market, Resonance — a not-for-profit venture — takes care that all the proper rights are cleared, all the principals paid.
Moreover, Resonance releases come in lavishly annotated and illustrated CD and vinyl packages, with the label out “to do full justice to the music,” says Resonance reissue producer Zev Feldman. “That’s a reason we still believe in the primacy of the physical artifact — so we can present the music contextually, with the right period photos, commentary from people who were there, and essays by the best writers on the topic. Our attitude is that if it’s worth putting out, it’s worth telling the story of the music at length. What we do is a labor of love, a love for the legacy of great artists like Bill Evans.”
In The Making of Kind of Blue: Miles Davis and His Masterpiece, Eric Nisenson notes that, in addition to the pianist’s knowledge of modal jazz, it was the “emotional empathy” Evans brought to the process that was vital to that album’s ever-beguiling quality. Along with his contemplative melodicism, coloristic sense of harmony, and against-the-odds rhythmic buoyancy, Evans at his best sounded like someone confiding in you through music. To Gomez, these newly discovered recordings “have great value for Bill Evans fans — and I count myself among them,” he says. “Bill wasn’t just a mentor for me. Every time he touched the piano, it touched my heart.”
Photos: 1968 CBS Photo Archive, Alamy, Edward James, Steve Schapiro
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.