After my post on Bill Evans’ Live in Paris 1965 CD last week ("Bill Evans: Last Great Album," January 8, 2008), I received an email from Jan Stevens. Jan is one of the foremost experts on Evans and the host of the best and most authoritative Bill Evans site—The Bill Evans Web Pages.
Jan and I have been friends for some time, and he felt I had gone a little too far ruling out Evans’ pre-Village Vanguard albums—and way too far dismissing much of Evans’ post-1965 work. Here are Jan’s comments, followed by a brief “editor’s note” from me:
As a friend of Bill's during the last two years he was with us, and as a pianist and student of Bill’s work for over 35 years, I have to respond to your post.
'... [Bill's] sweet spot starts with Sunday at the Village Vanguard (Riverside) and ends with Trio '65 (Verve). During this golden epoch, Evans' touch was delicate, swingy, sensitive and deeply poetic. Albums that predate Sunday sound a tad half-baked or too work-in-progress-y.'
Ouch! This seems way, way off. For starters, Portrait in Jazz from 1959 is often discussed as one of his finest achievements! Superbly recorded, and with great interplay, the album is perhaps even more personally revealing, intimate and, if you will, transcendent than the Village Vanguard material of 1961. Which, of course, takes nothing away from those monumentally wondrous recordings.
Then there is Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1958), with its amazing landmark Peace Piece and other solo pieces. The album features a sparkling and swinging Evans (with his favorite drummer Philly Joe Jones). In one of the few times Bill mentioned, retrospectively, one of his albums by name, he cited this as one of his real favorites.
As for your comments on the post-Trio ’65 period, they’re just simply and demonstrably untrue. There are too many examples to list here. For starters, there is much of the 1972 concert in Paris that could make you cry (and I've seen that happen to some who have heard it). Ditto for his New Conversations album of 1978, a favorite of many Evans aficionados.
There are also four albums that followed that won him Grammy awards that are excluded by virtue of your statement. There are the solo piano albums, too! The trio with Jack DeJohnette! And all of the recorded output of the Last Trio, which, as Bill said, 'very much connected to the first trio.'
Also I hope you’re familiar with The Paris Concert (Edition One and Edition Two) recorded in November 1979. If you're not hip to this concert album, you need to be. It would, in my judgment, certainly factor in deeply to your stated opinion. It's a landmark performance, in which Bill's beautiful touch, sense of space and sensitivity is unquestionable.
Any considered opinion of Bill's legacy that leaves these albums out is simply unfair. I feel that my friend, the writer and professor Sam Chell, said it best:
'There's a misleading myth about Bill Evans that seems to be gaining acceptance, if the increasing references to his drug problem are any indication. The necessary inference is that Evans' genius and career fall within the familiar patterns of the tragic romantic artist--a burst of youthful, inspired creativity followed by gradual decline and eventual disrepair. Nothing could be further from the truth, as these recordings from a late 1979 Paris concert should make abundantly clear. In fact, they are every bit as impressive as the celebrated Vanguard recordings with LaFaro and Motion in 1961.'
Like Bird or Trane or Miles, (or Picasso, in art) no one can reduce the 'sweet spots' of this amazing creative force down to simply five short years! It ignores way too many incredibly beautiful and often triumphant performances from the other 20 years that you left out.
Please go back and scrutinize the recordings more—since by any available assessment, there are many peaks and pure musical gems that your statement, by default, disposes of."
Editor’s Note: In the wake of Jan’s email, I decided to re-visit all of the Bill Evans albums in my rather large collection.
After my re-evaluation of Evans’ pre-Vanguard period, I must confess that I should have included Portrait in Jazz (1959) and Explorations (1961), which certainly deserve to be included in what I believe is Evans' “golden period."
However, I found that New Jazz Conceptions (1956) Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1958) and Green Dolphin Street (1959) remain flawed in one regard or another—either because they’re rushed (New Jazz Conceptions), sluggish (Everybody Digs) or marred by the wrong mix of sidemen (Green Dolphin Street).
Again, my words here should not imply that these albums need to be turned into ornaments or recycled. They simply aren't as refined or as perfect as those recorded between December 1959 and February 1965.
As for Evans’ post-Trio ’65 period, Jan is right—there are albums that are stunning works and in many ways perfect executions. For me, these include Montreux II, Alone (Again), You're Gonna' Hear From Me and You Must Believe in Spring. In addition, Jan is 100% correct about Evan's 1972 Paris concert. It's a masterpiece.
However, I’m afraid that whatever beauty exists on The Paris Concert albums from 1979 remains lost on me. The albums to my ear remain dull and depressing, which I find to be the case with much of Evans' work in the late 1970s, including the impossibly dreary Turn Out the Stars: Final Village Vanguard Recordings.
In short, this period just doesn't capture the same delight and excitement for me as Evans' "innocent" 1959-1965 years. Nor should it, given Evans' looming illness in the late 1970s and how artists change over time.
But that’s just me. Jan’s broader points are all solid and appreciated. So, if I were recasting my earlier opinion in the wake of Jan's comments and my review of Evans body of work, I would do so this way:
Bill Evans was a giant. There’s no disputing this, and there are few truly awful Bill Evans albums. His emotional depth exceeds most jazz artists, and he continues to touch listeners with his deeply poetic music.
However, for me, Evans’ most dramatic and optimistic period runs from December 1959 to February 1965—though there are quite a few superb albums and live dates between 1965 and his death in 1980.
I only wish the child-like beauty of this 1959-1965 period had been sustained. I wish that Evans' mood didn’t grow so dark with time. And I wish that his song choices had been less repetitive as the years wore on. But these are mere quibbles, since every Evans album takes us on an emotional journey and teaches us something new about life and ourselves.