Back in October, I wrote about Bill Evans' Alone (Again), which I said at the time was my favorite solo album by the pianist. I have since reconsidered and have a new entry (two, in fact). More in a moment.
It has been well documented that Evans was not completely comfortable playing solo piano. He preferred the company of bass and drums when recording, mostly for the conversational push and pull that the other instruments provided. I also think Evans dreaded the sheer loneliness of solo playing and needed the bass and drums to distract him from his own deafening intensity.
Clearly, Evans understood how much his solo playing was adored and admired by audiences, so he was only too happy to oblige, commercially, in person and on recordings. As Verve producer Creed Taylor noted in our recent conversation, Conversations with Myself was Evans' idea. Then again, Conversations isn't technically a solo album but Evans magically accompanying himself twice.
In response to my October post on Alone (Again), I heard from quite a few readers who argued that Evans' Alone is superior to Alone (Again) as a solo performance album (I still beg to differ) and that other solo efforts recorded by Evans were more exceptional. Here, I'm always open to suggestions.
Jan Stevens, of The Bill Evans Webpages (here), gently reminded me of the Solo Sessions, Vol. 1 and Solo Sessions, Vol. 2 albums recorded for Riverside in January 1963 but not released until 1989 by Milestone and now available from Concord. So I pulled out the two CDs and gave them an intensive re-listen.
Jan was right. Bill Evans: Solo Sessions, particularly Vol. 2, are indeed superior. In the past, I tended to dismiss these recordings because they sounded more like rehearsals than fully thought-out album pieces. What's more, Evans hated the results, according to Gene Lees [pictured, in 1959], who was in the studio that evening. When producer Orrin Keepnews decided to release the material after Evans' death, Helen Keane, who had been Evans' long-time manager, objected. Lees, however, was all for their release even though he had originally been opposed. The reason? Lees writes that his resistance was based not so much on the music recorded but on his pained memory of Evans' heroin addiction and wracked physical condition at the session.
"Bill never played badly, ever," Lees writes. "But sometimes he played better than others."
Lees, upon reflection, continues in the liner notes to Vol. 2:
"I found myself deeply moved as I listened to this music, recorded when Bill, Helen [pictured] and I were young. The performances are far better than I—or Bill either, for that matter—knew at the time, and I am glad they have been issued. They are part of one of the most important musical legacies anyone ever left to the world of jazz."
On a re-listen to both volumes, I couldn't agree more. These albums represent untamed beauty and creative frustration, and the sum total is extraordinary art. Much of the music's tenderness and intimacy owed a great deal to the "at home" feel Orrin created that evening. Only Lees, Keane, Orrin and the engineer were allowed in the both, with Bill placed at a grand piano in dim light.
But there's more to the story: Throughout 1962, Evans' heroin addiction forced him to make increasing financial demands on Orrin Keepnews [pictured] and Riverside records. During that year, Orrin says in the liner notes to Vol. 1, he had taken to stockpiling recordings by Evans for two reasons: to ensure that Riverside would remain financially sound and to compel Evans to work for the large sums he was receiving in advance of future recordings. Eventually, too many Evans albums were being harvested for the label, and Orrin's strategy did little to slake Evan's demands for cash to feed his heroin habit.
According to Orrin's liner notes, Riverside's rights to Evans were sold to Verve producer Creed Taylor in 1962. The deal left Riverside with the option for two additional projects. One would be a live date, At Shelly's Manne-Hole, in Hollywood. The other would be the collection of solo piano pieces being discussed here.
At the January 10, 1963 solo session, Orrin reports, Evans was "tense, withdrawn, possibly strung-out, almost certainly full of misgivings about where and how he was going," Orrin also admits being bitter at the date over losing Evans to Verve.
"Possibly because of the sub-surfaced tensions, the mechanics of the session quickly began to unravel. Feeling that we would progress most smoothly with the least possible intrusion from the control room, I recommended that Bill move from tune to tune without the customary pauses for on-tape identification and only occasional breaks for playback listening
...[The result was] an emotionally raw, probing, revealing style of playing that I never otherwise heard from him, before or after... Understandably, then, neither Bill nor I was prepared to accept this music at this time. By unspoken mutual consent, we both ignored its existence and did not schedule time to review, select or edit.
Not much more than a year later, the opportunity to do so was gone. Riverside was in a losing fiscal battle to stay in business, and by mid-1964, the company was dormant and out of my hands. A decade later, the Riverside masters and I came together again, when Fantasy Records acquired the catalog, and I began eight years as head of their jazz program. But it wasn't until the early 1980s that these particular tapes resurfaced...
In any case, 1963 is no longer a painful memory for me."
For context, both volumes must be heard together. Yet it's Solo Sessions: Vol. 2 that stands out for me. Here we have stunning versions of All the Things You Are, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, I Loves You Porgy, What Kind of Fool Am I, Love Is Here to Stay, Ornithology and a medley of Autumn in New York and How About You.
What at first sounded to me like a scattered warm-up session now sounds different, especially with the historical context. The more I listen to these recordings, the more Evans' playing sounds like the creative struggle of an animal trying to free itself from a trap. Evans is so deep into the music that he completely forgets where he is emotionally, so the message in the music is brutally stark and honest. There is no pretention or creative posing. What you hear is an artistic struggle between Evans and his artistic angels and demons. He's working things through on live tape and trying to say something. Perhaps it was a cry for help. Or perhaps it was his way of expressing his anxiety over uncertainty. Or maybe he was just begging to be freed from his circular addiction.
Either way, you get pure Bill Evans on both volumes. And unlike Alone, which I've always found painfully dull, and Alone (Again), which admittedly is somewhat agitated and rushed, Bill Evans: Solo Sessions Vols. 1 and 2 are Goldilocks performances. You literally can hear the contrast of Evans the Artistic Genius and Evans the Self-Destructive Fool all wrapped up in one unbroken solo performance.
And therein lies Orrin's unintentional but vital genius: These are Evans' only true concept albums—made without much of a break, without preparation, without a shift in mood and without a chance for second-guessing. Evans is locked into the piano seat for a little over an hour and a half of nonstop playing, and the bare result is both harrowing and beautiful.