Like the Hatfields and McCoys, fans of pianist Bill Evans' early and late periods love to square off. Musket muzzles emerge through the pickets on both sides whenever a writer or critic voices disappointment with Evans' recordings after 1970. For reasons that escape me, many of those who enjoy Evans' late period seem to take this criticism of Evans personally or are somehow unable to discern between the different artistic phases in the pianist's career. As with any artist, Evans produced works of enormous grace and power as well as less interesting, inferior works. Art over a lifetime has different values, even when produced by a genius.
The latest volley of shots rang out when Jazz.com editor Ted Gioia posted at length about the reissue of Turn Out the Stars: The Final Vanguard Recordings, June 1980, referring to the Evans performances as "jittery and aloof." I added remarks two Sundays ago that were simpatico with Ted's position, suggesting that Evans' artistic temperament on these CDs was cranky and frustrated.
Apparently, them's fightin' words. Jazz musician, writer and friend Bill Kirchner scurried into his coveralls and came out of the Late Evans barn swinging his pitchfork in protest. Bill argued at Jazz.com that Evans' late period is misunderstood and that "it's time to lighten up a bit about Bill Evans." Bill Kirchner's arguments were well articulated, and his sentiments were echoed by several others in the comments zone at Jazz.com in support of Evans' late period.
So now I guess it's my turn.
Let me re-state my position: Bill Evans between 1961 and 1966 was at his poetic peak, offering up tender, perfectly constructed versions of original compositions, jazz standards and pop tunes. His smoldering intensity, fine sense of space, and hypnotic swing remain breathtaking on these recordings. If we're narrowing his recording high point, I'd have to say it's Explorations (1961) and How My Heart Sings (1962), which neatly sandwich the still-stunning Live at the Village Vanguard sessions recorded in June 1961. Other examples of Evans' genius between 1962 and 1966 include the Solo Sessions (1963), Trio '64, Trio '65, Paris 1965 and At Town Hall Vol. 1 (1966). It's hard to imagine anyone taking issue with this, but ya never know down here in Tug Fork.
Prior to 1961, the Evans fruit is a bit green. New Jazz Conceptions (1956), Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1958) and, to some extent, Portrait in Jazz (1959) are a tad stiff and tentative. Strong albums to be sure, but not nearly as ripe or as cohesive as Evans' heart-gripping recordings between 1961 and 1962. Evans' change had nothing to do with bassist Scott LaFaro or the position of the moon. Evans simply had fully matured as an artist by 1961 and was more comfortable with what he wanted to say and how he was going to say it. In effect, he had become Bill Evans.
The years after 1966 and up to 1973 are somewhat spotty. Evans' recordings range from the brilliance of Further Conversations with Myself (1967), Montreux II (1970) and Live in Paris (1972) to the rather mundane Intermodulation (1966), the hectic What's New (1969) and vastly overrated The Bill Evans Album (1971). (Yes, I know the album won two Grammy Awards in 1972; Godspell won one, too, that year.)
Between 1973 and 1980, Evans' playing grew increasingly dark, rushed and manically repetitive. Perhaps the first of these maddeningly joyless albums was The Tokyo Concert (1973), on which Evans chainsaws through every tune he takes on. Then there was the thoroughly unnecessary Symbiosis (1974) with Claus Ogerman; the unfocused Intuition (1974); the frantic But Beautiful with Stan Getz (1974); the morose I Will Say Goodbye (1977); the unlistenable Crosscurrents (1977); the puzzling Getting Sentimental (1978) with Philly Joe Jones crashing and bashing his cymbals throughout; the mawkish Affinity (1978) with Toots Thielemans; and the lumbering Turn Out the Stars (1980), where Evans finally sounds bored by his own playing. On this last box, he's artistically impatient, comfortable with repetition and moderately agitated, often captured pounding away with a cement-heavy left hand. This isn't to say that there aren't bright moments on this set. There are. But evaluated as a work, there's precious little of interest here.
Note to the Late-ites: I was there at the Vanguard, on Friday June 6, 1980, sitting right behind Evans during the first set. I don't recall feeling at the time that Evans sounded dull or harried. Having seen Evans several times in the 1970s, it was impossible to feel anything but shock and awe when you heard him perform. But upon listening to the recordings years later, a critical ear hears things that the eyes missed.
Of course, there were a few bright spots between 1973 and 1980: the relaxed Half Moon Bay (1973), the vivid Blue in Green (1974), the misty You Must Believe in Spring (1977), and the firm Paris Concert (1979), which Jan Stevens of the Bill Evans Web Pages convinced me to reconsider during our last Bill Evans early/late slug fest.
So let's be honest. There's really no comparison between Bill Evans of the early and mid-1960s and the late 1970s. As much as the Late-ites would love to argue that the late period offered up a different Bill Evans, a more mature Bill Evans and a more intense Bill Evans, what we have is a rather brooding Bill Evans in search of something he never found. Saying so really shouldn't be that big a deal, since the evidence is there for the listening. Evans between 1961 and 1966 is remarkable—and the fact that any jazz artist was remarkable for five years is astonishing.
As for the Turn Out the Stars box, I'm grateful it was brought to market originally and I'm glad it is available again. I think everything recorded by great jazz artists should always be available for anyone who wants to hear it. The blood-red box set is beautifully packaged and produced. But after a re-listen, much of the music remains tedious. Bill's message here is simply too thick and rushed. For jazz to ring my bell, there has to be power, pacing and excitement blended with passion and miracles. Evans knew this only too well in the early and mid-1960s, when he enjoyed listening to himself play. After 1973, playing piano became a job.
OK, I'm done. Just give me a chance to scamper back to the Early Evans barn before squeezing off rounds.
JazzWax tracks: I've often been asked for my favorite Bill Evans recordings. And I've often begged off, saying that to fully understand and know the artist, you have to explore all of his works and find the places that connect with your soul.
But given the context of this post, here are my 10 favorite Bill Evans albums that touch me most, in chronological order:
- Explorations (1961)
- Sunday at the Village Vanguard (1961)
- Waltz For Debby (1961)
- How My Heart Sings (1962)
- The Solo Sessions, Vols. 1 and 2 (1963)
- At Shelly's Manne-Hole (1963)
- Trio '64
- Trio '65
- Live in Paris 1965
- Bill Evans at Town Hall Vol. 1 (1966)
JazzWax note: Special thanks to the Bill Evans tribute site in the Netherlands for use of the photo at the top of this post.