The market for Bill Evans is bottomless. Part of the insatiable demand is nostalgia. Anyone who has been listening to jazz since the '60s or '70s remembers seeing Evans with enormous fondness, and the music transports you back to those evenings. The other part is an unyielding desire to hear great music, and virtually everything Evans recorded is rich with seductive emotion. Anyone who loves jazz has a soft spot for Evans, making it hard to resist a newly unearthed recording.
The latest entry is Bill Evans: The Sesjun Radio Shows. Recorded in 1973, 1975 and 1979 at clubs in Loren and Lelystad in the Netherlands for Dutch radio, this two-CD set offers a revealing look at the revered pianist. Evans loved playing in Europe, especially in the '70s. There was something calming for him about the European lifestyle and the unbridled exuberance of the audiences there. Both tended to push his already high game up a notch.
With this set, you wind up with an interesting sample of styles and instrumental configurations during his last seven years. The first CD features material from '73 and '75 while the second CD is devoted to '79. If there's a narrative to the set, it's that Evans' style grew stronger and more commanding over the years and that he could have been much more compelling if he had chosen to stick to a duo or solo format.
Overall, Evans' playing here is autumnal. Though not yet in the throes of physical deterioration in '73 and '75, you sense the wind is already rustling through the leaves. While much of the playlist has been recorded endlessly by Evans (Up With the Lark, Some Other Time, T.T.T., etc.), there are a few surprising entries: Mercer Ellington's Blue Serge, which Evans recorded only once, on Intuition shortly after this tour, and Toots Thielemans' Bluesette, which he never recorded on any of the albums that have surfaced thus far.
The 1973 date was recorded December 13 with just Eddie Gomez on bass. The 1975 tracks were captured on February 13 with Gomez and drummer Eliot Zigmund [all pictured]. And the 1979 session featured his final trio of bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera, with Thielemans added on five of the nine tracks.
The earliest tracks feature Evans in superb form. He's pensive and thoughtful, but there's also an innocence at play, an optimistic skip in his step reminiscent of his glorious '60s period. Gomez here functions largely as Evans' heartbeat, sans extensive solos. During this period, they worked together as a duo, dropping the drums, which I always found redundant anyway, since Evans' astonishing sense of swing was always built into everything he played. The impossible perfection of Some Other Time from the '73 session says it all.
When the CD set shifts to 1975, we hear more notes per measure, as Evans tickles his way through songs, creating a sound that's akin to a cascading light rain on a window pane. In other cases, he's a bit more rushed and impetuous in his attack.
Interestingly, after the duo session from '73, the addition of the drums sounds almost crowded and less intimate. With drums, Evans always seems to be behind a screen door of brush whisks and cymbal hits. Also, Gomez's bass solos run a bit heavy and long. The high point here is Morning Glory, which Evans approaches so gracefully, you imagine a large-winged bird taking flight.
I thought the 1979 session—recorded less than a year before his death in September 1980—would be the least interesting on this set. But tracks like If You Could See Me Now and My Romance have an overpowering presence, with Evans playing firmly but retaining a cat-like feel. For my money, this set includes one of the finest recordings of Laurie, written for his partner at the time, Laurie Verchomin (interview here). Evans' execution heaves and rolls beautifully, with brisk, delicate flourishes, and he never comes across as rushed or bombastic.
As for the Thielemans tracks, they are without question a bit odd. The introduction of the harmonica feels contrived, like an afixed strip of chrome on a piece of fine wood furniture. But Evans is such a spectacular accompanist that he effortlessly manages compelling chord changes and voicings that are front and center. Unfortunately, the sound of the harmonica grows annoying fast. Thielemans is a technically excellent player, but up against Evans, one is instantly at a severe disadvantage. This would be the case for pretty much anyone, since Evans was unrivaled for his torrent of ideas.
Evans, of course, thrived on waltzes, and he has a good time on Bluesette. But its slick veneer lacks depth, and for Evans it's a creative wheel-spinner, which likely explains why he steered clear of it going forward.
On the Sesjun Radio Show sessions, you're provided with a fascinating cross-section of Evans in different instrumental settings. Though you may own lots of versions of the songs covered here, these are clearly elevated versions.
All in all, the '73 tracks wind up being my favorites, but not because the others are lacking. I just happen to like Evans close to my ear and heart, the fewer the instrumental distractions and intrusions the better. But that's just me.
JazzWax clip: Here's If You Could See Me Now from the Sesjun Radio Shows...