Pianist Bill Evans: A Retrospective
There are nearly 200 albums in the Bill Evans discography, the best of which are generally duo and trio collaborations from the first decade of his career. There are some successes as a soloist, playing electric keyboards and with larger ensembles, but they are much more erratic in quality and even the acclaimed albums are subject to widely divided opinions.
New listeners should buy one or both of his landmark Vanguard albums instead of any of the numerous so-called "best of" collections. Those taking the next step should listen to Evans' development in early albums from New Jazz Conceptions through Conversations With Myself , plus a limited selection of subsequent recordings. Completists can stay busy for a long time hunting down obscure early sessions, fan-taped performances and "so awful they're collectable" recordings (try 1963's The VIPs Theme , available only as a Japanese import, as an example of the latter).
Those into the legal music download scene can take advantage of a bargain featuring nearly all of his strongest material. See the online category at the end of this section for details.
These are listed first because they also provide some insight into the individual albums released during the years involved. Virtually all of the boxed material is available separately and, except for the Riverside set, may be the best bet for all but the most devout fans.
The Complete Riverside Recordings
For those able to purchase one boxed set, this 12-disc collection covering Evans' career from 1956 to 1963 is the unquestionable pick. His early development and landmark Vanguard dates provide the highlights, while sessions toward the end of the collection featuring somewhat ill-matched larger groups and two tentative solo recordings provide insight into the struggles he would experience throughout the rest of his career.
The Complete Bill Evans On Verve
The Verve set is the largest with 269 tracks over 18 discs mostly recorded between 1962 and 1969, but is uneven due to commercial demands by the label and Evans churning out material at a hectic pace to support his drug habit. It is more diverse than the Riverside set, with some of the more interesting collaborations featuring guitarist Jim Hall, drummer Shelly Manne and flautist Jeremy Steig. Various solo recordings, including some double- and triple-tracking himself, are also prominent.
The Complete Fantasy Recordings
The nine-disc Fantasy collection represents Evans' work from 1973-79. The material remains diverse, including a performance with singer Tony Bennett and an hour-long discussion of his work with Marian McPartland on her "Piano Jazz" radio program. But the uneven quality also persists, making individual albums from the label a better buy.
The Secret Sessions (1996)
This eight-disc set is for listeners as devout as the fan who recorded it. Mike Harris surreptitiously taped every Evans session at the Vanguard from 1966 onward and, after resolving some legal issues, the sound was cleaned up and the collection released on the Milestone record label. Devotees will likely find it more interesting than inspiring, as performances vary widely in quality and the bootleg sound quality often gives the drummers too much prominence and puts Evans too far in the background.
The Last Waltz (2000)
This is probably for devoted fans only, but almost certainly one they'll want if they can afford it. The eight-disc set from a nine-day stretch of performances in San Francisco a week before Evans' death is regarded a final rise to triumph, a claim fueled by both merit and sentiment. There is no question Evans, who knew death was near, tries to take many of his classic reinterpretations to the next level. There is a tense aspect to much of his playing - the beatific and haunting expressions of a tortured soul, say those who love this collection. But there's also plenty of spark and diversity; the six extended versions of "Nardis" vary considerably in pace and phrasing, for instance. The middle discs are somewhat stronger overall, as Evans settles in and isn't marred by a bit of fatigue that seems to affect the final performances. Those thrilled with this collection can also obtain - and probably already know about - Consecration , featuring the opening sets each performance ( The Last Waltz is from the subsequent sets).
New Jazz Conceptions (1956)
Evans' debut album is recommended for those who are already a fans of the pianist, as it largely allows them to track his development. Here he is playing largely mainstream bop in the Bud Powell tradition without much of a distinct individual voice. Hints of future development are in his first recording of "Waltz For Debby" and his treatments of "Displacement," where few notes fall on the beat, and "Five," featuring a frenetic quintuplet-based beat in 4/4 time.
Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1958)
The cover of this album is hardly indicative of a shy and reclusive musician, as it consists entirely of quotes raving about Evans from the likes of Miles Davis (the first time he ever allowed such a quote), Cannonball Adderley and others familiar with him. But it also reflects the stellar reputation he had achieved among musicians and critics - if not quite yet the public - and this album is a clear step toward the more relaxed and meditative style he is famous for. Particularly strong pieces include "Young And Foolish," as moving as any ballad he's written, and the famous melodic improvisational experiment "Peace Piece."
Kind Of Blue (1959)
Most jazz fans probably already have Davis' landmark album, but many may get a new perspective listening to it again to hear Evans' contributions as a sideman and composer. Many songs are among the simplest in jazz, with two-chord structures and melodies any school-age band member can play. Furthermore, Evans notes the group recorded all of the pieces without playing them through first in rehearsal. Years later the pianist said both factors infused fresh energy into the session. "Blue In Green" remains one of the most beautiful ballads of all time and "Flamenco Sketches" is a masterpiece of harmonic composition.
Portrait In Jazz (1959)
Evans reaches a pinnacle that would last through his Village Vanguard albums with this album. It is the first to feature his famed trio of bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, and also where the pianist's concept of dividing solos more evenly among the players is fully realized. The album is nearly all standards, but there's plenty of originality to their playing. Their fast-paced interplay on "Someday My Prince Will Come" and interpretations on two versions of "Blue In Green" are among the many highlights.
Considered among the essential Evans albums, but maybe the first hesitant buyers should pass up. There was some tension between players during the session and LaFaro had to play a replacement bass since his regular one was being repaired. The playing is solid, especially on ballad standards toward the end such as "Israel" where they finally get a good repoire going, but more restrained than their other "elite" albums.
Sunday At The Village Vanguard (1961) and Waltz For Debby
The pianist's definitive albums. They are masterpieces of phrasing in melody and solo lines, and a revelation how other members of a trio can interact with and shape a song. LaFaro in particular captivates with his bass lines on the Sunday album, making his death 10 days later all the more tragic. On Waltz "My Foolish Heart" is unmatched in its aching beauty, while the more swinging "My Romance" might be the trio's strongest interactive effort. A warning: don't confuse these with At The Village Vanguard a 10-song compilation of songs from the two live albums, both of which stand up better on their own.
Conversations With Myself (1963) and Further Conversations With Myself (1967)
These albums featuring Evans double- and triple-tracking himself on piano are the subject of much critical debate. Some simply don't like the albums, while others disagree about which is superior. Evans won his first Grammy for the triple-dubbed Conversations and those who prefer this album say its originality and energy is superior to the more refined follow-up. Fans of the double-tracked second album say it's less cluttered and superior in composition, reflecting Evans' development during the interim.
At The Montreax Jazz Festival (1968)
Evans won his second Grammy for this trio album, featuring Gomez and drumming legend Jack DeJohnette. Evans is lured into playing freer than usual by his co-players, both of whom are in top- notch form. Gomez is particularly worth listening to, as many felt he was taking over as the driving and creative force of the group by now.
Evans won his third Grammy for his first solo album, but opinions run the entire range from worst to best among listeners. That controversy alone might make this worthwhile for collectors, who can decide if this is 1) a rambling effort caused by the lack of discipline sidemen might have provided or 2) a triumph of the piano as a "complete expressive musical medium," which Evans said was one of his greatest musical pleasures.
Those wanting to hear Evans on electric keyboard might find this their best bet - or at least a safe one - as he alternates between electric and acoustic on this duo collaboration with Gomez. The interaction between the two is superb and most of the songs are new compositions.
The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album (1975)
This seems like an unlikely collaboration, but those intrigued by the concept will find the results hold up on merit. Evans largely plays a supportive, but strong role as Bennett delivers emotionally sincere efforts on songs like "The Days Of Wine And Roses," "Young And Foolish" and "Waltz For Debby."
You Must Believe In Spring (1977)
Evans' debut for Warner Brothers is one of his easier to find latter-day releases and does a better job than many '70s albums of capturing his brooding and melodic strengths. The title track and "B Minor Waltz" are fine examples of his ability to wring deceptively simple melodies from complex structures, and there's a surprisingly diverse feeling for an album of ballads. Some misfires keep this from ranking among his best trio albums. It's strange to hear "Blue Bossa" morph into a ballad on "We Will Meet Again" and, in retrospect, it's a bit disconcerting to hear his "Theme From M*A*S*H" - a fine song, but too much a reminder of his willingness at times to play purely commercial stuff to pay the bills.
Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz (1978)
This early episode of McPartland's long-running radio series is considered one of her best. Their half- dozen duets are fine, but the real strengths are the detailed discussions Evans provides about his techniques throughout his career and the stellar examples he plays to demonstrate them. Obviously not the first album a newcomer should purchase, but a must-have early on for those serious about starting a collection.
The Paris Concert, Edition One (1979)
Those who can't afford The Last Waltz can find a strong example of Evans last trio on this album (plus Edition Two from the same concert). Marc Johnson isn't the bassist Gomez was and the trio was still relatively new and finding its niche, but they nonetheless breath new life into standards like "My Romance" and "I Loves You, Porgy." Edition Two may appeal more to hardcore Evans fans, since it focuses mostly his compositions.
A Few to Avoid:
- From Left To Right : His first recording using a Fender Rhodes is easy listening, not jazz.
- The Bill Evans Album and Living Time : Evans said he dreamed of signing with a label like Columbia, but the short-lived association was a huge disappointment for him and his fans.
- Just about any single-disc "best-of" compilation - especially those at bargain prices. Far too many are quick-buck efforts featuring substandard performances.
For Evans fans, there's no better reason to embrace the world of legal music downloads. Imagine getting a $200 18-disc boxed set of his finest material for about $20. Or a full album of him discussing technique and playing examples for mere pennies.
The music service eMusic.com offers all of the pianist's recordings on the Riverside and Fantasy labels, plus a number of others that generally rank among his best. Among the boxed sets are the Riverside and Fantasy collections, The Secret Sessions , The Last Waltz and Consecration. Available by the album and by the song, it's a way for casual fans to sample the fare with minimal investment. Another bargain is the Piano Jazz album, sold here as a single-song download.