In SoTW 060, I talked about one of the very finest pieces of music I know, the 1961 live performance of Bill Evans’ first trio, “Live at the Village Vanguard”, with Scottie LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. I wrote there that ‘this is as beautiful as music gets, and no words can rival that’. This album is also widely acknowledged as being the invention of the modern piano trio. The recording was made on June 25, 1961. Ten days later, on July 5, LaFaro ran his car into a tree and was killed instantly.
He and Evans hadn’t been buddies. LaFaro harped at Evans frequently to give up his voracious heroin habit, to no avail. But LaFaro’s death had a debilitating effect on Evans. He lost interest in playing for half a year. Evans: “Musically everything seemed to stop. I didn’t even play at home.” His only recording sessions were unenthusiastic efforts, done only to earn a few bucks to support his habit. Bill’s brother remembers him wandering around NYC wearing some of LaFaro’s clothes. It was a bleak time.
On April 4, 1962, Evans made his first attempt to record a solo album. He recorded four cuts and aborted the session. The recordings were shelved until they were released in 1981without fanfare on a posthumous hodgepodge album of outtakes, “Conception”.
The four cuts–the Irish standard ‘Danny Boy’; a Dave Brubeck original ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’; and two standards, ‘Easy to Love’ and ‘Like Someone in Love’, have been considered Evans eulogy to Scott LaFaro. They’re uneven, unfinished, unpolished. But they are performances in which the man’s soul is speaking directly. Without mediation, without technical obstacles. Evans, his pain, and the music. Evans’ liner notes to his first official solo album, “Alone”, 1968:
Perhaps the hours of greatest pleasure in my life have come about as a result of the capacity of the piano to be in itself a complete expressive musical medium. In retrospect, I think that these countless hours of aloneness with music unified the directive energy of my life. At those times when I have achieved this sense of oneness while playing alone, the many technical or analytic aspects of the music happened of themselves with positive Tightness which always served to remind me that to understand music most profoundly one only has to be listening well. Perhaps it is a peculiarity of mine that despite the fact that I am a professional performer, it is true that I have always preferred playing without an audience. This has nothing to do with my desire to communicate or not, but rather I think just a problem of personal self-consciousness which had to be conquered through discipline and concentration. Yet, to know one is truly alone with one’s instrument and music has always been an attractive and conducive situation for me to find my best playing level. Therefore, what I desired to present in a solo piano recording was especially this unique feeling.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Brad Mehldau’s very fine new solo album, “Live in Marciac” and how differently he performs as a soloist versus his usual trio setting. I also expressed the opinion that I admire his solo works more, across the board. Could it be that I’m saying I like solo piano jazz?
Bill Evans towers over the last 50 years of jazz piano. He recorded from 1960 till his death in 1980. Three major jazz pianists emerged in the decades that followed, all immeasurably influenced by him – Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and especially Keith Jarrett. And the three of them still exert a great influence over the newer generation of jazz pianists, Brad Mehldau being by far the leader of the pack. The musical resemblance between Granddaddy Bill, Pa Keith and Li’l Brad is unmistakable.
I know it’s not fair to compare musicians, but I spend most of my waking hours doing so. And these three do encourage the comparison–all of them frequently play tunes ostensibly unsuited to quiet, introspective solo piano, usually medium tempo, light love song Standards. It’s a practice Bill Evans started, I believe. The bottom line is that I listen to Bill Evans four or five times as much as I listen to Brad, and to Jarrett hardly at all. I’d like to demonstrate why.
Here’s Bill Evans’ version of ‘Danny Boy’ from that aborted 1962 solo session. And here’s Keith Jarrett solo from 2002, clearly echoing Evans’ treatment. You listen and tell me which of the two men does a respectable, lovely job, and which is expressing a world view of pain, profound insight and gravitas. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why I prefer to listen to Bill Evans playing with one arm tied behind his back (or paralyzed by the needle) to Jarrett at the top of his game.
And here’s Brad Mehldau doing ‘My Favorite Things’ solo. I find it very admirable, I’m looking forward to buying a ticket to see him play in July. But why do I feel that, in comparison to Bill Evans, I’m watching a kid? Mehldau is 41 today, 10 years older than Evans was in these solo recordings.
I think Keith Jarrett’s a competent but rather superficial jazz pianist, not a drop more. And Brad Mehldau isn’t Bill Evans. That’s okay. No one is. Well, enough with the comparisons. We haven’t come to bury Keith Jarrett or to minimize Brad Mehldau, but to praise Bill Evans.
Here’s Dave Brubeck’s original ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’. A lovely tune, indeed. Here’s Miles’ especially lovely treatment of it, his first quintet (discussed in SoTW 041). And here’s Bill Evans. Playing his pain alone in a studio at night, mourning Scott LaFaro.
Here’s ‘Like Someone in Love’, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, a sweet piece recorded by Dinah Shore in 1944. Here’s Ella’s lovely version. And here’s Bill Evans taking a bit of fluff, and investing it with the weight of the weary world.
And then there’s our favorite of the four, a Cole Porter gem, ‘Easy to Love’. Here’s the original, sung by James Stewart(!!!) in the 1936 movie, “Born to Dance”. And for comparison, here’s Ella’s definitive classic treatment. Tender, tasteful, loving, right? Here’s a lightweight version by Billie Holiday, no stranger to pain herself.
And then Bill Evans plays it. And he takes you to dark, harrowing places. I listen to this, my kishkes squinch up. Life as a lemon. His deftness only emphasizing the wrenching beauty of the exquisite pain he’s playing. He speaks with the voice of a musician using his art to describe the world as he has viewed it. A man who has experienced all the pain in the world. A man who has a lot to say. An artist who can inform you. What I call life-changing music.
Over the rest of his career, Evans recorded solo infrequently. Two of them are well-known among Evans aficionados. On his very first album, in 1959, he recorded Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Some Other Time’. At one point, he began improvising on the introduction to the song, and the result was his legendary ‘Peace Piece’. In 1966, three days after his father died, Evans recorded a 4-part medley, ‘In Memory of his Father’. Here’s the first part. With his last trio (1979-80), Evans frequently recorded ‘Nardis’ with an extended solo piano introduction, but the style there is muscular and energetic, a whole different ballgame. I promise you a whole SoTW on ‘Nardis’. There are also two albums he released in 1968 (“Alone”) and 1975 (“Alone Again”). They’re fine, even moving on occasion; but typically of his middle years, not Evans at his best.
Much less-well known is the two-volume “The Solo Sessions”, recorded January, 1963, but not released until 1984. These are some of Evans best recordings, the fruition of what unevenly accomplished in our four 1962 recordings. If you are as taken by them as I am, dig up the 1963 sessions. They’re moving, profound, unforgettable. For me, works that make listening to music the best part of my life. As always, Bill says it best: Perhaps the hours of greatest pleasure in my life have come about as a result of the capacity of the piano to be in itself a complete expressive musical medium.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like: