William John Evans was born in Plainfield, New Jersey on 16 August 1929. He learned to play the piano as a child and later studied classical music at Southeastern Louisiana University before moving to New York City in the mid-1950s to work with bandleader George Russell, although his first ever recording session had been with Jerry Wald's Orchestra in 1953, while Evans was still in the army In September 1956, he made his first recording with his own band and an album for Riverside named New Jazz Conceptions (1956), featuring the original version of perhaps his most famous composition, 'Waltz For Debby'. Evans joined Miles Davis' sextet in April 1958 and in May made his first studio album with the trumpeter, Jazz Track(1958), then the following year they recorded Kind Of Blue (1959) – a masterpiece. Both trumpet player and pianist had a deep love of model jazz, and Evans exerted a strong influence on Davis through his knowledge of European classical music.
In 1958, Evans recorded with Canonball Adderley, cutting the first version of 'Nardis'; specially written by Miles Davis for the Portrait of Canonball album it would be associated with Evans for much of the rest of his career. Despite having so much success, or perhaps because of it, Evans was seeing a psychiatrist, unsure whether to continue with his career. After a period at his parents' home in Florida, he returned to New York to record once again.
In December, shortly after Evans moved back to New York, he released Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1958) with Sam Jones and Philly Joe Jones. After a relatively slow start to his own recording career, Bill made close to a dozen records over the next four years, including Empathy, his first as a leader for Verve. He had recorded for the label as a member of a number of different groups that included Don Elliott's Quartet at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957, Leo Konitz Live At The Half Note in 1959 and again with Konitz and Jimmy Giuffre the same year. Empathy (1962) was his Verve debut in a trio with bass player Monty Bugwig and drummer Shelly Manne.
In June 1961, Bill Evans Trio with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motion on drums recorded two albums, Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby, both for Riverside Records and now available as part of the Original Jazz Classics series. These two live recordings from the same date are among the greatest jazz recordings of all time. Tragically LaFaro was killed, aged twenty-five, in a car accident, ten days after the Vanguard sessions, Evans was devastated and withdrew from public life; already a heroin user it was a terrible blow for the pianist.
Persuaded to return to playing by his producer Orrin Keepnews, Evans threw himself into work and the remainder of the decade was a prolific period – particularly with Verve. His first record with vibes player Gary McFarland is a musical exploration of an urban playground; it's a much-underrated album and shows Evans' deft skill as an accompanist. He followed this with one of his best albums, 1963's Conversations With Myself, which features Evans playing not one, but three pianos. This Grammy award-winning record was revolutionary at the time, in that Evans recorded it by overdubbing three different yet beautifully interwoven piano pieces for each track.
Among the other highlights of his Verve recordings are Trio 64 (1963), and Further Conversations With Myself (1967), along with two live albums, Bill Evans At The Town Hall (1966) and Bill Evans At The Montreux Jazz Festival (1968), for which he also won a Grammy, one of the seven that he won from thirty-one nominations. Evans, while never embracing fusion or the avant-garde in any way, was always keen to explore something different, as his 1965 album, Bill Evans Trio With Symphony Orchestra (1965) with Claus Ogerman conducting so beautifully demonstrates.
In 1966, Evans first worked with a young Puerto Rican bassist Eddie Gomez, recording A Simple Matter of Conviction for Verve. It proved an inspirational partnership, and Gomez can also be heard on Bill Evans At The Montreux Jazz Festival (1968), which was the only album Evans made with drummer Jack DeJohnette.
In 1969, Evans began experimenting with an electric piano – The Bill Evans Album (1971) featured both acoustic and electric piano. Ten years after he had recorded Stan Getz & Bill Evans for Verve, the pair reunited to record But Beautiful in 1974 – it was a live recording from concerts in Holland and Belgium.
In 1973, while working at the Lighthouse Café in Redondo Beach, California, Evans met and fell in love with a woman, despite having been in a twelve-year relationship. He told his girlfriend about his new love, and she committed suicide by throwing herself under a subway train. He married Nenette, the woman he had met in California, and in 1975 they had a child, Evan; sadly the marriage did not last long, heroin possibly the reason behind the break up.
In 1979 while on tour, Evans learned that his brother Harry, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, had also committed suicide, aged fifty-two. Many of Evans' friends and relatives believe that this event precipitated his own death the following year. In August 1979, We Will Meet Again became Bill Evans last studio recording. It was posthumously awarded a Grammy, but in truth the award was more out of respect for a career that has had few equals in the art of jazz piano than the album itself.
In the middle of September 1980, Evans had been in bed with severe stomach pains at his home in Fort Lee, for several days. He was taken by his girlfriend and drummer Joe LaBarbera to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, where he died from a combination of a peptic ulcer, cirrhosis, bronchial pneumonia and untreated hepatitis on 15 September 1980. Gene Lees who co-wrote 'Waltz For Debby' described his friend's drug addiction as 'the longest suicide in history'.
Words: Richard Havers
Recorded at the Village Vanguard in 1961, shortly before Scott LaFaro's death, Waltz for Debby is the second album issued from that historic session, and the final one from that legendary trio that also contained drummer Paul Motian. While the Sunday at the Village Vanguard album focused on material where LaFaro soloed prominently, this is far more a portrait of the trio on those dates. Evans chose the material here, and, possibly, in some unconscious way, revealed on these sessions -- and the two following LaFaro's death (Moonbeams and How My Heart Sings!) -- a different side of his musical personality that had never been displayed on his earlier solo recordings or during his tenures with Miles Davis and George Russell: Evans was an intensely romantic player, flagrantly emotional, and that is revealed here in spades on tunes such as "My Foolish Heart" and "Detour Ahead." There is a kind of impressionistic construction to his harmonic architecture that plays off the middle registers and goes deeper into its sonances in order to set into motion numerous melodic fragments simultaneously. The rhythmic intensity that he displayed as a sideman is evident here in "Milestones," with its muscular shifting time signature and those large, flatted ninths with the right hand. The trio's most impressive interplay is in "My Romance," after Evans' opening moments introducing the changes. Here Motian's brushwork is delicate, flighty and elegant, and LaFaro controls the dynamic of the tune with his light as a feather pizzicato work and makes Evans' deeply emotional statements swing effortlessly. Of the many recordings Evans issued, the two Vanguard dates and Explorations are the ultimate expressions of his legendary trio.
Words: Thom Jurek
Sunday at the Village Vanguard is the initial volume of a mammoth recording session by the Bill Evans Trio, from June 25, 1961 at New York's Village Vanguard documenting Evans' first trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. Its companion volume is Waltz for Debby. This trio is still widely regarded as his finest, largely because of the symbiotic interplay between its members. Tragically, LaFaro was killed in an automobile accident ten days after this session was recorded, and Evans assembled the two packages a few months afterward. While "Waltz for Debby" -- in retrospect -- is seemingly a showcase for Evans' brilliant, subtle, and wide-ranging pianism, this volume becomes an homage, largely, to the genius and contribution of LaFaro. That said, however, this were never the point. According to Motian, when Evans built this trio based on live gigs at the Basin Street East, the intention was always to develop a complete interactive trio experience. At the time, this was an unheard of notion, since piano trios were largely designed to showcase the prowess of the front line soloist with rhythmic accompaniment. Here, one need listen no further than the elegant and haunting, graceful modal reading of "My Man's Gone Now" from Porgy & Bess to know that there is something completely balanced and indescribably beautiful in their approach. Motian's brushes whisper along the ride cymbals and both Evans and LaFaro enter into a dialogue that emerges from a darkly hued minor mode, into the melody and somehow beyond it, into a form of seamless dialogic improvisation to know that in the act of one musician slipping over and under another -- as happens with all three in an aural basket weave -- is something utterly new and different, often imitated but never replicated. But in a sense it happens before this, on LaFaro's "Gloria's Step," which opens the recording. His thematic statement includes the briefest intro, hesitant and spacious before he and pianist enter into a harmonic and contrapuntal conversation underscored by the hushed dynamics of Motian's snare, and the lightning-fast interlocutions of single string and chorded playing of LaFaro. The shapshifting reading of Miles Davis' "Solar," is a place where angularity, counterpoint, and early modalism all come together in a knotty and insistent, yet utterly seamless blend of post-bop aesthetics and expanded harmonic intercourse with Motian, whose work, while indispensable in the balance of the trio, comes more into play here, and is more assertive with his half-time accents to frame the counterpoint playing of Evans and LaFaro. This is a great place to begin with Evans.
Words; Thom Jurek
The first of two studio albums by the Bill Evans-Scott LaFaro-Paul Motian trio (both of which preceded their famous engagement at the Village Vanguard), this Portrait in Jazz reissue contains some wondrous interplay, particularly between pianist Evans and bassist LaFaro, on the two versions of "Autumn Leaves." Other than introducing Evans' "Peri's Scope," the music is comprised of standards, but the influential interpretations were far from routine or predictable at the time. LaFaro and Motian were nearly equal partners with the pianist in the ensembles and their versions of such tunes as "Come Rain or Come Shine," "When I Fall in Love," and "Someday My Prince Will Come" (which preceded Miles Davis' famous recording by a couple years) are full of subtle and surprising creativity. A gem.
Words: Scott Yanow
Often stirring controversy for no key or good reason, Conversations with Myself has Bill Evans utilizing the sound-on-sound technique of reel-to-reel tape recording available in the 1960s to play simultaneous twin pianos. It's an interesting combination of counterpointed lines and chords that Evans employs, with differing tempos and shadings that complement rather than contrast. Additionally, the usage of angular dialect à la Thelonious Monk and the witty discourse he can conjure with his own styles thicken and broaden the horizons of the usually spare harmonic inventions the pianist expresses on his own. With the overdubbing, Evans achieves true interplay and counterpoint on his own, starting with the rich harmonies of Monk's "'Round Midnight," where he adds alternate lines in a slightly ramped-up midtempo take. "Blue Monk" has Evans sounding like a guitarist in his single-note and chordal discourse, perhaps influenced by Wes Montgomery, while the CD bonus track "Bemsha Swing" sports the ineffable and unexpected twists and turns that identify the author. Away from Monk, the spacious "Spartacus Love Theme" is rendered beautifully in spite of the extra tracking, "Stella by Starlight" uses a more unified approach between the two piano tracks, and is a chamber type reading, while "Hey There" employs off-minor options that are not standardized by any means. The stealth and deliberate shadings of the lone Evans original, "N.Y.C.'s No Lark," do contrast with the energetic high-octave chords on "How About You?" in a music that is certainly busy for Evans. His bonus take of Truman Capote's "A Sleepin' Bee" is also more active than fans of Evans are used to, but within a slower pace, as combined techniques are simmered with an Asian flavoring. Conversations with Myself is certainly one of the more unusual items in the discography of an artist whose consistency is as evident as any in modern jazz, and nothing should dissuade you from purchasing this one of a kind album that in some ways set a technological standard for popular music -- and jazz -- to come.
Words: Michael G. Nastos
When Bill Evans agreed to do a two piano date with Bob Brookmeyer, eyebrows surely must have raised. Pairing a rising superstar of modern jazz with a gentleman known for playing valve trombone and arranging charts might have been deemed by some as a daunting task. Fortunately for the keyboardists, this was a good idea and a marvelous concept, where the two could use the concept of counterpoint and improvisation to an enjoyable means, much like a great chess match. For the listener, you are easily able to hear the difference between ostensible leader Evans in the right channel of the stereo separation, and the accompanist Brookmeyer in the left. The opener "Honeysuckle Rose" gives a basic idea of what to expect, as Evans leads out, Brookmeyer counters his moves, and they trade riffs in an inventive bridge. "The Way You Look Tonight" is similar as Brookmeyer is more playful in his chiming chords and second melody line. The energy level is very good here, as well as on the democratic, funky contemporary intro to the easy swing of "It Could Happen to You" and "I Got Rhythm," jam-packed with fun plus risk-taking. There's a different give and take during "The Man I Love," and they turn the lamp down low on a delicate version of "As Time Goes By" as the pianists trade leads, and bassist Percy Heath adopts a more pronounced role. It is Heath and drummer Connie Kay, on loan from the Modern Jazz Quartet, who precisely and firmly cement rhythmic elements, allowing the pianists to use space, harmony, wit and wisdom to full effect. Some have called this an effort based more on gimmick and showmanship, but if you agree to listen closely, the depth and substance of Evans and Brookmeyer reveals a lot of soul, invention, and musicians simply having a real good time. It would be nice to hear any alternate takes from this marvelous date.
Words: Michael G. Nastos
This superior set was a logical idea. One of pianist Bill Evans' earlier influences was Lennie Tristano so on the date Evans' trio (with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Eliot Zigmund) was teamed with Tristano's two top "students": altoist Lee Konitz and tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh. The quintet performs four standards (all of which fit easily into Evans' repertoire) plus "Pensativa" and Steve Swallow's "Eiderdown." Konitz and Marsh always worked very well together and their cool-toned improvising makes this outing by Bill Evans something special. The CD reissue adds three alternate takes to the original program. Recommended.
Words: Scott Yanow
A duet recording between pianist Bill Evans and guitarist Jim Hall is one that should retain high expectations to match melodic and harmonic intimacies with brilliant spontaneous musicianship. Where this recording delivers that supposition is in the details and intricacy with which Evans and Hall work, guided by simple framings of standard songs made into personal statements that include no small amounts of innovation. Only two standards are included, and begin the program before the duo merges into some original material with some foraging off the beaten path, along with tender notions that should please anyone. If you hear the melody of the opener, "I've Got You Under My Skin," in your head, you'd never believe Evans and Hall could conceive of this reharmonized and essentially improvised take, full of interplay and invention. The classic waltz version of "My Man's Gone Now" is closer to a stock rendition, except that Evans wrings out every bit of somber emotion in a spontaneous manner. Hall's "All Across the City" -- by now a revered standard -- is heard here in an early version with languid, serene, and peaceful tones. Another similarly iconic standard is "Turn Out the Stars," mostly a solo piano work with Evans hinting at quotes of Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way." The most unusual choice is Joe Zawinul's "Angel Face," with a naturally delicate lead from Hall's guitar, while Claus Ogerman's "Jazz Samba" injects a bit of energy into this otherwise easygoing set, with Hall's basslines setting off some bright harmonic reinforcements. At only 32 and a half minutes, it's disappointing there are no bonus tracks and/or additional material for a CD-length reissue, but Intermodulation still remains a precious set of music from these two great modern jazz musicians.
Words: Michael G. Nastos
The only studio meeting between Stan Getz and Bill Evans took place over two days in 1964, with the aggressive drummer Elvin Jones and either Richard Davis or Ron Carter on bass. It is peculiar that Verve shelved the results for over a decade before issuing any of the music, though it may have been felt that Getz and Evans hadn't had enough time to achieve the desired chemistry, though there are memorable moments. The punchy take of "My Heart Stood Still," the elegant interpretation of "Grandfather's Waltz," and the lush setting of the show tune "Melinda" all came from the first day's session, with Davis on bass. (Evidently he was unavailable the following day, so Carter replaced him.) Evans' driving, challenging "Funkallero" is the obvious highlight from day two, though the gorgeous "But Beautiful" and the breezy setting of "Night and Day" are also enjoyable. Only the brief version of "Carpetbagger's Theme," which seems badly out of place and suggestive of the label's interference with the session, is a bit of a disappointment. Obviously neither Getz nor Evans liked the tune, as they go through the motions in a very brief performance.
Words: Ken Dryden
Pianist Bill Evans' final project for the Riverside label resulted in eight songs released as Bill Evans Trio at Shelly's Manne-Hole. This set doubles the program by adding eight previously unreleased selections. Evans, who is in fine form playing in a trio with bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Larry Bunker, often sounded more relaxed in concert than in studios and he stretches himself on the material (mostly standards), making one wonder why all of the music was not orignally released. This is one of the finest recordings by this particular trio. Worth searching for.
Words: Scott Yanow
Bill Evans was a student of classical music, especially the music of Chopin, whose harmonies presaged a lot of what was heard in post-WWII jazz. This it's not surprising that he would try to bring the two forms- jazz and classical- together. There's plenty of precent for what he's doing here. Before the 20th Century, it was very common for symphonic pieces to have totally improvised sections. Most if not all of the orchestral cadenzas heard today were originally improvised by a particular soloist, and only later transcribed and inserted into a score. What Evans is doing can be viewed as reviving an old tradition with a modern touch. A favorite has to be his take on Gabriel Faure's Pavane in F# minor, Opus 50. It's a popular piece, owing to the very rich and seductive minor melody, and Evans takes it into an unexpected direction with a major key improvisation. The Bach valse keeps the theme, but the harmony, tempo, and rhythm get changed, making it unrecognizable as Bach. The Granadas and Scriabin are still recognizable, bug they swing in a way that the originals don't, even when Evans is playing freely.There are also a couple of Evans compositions here, two ow which I think were compositions for this album, with a classical feel. The third is his standard, "Time Remembered," and it really works in this context. A great album by the greatest pianist of his era.
Words: Michael J. Edelman