Bill Evans At 85

Mike Harris is one of several Rifftides readers who sent reminders that this is Bill Evans’ 85th birthday. Over a decade in the 1960s and ‘70s, Mr. Harris surreptitiously recorded the pianist atBill Evans 1 the Village Vanguard in New York. His recordings make up the eight-volume box set Bill Evans: The Secret Sessions. In a note, he suggested, “—perhaps worth a mention?”

This anniversary of the most influential jazz pianist of the second half of the twentieth century is worth more than a mention. From my notes for The Secret Sessions:

After young Bill Evans (1929-1980) got out of the Army in 1954, he became an indispensible sideman on the New York jazz scene. He recorded his first trio album late in 1956 and little more than a year later had begun to enhance his reputation through brilliant work with Miles Davis. Acting on insights gained from the music of Debussy and other impressionist composers, he enriched his chords beyond those of any other jazz pianist. Comparisons that come to mind are harmonies that Bil Evans and Robert Farnon wrote for large orchestras and with some of the mysterious voicings of Duke Ellington. Even in his earliest work he stretched and displaced rhythm and melody and hinted at modes and scales as the basis for improvisation.

Miles, Bill EvansWith the 1958 sextet that also included saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, bassist Paul Chambers, and initially, drummer Philly Joe Jones (replaced before very long by Jimmy Cobb), Evans had enormous influence in determining the course that mainstream jazz follows to this day. Although in his own groups he was to remain within the song form all of his life, at this time Evans clearly accelerated Davis’s change from a repertoire of popular songs and jazz standards to pieces with fewer chord changes and greater demands on the taste, judgment and imagination of the soloist.

That was “Flamenco Sketches.” For an appearance at Umbria Jazz in Italy in 1978, Evans reunited with Philly Joe Jones, the drummer with whom he had formed a strong partnership in the Davis sextet 20 years earlier. The bassist was Marc Johnson, a regular member of Evans’ last trio. The piece is Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks,” a staple of Evans’ latterday repertoire.

For Bill Evans in a variety of settings, go to this YouTube page and begin browsing through dozens of audio tracks and videos.

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  1. Jim Brown says

    Bill, Desmond, Chet, Tatum, and Prez are musicians I can listen to almost forever without tiring of them.

    By all accounts, Philly Joe was one of Bill’s favorite drummers, and the tracks on Secret Sessions with Philly Joe continue to turn my head.

    • Terence Smith says

      Yes, and how about Bill with Philly Joe Jones and Sam Jones, in 1958, on Everybody Digs Bill Evans? A perfect album, with its solo piano take of “Lucky to Be Me,” which is like a place you can return to any time and always be immersed in its unique mood, with a feeling of seeing for the first time.

      There are so many such moments in Bill’s music, moments that are gifts that just keep giving,
      that seem to offer as much as the listener is ready to experience. Or more! Maybe most of Bill’s moments are potential favorites .

      Oscar Peterson said on Bill’s passing that he hoped Evans, “found what he was looking for.” I think Evans did just that, and so many times in so many ways. He helps us discover a part of ourselves that we did not know existed. And his sincerity is so fundamental that he said he hoped to do just that, because the best music can.

  2. says

    Not much noticed in the jazz press, Laurie Verchomin’s self-published The Big Love: Life & Death with Bill Evans ( is very interesting. In my roundup of jazz and other books of 2011-12, I described it as, “a coming of age memoir that chronicles the author’s love affair with Evans for the last sixteen months of his life (he died in September 1980)” and went on to say, “When they meet in May 1979 she is twenty-two, he four months shy of fifty. The book was compiled from the diary she kept at the time, her letters to Evans and those from him in response, poetry by her, and her recollections of and musings upon their time together in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and London as she accompanied him on tours, and in his Fort Lee, New Jersey, apartment when he had residencies at the Village Vanguard. Verchomin’s very personal and, frankly, moving account touches upon, among other aspects of their brief time together, their close friendship and erotic relationship, his struggles with his addictions and failing health, and her attendance at gigs where he astonished audiences with his sublime artistry and uncanny ability to communicate his emotions via the keyboard. This is definitely a one-of-a-kind document that provides the kinds of insights not only into Bill Evans’ creative process but what he was made of, both as a human being and a jazzman, that we are unlikely to see the equal of.”

  3. says

    Thank you to the following jazz journalists: Doug Ramsey, Royal Stokes, Marc Myers, Roger leVesque & Peter Hum for mentioning my book. It was my great pleasure to write this book and share it.

  4. Bruce Spiegel says

    Yea, what can anyone say that has not been said about Bill Evans. I am coming to the end of a long journey with Bill, I’ve spent the last 7 years workin on a documentary about his music and his life. I interviewed a bunch of people that I think shed some light on Bill. Paul Motian, Chuck Israels, Gene Lees, Bobby Brookmeyer, Billy Taylor, Jim Hall, Warren Bernhardt, Tony Bennett, Marc Johnson and Laurie Verchomin. This is only a partial list, but it gives you an idea. I hope to be done with this movie in a short time, and will keep all people in the loop. I hope the film will open up Bill Evans to a new generation of listeners, because of course, as everyone here knows and believes, his music is timeless. Thanks for remembering his 85th.