Today would have been Bill Evans’ seventy-sixth birthday. Here’s something I wrote about him in the New York Times Book Review in 1998:
Many jazz musicians resemble their music. Who could have looked more worldly-wise than Duke Ellington, or wittier than Paul Desmond? But sometimes a musician embodies a contradiction, and then you can read it off his face, just as you can see a fault line snaking through a tranquil landscape. Such was the case with Bill Evans. His shining tone and cloudy pastel harmonies transformed such innocuous pop songs as ”Young and Foolish” and ”The Boy Next Door” into fleeting visions of infinite grace. Yet the bespectacled, cadaverous ruin who sat hunched over the keyboard like a broken gooseneck lamp seemed at first glance incapable of such Debussyan subtlety; something, one felt sure, must have gone terribly wrong for a man who played like that to have looked like that….
So it did, which is why Evans isn’t around to celebrate his birthday with us. But rather than dwell on the unknowable sorrow at the heart of his exquisite artistry, I’d rather point you toward five recorded performances which, taken together, say all that really needs to be said about the most influential jazz pianist of his generation:
– “Young and Foolish,” on Everybody Digs Bill Evans
– “My Foolish Heart” and “Some Other Time,” on Waltz for Debby
– “Love Theme from Spartacus,” on Conversations with Myself
– “I Loves You, Porgy,” on Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival
No one has ever made more beautiful music.
UPDATE: Go here for Doug Ramsey’s thoughts on Evans, plus a link to the unofficial Evans Web site.