Bill Evans would be seventy-six years old today. He died on September 15, 1980 at the age of 51. To borrow what Jim Hall said about Paul Desmond, Bill would have been a great old man. That is an easy conclusion; he was a great young man. Here is a little of what I wrote about him in the notes for the 1997 boxed CD set, The Secret Sessions.
The evolution of jazz music as a distinct form of creative expression is contained in only eight decades of the 20th century. The maturing of the art of jazz piano improvisation is an index to the astonishing speed of that development. It took less than 40 years, and its main current ran from James P. Johnson through Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans, with Art Tatum standing apart as an unclassifiable phenomenon. (If I were writing that last sentence today, I would add Jelly Roll Morton and Al Haig.)
Evans, the last great jazz piano innovator, inherited and expanded the art transmitted through the fountainheads of piano style…
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 with harmonies that Gil Evans and Robert Farnon wrote for large orchestras and with some of the mysterious voicings of Duke Ellington. Even in his earliest trio work he stretched and displaced rhythm and melody and hinted at modes and scales as the basis for improvisation.
No week passes without my listening to Bill Evans. Although I find it difficult to write with music playing because I cannot ignore it, I am now listening to the brilliant solo pieces he recorded on January 10, 1963. He was about to move on from his relationship with producer Orrin Keepnews at Riverside Records and join Verve. For reasons Keepnews explains in his notes for Bill Evans: The Complete Riverside Recordings, the seventeen performances did not leave the Riverside vaults until the boxed set was issued on LP in 1984. It is now on CD. Evans reached deep into his soul for these performances. I find them indescribably moving on several levels, and I am celebrating his birthday by listening to them, having an excellent Oregon pinot noir and suggesting that it would be a better world if we all heard more Bill Evans. If you need further impetus, ask Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Bill Charlap, Kenny Barron and a legion of other jazz pianists where they would be without Bill Evans.
If you don’t know about it, I suggest that you investigate Jan Stevens’s web site, The Bill Evans Pages. It is a compendium of information about Evans and an accurate guide to his recordings.