Friday, September 15, 2006

Remembering Bill Evans

Bill Evans died at the age of 51 on September 15, 1980. I wouldn’t discover his music until a few years later. I was listening to an early 1960s Herbie Hancock album with a friend, who told me that I needed to listen to Bill to understand Herbie’s playing. He lent me a copy of the seminal Miles Davis-led recording, Kind of Blue, and told me to listen to the tracks that Bill played on, and then compare it with Freddie Freeloader, the sole cut on which Wynton Kelly (a great pianist) appears. My friend was one of those jazz guys who took a knowing drag on his cigarette, squinted his eyes, cocked his head just a little to the side and leaned into you to let you know that what he was telling you was really important.

Listen I did. And several hours later, and after playing Flamenco Sketches over and over, I emerged, fully converted to the cult of Bill Evans.

Gene Lees wrote that Bill has perhaps the most possessive fans of any musician that he has ever known. The first time I heard the Beatles on my own, my ears perked up as if some mysterious life force had just opened up a new world to me. I remember, in 1972, hearing, in a row, Long Distance Runaround by Yes, Living in the Past by Jethro Tull, and Do It Again by Steely Dan late at night on the radio, and thinking, “Wow . . . what is that all about?” My first experience with Coltrane I remember well: I put on Coltrane, the eponymously titled Impulse recording from the early 1960s, sat back down on the $50 garage-sale couch I had just purchased for my crappy graduate school apartment, and didn’t get up for an hour. Literally, I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t move.

Bill was different. After my Kind of Blue experience, I went to a second-hand record store to buy all the Bill Evans albums I could afford. For $3 a piece, I bought Waltz for Debby, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Live at Shelley Manne’s Hole. I spent an entire afternoon listening to the Vanguard recordings, and then all of a sudden it hit me. I welled up in tears and just put my head in my hands. I had never heard music so beautiful, so meaningful, so heartbreaking, so genuine, so loving . . . so anything ever before. And once I learned about the difficulties he experienced in his life, his music radiated an even greater emotional wallop. I reported to my friend the jazz guy that I had begun the Bill Evans journey, and that I just wanted to reach into the speakers and tell him, “It’s okay, I know, I’ve been there, too.” My friend went through the whole routine with his cigarette, and said, “You feel like he’s talking to you, don’t you, in a way that nobody else ever has, right?” Bill devotees think they have a straight line to his heart, and his to theirs, that only they understand.

The place to start, of course, is the Complete Live at the Village Vanguard box set, which offers the legendary June 25, 1961 sessions from start to finish, including a new version of Gloria’s Step, complete with a missing few bars due to a recording malfunction. If you want to know where Bill was going at the end of his life, listen to the final Village Vanguard sessions from June 1980. The beauty, grace and otherworldly harmonic voicings are all there, but you will also hear a power and urgency that had reinvigorated his final years. It’s almost as if Bill knew that his time was almost up, and the moment had arrived to open his heart once last time to tell us everything he had ever felt.


Apollo said...

Thanks for the push in the right direction. Until you brought Bill Evans to my attention I only had an appreciation for Miles and Coltrane. Evans took me to the next level and I've spent countless hours listening to the Villiage Vanguard recordings.

deacon blues said...

To fully grasp Bill Evans, one must have experienced a broken heart. His music is sonic poetry and only those who understand the critical interplay between joy and sorrow will be able to grasp his genius. As a litmus test, listen carefully to "September Fifteenth" on the 1983 Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays recording, "As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls." If you have a worthy heart, then this tune, a eulogy to Bill from these two apostles, should at a minimum, put a lump in your throat.

Jan Stevens said...

As the guy who runs the website, I was very touched by all this. (Don't know how I missed this back in September) Very heartfelt and beautiful. Bill was a beautiful person, a person I knew, and his deep yet accessable music reflects all his joy and pain. Thanks to someone to really does "get it"...