Thursday, September 15, 2011

Bill Evans

Thirty-one years ago today, Bill Evans died at the age of 51. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t discover his music until a few years later. I was listening to an early 1960s Herbie Hancock album, Maiden Voyage, with a friend and was just completed entranced by it, especially the title tune and "Dolphin Dance," which closed side 2. My friend, a talented pianist, 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 (another 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 just a little bit, but never too far, to make it clear l that what he was telling you was really important.

"I want you to listen to me," he said. "Really, really listen. And let go . . . I mean, just let go of everything inside you and let him come into your world. Listening to Bill Evans is going to change everything about how you hear music and experience life."

Okay, I thought to myself. This marked approximately the 3,285th time a semi-stoned musician had told me that a particular musician or recording was going to change my life. I was a bit skeptical.

But there something about the way my friend looked right in my eyes to make sure I "really, really" was prepared to hold on for a life-altering experience.

So listen I did, the stakes seemingly higher than any other musical challenge I had confronted since I listened to Side 2 of Dark Side of the Moon. I nervously took Kind of Blue home with me. And several hours later, and after playing "Flamenco Sketches" over and over and over until I began to see the white under the black vinyl, I emerged from my bedroom, fully converted to the cult of Bill Evans. To this day, I remain firmly convinced that Kind of Bluebelongs to Bill as much as it does Miles.

The jazz journalist Gene Lees has written that he has never known fans as possessive of their favorite musicians as Bill's fans were (and remain) of him. 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, right 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 John Coltrane I remember all too well: I sat in my crappy graduate student apartment on the cheap-shit couch I bought at a moving sale for $50 the previous spring. Feeling pretty good after a long, hot run, a refreshing shower and, after a half-gallon of water, a perfectly chilled Heineken waiting for me on the coffee table, which now that I think about it, wasn't so much a coffee table as it was a pile of phone books my roommate and I stolen from the other buildings on our apartment complex, I put on Coltrane, his eponymously titled Impulse! recording from the early 1960s, and didn't get up for the next hour, long after Side 1, which ran less than 19 minutes, had stopped playing.


I couldn't move. Even to this day I can't quite describe what hit me and what it felt like. Was this how it felt to get shot at close range by hunting rifle? Eeeek! Those poor fat guys from the circus who had cannonballs shot into them. How horrible! Didn't anyone try to stop it? You can be damn sure that if some carnie was shooting cannonballs into a horse or cat or tiger, the outcry from animals rights groups -- hell, perhaps even the Vatican or the Orthodox Rabbinate -- would have demanded an end to that fiasco. No, not a cannonball, but like slamming into brick wall going 30 miles an hour. I don't mean in a car, either. I mean suppose you were skating really fast or werejust whipped by some air blower or gargantuan slingshot. I can only imagine that would offer a memorable entrance into a world of pain.

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 bare, so sympathetic, so loving . . . so, so, so . . . anything ever before. And once I learned about the difficulties he experienced in his life, with drug addiction and depression at the top of the list, his music radiated even more powerfully with me. 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.” Maybe not drugs and depression, but certainly my share fair of tough encounters with life. My friend went through his 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. This was Gene Lees' point, and I certainly feel no embarrassment or shame in admitting to feeling that way.

Miles Davis once wrote that Bill Evans didn't play chords; he played sounds. Miles was right.
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. You can also see Bill play thanks to the wonderful people behind the "Jazz Icons" series. Another great DVD featuring Bill's later 60s and early 70s work is called "The Oslo Concerts."

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 seen, heard, touched and, most importantly, felt.

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