Bill Evans – Evans in England
(Resonance Records. HCD-2037. CD Review by Liam Noble.
Relationships are strange. I had one with Bill Evans, it went from fascination, to a kind of canonization, then exasperation and now, finally, I am trying to reach some kind of objectivity. So this is a disclaimer; I am not an unconditional devotee of Bill Evans. For me he’s like Mozart- he created masterpieces, but, contrary to popular opinion, not all of the time. He defined a kind of melancholy lyricism which can be achingly beautiful, but occasionally crosses over into something a little too sweet for this listener’s tastes. He swings like crazy, but his consistency sometimes lacks the feeling of risk that defines improvisation.
Anyone who has ever studied jazz keyboard harmony will probably have started with a system almost completely derived from Evans’s approach, in particular relating to the left hand and its integration with the right hand melody lines above, freeing the movement of the bass below. The fact that this is occasionally put forward as a one stop method to great improvisation accounts in part for the opposition to this educational franchise, and perhaps the musical reputation of the man himself has consequently suffered. It became fashionable for a while to say you weren’t influenced by him, and yet that influence was inescapable because he defined the mainstream one had to work through before finally escaping it. It was so much fun to play like him, there was always an almost narcotic pleasure to tracing those harmonies, the clean fit between the hands. “Great chords and great lines- or your money back!”
He would have hated it.
My feeling was, though, that he was a melodist, and that’s down to a sense of space. It was never the wand so much as the waving of it, so to speak. Evans himself also had more strings to his bow – having played piano duos with him in George Russell’s abstract Jazz In The Space Age, Paul Bley was almost jealous of his skill and imagination in those open structures, and was famously relieved when Evans subsequently backed away from the avant-garde and retired to the safer pastures of the song form. But there was always that edge there, and often it was brought out by the people he played with.
With Eddie Gomez and Marty Morrell, Evans had found once more a rhythm section that questioned, provoked, prodded and scribbled over his best laid plans, and in this relaxed setting they certainly sound like they’re enjoying it. Listen to Our Love Is Here To Stay, the opener. After a typically arranged head, the bass solo tears straight into the sequence with all the virtuosity of a horn player and melodic invention that surpasses many. But when Evans picks up the last phrase of the bass solo and runs with it, Gomez and Morrell have fun dodging his accents, challenging his every phrase before they all take off into an aggressively swinging second chorus. Moments like this illustrate how Evans could sometimes explode out of his shell and breathe fire. He may have been one of the most widely imitated of all musicians on this planet, but at this tempo, and with these musicians, no one else can touch him.
Come Rain Or Come Shine makes for an interesting comparison with the iconic version on Portrait In Jazz nine years earlier, where blackbird-like, he always seems to have his ears to the ground, waiting. Here we are on a juggernaut on full throttle, he plays the same coda as the version on Portrait, but he rattles through it like a contractual obligation, perhaps a nod to fans wanting to hear that refrain in the flesh, but the sense of discovery is gone. Retreading past glories is a common strategy for Monk, and Miles too, but it has a slight world weariness here somehow. So What, on the other hand, perhaps egged on by the Miles Davis versions with Tony Williams, elicits a ferocious walking groove that provides welcome relief from some of the more typically impressionistic pieces in this set like Sugar Plum, The Two Lonely People and Elsa, where he seems like he is coasting, familiar phrases mostly where you expect them, an individuality that threatens to eat itself; the system is winning. And yet on another ballad, What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life he seems to rediscover that magical stillness that suffused his early work, as if he’s discovering the tune for the first time, testing its waters.
I often feel this personal inward battle going on between inspiration and automation. There were things he always did and there were things he never did. Of course this is the mark of any distinctive improviser, but Evans was almost too good at it sometimes. As Marty Morrell says on the generously informative sleeve notes:
“Bill never played a wrong note as far as I’m concerned. I never heard him play a wrong note.”
If there’s no wrong notes, there’s no risk, if there’s no risk there’s no drama, and I’ve heard recordings of Evans that tick along with that kind of certainty that somehow leaves him a victim of his own proficiency. But there’s still beauty when that edge isn’t there, and in a sense Bill Evans is the most beautiful pianist in the music’s history. Fans will find much to rejoice over in this set, and when it takes off, this music has an aggressive effervescence that elevates it beyond the simply beautiful to classic status. And the interviews on the sleeve are essential reading, a good argument for buying the physical object!
Bill Evans was a genius. Like many who could be said to have reached that status, the purity and focus of his imagination inevitably leaves something out of the music. Perhaps innovators (and he really deserves that title…there are not as many as one would think in this music) carry the burden of deciding whether to change a system that already works, as perhaps Rollins did, or soldier on and go deeper into what you have already. Monk, for instance, doggedly stuck to his guns. Miles Davis and Derek Bailey surrounded themselves with musicians who would constantly cast their own work in a new light. Evans seems to me to have hit on something that continued to give him pleasure, the increasing density of his later performances almost sounds like someone who is simply enjoying it more, like someone who wants to try his new muscles out on a bike that’s now a bit small for him.
Monk, Miles Davis, Derek Bailey, Bill Evans. All of these people are practically Gods. They are in many ways beyond criticism. And yet, their weaknesses make the great moments in their music heroic, it’s often that very quality which is missing in music that’s less distinctive. Listening to Bill Evans afresh on these recordings, it’s the human-ness of his sound, not the excellence of his playing, that stays with me. The courage to fail, or to coast, or to simply repeat one’s early successes, and to trust that at some point something remarkable will happen. Like looking back on an adolescent obsession with a new found fondness made possible by the passing of time, I hear it differently now. Where once I simply wondered “how do they do that?” now I love the fragility of it all. It’s the risk of failure that makes the music succeed somehow, and it’s what for me makes this gig, that now is a record, so remarkable. I wish I’d been there.
Our Love Is Here To Stay
Stella By Starlight
My Foolish Heart
Waltz For Debby
The Two Lonely People
Who Can I Turn To?
What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?
Turn Out The Stars
Re:Person I Knew
Come Rain Or Come Shine
Polka Dots And Moonbeams
Bill Evans piano, Eddie Gomez bass, Marty Morrell drums
Recorded live at Ronnie Scotts, Dec 1969
The LP version of Evans in England will be released on 13 April (Record Store Day), the 2CD set on 19 April.