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Music Review: Bill Evans – The Definitive Bill Evans On Riverside And Fantasy

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Just about all Bill Evans’ material is worth checking out. He was one of the most influential of the 1950s and 1960s jazz pianists, and his style is still being imitated today. While he wrote a number of well-known jazz classics, it was his improvisational skill with pop songs and their melodies that made him unique.

He began his career during the 1950s as a sideman for such jazz musicians as Charles Mingus, Tony Scott, and Art Farmer. He began releasing his own albums during 1956 and continued to issue material until his death in 1980.

His music now returns as part of the Concord Music Group’s Definitive Series. The 25 tracks deal with two specific periods of his career. His most creative period was his time with the Riverside label, 1956-1962, and disc one presents much of his key work for the label. The second disc primarily focuses upon his time with the Fantasy label, 1973-1977. The 1970s find a mature artist who may not have been as creative as during the early part of his career, but was still able to produce an interesting body of work. The missing decade was spent with the Verve label, which was much more diverse and experimental than what proceeded and followed it.

There are a number of highlights from his Riverside years. “Speak Low” was taken from his first album, which sold less than 1000 copies at the time of its release. It catches him at the beginning of his development as a jazz pianist of note as he was leaving the be-bop style behind. “Peace Piece” was an original composition and is presented without accompaniment. The best way to become acquainted with a jazz pianist is to hear him play solo. It was some of the most free form playing of his career as the music builds upon a series of scales.

His classic trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian are represented by a studio track, “Beautiful Love,” plus their famous live performances at the Village Vanguard during June of 1961 come to life with “My Foolish Heart,” “Waltz For Debby,” and the LaFaro composition “Gloria’s Stop.”  These performances remain poignant as LaFaro died in an auto accident ten days later.

By the time he reached the Fantasy label, he had settled into a relaxed style that remained with him until his death. His early material for the label with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morell are represented by live versions of “On Green Dolphin Road,” “Turn Out The Stars,” and “Re: Person I Knew.” It is interesting to compare this trio with that of the early 1960s.

Other highlights include “Young and Foolish” with vocalist Tony Bennett; another solo performance “The Touch Of Your Lips,” which at over seven minutes gives a good introduction to his 1970s style; and “A Child Is Born,” which finds him in a bigger group setting with guitarist Kenny Burrell and saxophonist Harold Land.

As with all the albums in the series, the sound has been enhanced to keep the focus on the individual instruments. It comes with a nice booklet which contains an essay by Doug Ramsey providing an extensive overview of Evans’ career and the tracks contained on the album.

The Definitive Bill Evans On Riverside and Fantasy is a excellent summary of many of the highlights of his career. If you have not been exposed to the music of Bill Evans, this is a good place to start.

About David Bowling