Bill Evans was a famous and influential jazz pianist. He was a member of Miles Davis’ sextet in 1958 for eight months and was asked back to record Kind of Blue. Davis wrote in his autobiography “I've sure learned a lot from Bill Evans. He plays the piano the way it should be played.” As a leader, Evans most acclaimed trio found him joined by bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian although that line-up was cut short by LaFaro’s untimely death in a car accident at the age of 25 in 1961.
The Jazz Icons series presents Bill Evans – Live ’64-’75. It presents 98 minutes of performances by various line-ups of the Bill Evans Trio over the course of five sessions and 11 years. Evans is interesting to watch because there’s not a lot of showmanship. He’s there to serve the music and the instrument rather than the audience, playing hunched over, with his face almost in the keys. The viewer can see a man fully in the moment, only connecting to the other musicians through the sounds they create.
The first segment was recorded in Sweden on September 29, 1964. Appearing by themselves in a studio for a program called Trumpeten, Evans is joined by Chuck Israels (bass) and Larry Bunker (drums). They open with Ned Washington and Victor Young’s “My Foolish Heart” and it is immediately evident from the first few moments that the emphasis is on “Trio” in the Bill Evans Trio. Every instrument has an equal part and placement in the song. Evans’ piano playing evokes the mood of the title so well that Washington’s lyrics are unnecessary. Bunker brushes the drums and Israels plucks along on the bass; their sounds creating the gloominess of a rainy day or a bout of sadness. The melancholic melody of the music perfectly captures when the heart can’t get what the heart wants.
Evans counts off and they switch gears, picking up the pace on John Carisi’s “Israel.” The camera gets a great shot of Evans’ face as he works to get to where he wants the music to go. His playing falls away at different times, allowing the bass and drums to offer up solos. There are very nice close-ups on the playing of the instruments and a great shot of the trio in action together. In the liner notes there’s an interview with Chuck Israels from April 2008 appears.
The DVD jumps to France 1965 with Evans playing in front of a live audience on Jazz Pour Tous. He is joined by Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen (bass) and Alan Dawson (drums). They open with Lou Carter, Herb Ellis and John Frigo’s “Detour Ahead.” The bass plays under the piano, and the production team does a great job of showing that visually by having close-ups of both these instruments being played superimposed together. During the opening moments, the video footage has line running through middle of picture that eventually disappears.
Alto saxophonist Lee Konitz joins the band and takes the lead for a rendition of Ernie Burnett and George A. Norton’s “My Melancholy Baby.” Evans plays rhythm with the rest of the band, taking a break for two choruses as the bass and drums become more prominent, particularly Dawson’s short bursts of percussive flourish. Evans returns and the piano replaces the sax. Then, Pederson gets to solo and really works the bass strings. The whole band plays a few bars and then Dawson gives a great solo, finally getting to unleash himself. The band closes out the song and the audience applauds and whistles their approval.
Another year forward finds Evans in Denmark 1970. It’s listed as the Copenhagen Jazz Festival but there’s no audience. Eddie Gomez (bass) and Marty Morrell (drums) fill out the trio. Starting in 1968 the three would play together for seven years, the longest time one until played together under the name. This section begins with Johnny Mercer and Johnny Mandel’s “Emily.” Evans begins alone before the others join him. Gomez bass calls out for the reins and he gets to take the lead for a verse. He sounds great but the camera shot is too tight at times. When his hands are working close together, we can see his technique, but when he gets high on the neck, the shot would only reveal one hand at a time. Morrell proves to be a steady hand with the brushes.
Dave Brubeck brought Frank Churchill and Larry Morey’s “Someday My Prince Will Come” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves into the jazz world in 1957. The trio starts to play it as the familiar waltz, but it quickly opens up into a boundless excursion for all three to take the lead. Evans piano lines run gleefully all over, yet never out of control. Gomez plays bursts of notes of varying lengths that sneakily return to the theme. Morrell is given numerous moments to solo, growing in duration each time the rest of the band gives way. All together they return to the familiar strains of “Someday.”
In that same year on February 20, 1970 the trio were filmed in color for an appearance on the Swedish program Night Moods. For 29 minutes, they play six songs in a club before a small crowd. Images of a city at night are edited throughout the performance.
A cover of Thelonius Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” is an interesting contrast from the composer’s because they play quite differently. Evans floats along harmoniously compared to Monk’s harsh striking of the keys. Gomez playing really shines and plunks and slides his fingers across the strings. At this point through the disc, I am curious to learn more about Gomez.
Another version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” allows the listener the only chance to compare performances. The theme makes brief appearances throughout rather than just bookending the number like the previous performance. The camera work leaves something to be desired. Don’t get to see much of Evans hands playing and this cameraman is also too close to see Gomez’ work during the time he takes the lead. When Morrell takes charge, the editing speeds up to match his pace.
Harold Arlen and Truman Capote’s “Sleepin' Bee” is an odd title because the majority of the music bares no reflection as the band plays along at a good clip. Being paired with footage of an active nightlife where sidewalks are filled with passersby doesn’t help, either. Gomez’ solo comes the closest to creating the lazy buzzing I would expect.
The last segment is from Denmark 1975 entitled Bill Evans in Louisiana and it runs as long as the previous one. Evans looks much different. His hair is longer, he wears a beard, and his gray suit and tie have given way to a bright red blazer and a red shirt with an open collar. The band is set up in a recording studio. Gomez is still around, but Eliot Zigmund is on drums. The video from this session is probably best in terms of sustained periods of time showing the musicians’ hands at work. Fans should be thrilled because for the first time available on home video are rare performances of “Sareen Jurer,” “Blue Serge,” and “Twelve Tone Tune Two.”
Earl Zindars’ “Sareen Jurer” opens the set. Evans creates a wonderful melody as Gomez skips along on the bass. Zigmund links the two with the pace of the rhythm he keeps. When Gomez takes the lead, he can be faintly heard mumbling to himself, which he does throughout the set.
Duke Ellington wrote “Blue Serge” for his orchestra and featured a number of horn solos, but you wouldn’t know any instrument was missing from the Trio’s performance of it. Jimmy Van Heusen & Johnny Burke’s “But Beautiful” is a lovely ballad and features a good visual sequence of the entire trio playing. They close out with Evans’ “Twelve Tone Tune Two,” which finds the band stretching out in places like no other time in this collection. Their solos have less structure as if they are improvising on the spot.
Bill Evans – Live ’64-’75 is a great set both for Evans fans and those looking for an entrance into world of jazz.