One name bound to be near the top of any list of the finest jazz pianists of the last century, if not at the very top is Bill Evans. His playing was technically brilliant, creatively innovative, and emotionally satisfying. So for those of us who have long worn out our collection of his vinyl discs, the release of remastered digital versions of those albums is cause for celebration. Earlier this year there were deluxe LP box sets of The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings and The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961, and now comes a nine-CD box set reissue of The Complete Fantasy Recordings.
The set features 98 studio and live performances from 1973 to 1979. It shows the pianist working solo, in duets, trios, and quintets, and with artists like Eddie Gomez, Marty Morell, Kenny Burrell, Lee Konitz, and Philly Joe Jones. Oh yes, and Tony Bennett as well. It concludes with a bonus recording of Marian McPartland’s 1979 interview with Evans for her radio show, Piano Jazz.
It includes a 62-page illustrated booklet with an illuminating essay by (the late) critic Gene Lees, short notes on each of the 11 recording sessions by Evans’ manager and producer Helen Keane, and photos of the original album covers. The Lees essay is as fine an introduction to the essential Bill Evans as a listener could want. It recognizes that no artist is always at the top of his game. Even Evans indulged in what Lees calls his “clichés.” “There were … times when he seemed stuck in them. Had I not known of what he was capable, I would doubtless have found these performances marvelous.” Evans light, it seems, is hard to beat.
The music is arranged chronologically beginning with the January 1973 live recording released originally as The Tokyo Concert and running through to his Grammy-winning I Will Say Goodbye. It also includes a previously unreleased recording of a 1976 Paris concert. Among the 98 tunes there are multiple takes of many of the Evans favorites: Three versions of “Waltz for Debby,” two of “T. T. T. T. (Twelve Tone Tune Two),” and three of Michel Legrand’s “The Touch of Your Lips,” among others. The opportunity to compare versions is often illuminating, allowing for some real insight into the creative process.
The albums are loaded with superb performances, both from Evans and his supporting cast. I am especially fond of the trio work and the solo tracks. Bassist Gomez and drummer Morell work with Evans like they are inside his head, and listening to Evans’ solo piano is something like listening to a master like Chopin improvising.
Bill Evans is certainly one of the most influential jazz pianists of his era, and his work for Fantasy Records makes why abundantly clear. Whether he is playing alone or with that fantastic trio, whether he is working with a vocalist or in a larger ensemble, he shines brilliantly. This is a talent second to none.
[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00UOFXTTK]