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It would be hard to imagine a better introduction to the genius of Bill Evans than this two-CD set.

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

With all due respect, I have to say that Bill Evans (1929-1980) is my all-time favorite jazz pianist. The fact that Evans recorded for the small Riverside and later Fantasy labels for nearly his entire career bodes well for The Definitive Bill Evans On Riverside And Fantasy. With this collection we are blessed with the truly best of the best.

New Jazz Conceptions (1956) was his studio debut, and from it comes the collection’s opening track “Speak Low.” Much of Evans’ finest work was done in a trio format, and on this track he is joined by Paul Motian (drums) and Teddy Kotlick (bass).

The trio Evans is most fondly remembered for was with Motian and Scott LaFaro (bass). Bass prodigy LaFaro brought something special to the mix, and the two albums the trio recorded live at The Village Vanguard are legendary. Both Waltz For Debby (1961), and Sunday At The Village Vanguard (1961) remain stunning examples of the nearly psychic connection these three musicians shared. “My Foolish Heart,” “Waltz For Debby,” and “Gloria’s Step” all hail from those magical albums.

When Scott LaFaro’s life was cut short in an auto accident, Bill Evans entered an intense period of mourning. Months later he emerged with the ever-loyal Paul Motian, and Chuck Israels on bass. Israels’ style was very different from LaFaro’s, which seemed to be exactly what Evans needed at the time. “Very Early,” and a version of Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” are great examples of this trio at work.

It was right around this time that Bill Evans decided to do a couple of “super-sessions.” He invited some of the biggest names in jazz at the time to join him in recording the albums Interplay (1962) and Loose Blues (1962). The musicians included Freddie Hubbard, Jim Hall, Percy Heath, Philly Joe Jones, Zoot Sims, and Ron Carter.

One of Evans’ most famous collaborations was The Tony Bennett/ Bill Evans Album (1975). “Young And Foolish” is a great example of these two giants working together.

For some of us, the purest distillation of Evans’ amazing talent is his unaccompanied piano pieces. “Peace Piece” may be the most famous of these, it is certainly an incredible track. Then there is the medley of “Spartacus” and Miles Davis’ “Nardis.” The 8:40 solo cut is something I could listen to all day long. The man was a genius.

Despite his losses over the years, and a habit he struggled with all his life, Bill Evans remained as sharp as ever right up to the end. This is exemplified in no uncertain terms on pieces such as “Eiderdown” and the title track from his final Fantasy LP I Will Say Goodbye (1977).

Although it took a while for Evans to receive full acknowledgement as the basic architect of Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue – one listen to that album makes it fairly obvious who was leading the band. It is that type of quiet, yet insistent leadership that makes his solo work so compelling as well. It would be hard to imagine a better introduction to the genius of Bill Evans than this two-CD set.

About Greg Barbrick

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