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Discovering Bill Evans - Jazz Piano Legends Series



Welcome and join us in embarking on a captivating voyage through the rich tapestry of jazz piano as we kick off our Jazz Piano Legends Series. In each edition, we unravel the musical narratives and unparalleled artistry of jazz pianists who have left an indelible mark on the genre. 


Famed for his lyrical improvisational talent and beautiful harmonies, American jazz pianist Bill Evans was born August 16, 1929, in Plainfield, New Jersey, U.S. He passed away September 15, 1980, in New York, New York.


In addition to mastering the violin and flute, Evans' mother was his first piano instructor. After earning a degree in music education from Southeastern Louisiana College in 1950, he relocated to New York City. He had a short stint as a pianist in the New York region before enlisted and serving as a flute player in the Fifth Army Band. His 1956 debut recordings show a fully developed style defined by a new harmonic approach and delicate phrasing; he seemed to explode into the jazz world after returning to civilian life and picking up the piano.


His eight months of cooperation with Miles Davis in 1958 were groundbreaking. When Miles Davis recorded Kind of Blue (1959), a seminal work in jazz history and perhaps the best example of modal jazz—a style that forgoes complicated chords in favor of unfettered melody—Evans played an important role. Jazz pianists looked up to Evans's performance on the record as a benchmark for quality. He is well renowned for his works "Blue in Green" and "Waltz for Debby," both included on the Kind of Blue album. Have a listen to Bill Evans’s piano playing on “Blue in Green”




Evans’ Trio


After that, Evans put together a trio that included Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums; the interaction between the two musicians was particularly noteworthy. Portrait in Jazz (1959) and Explorations (1961) are two of the group's most famous albums, and they also issued other LPs taken from a landmark 1961 performance at the Village Vanguard nightclub in New York City. Albums like Conversations with Myself (1963) and Further Conversations with Myself (1967) showcased Evans' inventive use of the recording studio, including multitracking to simulate the sound of several pianos. He was equally at home working in small ensembles, but he was also a pioneering solo artist.


Bill Evans's trio was wrapping up a two-week residency at New York City's Village Vanguard on the final Sunday of June 1961. The pianist's record label, Riverside Records, opted to capture their afternoon and evening performances because they had previously published four albums by him, two of which were with his current trio. Just six months before, Evans, Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Byrd, and Junior Mance recorded albums there. This was a relatively new concept, as Sonny Rollins had recorded his famous trio album A Night At The Village Vanguard in 1957 (and Stan Getz had a bootleg of broadcasts from there earlier that same year), but no one seemed to have followed suit. Thanks to this recording, we are able to step back in time and witness the brilliance of Bill Evans and his trio in 1961 at the Village Vanguard in the following video:



After experimenting with musicians like Kenny Dennis on drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass, Evans formed his first permanent trio in late 1959. Paul Motian and Scott LaFaro's unusual independence from the traditional supporting duties of their instruments was a key component of the trio's exceptional sound, as shown on Portrait in Jazz and Explorations, two of the trio's studio sets. On the other hand, that other tragic anniversary originally made the two Vanguard live CDs so beloved. Tragically, LaFaro passed away in a single-car accident in the early hours of the first Thursday of July 1961. He had just finished performing for Stan Getz in Newport and had been visiting with friends.


Recovery From Grief and Addiction

 


Following LaFaro's death, Evans was devastated and his heroin addiction increased. Once, Evans hit a nerve when injecting heroin, temporarily crippling it, forcing him to play a week at the Village Vanguard almost one-handed. To add to his troubles, Evans often borrowed money from friends, and faced financial troubles to a point that his electricity and phone providers once disconnected service to Evans. Fortunately, around this time, Helen Keane became one of Evans's dearest friend and helped him maintain his profession as he participated in dangerous behaviors.


He triumphantly returned in October 1961, contributing to Mark Murphy's Rah album with producer Orrin Keepnews's support. In December, they recorded a Nirvana session with flutist Herbie Mann and new bassist Chuck Israels. Evans and guitarist Jim Hall completed Undercurrent, their 1962 duet album, in April and May, respectively.


He reunited his group in 1962 and published How My Heart Sings! and Moon Beams. Conversations with Myself, his first Verve album, included overdubbing and three piano sounds per song in 1963. This album earned him his first Grammy and is one of this most revered works. Click the video below to experience the magic of Evans’s genius:




Evans and Schultz quit smoking after relocating from their New York apartment to his parents' Florida property in the summer of 1963. Despite never marrying, Bill and Ellaine were wedded in every other way. Schultz was Evans' only solace during that trying time; he meant everything to him. Despite his prodigious Verve output, his LPs were erratic. The lackluster Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra featured Gabriel Fauré's Pavane and didn't showcase Israel's quick progress or Larry Bunker's creativity. There were other unusual recordings, including a big-band concert at Town Hall in New York that Evans didn't like but was issued in jazz trio form. Some of the group's strongest music originates from these recordings or clandestine radio broadcasts.


Bill Evans - A Name To Remember


Unlike much bebop from the 1950s, Evans's playing had a romantic feel due to how chords were created and linked and improvised melodies. Bud Powell, Lennie Tristano, and Horace Silver were jazz pianists who drew inspiration from classical composers such as Aleksandr Scriabin, Claude Debussy, and Maurice Ravel. With time, Evans's playing took on a more poetic quality. Also rare was his repertoire. His daring rhythmic and chromatic explorations transformed musical theater standards like "Someday My Prince Will Come" and "My Favorite Things" into something entirely new. Here’s Evans’s recording of “Someday My Prince Will Come” in his 1960 album “Portrait In Jazz”:




Although His heroin addiction impacted his work in the '60s, he nevertheless got well thereafter and started a comeback with 1971's The Bill Evans Album. Just before he passed away in 1980, he developed a cocaine addiction.


Evans earned several Grammys throughout his career and performed for large audiences via television, festivals, albums, and club events. He profoundly impacted the careers of younger jazz pianists like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett and was often regarded as the most significant figure of his time.

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