Tuesday, 6 September 2022

Bill Evans - My Foolish Heart

To pick up where I left off last time with the Kind Of Blue ensemble, here's Bill Evans looking like a frazzled civil servant wrestling with a dossier from some self-important junior minister. It's 1964 and in a few short years Evans would change his look so dramatically as to be almost unrecognisable, becoming a long-haired bearded lecturer in the liberal arts at some red-brick university. By then, the pianist was troubled by stomach ulcers, liver problems and drug-dependence that would carry him off to The Last Piano Show in 1980 at age 51. Clearly, the man was a troubled soul, yet – like so many great artists – capable of creating works of intense heart-wrenching beauty. Orrin Keepnews, head of Riverside Records with whom Evans recorded some of his greatest work in the late Fifties and early Sixties wrote of how hard it was to 'shake off first impressions... of a diffident young musician who set almost impossible standards for himself and was quick to find fault with his attempts to reach his goals.'

I chose this particular performance for a number of reasons. It seems, to my untrained ears at least, a virtually faultless rendition of a song that was a staple of Evans' live performances – a song, moreover, that illustrates the ability of jazz musicians to take popular material (in this case a song, written by Victor Young and Ned Washington for a film of the same name, which sold a million when the baritone jazz crooner Billy Eckstine recorded it in the early Fifties) and turn it into timeless art. Despite numbers like 'Waltz For Debby', Evans wasn't best noted for his own compositions; instead, he made a career of interpreting this kind of popular song with mainly infallible taste and distinction (apart from a few questionable numbers like 'Theme From M.A.S.H').

And, for most of that abbreviated career, Evans recorded in the context of a simple piano trio. While this video doesn't feature his most celebrated line-up – that of Paul Motian on drums and the prodigious Scott LaFaro, whose death in a car accident just over a week after the classic Sunday At The Village Vanguard album on which the song first appeared absolutely devastated the pianist – nevertheless it shows what the piano-bass-drums format is capable of: the depth of feeling and the sincerity is there for all to see and hear. What's more, it's an unadulterated and uninterrupted interpretation: Evans and Evans alone, which wasn't always the case with his democratic trios, with no break for a double bass solo nor for the more occasional drum solo. Drum solos generally bore me rigid, break up a prevalent mood and trigger nightmares of Ginger Baker flailing away at an oversized kit for minute after tedious minute. Double bass solos are generally much more delicate and sympathetic affairs. Chuck Israels nailed the slot during the hiatus between LaFaro and Evans' long-term trusty cohort, Eddie Gomez. He doesn't solo here, but his tone is as big and round as the drummer's (probably Larry Bunker, who would go on to work with the likes of Tim Buckley, Diana Krall and even U2) brushwork is light and unobtrusive.

Tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp believed that Bill Evans' best work was with Miles Davis' sextet, the briefest part of an already brief career. He liked his ballad material 'but Debussy and Satie have already done those things.' It's true that you can hear the influence of such French musical impressionists, a label – like 'romanticist' – that was often given to the pianist, but Evans was an important stylist rather than a copyist and you can also hear how his quietly personal innovations would influence many a great jazz pianist to come: Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau and particularly Keith Jarrett. His music could be rarefied at times, but it was also arguably the most consistently sensitive and moving of any of the major-league jazz pianists. For someone who has often been likened to Frédéric Chopin, another prolific pianist who died way too young, Bill Evans left a considerable body of recordings, any one of which makes for a perfect soundtrack to Sunday morning breakfast in this household – when you don't want anything too challenging or obtrusive, but you don't want pap either. As Abe Gibson comments, 'Folks if ya don't dig this stuff then ya ain't got any soul.'

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