JJ 10/62: Bill Evans – Explorations

Sixty years ago, Gerald Lascelles thought Evans a pianist to watch, one who excelled at extending conventional music. First published in Jazz Journal October 1962

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Bill Evans’ influences derive from widely spread sources including Don Elliott, Tony Scott, and an important spell with Miles Davis in 1958. At 33 he appears as one of the leaders of the younger group in jazz who grew up in the post-bop period, and consequently he seems to have benefited by the absence of confused thought and diver­sity of style and effort. Pianistically speaking, I doubt whether he matches the great masters like Tatum in sheer lyrical and rhythmic profusion, but that is not his intention.

His opener, “Israel”, was first used by Davis in his 1949 session, “Birth Of The Cool”. It is an obtuse but well-suited theme, providing scope for the sympathetic rhythm duo, La Faro and Motian. I am neither impressed nor ex­cited by his ballad versions of “Haunted Heart” and “I Wish I Knew”, but both have a place in the album as part of the performer’s conception of how his music should be dispensed to the public.

A high spot is the way he gives new life to “Beautiful Love”, and another is his skilful treatment of the Davis theme “Nardis”, where La Faro’s bass interchanges the theme with subtle dexterity.

From the layman’s point of view I suggest that “Ocean” is an ideal piece in which to study Bill’s exploratory gambits. It is an almost hackneyed theme, and lasts a mere three minutes, but is in itself a study in phrasing and chording. In the first chorus he seems to have a game extending the phrases to impossible limits, whilst retaining the essential melodic limits. Then he lapses into a long sequence of block chords of great complexity, which imply rather greater harmonic excursions than they actually achieve.

As I have suggested before, Bill Evans is a pianist to watch. Without being too avant-garde, he is making the most of a field in which he excels, namely the extension of conventional pieces, and to some extent the unconventional too, through various semi-classical digestive processes to the point where they re-emerge as authentic jazz.

Discography
Israel; Haunted Heart; Beautiful Love; Elsa (19¾ min) – Nardis; How Deep Is The Ocean; I Wish I Knew; Sweet And Lovely (19¾ min)
Bill Evans (p); Scott La Faro (bs); Paul Motian (d). New York City, 2/2/61.
(Riverside RLP 351 12inLP 39s. 8d.)