Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Bill Evans

It’s a shame how much power prejudice can have over a music collection, how it can limit the range of sounds in our lives. For instance, I’ve long been prejudiced against white jazz musicians, and piano jazz in general, and that kept me away from Bill Evans for a long time. Which is ridiculous because one of my all-time favorites albums is Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, and Bill Evans had a lot to do with the way that record sounds. The truth is that I didn’t give Evans a full listen until a black friend of mine recommended him – a black piano player, in fact. Thank goodness he did, because Evans now ranks near the very top of my list of favored artists.
            The first Evans record that really turned me on was Waltz for Debby. A friend of mine played it for me when he had me over for dinner a while back. He had a super high-end system with a pair of tall electrostatic speakers, so it sounded like Evans was right there in the room with us. The arrangements were delicate and pleasantly asymmetrical, full of subtle but surprising twists and turns. Yes, it was piano jazz, but it didn’t sound safe to me the way most such jazz does, like background music in a lounge full of people like my parents. There was melancholy in the melodies, a lot like the beautiful sadness that pervades Kind of Blue. I immediately went out and picked up a whole bunch of his stuff, and all of it was fantastic. Evans quickly became my go-to guy when I wanted to mellow out and slip over to the introspective side of life. It’s not escape music per se; there’s a lot going on in it. He made many of his best albums with a trio that included bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian and, after LaFaro died in a car crash, with Eddie Gomez and Marty Morrell. These rhythm sections were never merely metronomic - they played like lead musicians, soloing all the way through every number, so the music is calming and stimulating at the same time. I like to play it when I’m teaching a writing class and I ask my students to take out a pen and paper and free-write for a few minutes. It never fails to quiet them and get them focused.
            Evans released tons and tons and tons of albums over the course of his career, and there’s not a dud among them. Waltz for Debby turned out to be a good place to start, along with its companion piece, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, which was recorded on the same day in 1961, ten days before LaFaro’s death. I’ve since collected work from across his career, and the more I listen the more I can detect the subtle but significant changes in his sound over the course of his years of playing, and it’s always satisfying to be able to get to know an artist on that level, to study him as a dynamic force of creativity. Because his work is so consistently good and compelling, I’ve tried to maintain a policy of picking up anything of his that I find in the used bins without bothering to listen to it first. So I guess you could say I’m still prejudiced. Just in a good way now. 

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