Harmonic Convergence— or Bill Evans Redivivus?

It would be difficult to over-estimate the influence Bill Evans has had on jazz since he left us, all too early, when I was in college. Classically trained, Bill became that rarest of persons— someone who could play jazz just as well as he could play classical music. In regard to the latter, he admitted he was deeply influenced by the Impressionists, folks like Ravel for example, and you can hear this in his lyrical way of playing, and his inventive use of chords.

To say there has been a spate of tribute CDs to Bill Evans in the last ten or so years is like saying there have been a few World Series championships won by the Yankees. Indeed, it’s difficult to sort out what the best sort of latter day Bill Evans tribute CDs are. Is it one done by a vocalist like Allan Harris with help from Takana Miyamoto (reviewed earlier this summer on this blog) called Convergence? Or should we look to the old guns who knew and even played with Bill such as the double CD, Further Explorations, which Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez and Paul Motian have now put out (Gomez and Motian being the former bass player and drummer for Evans long ago) which not so much imitates Bill but does fresh takes on famous songs he wrote and played?

While I certainly like both of these CDs, of course neither of them are the Man himself and in a day when everybody and his brother has been putting out Bill Evans CDs of old poor quality recordings of some of his live shows, one despairs of anything fresh or new from the maestro himself that is worth multiple listens—- until now.

Just out and well worth every shekel one may pay for it, is a double CD of a live concert of Bill recorded in N.Y. on Oct. 23rd 1968 at the Top of the Gate supper/jazz club. If only there were such venues today, but they hardly exist in the vicinity of where I live (Lexington Ky.) and if they do, you end up hearing smooth jazz which, while pleasant enough is more jazz inflected pop music, than real jazz.

The album I am referring to which is just recently out is simply entitled Bill Evans at the Top of the Gate. It includes all the songs he played in two separate sets on that memorable night. What makes this recording stand out is three things: 1) Bill and Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morell are absolutely in top form; 2) the selection of tunes is nicely diverse, a mix of standards by Monk and others, though there are too few of Bill’s original tunes (only Turn out the Stars shows up); and 3) the recording is remarkable, indeed I would have said impossible with a two track recorder in 1968…. but somehow George Klabin pulled it off. I’ve heard many recordings done 40 years later with better equipment that didn’t sound this crystal clear.

As Gary Burton says in the liner notes, this recording will raise the hair on the back of your neck if you like ‘we were there’ sounding live recordings. (Word up to Itunes mavens… liner notes are what you get when you buy actual albums with actual commentary instead of just downloading a tune that sounds nice. In short, you get a musical education not just a cheap thrill).

One of the things that characterized Bill Evans is his willingness to allow his other trio members to do their own thing, improvise, solo. He was not threatened by that, indeed he was not a stage hog. You will hear many remarkable solos by Eddie Gomez on this CD.

The essence of jazz is of course improvisation, and no two iterations of a song are the same. There are three tunes on this 2 CD set (Monk’s signature tune ‘Round Midnight, Jerome Kern’s ‘Yesterdays’, and the Evans favorite ‘Emily’) that occur on both disks, and you should listen carefully to the two differing versions. Recognizably the same songs, but clear different as well— gloriously different. It is an interesting study to analyze why one likes this rendition better than that one. It will tell you something about your musical predilections.

Bill can play it fast, Bill can play it slow, but either way Bill always plays it with style and class and lyricism that is rare. His ballads can make you cry, and his whimsical numbers can make you laugh…. and his pure skill in playing can take your breath away. If you ever look at a chart of one of his actual improvised numbers…. its abandon hope that you could likely repeat what he did note for note. I say this as someone who once played piano in a jazz orchestra.

It is also an interesting study to listen to the Corea two CD set side by side with the Evans one. I’ll take the Evans one every time. Chick Corea is a fine jazz pianist in his own right…. and he has made marvelous contributions to jazz. But if I had to choose one jazz pianist’s CDs to take to a desert island— it would be Bill’s, not least when he played with Trane and Miles!

There is a reason why Kind of Blue is the best seller jazz CD of all time. It shows Miles, Trane and Evans at their ensemble best, and shows why each one of them would go on to define what jazz playing that mattered would look like for their particular instruments– trumpet, saxaphone, piano. So if you can’t afford to go to a NY club and hear a good jazz piano trio, just pick up the new Bill Evans CD, cook yourself up a nice dinner at home, and crank up the stereo. It will be like you are there.

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