Bill Evans is not the only man of that name to have made his mark in the world of jazz but he is unquestionably the one who has proved the most influential. Shades of his work are to be found in the styles of Brad Mehldau, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, not to mention a whole raft of lesser lights. And, given this fact, it should be noted that Evans died over thirty years ago.
In his teenage years there could have been a chance of Evans being lost to the world of golf. His passion for the sport ran parallel to his love of music, but his time at the South Eastern Louisiana University in New Orleans determined the road he was to take. The four years he spent attaining his degree also found him jamming in the company of musicians like Red Mitchell and Mundell Lowe.
Despite his new-found qualification, Evans still had plenty of dues-paying ahead of him and, during the summer of 1950 could be found as part of the Herbie Fields band which toured as support for Billie Holiday. Like so many other musicians of the time, the one thing he could not avoid was a stretch in the armed forces and, for three years from 1951, he played the flute in the Army Marching Band. Those years were not exactly wasted, for Evans did get the opportunity to investigate the Chicago scene during this period. This meant that when leaving the army he had an awareness of both the improvisational environment and the strictures other music situations can place upon the individual.
Thereafter he spent some time studying in the small studio set up in his parent’s house but, by 1955, he had taken up a postgraduate course at the Mannes music school in New York, still feeling he had a lot to learn before he could regard himself as a well-rounded musician. The experience gave him exposure to both jazz and other cotemporary music forms.
Despite being located in the city that represented the centre of the modern jazz universe he found gigs difficult to come by at first, taking any kind of work which would enable him to play. Eventually in 1956, a series of positive events really kick-started his career. After reedman Tony Scott invited him to join his group, composer/arranger George Russsell employed Evans for the recording of his challenging ‘Jazz Workshop’ album. Last but not least, he got the opportunity to make the first record under his own name for the Riverside label.
It would be another two years before he would again get the chance to record as a leader, but he did make it into the studio working for musicians like Charles Mingus, Cannonball Adderley and Art Farmer, all of whom recognised a burgeoning talent when confronted by it. Riverside did, of course, invite him back for another Bill Evans album, but the most significant move for the pianist came when he joined the Miles Davis group with whom he became a major contributor to the classic ‘Kind Of Blue’ album.
With a reputation for individualism and an unique approach to the keyboard, he formed the trio completed by bass-player Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, a beautifully balanced group which found the pianist in the perfect setting for the kind of music he wished to produce. Unfortunately this line-up was not destined to run its natural course for LaFaro became the victim of a car accident in July 1961, dying at the age of only 25.
This tragedy meant the pianist had the almost impossible task of finding a suitable replacement and spent a little time attempting to attain a settled group. Just one of the combinations he performed with was the bass and drums of Monty Budwig and Shelly Manne; this rhythm section was present on the ‘Empathy’ album, originally released in 1962. It appeared on the Verve label, destined to become the pianist’s recording home for a number of years. The threesome work well together on the half-dozen selections, including, two very obscure Irving Berlin compositions, ‘The Washington Twist’ and ‘Let’s Go Back To The Waltz’.
Less than a handful of months prior to ‘Empathy’, Evans had taken to the studio with only guitarist Jim Hall for company; the combination produced ‘Undercurrent’, one of the most delightful records the pianist ever made. Both musicians are in inspired form throughout, never getting in each other’s way but reacting brilliantly to every nuance the other has to offer. There are no dull moments, the listener being constantly drawn into the intimate world the duo have created. This is a five-star effort in every sense of that magic two-word term.
In respect of Evans’ recorded output, both albums can be judged favourably alongside the best he came to offer.
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