THE BILL EVANS WEBPAGES
First, let’s put all this in context: this album came out at a pivotal point in Evans’ history. The mid-sixties saw his trios in a state of flux. Frequent personnel changes contributed to working instabilities, besides all his personal ones. In late 1965, veteran studio drummer Larry Bunker decided he had enough of Bill's still-raging drug-related problems, and left after two years. Arnie Wise held the drum chair for much of 1966 (playing beautifully on the live “Town Hall” album) and stayed on after the departure of bassist Chuck Israels, and the onset of Eddie Gomez’ eleven year stay on bass. That year, Wise worked with Bill as late as October 21st at the Village Vanguard, but did not make the trip to Europe. Only three days later, the trio, including European drummer Alex Riel, performed in Oslo, Norway - a set which was filmed for European TV (and recently released on DVD).
In early 1967, Joe Hunt was on drums for a few months; again, it's the “Secret Sessions” CD box set providing the only recorded evidence of his stay. In May, Bill entreated Philly Joe Jones, his old friend and fellow Miles Davis sideman, to work with him again. Jones stayed on drums for a while, sparkling through some highly swinging Evans trio dates (some recorded for posterity at the Vanguard and released after the pianist’s death as “California Here I Come”). He then left for other commitments, which again brought Arnie Wise back for six months (although “Secret Sessions” has Philly Joe with the trio again at the Vanguard as late as February 1968!). By the spring of ‘68, the young Chicago drummer Jack DeJohnette was in, at the recommendation of Gomez, and Miles’ manager at the time. DeJohnette, a fine pianist himself, had subbed for Tony Williams on a few Miles gigs, but was already making a name for himself - along with Keith Jarrett, in the Charles Lloyd Quartet. He had even done a few gigs with Coltrane and others. DeJohnette added modernistic percussive textures and soundscapes behind Bill and Eddie, but not for long. Soon after, he was snatched away by Miles, who happened to be in London and saw the Evans trio when they were in residence at Ronnie Scott’s club. The highly inventive drummer was soon changing grooves in Davis’ first major forays into jazz-rock fusion (which resulted in the “Bitches Brew” album of 1969).As Evans told interviewer Les Tomkins back then, “Jack did three TV spots in New York with us, then three weeks at the Top of the Gate. Right after that, we went to the Montreux Jazz Festival, where we recorded ‘live’ our appearance there. Jack has brought something to the group that we’ve never had: a sort of creativity on the drums that is different from any of the other drummers. They were creative, too, but Jack seems to find his own things to put in the same places… in other words, I feel myself being disturbed from my, let’s say, solid role - the way that I would think if he weren’t there. I haven’t gotten to what I would get to yet; maybe I won’t... I think it’s true that I’m playing harder now, compared to my appearance at Ronnie’s old club three years ago. But it didn’t happen in conjunction with Jack’s joining the group so much, it’s been a gradual thing.”
The Bill Evans of “Montreux” is more stylistically aggressive here for sure, and not as predisposed to some of the tonal nuances he's known for. That may be due in part to the somewhat brittle-sounding and "treble-y" baby grand provided. But he had been playing all those dates with the take-no-prisoners Philly Joe in the past months, and as he said in ’68, referring to that association, “during that time I did play physically much stronger, because the strong things that we played were that much more robust. […] It’s just that it got going, and I acquired the habit of playing that way then. So it may be somewhat of a carryover from that.”
On this album he plays with a nice spark and a noticeably heightened awareness of his bandmates, though the repertoire held no real surprises apart from his mid-sixties fare. There are two Evans originals-- One for Helen, first recorded at the 1966 Town Hall concert, and Walkin' Up - done in a more subdued manner for 1962’s “How My Heart Sings” album), A Sleepin' Bee , (perhaps the only Harold Arlen standard with lyrics by Truman Capote, by the way) played in A Major, Embraceable You, done here as a special feature by the overly busy and often “buzzy” Eddie Gomez, Earl Zindars’ lovely Mother of Earl, the concert favorite Nardis, and the perennial Someday My Prince Will Come and The Touch of Your Lips. The two solo performances are ”Porgy” and “Quiet Now” [CD reissue only].
A few random notes:
“I Loves You Porgy”: this version of Gershwin’s classic is one of the more melodic of the solo versions Bill did over the years and is just beautiful. After Scott LaFaro passed on in 1961, he never did it again as a trio piece – ever. Evans plays it less rhapsodic and expansive than he would in later years, and keeps it more concise, even cutting his last chorus shorter by jumping back to the head in mid-stream, but his rich chording throughout makes it enjoyable. Any pianists who have played through this transcription know that it reveals even more tangible gems than meets the ear, and the solo's pure logic and inner depth is better understood by reading through it. These discoveries in front of the keyboard may of course, be revealing in a more theory-related way to pianists only, and conversely, the listener may feel the performance a bit stiff at times compared to some later renditions. Or so I've been told.
“The Touch of Your Lips” is Evans at mid-tempo after the solo chorus, and is sparked by the intelligent subtleties in DeJohnette’s bubbling intensity on brushes. Bill stays in C major for most of it, and doesn’t change to the key of Eb until after the “A” section going out; later he’d usually do an intro in one key and transpose at least twice more before taking it out. The playing is clean and conservative though not particularly inspired, and perhaps even somewhat mechanical – an increasingly identifiable trait cited by critics during this period and on into the early seventies. Those spilling-over inventions of liquid fire and rich tapestries of gold that this tune would inspire in the pianist would have to wait until the later trio versions that Evans created night after night with Johnson and LaBarbera over ten years later.
“Nardis” –the long-time trio workhorse usually performed as a set closer is not quite yet the powerhouse coup de grace that it would become in later incarnations, but it’s certainly “getting there” in this performance. We can hear the emerging brilliance of Jack DeJohnette in his wonderful cymbal work, profoundly expressive use of space and time and those percussive storms in his eight- and four- bar exchanges with Evans and a fired up Gomez. Bill plays with far greater rhythmic urgency and abandon than in most of the other tunes and gets adventurous with surging off beats and displaced chordal accents. There are quite a few drummers who've carefully followed Evans trios over the years, and some have said they disliked this particular trio, even though they've enjoyed DeJohnette's later work with Jarrett's standards trio, Miles, etc. I tend to agree to the extent that his style can be said to be a departure for Evans trios back then --in the way we've come to know the trio concepts Bill developed over time. But we must keep the context in mind, and realize that the then-emerging particulars of Dejohnette's early work would become highly influential over time, even having an effect on later Evans drummers like Eliot Zigmund and more profoundly, Joe LaBarbera.
“Someday My Prince Will Come”: Like ”My Romance” and “Nardis”, this was another vehicle for great flights of fancy which Evans kept playing throughout his career. It would be a fascinating (and certainly time-consuming) project to get all the known versions on one CD from the twenty-one ears Bill did this tune. It first appears on his “Portrait in Jazz” LP of 1959, and he did it in the later years as well. A brisk tour-de-force at the Montreux concert, Bill’s right hand lines are blazingly quick and fluid, but this should surprise no one. (all those years of playing Bach!) There are many recordings – and it certainly was apparent when I saw him live in various venues, where Evans’ lines were lightning fast when he wanted -- and he could sustain it too, if he wanted to. We must admire the fact that he chose not to “show off” his speed and dexterity as often as he easily could have – preferring to “make the trio sing, if possible” as he often said, and to communicate “as direct a musical experience to the listener” as he could. You can’t "sing" that well in fleeting 32nd note runs, and Bill's pianistic choices were always intended to serve the music.
If you’re looking for the introspective and reflective Bill, he’s
rather scarce on this record. But if your a well-versed Evans fan you
already know that, and should still be impressed by the always consistently
musical legitimacy of this master craftsman at work: perhaps not always
tender and inspired, but in full control, and with his enthsiasm spurred
on by a confident Eddie Gomez on bass (then two years in the trio), and
the young and creative Jack DeJohnette. All in all, this is a well-recorded
and sprightly live performance for an energized audience by an energized
middle-period Evans trio. In the radically-changing musical landscape
of that time, and in the dark, turbulent and scary year of 1968, there’s
something to be said for that.