Celebrating Bill Evans:Views from
Balcony E -106 ...A Time Remembered


(A Review of a "Jazz Piano at the 92nd Street Y" concert at the Tisch Center for the Arts
in NYC - May 30, 2000 )

by Bruce R. Branigan


ARTISTS (IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE)

  • Dick Hyman (MC and performer of two duets)
  • Jan Stevens
  • Marc Johnson ( Bassist with Evans last Trio )
  • Marian McPartland
  • Bill Charlap
  • Jack Reilly
  • Fred Hersch

THE PROGRAM:

  1. Prologue (Bill Evans) -- Jan Stevens
  2. My Foolish Heart (Washington/Young) -- Jan Stevens
  3. Turn Out the Stars (Bill Evans) -- Marian McPartland
  4. B Minor Waltz (for Ellaine) (Bill Evans) -- Marian McPartland
  5. In Your Own Sweet Way (Dave Brubeck) -- Marian McPartland
  6. Improvisation (McPartland/Hyman) -- Marian McPartland / Dick Hyman
  7. Lament for Bill (Jack Reilly) -- Bill Charlap
  8. Funny Man (Bill Evans) -- Bill Charlap
  9. While We're Young (Wilder/Engvick) -- Bill Charlap
  10. Beautiful Love (Young/Gillespie)/ -- Dick Hyman, Bill Charlap, -- Jack Reilly

    Intermission

  11. Largo (Jack Reilly) -- Jack Reilly
  12. My Bells (Bill Evans) -- Jack Reilly
  13. Peri's Scope (Bill Evans) -- Jack Reilly
  14. Waltz for Debby (Bill Evans) -- Jack Reilly
  15. Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair/Spartacus (Trad'l./Alex North) -- Fred Hersch
  16. Funkallero (Bill Evans)- Fred Hersch
  17. Blue in Green (Bill Evans) - Fred Hersch
  18. Very Early (Bill Evans) -- Fred Hersch / Bill Charlap
  19. Waltz for Debby (Bill Evans) -- Marian Mc Partland
  20. Epilogue (Bill Evans) -- Jan Stevens


    The hardwood edged halls of the beautiful Tisch Center for the performing arts concert hall brimmed over with concertgoers at 8:00 pm, May 30th , 2000. The capacity crowd had assembled to hear a formidable assemblage of pianists deliver a tribute to the musical genius of Bill Evans. This year marks the 20th year since Evans passing, and he would have turned 70 in August of 1999. The evening would reveal not only insights into Evans own tunesmithing but also illuminated Evans' unique approach to ballads, the so called "jazz standards". The evening, all too short for the subject of the event was nevertheless a complete and enjoyable success. There was no doubt that when the concert concluded something of Bill Evans had definitely been called forth once again, and somewhere he would have smiled for the tribute paid him.

    The Baldwin Piano Company supplied a pair of concert grand pianos for the evening's event. The pianos were lidless, and were allowed to sing without hindrance of their tops. The arrangement of the pianos on stage was such that the "lead" piano on the left stage (audience perspective) was at a 45 degree angle to the audience, while its twin was nosed into the curve of the lead instrument with their two harps scarcely a foot or two apart. The auditorium was miked and had videotaping equipment on hand, although it is unclear if the event was recorded . [Ed note: Yes it was.The "Y" records most concerts for possible public television shows, but this one will not be seen]

    Given the fact that Marian McPartland was on the roster of artists performing that evening it would have been criminal not to have at least two pianos available for duets. Ms. McPartlands radio program "Piano Jazz" on NPR is both national treasure and icon. Marian's November 6, 1978 interview with Bill Evans is considered to be Evans' signature discussion about his art and music, remarkable not only for the ease at which she placed Bill but for overcoming his reticence to speak on those topics as well. (A CD of these conversations, both played and spoken, is part of the boxed set "The Complete Fantasy Recordings", and can also be found as a singly released CD on a European import) During her performance, Marian exhibited her trademark sense of humor - exhorting the audience not to "go home humming and whistling" the improvisation duet she and Hyman had performed in the first half of the show. She also recalled playing "tag" with Evans for years trying to get him to do an interview for "Piano Jazz", and how he responded -gently fending her off by leaving sheet music at her hotel room doors whenever they met up on the road. Of course, jazz piano duets were had on this night between: Hyman and Mc Partland, then Hyman, Charlap and Reilly, and finally Charlap and Hersch.

    Foremost among Bill Evans' accomplishments, must surely be counted elevating the art of the trio to a new level. Evans undoubtedly gave the greatest and most consistently inclusive role to bass players and drummers ever found in trios up to that time. There has always been a fascinating, particular and special affinity between jazz bassists and Bill Evans and or his music. Since he often played solo (where many would argue he did some of his greatest work) and also dueted with his bassists often, a formidable bass playing talent was essential to make the evening a success. Evans could get by without a drummer quite well as he had rock steady time, which the legendary "Conversations" albums showcased and recently released studio tapes (The Complete Bill Evans on Verve) have amply demonstrated. Evans could improvise two radically different takes on the same tune, one right after the other and produce virtually equal length but very different versions of the same tunes.

    Marc Johnson was a member of the last Evans trio (1978-'80) and he displayed the wonderfully insightful bass playing talent that caused Bill Evans to hand pick him for his last trio. Evans felt that his last trio was the closest he came to re-establishing the interplay that existed between the members of his first trio (Evans, LeFaro and Motian) . This night, Marc Johnson played to great effect throughout the evening, providing a beautiful underpinning to the performances of nearly all the pianists in many of the 20 pieces performed that night.

    The program opened with the MC Dick Hyman and Jan Stevens quiet entry onto the stage. Jan authored the biographical notes in the 12 page program booklet that was distributed to the concertgoers and was also a friend of Evans. Jan sat at the "left" piano and performed the seldom heard Evans piece, appropriately titled "Prologue". A few notes into the performance Hyman intoned: "This is the music of Bill Evans..." and the show began. "Prologue" [from the 1966 album"Live at Town Hall"] was the first invocation of Bill Evans that evening and Jan Stevens' performance recalled him completely, it being no small task to summon the musical spirit of an artist as talented as Evans. After some further words by Dick Hyman, it was mentioned that Evans had a unique way with a ballad. Hyman mentioned that Evans achievements included the revitalization of many forgotten and or neglected popular songs using his talents for reharmonization, chord voicing and the like. This led into another piece rendered by Jan Stevens (along with Marc Johnson on bass) that was one of those standard ballads that Evans was so well known for delivering, "My Foolish Heart" .This tune was delivered with many Evans touches in it and it caused me to think about what it is as a listener that makes this type of playing so effective and appealing. Here's a feeble attempt at describing this - it is as if the standard is like a familiar stream in the woods that you've known very well, for years. You've walked it in every direction. You've heard the song many times before and it is very familiar to you, perhaps you even play the tune yourself, then suddenly Evans gets his hands on it and wrings such beauty from the tune that it's as if your little woodland stream has been relocated to the Grand Canyon - and it sits there just like it always belonged there. This is the kind of beauty that is summoned forth by terms like "reharmonization", "chord voicing" and "rhythmical displacement" as Evans dispensed them and as Stevens playing recalled.

    Marian Mc Partland next emerged to play two Evans compositions: "Turn Out the Stars" and "B Minor Waltz" (for Ellaine). Marian also offered us the Dave Brubeck tune "In Your Own Sweet Way"- which Evans played often and which will forever be associated with him. The audience appeared to have been mostly patrons of the "Y" and perhaps used to classical performances where applause is frowned upon until a piece is done. This caused a minor snag that emerged during Marian's playing -Marc Johnson finished one of his early bass solos behind Marian and she waited momentarily for Marcs' well deserved applause, which seemed too slow in coming. Fortunately the audience caught on and applause followed in short order. Thereafter the audience made a point of being attentive to the bass solos and offering up the correct, timely and well- deserved appreciation . It should be mentioned that Marc's bass work was superb and at times, behind various of the pianists, it almost made you think the lynch pin of the lamented trio had returned. Marc was particularly evocative of his colleague on the first offering of "Waltz for Debby", which was performed twice. Marian was then joined by MC Dick Hyman for a two piano improvisation, such as might be delivered on her NPR show "Piano Jazz". Marian left the stage with her quip about humming and or whistling the improvisation, but she would later return.

    The program next turned to the talents of Jack Reilly and Bill Charlap (his former student) . Charlap, who has several CDs commercially available) delivered an original of Reilly's entitled "Lament for Bill". Mr. Reilly had written original material for a memorial service for Evans in late 1980 shortly after his death. The piece was skillfully performed by Bill Charlap and the "Lament" made it's musical statement with a nod to the Evans style. Charlap next did the Evans original "Funny Man" and this was warmly received by the audience. Charlap summoned Evans' spirit but after a point his own pyrotechnicstyle emerged from behind it. Perhaps the most warmly received performance of the evening was Charlap's rendition of the standard, "While We're Young". Not only did this garner much applause, but the effort was not without its irony for a backstage Marian McPartland who performed one of her final duets with Bill Evans , playing the very same tune after finally corralling Evans for her 1978 "Piano Jazz" radio interview.

    Just prior to the intermission, Dick Hyman discussed the famous Grammy Award winning recording of Evans, "Conversations With Myself". For the benefit of the audience, he explained how "Conversations" was a unique idea, brilliantly executed. The "conversation" was an improvisation usually based on a standard - on occasion this would go no further than a monologue recorded alone. Once a track was recorded, Evans recorded his own second conversation against it and possibly a third. Each time this allowed Evans to paint a musical picture over himself, in a manner not unlike a painter, until many subtleties had been revealed in the music. No matter how brilliant the partners in a trio, in this setting there is no holding back the creative vision of the pianist. It's not hard to imagine how this concept would be successful in creative hands (as had been earlier demonstrated, for example, in the career of Les Paul). Hyman perched himself at the stage left piano and summoned Charlap and Reilly to the stage right piano, and the trio commenced an all- piano conversation based on a piece called "Beautiful Love" to recall Evans "conversations" recordings. Charlap first held down the lower register at the stage right piano with Reilly and then left Reilly to partner with Hyman at the opposite piano where he piloted the upper register. This closed of the first half of the program.

    After the intermission, some announcements and the introduction of Dr. Terence Ripmaster of the New Jersey Jazz Society, (who conceived the idea of the program), another eleven tunes would be offered. Since little had been heard before this from Jack Reilly, he now performed "Largo" from a larger work which was offered for Evans a tthe memorial service for him. Three Evans originals were then performed by Reilly: "My Bells","Peri's Scope", and "Waltz for Debby". Of these, "Debby"was among the 3 or 4 offerings that were performed that evening which most reflected Evans' musical character. Since the "Waltz" began and ended exactly as annotated from the first and best known recordings of the tune, and it came with the expert bass work of Marc Johnson, the result was almost haunting. Johnson's light and lilting gentle bass notes descended behind the opening chorus of the swee tsong written for Evans' niece so many years before. Reilly ended the piece just as Evans did with the same 5 brief locked chords that seemed to trademark the piece and which became Evans' signature tune. If anyone could capture the lyrical and harmonic essence however briefly -in a bottle for the night that was it and is Bill Evans this clearly was one of those fleeting moments.

    Among the last performers of the evening was Fred Hersch. Mr. Hersch is often compared to Bill Evans and there is a similarity in musical sensibility and in the desire to create a harmonically rich and lyrical type of music. Clearly, as a recorded, successful jazz pianist Fred Hersch can expect to be regarded as one of the inheritors of Evans' musical mantle. Nevertheless, Mr. Hersch succeeded in delivering musical admiration of Evans while at the same time asserting his differences with him. He opened with a piece that was particularly associated with Evans from the "Conversations" album, "Spartacus Love Theme" . This is a particularly plaintive love theme form the film that was ideally suited to Evans unique solo jazz piano style, that was preceded by "Black is the Color", a traditional folk song. (This pairing is the same combination that begins Fred Hersch's CD - "Let Yourself Go" recorded live at Jordan Hall.) Mr. Hersch next delivered a completely different version of the Evans tune "Funkallero" perhaps more assertive in its statement "this is where I come from but not who I am." Mr. Hersch offered one more tune of Evans- "Blue in Green". He had a humorous quip about the controversy over the Evans /Davis tune saying, in effect: "Bill wrote it, but Miles got to the copyright office first" , which appears to represent the current factual understanding we now have as to the authorship of the tune.
    At this point, Hersch was joined onstage by Bill Charlap on the stage right piano. They launched into a spirited and very well received version of " Very Early " among the earliest known compositions of Evans. This may well have been the most un-Evans delivery of the evening and yet it recalled him well as a sprightly conversation between two skilled musicians making a beautiful harmonic and lyrical musical statement.

    Finally, Jan Stevens and Marian McPartland returned to the stage. Marian played a brief and poignant reprise of the "Waltz for Debby", undoubtedly served up mindful of and regarding the person we knew and sought to recall musically that evening. Jan Stevens, whose playing served as a musical frame to the artful music of the evening, served us the opener and illuminated Evans ballad playing with "My Foolish Heart" ,now offered the final piece of the evening, Evans own(40 second) piece - "Epilogue". In some respects, "Epilogue" was the perfect close to the evening- beautifully lyrical and harmonic yet and unexpectedly all too brief - just like the life of the honoree.

    Briefly, I would suggest that there were certain paths not trod that should have been. Yes, it might have made for an inordinately long program, but for those intolerant of posterior I say: devil take the hindmost. I have always felt that there was a particular and special affinity between Evans and Gershwin. Of all the missed opportunities and possibilities for the evening this seems the most glaring -especially perhaps, given the venue. Evans performed many Gershwin tunes, perhaps the most strikingly beautiful of these were the songs from the American Opera - "Porgy and Bess". In addition to someone exploring "My Man's Gone Now", one of the most gorgeous of Gershwin tunes and certainly among the best Evans ballads is "I Loves You Porgy" .

    Among the overlooked splendors of the Evans Songbook, I would count this bakers dozen that the Celebration of Bill Evans might have explored:

    1. I Loves you Porgy (Gershwin)
    2. Reflections in D ( Ellington)
    3. This is all I ask (Gordon Jenkins)
    4. Here's that Rainy Day (Burke / Van Heusen)
    5. The Bad and the Beautiful (Raskin /Langdon)
    6. But Beautiful (Burke / VanHeusen)
    7. My Romance (Rogers & Hart)
    8. Some Other Time ( Bernstein / Comden-Green)
    9. Peace Piece ( Evans ) based on "Some Other Time" and occasionally performed with it.
    10. I Love You ( Porter)
    11. How About You ( Freed / Lane)
    12. I Do It for Your Love (Simon)
    13. Make Someone Happy ( Comden / Green / Styne)

    Many of these tunes continue to be under-recorded and under appreciated still- after these many years since Evans demonstrated their potential.

    Discussion of Evans and the classical connection might have nodded in the direction of the recent classical CD, by French pianist Jean Yves Thibaudet , "Conversations with Bill Evans" as further evidence that the classical music world in some ways is only just now discovering Evans. According to interviews and liner notes to the CD, Thibaudet frequently includes at least one Evans piece in every performance or encore.


    [Ed. note by Jan Stevens: The audience was unaware of it, but the show was running longer than expected, and the decision was made backstage by Musical Director Dick Hyman to cut the concert short due to the hall's insistence that the show end by 10:15 P.M. Unfortunately, the portions eliminated included my version of "I Loves You Porgy" , Mr. Hyman's version of "Some Other Time" and Fred Hercsh's rendition of "Days of Wine and Roses" as well as ALL the pianists round-robin playing of "Waltz For Debby" for the finale ...)

    The webmaster would like to thank Bruce Branigan for this most insightful article, and his astute review of the concert's proceedings, and his great love for the music of Bill Evans.


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