IMPRESSIONS OF THE DVD: "JAZZ ICONS BILL
EVANS -LIVE 1964 -1975"
(Reelin in the Years Productions, LLC and Naxos, released 2008)
A REVIEW BY SPECIAL GUEST CONTRIBUTOR MIKE HARRIS
The recent release of the "Jazz Icons" Bill Evans DVD is to me an overwhelmingly compelling and significant event. Here at last, just when one had pretty much given up hope, is an accurate (visual and sonic) preservation of the true Bill Evans magic. The first four tracks of this DVD, alone among all previous video performances released, fully captures the unique, inexplicable beauty of Bill's earlier playing, the marvelous combination of rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic invention that filled the ears, minds, and hearts of those open to the message of this irreplaceable musician.
Which is not to say that his playing all throughout his days on earth was not indelibly beautiful? Indeed, his music was almost invariably of such high quality as to stand out, for me, among the efforts of the many other wonderful jazz pianists that one could hear (or, as Larry Bunker once put it in the course of explaining his decision to give up his lucrative studio practice in order to go on tour with Bill, "I found that I always had his recordings on my turntable, because nobody else was interesting by comparison!").
Amen. There was something about his playing in those early days which utterly defied explanation. To watch his performance of this DVD's first track, "My Foolish Heart," is to witness beauty rediscovered and redefined. Where did this come from? It is like listening to a performance of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto and wondering how any human being could have conceived and executed such a magnificently noble series of sounds? This is originality, creativity, and concentration that somehow seems to exceed human potential.
And then it gets, if anything, even better. Bill's performance of "Israel," (wonderfully supported by the highly underappreciated Chuck Israels on bass) exhibits his playing at perhaps it's most transcendent, combining countless rhythmic subtleties, supernatural focus, and flawless execution in an unforgettable performance that is possibly the high point of the entire video.
But wait--- when we move to his re-working of the classic "Detour Ahead" on the video's third track, (now underpinned by the marvelous Danish bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, with Alan Dawson on drums), we are treated to an exploration that is such classic "Bill-at-his-best" that words again become inadequate to convey what was going on here. This is improvising at its finest, bar none.
After the intensity of these tracks, the fourth (again with the backing of Niels-Henning) is almost a relief, led off by a guest cameo by Lee Konitz on alto sax, and incorporating Bill's memorably single-handed exposition of "Melancholy Baby," together with a wonderful Pedersen bass-solo. The tune is rendered as something of a lark, and caps off these first four remarkable tracks.
Relative to these tracks, the remainder of the video, while incorporating some wonderful performances (perhaps most notably his exhilaratingly virtuosic demolition of "Someday My Prince Will Come"), comes as somewhat of an anti-climax, although the final session with the re-energized 1975 Gomez/Zigmund trio contains some outstanding material, in particular a wonderfully focused performance of "Blue Serge," dedicated to saxophonist Serge Chaloff, with its brief and eloquent solo by Gomez.
Well, in case I have been insufficiently clear, I unabashedly loved this video, and couldn't recommend it more highly to those who have long enjoyed Bill's playing on their sound systems, but perhaps never had the incalculable privilege of seeing those early performances at the Village Vanguard. It is that musical spirit, so well captured on this DVD, that indeed compelled me to spend countless hours in the Vanguard, in an attempt to preserve more of Bill's unique genius on tape; an effort that later saw fruition with the release of the "Secret Sessions" box-set--- and seeing this video is indeed "the next best thing to being there”! It brings back anew that mixture of awe and gratitude which I experienced as my wife and I sat in the Vanguard one evening, and as we waited for Bill to come to the piano to begin his first set I confided to her that "You know, this is the very best thing happening in the whole world right now," and I would believe it with all my heart. I still do.
Which puts me in mind of another occasion in the late '60's, when the Village Vanguard had installed a sort of device, which was the "creation" of a local artist, at the rear of the stage. This was a sort of dynamic light-show, consisting of a motor-driven wheel containing bits of transparent colored glass, through which light was projected onto the rear of a ground-glass screen, the net effect being that as the motor rotated, an ever-shifting kaleidoscopic play of colored patterns moved across the screen. As Bill and Philly Joe were setting up to commence their set, I overheard Bill lean over to his drummer and wonder aloud, "Tell me, if I pulled the plug at exactly the right moment, would that make me a genius?" Given the highly experimental status of the arts at the time, I think the comment reveals not only Bill's subtle sense of humor, but his incisive gift for social commentary -- not to mention a sardonic view of the contemporary concepts of "genius."
But a true genius is indeed what we see and hear on this DVD; I have been watching it every day since receiving it, and my goal is to grow old enough to eventually tire of doing so. If there is even one cell in your body that can receive the Bill Evans wavelength, then for heaven's sake feed it this music.
Mike Harris is an optical physicist (who worked on the Hubble Space Telscope), a pianist and serious Evans fan. He deserves the thanks of many jazz fans as the man who brought the amazing tapes he tape-recorded of various Bill Evans trios (between 1966 -1979, at the Village Vanguard) to the attention of Fantasy/Milestone Records, which released many of them as the CD box set the"Secret Sessions" in 1996. Subsequently, they also released his 1978 tapiing of the heretofore unrecorded Bill Evans trio with Michael Moore and Philly Joe Jones as the "Getting Sentimental" CD.
(our review here)
He lives in Connecticut.