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April 2003
Bill Evans Trio
By Harvey Siders
Around 1970, when Bill Evans was playing at that long-defunct Hollywood landmark Shelly's
Manne-Hole, the drummer-club owner told me, in reference to Evans, "a real jazzman is a guy
who never plays the same thing once." This eight-CD collection, the sister set to The Last Waltz
box set, not only epitomizes that denition but also has the added tragic realization that they
contain Evans' nal recorded statements. Like The Last Waltz, the CDs were recorded live at San
Francisco's Keystone Korner (another long-shuttered jazz venue) over the course of eight nights,
from Aug. 31 to Sept. 7, 1980-that gig ending just eight days before Evans' death. The tapes were
digitally edited in Tokyo during the summer of '97 and in late 2002 Fantasy issued them as
Consecration on its Milestone label.
What is so remarkable about this collection is the concept of releasing the rst sets from each of
those eight nights. Fortunately, but not surprisingly, there are many repeats of tunes. Given Evans'
improvisatory genius, no devotee of his playing-for that matter, no rst-time listener-has any
legitimate excuse for complaining. The reality is he simply could not play the same thing once. An
eloquent example comes to mind on track two of disc two: at no time during the rst two choruses
does he play the melody of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," and even the out chorus is
characteristically oblique. Ditto for the very next cut, "Like Someone in Love." After fragmenting
the original melody and analyzing it thoroughly from different angles and prisms in various keys,
he may, or may not, glue the pieces together and allow the mist to dissipate.
Gaining insight into Evans' rst-set mentality, it's informative to note that he closed six of the eight
sets with "My Romance" and repeated four tunes ve times-one of them, an original called "Re:
Person I Knew," was a set-opener ve times. In all there are 16 repetitions and eight single
performances. That's where the strength of this collection lies: there was no end to the variations
on the themes he chose. Little wonder that Glenn Gould, the brilliant concert pianist, was quoted
as calling Evans "the Scriabin of jazz." That reference to the obscure Russian pianist/composer
segues to a more understandable comparison as quoted by Gene Lees: "It was said in their own
time that Liszt conquered the piano, Chopin seduced it. Oscar [Peterson] is our Liszt, and Bill is
our Chopin."
With very few exceptions, that poetic link to Chopin is evident through all eight discs, particularly
Evans' gossamer approach to ballads. Of course, in this study of repeated performances, one
night's ballad is another night's uptempo excursion. So let's focus on some of those incarnations.
"My Foolish Heart" on discs one and seven are strongly balladic; on disc six Evans removes his
self-restraint and encourages bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera to insert a jazz
pulse to imply a double-time feel; on disc seven, Evans produces a totally unambiguous jazz
chorus, albeit a form of light, poetic jazz. On his rst attempt (disc two's "Days of Wine and
Roses" at 2:08), he sneaks in a quote from "Surrey With the Fringe on Top." He must have been a
bit more playful that night; during the same set, on "Letter to Evan," he interpolates "I'm
Beginning to See the Light" at 3:30.
Motifs play a huge part in the Evans aesthetic, as he demonstrates on Johnny Mandel's theme from
M*A*S*H, turning its familiar opening seven-note theme into a rare excursion in the idiom of
funk. His waltz "Tiffany" is introduced all ve times with heavy use of its opening three-note
motif; another original, "Your Story," has a prominent four-note ligree that Evans labels
"Diddly-Ah" during one of his occasionally humorous announcements. "Diddly-Ah" effectively
captures the rhythm of the motif, and it is amazing how he can build a varying harmonic
foundation under that phrase. His ve versions are the closest Evans comes to consistency. Each is
a broad tableau reminiscent of a late Romantic piano concerto, but not totally solo: Johnson nds
openings for some very supportive root tones, contrapuntal lines or pedal points, and LaBarbera
shows incredible sensitivity, deft brushwork and sparing use of his cymbals.
Regarding Johnson and LaBarbera: In 1980 they were probably still being compared to Scott
LaFaro and Paul Motian from Evans' legendary 1959 to 1961 trio. But while they perpetuated the
concept of providing air and space for Evans, as opposed to the conventional, metronomic
straitjacket, they had their own way of interacting with the pianist. That interaction involved an
uncanny instinct for contributing just the right nuances without getting in his way. Ironically, they
could not have interfered with Evans on portions of discs one and two even if they had tried; the
miking virtually obliterated them as a trio. Evans' comping on Johnson' solo during "Days of Wine
and Roses" actually overshadows the bass. Another engineering mystery at the end of disc seven
sounds as if "But Beautiful" fades prematurely. The remaining tracks, however, are well balanced,
allowing Johnson and LaBarbera to shine in their solos on "Days."
But complaining about questionable sonics is nit-picking in view of the overall picture. This is Bill
Evans at his lyrical peak. There's not one hint of diminution-each of his searching, contemplative
intros setting an unforgettable mood-even though everyone, including Evans, knew his health was
fading fast. Keystone owner Todd Barkan is quoted in the accompanying booklet with an eloquent
theory about Evans' performances there: "Like what you see before a light bulb goes out-that
extra-bright incandescence."
Originally published in April 2003
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