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JAZZ | ALBUM SPOTLIGHT

Bill Evans' Elusive Grail

**** BILL EVANS, "Turn Out the Stars: The Final Village Vanguard Recordings, June 1980," Warner Bros.; *** BILL EVANS, "The Secret Sessions," Milestone/Fantasy

November 03, 1996|Don Heckman

Bill Evans ranks with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis among the most recorded of jazz musicians. In addition to these two collections of previously unreleased material, Fantasy has already released "The Complete Riverside Recordings" on 12 CDs and "The Complete Fantasy Recordings" on nine CDs. Sometime next year, Verve plans to issue an 18-CD boxed set of the pianist's complete work for the label between 1962 and 1970.

All this from a performer who, unlike Ellington, did not work with the infinite colors and rhythms of a large orchestra, unlike Armstrong, was not a singer and an entertainer, and unlike Davis, did not pass through a series of dramatic stylistic changes.

So what's the appeal? Why do record companies assume that there is a sufficient audience out there for a pianist who largely worked with only bass and drums for accompaniment, and whose repertoire involved frequent reexaminations of a similar list of standards and originals--in this case, six CDs on the Warner Bros. set and eight CDs on the Milestone collection?

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A quick listen to the extraordinary performances in "Turn Out the Stars," due in stores Tuesday, will provide an immediate answer. In piece after piece, either with the accompaniment of bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera, or in solo impromptus, Evans is consistently fascinating.

Never pianistic for the sake of technique, never rhythmic solely for the sake of keeping the feet tapping, his performances are rich musical integration. Ballads soar, buoyed by the harmonic clusters intrinsic to Evans' improvisations--an approach to harmony that has powerfully impacted virtually every post-Evans pianist.

Up-tempos are brisk and energized but always brimming with thoughtful, composition-like connections. And the free-flowing interaction between piano, bass and drums, an essential element in Evans' music since his classic early work with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, brings an unfolding, organic quality to each of the performances.

Is it enough to sustain interest for six CDs? You bet it is. And the best way to listen to the set is to hear it as it was originally heard at the Vanguard, as a series of complete club sets, with the music ebbing and flowing from piece to piece.

And it all works because Evans was, first of all, an original. Starting with the boppish lines of Bud Powell, adding some of the electric intensity of Lennie Tristano, seasoning his playing with the harmonic densities of Art Tatum, he brilliantly transformed those elements into one of the most recognizable piano styles in postwar jazz. An astonishing player almost from the moment of his first trio recording in 1956 (and, perhaps even more so, in his breathtaking performances with composer George Russell in "Concerto for Billy the Kid" and "All About Rosie" that year), Evans went on to play a major role in the modal improvisations of Miles Davis' late '50s groups (especially "Kind of Blue").

But, even beyond his obvious technical skill and his imaginative, innovative ideas, what took Evans' playing up to the next level, beyond the achievements of players with arguably similar musical essentials, was the compelling emotional intensity of his performances.

In performance, he was an unforgettable image, head held parallel and close to the keyboard, large hands moving with independent grace across the keys, his attention totally, irrevocably focused on the music. And what emerged was a gripping reflection of that intensity. Like all great jazz players, and maybe more than most, Evans was constantly in a state of quest, perpetually in search of an elusive musical goal, and--from his own point of view--never quite achieving it. The opportunity to share, even indirectly, in that quest is what, for the discerning listener, makes Evans' music so endlessly intriguing.

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The "Secret Sessions," however, may push a good thing a bit too far. Recorded by an inveterate Evans fan named Mike Harris, who smuggled a small, hidden tape recorder into a number of clubs to preserve the pianist's work over 18 years (this set only includes material from the Village Vanguard from 1966 to 1975), it demands that the listener hear past the sometimes tinny sound and the inevitable noise of conversations and cash registers.

Because it is Bill Evans, and because he, like most jazz musicians, usually performed in far more spontaneous fashion in clubs than in the recording studio, there are plenty of extraordinary moments in the eight CDs. But, as with the Dean Benedetti recordings of saxophonist Charlie Parker--which included only Parker's solos--the albums sometimes seem obsessive. To Evans' credit, even in the more pedestrian segments, he consistently comes up with passages that pull the listener up out of the chair.

For serious Evans addicts, the collection will be an absolutely vital addition. (In fact, Milestone plans to supplement the collection with other material from the 80 hours of Harris tapes.) For most Evans fans, however, the Warners collection will more than satisfy the desire to hear this utterly individual jazz artist.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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