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'Everybody Still Digs Bill Evans' Is A Solid Introduction To An Enduring Body Of Work

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Bill Evans, who died in 1980, was one of the most refined and influential of jazz pianists. He led various trios for over two decades besides helping craft the music on Miles Davis' classic "Kind Of Blue." A new Bill Evans anthology is out. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS' "DANNY BOY")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Bill Evans on "Danny Boy" in 1962 from a new five-CD anthology, "Everybody Still Digs Bill Evans." It surveys records he made as leader from 1956 until his death in 1980. We think of Evans as a sensitive piano balladeer, lacing his jazz with hazy, Euro-Romantic harmony. But his early work spoke to the abiding influence of bebop pioneer Bud Powell, whose right hand sang out like a jazz horn. Here's Evans on "Woody'N You."

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS' "WOODY'N YOU")

WHITEHEAD: Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones in 1959, shortly before Evans and Chambers played on Miles Davis' "Kind Of Blue." The pianist recorded too widely and well to make any one career survey definitive. The picks on "Everybody Still Digs Bill Evans," cheaply made by producer Nick Phillips, don't neglect the romantic ballads, but there's plenty of up-tempo music. One disc is for Evans alone, solo or overdubbed. His three pianos on "N.Y.C.'s No Lark" might echo composer Conlon Nancarrow's dense player-piano music.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS' "N.Y.C.'S NO LARK")

WHITEHEAD: On another disc in the Bill Evans collection, the pianist engages guests in duo with singer Tony Bennett and guitarist Jim Hall and in combos with horns, including saxophonist Stan Getz and Zoot Sims, or in 1962, young trumpet spitfire Freddie Hubbard.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS' "YOU AND THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC")

WHITEHEAD: Most of the collection, "Everybody Still Digs Bill Evans," involves his beloved trios. The last disc is a peppy and newly issued 1975 trio concert. Aside from the leader's great influence, his group spawned a whole school of piano-trio bass players whose superfast solos made a beeline for the high notes. It all began in 1959 when bass virtuoso Scott LaFaro joined Evans' trio with drummer Paul Motian.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS' "WALTZ FOR DEBBY")

WHITEHEAD: Scott LaFaro had taste to match his amazing technique, but he died young. Evans tried other great bassists, like Gary Peacock, but didn't find his new LaFaro until Eddie Gomez joined up in 1966. He'd stay with Evans over a decade and really establish that new bass style. Plucking or bowing in the cello range, Gomez could push the fast, showy high-note stuff to the point of self-parody. And in the '70s, when bassists plugged into booming amplifiers, the instrument's woody warmth got lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS' "TOO EARLY")

WHITEHEAD: Eddie Gomez with Bill Evans, 1975.

Even where the bass players overdo it, good drummers reign these trios in. The tension between holding back and surging ahead works for them. The selections in the new set include some of Evans' best-known tunes, such as "Waltz For Debby" in two versions, "Very Early" and "Re: Person I Knew." An essay and track annotations by critic Neil Tesser put everything in perspective. The fancy package is bigger than it needs to be, but that's quibbling. "Everybody Still Digs Bill Evans" couldn't be the last word on the subject, as he remains part of the jazz conversation four decades after his death, but it's a solid introduction to an enduring body of work.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS' "THE PEACOCK")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Everybody Still Digs Bill Evans," a new five-CD anthology of Bill Evans' recordings.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Julie K. Brown, the reporter whose digging reopened the Jeffrey Epstein case. Long after Epstein had gotten off with lenient treatment following a sex trafficking probe, Brown tracked down dozens of his victims. Her stories led to his arrest on new federal charges. He later died by suicide in prison. Brown has written a new book called "Perversion Of Justice." I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS' "THE PEACOCK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.