I stumbled upon Bill Evans when I looked at the liner notes of Mos Def’s Black On Both Sides and noticed his name credited for the song “Love.” Because I wanted to be a producer a la J Dilla when I was in high school, I scurried to the record store and bought Waltz For Debby so I could also re-create a track from a Bill Evans sample. I never did get to sample Waltz For Debby. I just sat there and listened to the entire album floored by what was blaring through my AKG 702’s.

Many years later, the sound of Bill Evans’ beautiful touch on the piano continues to floor me. I couldn’t contain myself the first time I stepped foot inside Village Vanguard because I kept thinking “Bill Evans was here one time.” My favorite classes at The New School involved teachers talking about their experiences of catching Evans live in New York back in the ’60s and ’70s. I even sought out to study with teachers who had either played or taken lessons with the man.

 

bill evans

To call myself a Bill Evans fanatic would both be an overstatement and an understatement all at once. What young pianist doesn’t study Evans’ voicings and re-harmonization techniques? I’m merely a walking cliché. But on the other hand, as I’ve come to learn while compiling this list, how could anyone resist not being an Evans devotee?

Order Is Everything is Revive’s literary series originated by Matthew Allen , intended to be a how-to guide for music lovers looking to invest in the catalogs of prolific artists. Each installment will instruct – better yet, suggest – the would-be consumer on not only which albums to buy, but also in what order to collect them. One might think to buy them in chronological order, but for a great artist with 10 or more albums, there’s a science to collecting the records.

1). Waltz For Debby

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Don’t even bother reading what I have to say about this and just take a moment and listen to Evans’ version of “My Foolish Heart” from this album. The first thing that should strike you is how Evans plays the song in A, a half step below its usual key of Bb. The second thing that should strike you is how delicate is the sound of Evans’ touch. The sound that a pianist gets out of the instrument rests entirely upon his/her technique and not the piano, the engineer, or the microphones. While these external forces might play a part, I can promise you that you will never hear a tone on the piano so pure and elegant as that of Bill Evans. Other examples of this point can also be found during “Detour Ahead,” “My Romance,” and “I Loves You Porgy.”

2). Portrait In Jazz

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The first album that features Bill Evans’ seminal trio consisting of Scott LaFaro andPaul MotianPortrait In Jazz was released a year before the trio’s historic weekend at the Village Vanguard that led to Waltz For Debby as well as Sunday At The Village Vanguard. Highlights of the album include the trialouge that occurs between Evans, LaFaro and Motian during “Autumn Leaves” as well as Evans’ commanding touch on the piano when playing ballads as featured in “Blue In Green” and “When I Fall In Love.”

3). The Interplay Sessions

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Evans might have re-defined what it meant to lead a trio as a pianist, but it did not mean that he wasn’t fully capable of playing in ensembles of different variations. Other examples of Evans straying away from his “traditional” trio format include his work on Oliver Nelson’s Blues In The Abstract Truth, the three albums he recorded with Cannonball Adderley including 1961’s Know What I Mean?, as well as the ever-so-famous Kind of Blue with Miles Davis. While Evans might have played as a sideman in each of the examples listed, The Interplay Sessions featuring Freddie HubbardJim Hall, “Philly” Joe Jones and Percy Heath shows Evans more than capable of sharing harmonic duties with a guitarist as well as comping for another instrumentalist.

4). Undercurrent 

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While the triolouge that takes place within Evans trio settings are what set him apart in his career, the interplay that takes place in Undercurrent with Jim Hall is nothing short of spectacular. Undercurrent was released in 1962 and is the first of two duo albums that Hall and Evans recorded; the other being Intermodulation, released four years later. Highlights from the album include the opening track where the audience finds Evans going for blood in “My Funny Valentine.”

5). Alone

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So we’ve featured albums with Evans in a trio and also playing duo, but solo piano is where Evans really shines. This Grammy Award-winning album was the first single piano solo album that Evans released (technically, I’ll explain the technical part later). While many a conservatory teacher will wax poetic about Bill Evans’ command of harmony, this record undoubtedly also showcases how comfortable with rhythm Evans was. Evans had an internal click that never strayed regardless of the intensity and energy of his phrases – a feat that requires immense concentration. Alone showcases all that we love about Bill Evans’ artistry on the piano from his harmonic genius in “Here’s That Rainy Day” to those signature Bill Evans licks in the medley between “All Things You Are” and “Midnight Mood.”

6). Conversations With Myself 

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Remember when I said that Alone was the Evans’ first piano solo album? Well Conversations With Myself is technically Evans’ first solo album. The caveat to that previous statement is that Evans overdubbed himself, hence the title Conversations With Myself. Communication has and will always be a hallmark of this great idiom, and Bill Evans was that dude who championed that in more ways than one – even if it meant creating a slightly schizophrenic record. Want another fun fact about this album? It was recoded using Glen Gould’s piano. All you piano nerds take a moment and let that sink in.

7). Everybody Digs Bill Evans

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The album’s cover has a statement from Miles Davis reading, “I’ve sure learned a lot from Bill Evans. He plays the piano the way it should be played.” High praises from Evans’ previous employer don’t fall short in this album. Evans’ assault on “Minority” and “Oleo” shows that he’s clearly swangin’ with the best of them – even when “Philly” Joe Jones is playing in three while he and Sam Jones are in four! But the hallmark of this album lies in Evans’ original tune, “Peace Piece.”

Chuck Israels, one of Evans’ later bassists, had this to say about “Peace Piece”:

“Peace Piece” is an example of the depth of Evans’ compositional technique. It is an ostinato piece, composed and recorded long before the more recent superficial synthesis of Indian and American music; in fact, it owes more to Satie and Debussy than to Ravi Shankar. The improvisation starts simply over a gentle ostinato, which quickly fades into the background. Evans allows the fantasy that evolves from the opening motive (an inversion of the descending fifth in the ostinato) more freedom than he would in an improvisation tied to a changing accompaniment. He takes advantage of the ostinato as a unifying element against which ideas flower, growing more lush and colorful as the piece unfolds. Polytonalities and cross rhythms increase in density as the ostinato undulates gently, providing a central rhythmic and tonal reference. The improvisation becomes increasingly complex against the unrelenting simplicity of the accompaniment, until, near the end, Evans gradually reconciles the two elements.

8). Time Remembered

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You could really make an entire study of Bill Evans and the different periods he had with his trios. Time Remembered features bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Larry Bunker. Originally recorded in 1963 at Shelly Manne’s club in Hollywood, it was later released in 1983 and again in 1999 with bonus tracks of Evans playing solo piano. If you are going to follow this list in order to collect Bill Evans records, then do not pass up Evans’ trio with Israels and Bunker as it is important to own albums from each of Evans trio configurations throughout his career.

9). Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival

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This 1969 recording notched another Grammy win for Bill Evans and features the only time that drummer Jack DeJohnette played with Evans. The live recording of the trio at the Montreux Jazz Festival is also the second album that Evans released with bassist Eddie Gómez with whom Evans played for 11 years. Highlights from the album include “Nardis,” “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and the pianists’ beautiful solo piano rendition of “I Loves You Porgy.”  

10). Turn Out The Stars: The Final Village Vanguard Recordings

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There will always be similarities in any artist’s work from the beginning and the end of their careers. As for Bill Evans, the command of harmony, the gorgeous touch, the lyricism of the line and the introspectiveness of his sound will always remain constant in any Bill Evans album. I know “introspectiveness of his sound” won’t score me any points in music theory, but I’m reminded of what Evans once said: “It bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It’s not. It’s feeling.”

Series Concept by Matthew Allen

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