Bill Evans makes people a bit crazy. He is, unquestionably, the most influential white musician in jazz history, and this has, at times, made it difficult to disentangle his symbolic status from his actual musical legacy. Surely this is part of the reason why Brad Mehldau kind of flips out every time someone compares him to Bill Evans, or why the 1961 Village Vanguard recordings are viewed with almost religious adulation ("This is it. The breakthrough. The pinnacle of spontaneous musical communication"), or why Stanley Crouch takes such evident delight in denigrating Evans as a "punk" and "all Debussy" and claims he "didn't understand jazz rhythm."
Evans is too complicated a musician to be reduced to one of the two prevailing stereotypes -- "greatest genius in jazz" (because he "elevated" it by making it more "classical") or "painfully introverted, non-swinging nebbish" (because he was too "classical"). One of the most clear-headed Bill Evans advocates I've encountered is André White, who was one of my teachers at McGill. It's not just that he's spent many years studying the Evans discography -- he's hardly alone there -- but he is also equally accomplished as both pianist and drummer, and as such he has unique and profound insights into Bill's approach to the time and his relationship to rhythm sections over the years.
So I was very happy to see this post over at Peter Hum's blog, Thriving on a Riff, which has extensive commentary from André. There's lots of great stuff there, from his comments on Bill's late-period trio with Philly Joe Jones -- "[Jones] didn't need to adapt his style to play with Bill, and I think that's why some people respond negatively to him, because he plays his way no matter what. I'm sure that's what Bill loved about him" to a qualified defense of Eddie Gomez: "Eddie gets bad-mouthed by a lot of musicians too, because of intonation, and his busy-ness. But really, his style is so unique, and he is such a great improviser that these concerns should be mumbled quietly in the background."
André is the person who persuaded me to listen to late-period Bill Evans with an ear towards the masterful rhythmic displacements embedded into his fluid lines. One of my favorite example of this is Bill's solo on "Nobody Else But Me," from 1977's I Will Say Goodbye. I still don't think I will ever exactly love late-period Bill Evans, but thanks to André I have a much deeper appreciation of its virtues.
All In the Mix: I like to hear a black bass player get in Bill Evans’ way and be a funky counterpoint to his impressionism more than I like to hear Evans with the long line of white virtuoso bassists he would soon specialize in. (Not that I don’t admire Scott LaFaro, Eddie Gomez, and Marc Johnson, but my preferred LaFaro, Gomez, and Johnson records are somehow never with Bill Evans!) My favorite Evans is the comping he did with Miles Davis and Oliver Nelson with Paul Chambers on bass, my favorite Evans trio record is Everybody Digs Bill Evans with Sam Jones on bass, and my absolute favorite Evans piano solos are on this Half Note date with Garrison on bass. (Of course, there are white bassists who play more in that tradition, too; I would have loved to have heard Charlie Haden or Dennis Irwin play with Evans. Teddy Kotick on the very first Evans record sounds great, too.)
In light of this, I'd like to point out an often-overlooked recording featuring Bill Evans with a hard-charging black rhythm section: Charles Mingus's East Coasting (rec. August 1957). Yeah, that's right -- Bill Evans with Mingus and Dannie Richmond! (Clarence Shaw, Jimmy Knepper, and Curtis Porter round out the sextet.) It is fascinating to hear Bill adapt his approach to fit the needs of Mingus's music -- "Guess the piano player on 'West Coast Ghost'" makes a great blindfold test.
1. I've always been a bit perplexed by this -- to my ears, Portrait In Jazz is clearly a much stronger and more exciting representation of the Evans-LaFaro-Motian trio.