Bill Evans (August 16, 1929–September 15, 1980) was one of the most famous jazz pianists of the 20th century, and the force behind the biggest shift in the jazz paradigm since Art Tatum. His use of impressionistic harmony, his inventive interpretation of traditional jazz repertoire and his syncopated and polyrhythmic melodic lines influenced a generation of pianists, including Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, and his work continues to inspire younger pianists like Fred Hersch, Bill Charlap, Lyle Mays and Brad Mehldau, as well as other musicians such as guitarists John McLaughlin and Gene Bertoncini.
Portrait in Jazz
Working in New York in the 1950s, Evans gained notoriety as a sideman in traditional and so-called third stream avant-garde jazz bands. During this period, he recorded with the composer George Russell and released his first album as a leader, New Jazz Conceptions. Evans joined the Miles Davis Sextet in 1958, recorded and toured briefly with the band, then left due to conflicts with other band members, problems with drug use, and his desire to pursue his own projects as a leader. At Davis's request, Evans returned to the band to record the highly influential album Kind of Blue.
In the early 1960s, Evans led a group with drummer Paul Motian and Scott LaFaro that has since become one of the most acclaimed piano trios of all time. With this group, Evans's focus settled on traditional jazz standards and original compositions, but with an emphasis on interplay among the band members that often bordered on collective improvisation. Evans's collaboration with the talented young bassist LaFaro was particularly fruitful, with the two achieving an unprecedented level of musical empathy. The trio recorded four albums, Portrait in Jazz, Explorations, Waltz for Debby, and Sunday at the Village Vanguard. LaFaro's untimely death at age twenty-two in a car accident in 1961 left Evans devastated, and he did not record or perform in public again for several months. In 1963, he recorded 'Conversations With Myself', overdubbing his piano three times, which won him his first Grammy award.
Bassist Chuck Israels succeeded LaFaro in the trio, but it was not until 1966, when Evans discovered 21-year-old bassist Eddie Gomez, that he found a worthy contributor to his original trio concept. Gomez's exuberance was contagious, revitalizing and inspiring Evans to new heights.
In 1969, Marty Morrell joined the trio on drums and remained until 1975, when he retired to family life. The extraordinary sensitivity of this trio is best represented by the live recordings, Jazzhouse, You're Gonna Hear From Me, Montreux II, Live in Paris, 1972, The Tokyo Concert, Since We Met, and the final Blue in Green recorded in Canada in 1974.
Morrell was replaced by Elliot Zigmund on drums in 1976. The resulting group recorded three albums, Crosscurrents, I Will Say Goodbye and You Must Believe in Spring. The latter record highlighted Evans's obsession with self-destruction, including pieces dedicated to his first wife, Ellaine, and brother, Harry, both of whom by that time had committed suicide. Fittingly, the last track on the album is the theme from the movie and television show MASH, 'Suicide is Painless'. You Must Believe in Spring was released posthumously after Evans's death.
Gomez and Zigmund left Evans in 1978, and after several rhythym sections, Evans settled on Marc Johnson on bass and Joe LaBarbera on drums. This band was to be Evans's last. The group recorded several records, including the multi-disc set Turn Out The Stars. Evans's music of this period was much less introspective and more driving than his previous work with Gomez and Zigmund, in part reflecting his turning to the drug cocaine to overcome his addiction to heroin.
Evans's substance abuse problems likely began during his stint with Miles Davis in the late 1950s. A heroin addict for most of career, his health was generally poor and his financial situation worse. At one point in the late 1960s, he was forced to perform at the Village Vanguard playing piano with his right hand alone because he had numbed his left arm by shooting heroin into an artery. In the 1970s, cocaine became a serious problem for Evans. His body finally gave out in 1980, when Evans died in New York City.
Although the circumstances of his life were often tragic, Evans's music always displayed his complete creative mastery of harmony, rhythm, and interpretive jazz conception. A brilliant classical pianist as well, Evans's work fused jazz repertoire and ensemble performance with a classical sense of form and conceptual scale. His recordings continue to impact the work of pianists, guitarists, composers, and interpreters of jazz music around the world. This biography is published under the GNU Licence