"Genius" in the arts requires talent, virtuoso technique, and knowledge (both comprehensive and deep) of a field and its tradition--but those qualities, far from being sufficient in themselves, are merely the requisite skills to the implementation of a conceptual vision, or "plan." Moreover, in addition to possessing an unwavering commitment to an original plan, the rare artist who earns the title "genius" will exhibit two other qualities: 1. a tolerance for rejection, pain and suffering exceeding the threshold of most "normal" individuals; 2. courage, or a sense of fearlessness, that surpasses not merely the boldness of the average person but the ability to comprehend it. In the second half of its history, jazz can claim two indisputable geniuses--John Coltrane and Bill Evans. Moreover, in comparison to the wildly experimental, frequently opaque and non-musical trajectory of Coltrane's final two years, Bill Evans' pursuit of beauty played itself out, in direct contradistinction to his chaotic personal life, like a single-minded, purposeful narrative--at once a grand "requiem" and an astonishing "apotheosis" of its creator. Ellington, Armstrong, Parker, Coltrane--the title "genius" befits each--and if it belongs to no more than one additional artist, that claimant is necessarily Bill Evans.
Contrary to "received opinion," Evans did not decline either pianistically or musically following his early work with Miles ("Kind of Blue," "On Green Dolphin Street") and Scott LaFaro ("Jazz Portrait," "The Vanguard Sessions"). (Unbelievable as it may seem to some students of Bill's music, a number of Evans' detractors have emerged with insistent complaints, each of which is easily refuted by anyone with the patience to listen: "He can't play the blues;" "He rushes;" "He doesn't swing." All are trumped-up charges against one of the two most influential jazz musicians of the last 60 years (give Coltrane his due--some will insist on the inclusion of Miles, though he didn't change the "language" of the music as did Bill and Trane). Bill's playing would come to fruition in the dense textures and rhythmic tensions of his final period, evolving over two decades from the nuanced "Romantic impressionism" of the LaFaro recordings to the overpowering "Romantic expressionism" of his final trio with Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera. As the textures became denser and darker (compare the 1961 version of "I Love You, Porgy" from "Jazz Portrait" to the full-blown treatment of the tune from the 1979 "Paris Concert"), Bill would pursue a path of rhythmic displacement, or "anticipatory phrasing," to its fullest realization in the remarkable recordings made the week before his death.
This Fantasy set includes Bill's revealing conversation with Marian McPartland, during which he explains and demonstrates a life-long project. Unfortunately, it does not include the full evidence of the outcome. From September 1979 to September 1980 Bill would be engaged in an urgent, continual quest to reinvent the rhythmic role of the piano just as he and LaFaro had redefined the jazz trio format almost 20 years earlier. In the process, the traditional role of bass and drums (with the clap of hi-hat on 2 and 4) would be erased and replaced, as Evans continued to transform popular song into high art, following the lead of Sinatra's 1950s' recordings--or of modern serialist composers' revisiting of sonata form. A "man on a mission," and with limited time to complete it, Evans elected not to spend those precious moments in the studio. It's the posthumous evidence of the on-location recordings that testifies to the artist's unequaled outburst of expressive splendor, as he employed widening contrasts in dynamic scale while executing his ideas with an ever-stronger "touch" (Bill's mechanical positioning along with his powerful shoulders and enormous hands always gave him an immediate advantage over other pianists). But the other necessary factor in Bill Evans' "coming of age" was a rhythm section arguably more in sympathy with the artist's bold new concepts than the celebrated early LaFaro trio.
By the time of the 1979 conversation with McPartland, the key to the powerful, addictive hold of Bill Evans' late music comes into sharp focus: the artist's obsessive "aversion to closure." Though Bill's body would fail him abruptly in September 1980, his playing never seemed to come to a cadence--or, more likely, it simply would not tolerate a moment of stasis, or of "musical respite." Lunging ahead of the time into the next measure, and then the next and the next, often in succession, Bill's pulse remains always "in front" of the meter than would regulate his activity (a practice that during one concert unnerved Lee Konitz so completely that the altoist departed early in an ambulance bound for a hospital's emergency heart clinic!). The same can be heard in Bill's refusing to end even a ballad like Van Heusen's "But Beautiful" with any suggestion of closure (on the final recordings he finishes the tune with clusters of thunderous, dissonant pedaled notes in the lowest register of the piano)--never a simple triad, a posturing meditation, a moment of pastoral pretense. The syntax of Bill's music, like that of William Faulkner's prose during the protracted suicide of Quentin (Chapter 2 of "The Sound and the Fury"), never comes to an end. Music, consciousness, life--the dynamic time-stream that begins with the Romantic artist's discarding his predecessor's "mirror" (the neoclassicist's tool for "imitating nature") in favor of a "lamp" (the Romantic artist's instrument for illuminating the darkest corners of the interior self)--finds its musical equivalent in Bill's ongoing quest to trace the vital spark from its faint beginnings to its ultimate expression of the present moment (a Bergsonian "specious present" in contrast to mechanical chronology). Although the aversion to closure can be noted even in an early influential Evans' recording like "Peace Piece," it is in the late work that an early nascent spark becomes eruptive hanging fire.
Regard this recording as mere preparation for the last, and best: the 2-volume "Paris Concert" (1979) and the "epic" 8-night performance immediately preceding his death ("Last Waltz" and "Consecration")--at once a sublime and breath-taking requiem and an awe-inspiring valedictory that--akin to Coltrane's Promethean quest but rising above it--remains a beacon to all who dare to follow a remarkable artist at his most extraordinary, or epiphanic, moment. Especially to those familiar with the Western Romantic movement of the early 19th century, along with its art and artists, Bill Evans' final musical performance (a "statement" comprising 16 CDs!) can exert a magnetic, prioritizing "hold" that threatens to dwarf all other art --the music is now more akin to late Ravel than to Debussy--or to the dark complexity of Coleridge than to the pastoral innocence of Wordsworth.
[Note: As an Evans' "completist, I'm all too aware of the recordings that disappoint. Frequently, the caretakers of Bill's piano fail him in their inadequate reproductions of his sound--and the worst offenders aren't necessarily the many "bootleg" recordings. On some Verve recordings as well as a recently-released 1968 on-location session ("At the Top of the Gate"), the representation of Bill's piano sound as well as the imaging of the ensemble's "sound stage" are sufficiently flawed to make attentive listening a painful experience. As a rule, the early Riverside recordings and the late Fantasy recordings don't disappoint--except when, as is the case with the present collection, they fall way short of the claimed completeness]