Bill Evans may have been the greatest jazz pianist ever, but his life was, unfortunately, too short. Born in 1929, he died on September 15, 1980, of a bleeding ulcer, cirrhosis and pneumonia. A drug addict for much of his career – he had periods where he was hooked on heroin, and others on cocaine – his death was what a friend called “the longest suicide in history.”
Yet when Bill Evans sat down at the piano, magic come from his fingers. From playing piano as a sideman, such as on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, widely considered to be the best jazz album of all time, to his first live recordings, Live at the Village Vanguard, made in 1961, and through dozens of solo and trio recordings over the following two decades.
In 1980, Evans didn’t know he was at the end, but there is a feeling of wistful nostalgia in his live performances of those last months. Fortunately, many of them were recorded, and there are three essential box sets of music from this period.
In June 1980, Evans played several dates at the Village Vanguard, and a six-disc set of these performances, Turn Out the Stars, was released in 1996. Recorded from June 4 to June 8, with bass player Marc Johnson, and drummer Joe LaBarbera, there is just over six and a half hours of music on this set, with notably a number of very long performances of Miles Davis’ Nardis, which was Evans’ signature jamming song. (It allowed both the bass player and drummer to take extensive solos.)
From August 31 to September 8, 1980, Evans played a series of dates at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco. Again, there are extensive recordings of these shows, with two 8-CD box sets available: The Last Waltz contains music from the first sets, and Consecration has tracks from the second sets. Just a week before his death, Evans was playing some of his finest performances. These were recorded on the sly, but the quality of the sound is excellent.
Evans played a combination of standards and his own compositions, and his improvisational ability is such that you barely notice it at times; it often sounds like the songs were written exactly as he played them, but as you listen to different versions, you can hear the changes.
I have long loved Evans’ music, and particularly these recordings from the end of his life. I first bought Turn Out the Stars in 1996, after listening to bits of it at a record store. My knowledge of jazz was quite limited then (and isn’t a whole lot more extensive now), but I immediately heard Evans’ masterful playing. When the other two box sets came out in 2000 and 2002, I bought them immediately. I have many Bill Evans recordings – I bought a couple of box sets of his complete recordings on different labels – but these are the ones I return to most, along with the 1961 Village Vanguard recordings. If you like jazz piano, these are essential recordings to own. If you just want one of the sets, I’d recommend Turn Out the Stars, which, with six discs, covers a wide variety of the songs Evans played.