By: Ron Hart
Toward the end of his life, pianist Bill Evans' image was the exact opposite of the button-down, bespectacled young square who first burst onto the jazz scene in 1956 as the rising young lion on the jazz circuit who landed into history as the piano player for Miles Davis' 1958 masterwork Kind of Blue. Rocking a gentleman's mullet, full beard and wire-frame glasses with the tint, Evans looked more like he should have been sitting beside Scott Muni during the afternoon drive shift on WNEW than masterminding some of the most elegant piano jazz ever recorded. And even though he let himself go towards the end of his life, augmented by an insatiable drug habit, he never let his debilitating dalliances affect his stature behind the baby grand.
Now back in print after almost a decade in label merger limbo on Nonesuch, this 8-disc box set documenting Evans' final stand at his beloved Village Vanguard is a brilliant view into the artistry of a genius moments before his departure from this earth. Recorded during the first week of June 1980, just three months before Evans died of a toxic cocktail of afflictions stemming from his cocaine habit, one could hardly tell the man was in turmoil from the utter beauty of these performances. Flanked by bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera, the counterparts to what was known as Evans' most fluid trio since his storied '61 group with drummer Paul Motian and the late, great Scott LaFaro on bass, Bill Evans interacts with his players with the grace of an agile cat. On every set they played on this five-night stand the trio never skipped a beat, balancing the fine line between rhythm and melody across stirring takes on such Evans live staples as "My Foolish Heart," Miles Davis' "Nardis" - highlighted each time by a mind-bending drum solo from LaBarbera - and the Johnny Mercer/Henry Mancini chestnut "Days of Wine and Roses." Many of the songs featured on Turn Out The Stars: The Final Village Vanguard Recordings were more recent Evans compositions from his Warner Bros. titles, like "Bill's Hit Tune" and "Laurie" off 1979's excellent We Will Meet Again and his heartbreaking version of "Suicide Is Painless," the theme song to the hit TV show M*A*S*H he covered for his 1980 studio swan song, You Must Believe In Spring, which he only performed one time during his final Village Vanguard stand and can be found on Disc Three of this set.
Any serious fan of Bill Evans' music should feel the need to own Turn Out The Stars. Not only does it serve as the perfect bookend to the piano great's equally indispensable 2005 three-disc set chronicling his complete 1961 Vanguard run with his classic trio of LaFaro and Motian, but it also offers its listener a keen view into the promise of a bold, new future with his last trio - a future that was snuffed out far too soon, leaving a gaping hole in the jazz continuum that still remains unhealed to this very day. But, as it is so indubitably expressed in this fascinating box set, Bill Evans might not have left us under the best circumstances, suffering in the end with a combination of a bleeding ulcer, cirrhosis of the liver and a fatal case of pneumonia, but he never let the hurt hinder his exquisite musicianship, even up until the very end.
JamBase | Remembering
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