Bill Evans is indisputably one of the most distinctive and influential pianists in jazz history and, in this article, we’ve picked 10 albums which highlight some of the most notable moments in his career.
As a sideman, Bill Evans’ introspective and thoughtful playing was heard on some of the greatest recordings of the 20th Century, while his own groups helped redefine the piano-bass-drums trio as a more interactive, democratic unit.
But there was a sad side to the life of this unique artist.
Evans was plagued by personal problems and addictions, and he was deeply affected by the loss of various loved ones.
This article will take a look, in chronological order, at ten classic albums that tell the story of Bill Evans’ life and career.
He recorded prolifically, so narrowing it down to just 10 records – even though we discounted sideman appearances and only included records on which he was leader or co-leader – was quite the challenge!
“Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall” – Miles Davis
New Jazz Conceptions
William John Evans was born on August 16 1929 in Plainfield, New Jersey, where he learned piano, violin, flute and piccolo as a child.
He studied formal classical music at Southeastern Louisiana University and the Mannes College of Music, as well as doing a stint in an army band.
During this period he was exposed to the music of Milhaud, Stravinsky, Ravel and Debussy, and the sounds of these contemporary and impressionistic classical composers would inform his approach to the piano for the rest of his career.
Evans began listening to jazz – Nat King Cole and Bud Powell were key early influences – and started doing casual freelance work as a pianist in New York as well as playing as a sideman with important names like composer & theorist George Russell.
Guitarist Mundell Lowe played an Evans demo tape to Orrin Keepnews, boss of Riverside Records, over the phone, which persuaded Keepnews to record the young pianist.
In 1957, aged 27, he recorded his debut record, New Jazz Conceptions.
His trio featured bassist Teddy Kotick, a veteran who had already played with the likes of Charlie Parker and Phil Woods, and drummer Paul Motian, who would become a key player in the Evans story over the next few years.
The record received positive reviews but was something of a financial failure in terms of copies sold.
It included the first recording of “Waltz for Debby”, his best known composition and a dedication to his young niece that he would later re-record a number of times.
Everybody Digs Bill Evans
Keepnews had been pestering him to record a second album, but the famously modest and self-critical Evans felt that he “had nothing new to say”.
In 1959 he relented and made Everybody Digs Bill Evans, the cheekily boastful title of which – as well as the glowing quotes on the front cover from Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, George Shearing and Cannonball Adderley – were no doubt the doing of the record label, rather than Evans himself.
Accompanied by the fabulously swinging rhythm section of Sam Jones and Philly Joe Jones, the pianist’s solo on Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” is a jaw-dropping exercise in motivic development and probing, single line improvisation.
Evans had recently begun playing alongside Philly Joe as part of Miles Davis’ sextet. Jones and Evans would play together at various points over the years, with Bill once describing him as his ‘all-time favourite drummer‘.
“Peace Piece” is significant here, in that it can be analysed as a very gentle, contemplative example of early modal jazz, the new development that was being pioneered by Miles Davis and others around this time.
Evans’ ostinato-based improvisation uses one scale over two chords, although he later goes ‘outside’ with some dissonant tones.
This sound world later formed the introduction to “Flamenco Sketches” on Davis’ Kind of Blue.
Portrait in Jazz
In mid-1959 Evans formed a new band with Paul Motian and virtuoso bassist Scott LaFaro.
That December the trio recorded Portrait in Jazz, a brilliant set of seven songbook standards and two original compositions. The interpretation of the standards is mysteriously impressionistic, with the themes sometimes barely referred to, yet the music remains gloriously uplifting and genuinely swinging.
The trio’s focus was on democratic interplay, in contrast to the more directly straight-ahead rhythm section on Everybody Digs Bill Evans, although at this point LaFaro was still often sticking to the traditional walking bass role that was expected of his instrument.
Eight months earlier Evans had appeared on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which is considered by many to be the greatest (not to mention best-selling) jazz album of all time.
Both Kind of Blue and Portrait in Jazz feature the beautiful meditative ballad “Blue in Green”, which has often been credited to Miles Davis, despite long-time speculation that it was actually composed by Evans.
According to the pianist, when he asked Miles for a share of the royalties the trumpeter wrote him a cheque for just $25!
“Peri’s Scope” is named for Peri Cousins, a woman with whom he had his first long-term romance in the late ‘50s.
The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961
In the summer of 1961 the Bill Evans Trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian recorded live at the Village Vanguard, the legendary jazz club of Greenwich Village, New York.
The band’s approach was groundbreaking in the context of the piano trio tradition: where previous groups had tended to feature the piano player very much at the forefront, here the three musicians played almost as equals, in a highly conversational, interactive fashion.
In particular, LaFaro’s bass playing is more broken, varied and soloistic in comparison to his peers, who would traditionally stick largely to walking bass lines whilst accompanying a soloist.
Meanwhile Evans’ deeply personal pianistic voice perfectly marries the influence of his bebop heroes with a more introspective sound coloured by the rich harmonies of the classical music he had studied.
Tragically, Scott LaFaro was killed in a car crash a mere 10 days after these recordings were made, and the jazz world was robbed of one its most talented young bassists. He was aged just 25.
Two albums originally came from this live date: Sunday at the Village Vanguard, which highlighted LaFaro’s contributions in particular, and Waltz For Debby.
They’re considered amongst the best jazz albums ever and are credited with reimagining the scope of the piano trio.
The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 brings together all of this material into one three-disc package.
“Along with Bassist wunderkind Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, Evans perfected his democratic vision of trio cooperation, where all members performed with perfect empathy and telepathy” C. Michael Bailey, All About Jazz
Bill Evans is best known for his inward-looking, quietly playful trio recordings.
But Interplay, recorded in 1962, sees him in a harder-edged quintet setting, with super-swinging hard bop the order of the day.
A very young Freddie Hubbard plays particularly stunning trumpet solos on “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” and Evans’ up-tempo arrangement of “I’ll Never Smile Again”.
The frontline is completed by guitarist Jim Hall, with whom Bill had recorded the classic duo album Undercurrent two months earlier.
Things are a little more subdued on the title track, a cool, intricate blues head by Evans, and on his reharmonisation of “When You Wish Upon a Star”, from the Disney film Pinocchio.
Conversations With Myself
Evans had moved from Riverside to a bigger label in Verve Records, and in 1963 he recorded Conversations With Myself, an overdubbed solo piano album.
On each of the ten tunes he laid down three piano tracks on top of each other, so was in effect improvising with, responding to and accompanying himself.
This approach was mildly controversial, with some considering it tantamount to ‘cheating’, but the album became popular immediately and won him his first Grammy Award.
However, Evans had developed a heroin addiction during the late 1950s, and his devastation following the death of Scott LaFaro only exacerbated this.
His girlfriend at this time was a waitress named Ellaine Schultz, who was also an addict. Despite his burgeoning professional success, his personal life was challenging and he often had to borrow money from friends to stay afloat.
He would go on to repeat the overdubbed solo piano format with Further Conversations with Myself in 1967 and New Conversations in 1978. He also made a number of more conventional solo piano albums, minus the overdubbing, such as 1968’s Alone.
Evans was hit hard by the death of LaFaro, both personally and musically.
It seemed as though he had found the perfect combination of personalities in the LaFaro-Motian rhythm section, and replacing the bassist would now be tough.
Trio 64 is one of his best-known efforts from this period.
It features Motian on drums again, plus Gary Peacock on double bass. A highly versatile musician, Peacock played on Albert Ayler’s landmark free jazz session Spiritual Unity, but was also capable of playing broken, highly creative bass lines in the context of more conventional material.
Decades later he would hold the bass chair in Keith Jarrett’s prolific Standards Trio.
The selection of standards here includes a somewhat surprising rendition of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, interpreted in typically loose fashion.
1962’s How My Heart Sings! is another enjoyable trio record from the era immediately following LaFaro’s death.
Placing Chuck Israels in the bass chair alongside Motian and Evans, it features three wonderful original compositions by the pianist.
The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album
Tony Bennett might seem an unusual collaborative partner for Evans.
The Italian-American crooner was used to making hits fronting big bands and expansive orchestras so, on paper at least, a duo record with this uniquely introspective jazz pianist might seem like an odd match.
But this 1975 album is a cult classic: a highlight of both of these artist’s respective discographies, and Bennett has acknowledged it as one of his finest recordings.
From the emotive “My Foolish Heart” to the quirky “When In Rome”, the choice of repertoire is brilliant, and Evans’ rich accompaniment turns out to be the perfect foil for Bennett’s relaxed but poignant vocal delivery.
The pair teamed up once more in 1977 for Together Again.
“The most powerful thing that he taught me was to search for only truth and beauty” – Tony Bennett
You Must Believe in Spring
One of Bill Evans’ most significant musical relationships in the later half of his career was with Puerto Rican double bassist Eddie Gomez.
Made in 1977 for Warner Bros, this was Gomez’s final recording with the pianist, completing a prolific 11-year stint.
The pair had cut over 20 albums together along with various drummers, including, notably, the great Jack DeJohnette on the Grammy-winning Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
Elliot Zigmund completes the trio on drums on You Must Believe In Spring.
The title track begins and ends with Evans and Gomez in duo rubato time; the bassist’s dextrous technique and soloistic approach make him perfect for the pianist’s democratic trio approach.
Bill’s relationship with Ellaine had broken down after he met Nenette Zazzara, who he would later marry and have a son with. But Ellaine committed suicide a while later, and “B Minor Waltz” is a sad dedication to his former partner.
Bruce Spiegel’s documentary Bill Evans: Time Remembered looks more deeply at the often tragic relationships that informed Bill’s music.
We Will Meet Again
Evans made this, his final studio recording, in 1979, shortly after the suicide of his older brother Harry, who was aged 52 and had suffered with schizophrenia.
Bill was deeply affected by Harry’s death and made this double Grammy Award-winning album as a tribute.
It features a two horn frontline, with Larry Schneider on tenor and soprano saxophones and alto flute, and Tom Harrell in typically sparkling form on trumpet.
The rhythm section of bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera would complete Evans’ final trio, with which he toured during the final years of his life, making a number of live recordings along the way.
“Laurie”, named for his final lover, Canadian waitress Laurie Verchomin, has a modern European, almost ECM-like feel, while there are new quintet arrangements of two old trio favourites: “Five”, a clever ‘Rhythm changes’ head that was first heard on New Jazz Conceptions, and “Peri’s Scope” from Portrait in Jazz.
Two heart-felt solo piano pieces – the title track and the standard “For All We Know” – are particularly poignant, given the album’s theme.
Having apparently gone into something of a decline following the death of his brother, Evans himself passed away on 15th September 1980, prompting an outpouring of grief from the jazz world and beyond. He was 51.
His friend, the writer Gene Lees, famously described Evans’ struggle with drugs as “the longest suicide in history”.
We hope this dive into 10 albums from the Bill Evans discography gave you some inspiration for more of his music to check out.
If you’re interested in reading more, there are two popular Bill Evans biographies: Peter Pettinger’s book “Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings” from 1998 and Keith Shadwick’s “Bill Evans: Everything Happens to Me” (2002).
You can also find all of our jazz instrument-specific articles, including those about learning jazz piano or even finding an online teacher.
The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!