DVD Review: ‘Bill Evans: Time Remembered’

August 21, 2016 1:25 pm Last Updated: August 28, 2016 1:19 pm

Bill Evans (1929–1980) is one of the most influential jazz pianists of all time. 

A new DVD bio, “Bill Evans: Time Remembered/Life and Music of Bill Evans,” presents an overview of his life and contribution to music.

There are remembrances from family members, friends, and fellow musicians who knew him, as well as from some who came afterward. The DVD is filled with excerpts of his recordings and television performances.

Director Bruce Spiegel spent eight years tracking down all the people with memories of Evans. It’s a good thing he did, because a number of them (such as Billy Taylor, Paul Motian, Jim Hall, Bobby Brookmeyer, and Orrin Keepnews) have since passed away.

Evans was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, and started playing piano when he was 6 years old. His main interest was initially classical music, primarily Russian. When he was about 13, he discovered jazz and became obsessed with the music.

He continued his music studies at Southeastern Louisiana College, where his older brother (with whom he was close) joined him as a student. After serving in the Army, Evans lived in New York and performed with various musicians in the area. Jazz guitarist Mundell Lowe called producer Orrin Keepnews at Riverside Records and played a piece of Evans’s over the telephone. It was enough to convince the producer to sign up the unknown musician.

The 90-minute DVD is peppered with excerpts of Evans’s performances.

Evans’s first album, “New Jazz Conceptions” in 1956, sold hardly any copies but contained the classic “Waltz for Debby,” which the pianist wrote for his young niece. The adult Debby Evans provides emotional memories about her uncle in the documentary.  

Evans’s second album, “Everybody Digs Bill Evans,” received more attention than the first, especially among critics and other musicians.

Evans’s career achieved a big boost when he joined Miles Davis’s group in 1958 and then played on the epochal “Kind of Blue” album in the group with John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. (It is the best-selling jazz album of all time and one of the most acclaimed.)

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Davis has said that the album was built around Evans’s piano playing, and despite the fact that Davis is credited with writing all the tunes, Evans is believed to be the composer of “Blue in Green,” and “Flamenco Sketches” bears a resemblance to Evans’s “Peace Piece.”

In 1959, Evans founded his most innovative trio with the legendary bassist Scott LaFaro and with Paul Motian on drums. Their 1961 live recording at the Village Vanguard (originally released as two LPs, but later reissued as a double album set) captured them at their peak.

While earlier trios usually consisted of a piano with two accompanists, in this one the three were improvising together. The virtuosic LaFaro played the bass like a guitar, and Motian was more of a colorist than a timekeeper. There are no more lyrical recordings in jazz than Evans’s recordings of “My Foolish Heart,” “I Loves You, Porgy,” and “Waltz for Debby” and other ballads.

Tragically, young LaFaro (1936–1961) died in a car accident two weeks after the Vanguard sessions. Evans was so broken up that he couldn’t play for months.  

Evans’s Grammy-winning 1963 “Conversations With Myself” was a breakthrough in that he double- and triple-tracked his piano, something that was rarely done at that time.

It’s interesting on the DVD to see a younger pianist, Eric Reed, who didn’t know Evans personally, speak about and demonstrate on the piano the impact of Evans’s music.

Tony Bennett gives his recollections of the classic recordings he made with Evans and describes him as an inspirational figure.

The 90-minute DVD is peppered with excerpts of Evans’s performances, mostly from his television appearances. His appearance changed over the years, from the clean-cut ascetic look of his early days (as pictured on the cover) to the long hair and beard later on, but his playing retained its introspective quality. He always played hunched over the piano, not looking at the keyboard, as if he was in a trance.

The DVD also presents family and friends recalling Evans’s rocky romantic relationships and marriage, and the devastating impact of the pianist’s drug addiction.

“Bill Evans: Time Remembered/Life and Music of Bill Evans” is an invaluable portrait of a unique musician.

 Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.