While it’s often difficult to get an informed consensus on anything that involves jazz, it’s generally agreed nowadays that Bill Evans (1929–80) is the most influential jazz pianist of the last four decades. Why? Evans combined lyricism, harmonic richness, and such pianistic influences as Nat "King" Cole, Lennie Tristano, Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Sonny Clark, Red Garland, and others; all these elements merged into the unique voice that was Bill Evans’s. He also revolutionized the piano-bass-drums trio and made it a much more interactive and conversational entity.
After making his biggest early impact with Miles Davis (in 1958 and 1959) and as a leader on a series of recordings for the Riverside label, Evans spent most of the 1960s as a Verve artist; this period was crucial in expanding both his artistic spectrum and his visibility. One of his first projects for Verve was an album that is regarded by many as one of his finest: Conversations With Myself. On this recording, he overdubbed himself with two additional piano tracks, thus giving us three Bill Evanses at once. Other projects included the pianist’s 1964 studio collaboration with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Elvin Jones.
However brilliant he was in such ad hoc projects, Evans made his most important contributions through his trios, including a short-lived but memorable unit with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian. (Motian had also played in one of Evans’s greatest trios, the 1959–61 unit with Scott LaFaro, the innovative bassist who died tragically in a car accident.) Other associates included bassists Chuck Israels and Eddie Gomez (the pianist’s eleven-year partner), and drummers, Larry Bunker, Jack DeJohnette, Philly Joe Jones, and Arnie Wise.
Bill Evans’s career continued for another decade after his association with Verve ended. When he died (of the effects of cocaine addiction) in 1980, he was at the peak of his musical powers, making his death at age fifty-one all the more devastating for the jazz community. Since his passing, his influence has, if anything, increased, thanks to both his contemporaries and two subsequent generations of musicians. And his recordings continue to captivate listeners.
Bill Kirchner, November 2000
Excerpted from Bill Evans’s Finest Hour