In late 1976, Bill Evans wasn’t exactly cool.
As jazz had gone off in explosive, electric directions, his music was steadfastly traditional and acoustic. He experimented with an electric piano on records, sure, but he wasn’t about to play a modded-out rig like Jan Hammer, Joe Zawinul, or Herbie Hancock was employing. Instead he recorded albums with Stan Getz and Tony Bennett and toured extensively as a trio. His lone concession to the times:
He grew his hair out.
However, a good 40 years later, Evans reluctance to stay with the currents has meant his music has aged incredibly well. There’s no dated synth instruments, no excessive jam sessions, and, most importantly of all, the way his music clicks in a trio setting, sounding both introspective and telepathic. The new Fantasy Records release, On a Monday Evening is a great example of this period.
In November 1976, Bill Evans played at the University of Wisconsin for what one imagines was a mostly young crowd.
In tow were long-time bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Eliot Zigmond, who’d only been with Evans for about a year. Before the show, Evans was interviewed by two college DJs; they recorded the evening’s concert on the station’s equipment. The shows have sat unissued until now.
This was an interesting point in Evans too-short career. Generally, the mid-70s are overlooked in favour of his recordings with Paul Motion and Scott LaFaro, Gomez and Marty Morell, or the final trio of Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbara. But this period shows him as a strong player, able to whip out lyrical phrases almost on a whim, and having an exceptionally strong connection with Gomez.
The concert opens with “Sugar Plum,” giving Evans an explosive entrance and a chance to show off some tricky phrases right off the bat.
The rhythm section doesn’t make an appearance until nearly halfway through, when Zigmond comes in with a crash and Gomez starts soloing. As a trio, they’d been together for only a short time, but the interplay between them is nearly telepathic. They’re almost able to anticipate where everyone else is going.
Indeed, the playing’s strong throughout On a Monday Evening. “Up With the Lark” has Evans running up and down the keyboard, pushing his playing to a fever pitch and pulling back just as Gomez starts soloing. But it’s not all flash and flourish: the Evans-composed “Time Remembered” is a slower, more mellow piece with some more restrained playing from Zigmond. When Gomez starts bowing his bass during his solo and Evans answers with slow, deliberate playing, the effect is almost magical.
The concert’s longest piece, and the centrepiece of this show, is a nine-minute version of “All of You.”
This Cole Porter standard wasn’t something he played live around this time – it’s not on either the Turn Out the Stars or The Last Waltz box sets – but a nice throwback to the LaFaro/Motion band. There’s another bowed solo from Gomez and a nice call-response section where Evans and Zigmond trade solos.
In recent years, there’s been a series of great Bill Evans finds. Last year brought the two-disc Some Other Time: The Lost Session From the Black Forest, while Domino’s released several 70s shows this decade. But On a Monday Evening is a standout, a nice live snapshot of a band sadly lacking on record. Evans playing’s on-point, the song selection lets the band show off their chops and this performance holds its own against the many, many live Evans records out there. Perhaps the interplay isn’t as strong as it was on the Gomez/Morell LP Blue in Green, or there isn’t the same range of performances as on Turn Out the Stars, but it’s a welcome issue. Let’s hope there’s more to come from the Evans vault.