RESONANCE • 1968/2016
Some Other Time is a newly unearthed Bill Evans studio album, initially recorded in 1968 in Germany but not released until this month. It still sounds fresh and alive almost 50 years later.
23 April 2016
Casual jazz fans know Bill Evans through his association with Miles Davis. Kind of Blue, the one jazz album you own if you only own one, features Evans on piano on four of the five tracks, and his brief liner notes sketch out the group's approach to improvisation in poetic and accessible terms. When you learn a bit more about Kind of Blue, you learn that Davis actually envisioned the record with Evans in mind. And though for years Davis was listed as the album's sole composer, Evans wrote "Blue in Green" (he eventually received credit.)
Another Kind of Blue piece, "Flamenco Sketches," was partly based on Evans' arrangement of "Some Other Time," the Leonard Bernstein standard. (Evans had earlier used the slow opening vamp as a building block to his breathtaking solo piano composition "Peace Piece"). So though he may not be an especially famous jazz musician, Bill Evans played an integral role in shaping the most famous jazz recording of all time, and the arc of his discography is a rewarding one for those branching off from classic Miles. "Some Other Time" continued to be a touchstone piece for Evans for the rest of his life, appearing regularly on his albums (notably on his duet record with Tony Bennett). And now it's become the title track to a newly unearthed studio album, one recorded in 1968 in Germany but not released until this month.
Jazz in general overflows with archival material. It's a live medium, and recordings of shows have been common since the early part of the last century. Studio LPs could typically be cut in a couple of days, which generally meant a wealth of unused songs and outtakes. But it's somewhat rare to have a true unreleased album—a collection of songs recorded together at a session with the thought of a specific release that never saw the light of day.
Some Other Time: The Lost Session From the Black Forest is one of these. It was recorded when Evans was on tour in Europe with a trio that included Eddie Gomez on bass and, on drums, a young Jack DeJohnette, who would go on to much greater fame with Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, and as a leader himself. It was cut between stops on a European tour by German producer Joachim-Ernst Berendt, with the idea that the rights and a release plan would be figured out later. This particular group had only been documented on record just once, onAt the Montreux Jazz Festival, recorded five days prior to this date. So the existence of an unheard studio album by the trio is a significant addition to the Evans story.
The piano/bass/drums trio setting is where Evans did his most important and lasting work. He thrived on both the limitations and the possibilities of the set-up, and returned to it constantly over the course of his quarter-century recording career. He generally favored truly collaborative improvising in the setup; the bassist in his trio was expected to contribute melodically and harmonically, in addition to rhythmically, and he could often be heard soloing alongside the pianist. Eddie Gomez, heard on this album, was a steady partner of Evans' for a decade, and the level of empathy between the two players is something to behold. On "What Kind of Fool Am I?," Gomez's dancing lines darts between Evans' bass notes, almost serving as a third hand on the piano. On the immortal title track, Gomez seems like half a conversation, accenting and commenting on Evans' melodic flourishes. For his part, DeJohnette offers tasteful and low-key accompaniment, heavy on the brushwork and soft textures on cymbals—he was more of a role-player at this point in his career. But the three together feel like a true unit.
The tracklist on Some Other Time is heavy on standards, with a few Evans original sprinkled in. To love the American songbook is to be in love with harmony, and Evans never stopped discovering new possibilities in old and frequently played songs. He had a way of phrasing chord progressions for maximum impact, and he used space as virtually another instrument. Evans recorded "My Funny Valentine" many times in a number of different arrangements, often uptempo, but here he drags it out into an achingly poignant ballad that picks up speed as it goes. In his autobiography, Miles Davis famously described Evans' tone as sounding like "like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall," and the tumble of notes on the faster sections of "My Funny Valentine" evince that crystalline loveliness. In addition to the material planned for the original LP, there's a second LP of outtakes and alternate versions that feels very much on par with the first disc.
Evans' art has endured in part because he has a brilliant combination of formal sophistication and accessibility; critics and his fellow musicians heard the genius in his approach to chords, his lightness of touch, and his open-eared support of others in his band, while listeners could put on his records and simply bask in their beauty, how Evans' continual foregrounding of emotion made the sad songs extra wrenching and the happy ones extra buoyant. He was sometimes criticized for an approach that could sound like "cocktail piano," meaning that it wasn't terribly heavy on dynamics and tended to be lower key and generally pretty, but this turned out to be another strength. If you wanted jazz in the background while engaging in another activity, Evans was your man, and if you wanted to listen closely and hear a standard like "Some Other Time" pushed to the limits of expression by his ear for space, he was there for that too.
Evans was one of those jazz artists who changed relatively little over the course of their career. His style developed and his sound had subtle shifts in emphasis over time, but his general approach to music was remarkably consistent, and he remained apart from most of the fashionable trends that wound through the jazz of his era. His first studio date as a leader, in 1956, was just a year after Charlie Parker's death, with bebop very much still au courant; his last, in 1979, the year before his death, was the year Chuck Mangione was nominated for a Grammy for the discofied light jazz funk of "Feels So Good." In both of those years, Evans recorded small-group acoustic jazz albums featuring his standard trio, playing a mix of standards and a few originals. About midway between those two bookends came this set, recorded in a small studio in Germany and left on the shelf, and it still sounds fresh and alive almost 50 years later.