Thank Evans

Jazz - Richard Cook on an influential pianist embattled by addiction

Bill Evans was not the greatest of jazz pianists, but he has probably been the most influential. His romantic, vigorous, songful manner has found its way into not only every kind of contemporary jazz, but every intermission pianist, every commercial, every style that calls for something that will appease the ear without insulting it. He had an unassuming personality, but he managed to have a profound impact, not only on other pianists, but on the men he worked for: such as Miles Davis, whose 1959 masterpiece, Kind of Blue, depended heavily on Evans's involvement. Evans died in 1980, having battled for much of his adult life with addictions of various kinds, and it was a particularly cruel irony that someone so admired for his dedication to beauty should have been cut down by a squalid dependency.

He worked, however, right until the end of that life, and the microphones seemed always to be nearby to catch him. Two weeks before his death, Evans took his trio to San Francisco's Keystone Korner, and they played for eight consecutive evenings (he played two further nights of a New York engagement, but then succumbed to his illness). The music of those Californian dates has been called up and released as a voluminous eight-CD set, The Last Waltz (Milestone). It's an unsparing look at men at work. Evans, the bassist Marc Johnson and the drummer Joe LaBarbera play one set after another, returning to the same songs - there are, for instance, six versions of "Nardis" - and looking for ways to balance the requirements of the gig with the jazzman's perennial quest to make the tunes new.

Played end to end, the music is rather exhausting - trust the record industry to milk an artist's musings to their furthest extreme - but the results are a strange mix of poignancy, exhilaration and a headlong intensity. Evans is revered for his exquisite touch, yet what one hears in these very final sessions is a sometimes brutal recasting of himself - an exhibition of a man battering away at his own golden instincts.

His most famous composition is the unfailingly charming "Waltz for Debby", a tune as memorable as a nursery rhyme, with a notably sophisticated backbone. Evans plays it only once across these eight discs, but his final recording of it is disappointingly fast - not hurried, just too quick. It is as if he was so intent on getting through this final period that he felt he had no time to linger on the glowing details that inform all his finest music. The notes accompanying the set reveal that Evans had a pretty good idea of the stage his illness was at, and although attempts were made to bring him the necessary medical attention, he preferred to seek the sanctuary of his own performance. There is nothing in his execution of this music to suggest that there was any decline in his powers: if anything, as admirers are quick to point out, he sounds galvanised. But that was not the point of Evans's music. The meditative, luminous beauty of his greatest records is here set aside for a kind of overwound intensity. Tempos are faster, and matters of detail are glossed over in favour of a sometimes chest-beating display of prowess.

The amazing thing is how graciously he could disguise his condition, as far as his listeners were concerned. Unless you were especially close to the pianist and the man, you might have sat in this audience and marvelled at the inventiveness on show. Some of the most affecting moments come on the very first disc, where he speaks to the audience about the tunes he is playing, apologises for the absence of the drummer at the beginning ("Looks like Joe might be in the men's room or some-thing"), then plays a beautiful little miniature, Cole Porter's neglected "After You, Who?", by himself. But now, after the fact, we are conditioned by the historical circumstances: perhaps it is impossible to listen to this music, in the knowledge of the artist's situation, and hear it any other way.

One of the casualties of the CD era has been recording as an impartial witness. Do we need to hear this final week of Bill Evans's working life, as comprehensively and in as much close-up as this? More than most jazz artists, Evans has been memorialised by huge boxed sets. His complete recordings for Riverside and Fantasy have been issued in bulky editions as heavy as tombstones. This line-by-line journey through his every drawn breath could be considered ghoulish. And yet, as his followers insist, Evans was the original who mapped the way forward for so many others. The first of these six versions of "Nardis" still has enough in it to be the despair of many an aspiring piano player - and that is just seven minutes out of nearly eight hours of playing.

The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD by Richard Cook and Brian Morton is available from all good bookshops (£20)