September 15 brings the DVD release of Time Remembered, The Life & Music of Bill Evans, a documentary that peers into the life and music of one of jazz’s most celebrated pianists, Bill Evans. September 15 also marks the 36th anniversary of Evans’ untimely death at the age of fifty-one, after enduring decades of tragedy, some self-inflicted, to bring forth a singularly emotional and virtuosic piano at a level that few have since approached and none have since matched.
Produced and directed by Emmy-winning producer and CBS news editor Bruce Spiegel, this narrative was eight years in the making and distills dozens of interviews from friends, band mates and family members including Marty Morrell, Marc Johnson, Tony Bennett, Jim Hall, Jack DeJohnette, Paul Motian, Gary Peacock, Jim Hall, Orrin Keepnews, Chuck Israels, Larry Willis, Eric Reed, Pat Evans (Harry Evans’ widow), Jon Hendricks, Warren Bendhardt, Billy Taylor, Debby Evans (Harry’s daughter), Chris Rudolph (Helen Keane’s son), Joe LaBarbera, Bill Charlap and Gene Lees. Many of those interviewed have themselves passed away since Spiegel began his project, meaning it would have been very difficult if not impossible to gather such quality first hand recollections today.
As Time Remembered runs about an hour and a half long, Bruce Spiegel couldn’t possibly dig deep into all facets of Evans’ life and career, such as his work with George Russell, memorable encounters with Oliver Nelson and Stan Getz or his brief but fascinating experimentation with the electric piano. However, Spiegel leveraged the time well by not only by showcasing Evans’ unique greatness as a performer, composer and leader of some awfully potent trios but also by examining Evans’ personal life (apparently with the blessing of most of Evans’ family) and studied how it informed, intersected — and often ran parallel with — his music.
We learn that Evans’ close bond with older brother Harry was his one lifelong connection that persevered through nearly all of Bills’ tragedies and triumphs, until Harry took his own life in 1978. Connie Atkinson neatly sums up their relationship by saying that “Bill loved Harry and Harry admired Bill.” Harry was two years older than Bill and started playing piano first, stoking his younger brother’s first stirrings of interest in the instrument. Bill was on the road a lot but as Harry’s widow Pat Evans noted, came to visit Harry atBaton Rouge a lot, where Harry lived as a music supervisor and teacher, and the two Plainville, New Jersey natives were ultimately laid to rest next to each other in the Louisiana capital. Many other people in Evans’ life who inevitably found their names on a song title: “Peri’s Scope,” “Re: Person I Knew” (an Orrin Keepnews anagram), a couple tunes referencing Helen Keane and the most famous of all, “Waltz For Debby,” dedicated to his niece Debby.
The documentary didn’t sugarcoat Evans’ infamous drug addiction nor made excuses for it, but attempts to explain it as one piece of a complex persona that was also quiet, introverted, but also funny and generous. We all know that these demons ultimately claimed his life but people involved in his life such as brother Harry, longtime manager/producer Helen Keane and wife Nenette probably succeeded in prolonging the inevitable, of what Gene Lees once described as “the longest suicide in history.”
Though the documentary tightly binds the music to Evans’ bittersweet journey, we find a great paradox in that through all of his ups and downs, the emotional depth and facility of his performances never wavered through broken relationships, suicides of loved ones, the devastating loss of his prodigal bassist Scott LaFaro at the very pinnacle of their careers or the harrowing existence of life as a heroin junkie.
His peers and noted followers who sat down for interviews could only describe Evans music — which is heard all throughout the narrative — in exalted terms especially as they are coming from other, highly accomplished musicians:
Bernhardt: “I never heard him make a harmonic mistake…not one wrong note.”
Peacock: “The way he would do the voicings was such a complete marriage of harmony and counterpoint.”
Hall: “It was like he was a part of my brain, his sense of texture was amazing.”
Charlap: “Just a complete command of the tonal colors of the piano.”
Tony Bennett, like Hall, had a very fruitful collaboration with Evans in the mid 70s when together they made a couple of piano/vocal duet records for the ages, and the pair kept in touch afterwards. Just before Evans died, he told Bennett, “Just go with truth and beauty, and forget the rest.”
The truth and beauty in Evans’ music is impossible to forget. Time Remembered, The Life & Music of Bill Evans makes sure that we don’t.
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