Without him, Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau and a few thousand other jazz pianists would play differently. More than forty years after his death, the legacy of Bill Evans hasn’t lost any of its influence. On the contrary, it is difficult to sort through his bottomless discography without finding even an incidental recording that doesn’t tower above 90% of the competition. Here are 10 of his albums, subjectively selected…

“Bill Evans had a huge influence on my playing and my style of arrangement, especially regarding a certain orchestral conception that I develop as I play. The use of counterpoint, ostinatos, all of that is very orchestral. I didn’t realize it until later in my career. That’s very common in the life of an artist: often, we play what we hear, and it’s only later that we can stop and think, and that’s when you discern the working of your influences…” That testimonial by Herbie Hancock was added to hundreds of other encomiums praising the artist who died 40 years ago on September 15, 1980, at the age of 51. Bill Evans’ influence on his peers – and not just pianists – seems only to grow as the years pass. The formal and technical legacy he leaves, like his massive discography (with over 70 albums as band leader or co-leader between 1959 and 1980, he was one of the most well-recorded jazzmen during his lifetime), remains endlessly captivating. Evans’ life, marked by long episodes of heroin and later cocaine addiction and haunted by death and suicide, was a long and rocky road. The storm was within. Evans remains captivating for his stylistic obsessions, relationship to recording and the repertoire of standards he revisited again and again, not to mention his endless reflection on the piano/bass/drums trio, his favourite configuration and the one most often celebrated in the history of jazz.

Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)

Kind of Blue is often heralded as the greatest album of all time. And while his face and name adorn the cover art, Miles Davis has never concealed that his modal jazz masterpiece was conceived around the playing of Bill Evans. Marked by the influence of Bud Powell, Nat King Cole and Lennie Tristano, the pianist was already shaking up the jazz world with his first two albums (New Jazz Conceptions in February 1957 and especially the aptly named Everybody Digs Bill Evans in March 1959), but it was Kind of Blue – also featuring saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, double bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb – that brought him to the fore. Opening a new path, it is the perfect transition between harmonically-loaded hard bop and a modal period leaving more space for wider harmonic range and therefore more conducive to creative improvisation… It was Evans who introduced Davis to many classical composers like Bartók and Ravel, who had used modal themes in their compositions. The trumpeter also drew on his knowledge of modal elements of the blues. He and the pianist conceived some sketches of musical themes for the other musicians arriving in the studio on March 2, 1959. Miles Davis was obsessed with spontaneity and improv in his sidemen, wanting to capture it on the first take. For the first time in his career, he’d found a pianist as devoted to economy, space and silence as he was, as illustrated by the final track on the album, Flamenco Sketches co-written by Bill Evans. “I fell in love with the way he played.” remembered Miles. “He had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.”

Portrait in Jazz (Riverside, 1960)

When he recorded Portrait in Jazz, Bill Evans was already 30, with 3 albums as bandleader to his credit (New Jazz Conceptions, Everybody Digs Bill Evans and On Green Dolphin Street) and numerous collaborations as a sideman with the likes of George Russell, Tony Scott, Charles Mingus, Helen Merrill, Eddie Costa and above all Miles on the legendary Kind of Blue recorded 10 months earlier. In short, the pianist had already been hailed by all the international critics, with his every action scrutinized. In the session held on December 28, 1959, he was joined by double bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, the first time the trio had recorded. And what a trio – perhaps the greatest, most inspired in the history of jazz! No more ‘King Pianist’ with his rhythmic courtiers there to pass the dishes and pick up the crumbs – the exchanges were suddenly real, the conversations passionate between three musicians already perfectly balanced in their technique and offerings. LaFaro’s parts upended the conventions of double bass, which had rarely been as expressive as it is here. As proof, consider the version of Autumn Leaves, ringing out like a manifesto of simultaneous improvisation. The chemistry between the three American musicians still hadn’t reached the level it would in the famed June 1961 concerts in the Village Vanguard, but Portrait in Jazz already offers revolutionary readings of oft-recorded standards such as Come Rain or Come Shine, When I Fall in Love and What Is This Thing Called Love? Bill Evans’ piano explores the full spectrum of the instrument, bounding into a perfectly articulated swing and as melancholy as possible in the most introspective moments. An already legendary episode in the history of the trio – and a history all too brief, brutally cut short on July 6, 1961 when LaFaro was killed in a car accident at the age of just 25.

Bill Evans - Nardis - 1970

Leandro Haro

Waltz for Debby (Riverside, 1962)

Inseparable from Sunday at the Village Vanguard, recorded on June 25, 1961 in the same legendary New York club, the live Waltz for Debby captures the expansive growth of the metaphysical understanding between Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. However, the real highlight of the impressionist trio was the chemistry between Evans and LaFaro. “It was not just a musical experience,” the pianist would later say. “Scott was one of the most lively people I’ve ever known. He has always been a source of inspiration to me. I don’t know what would have happened if he hadn’t died. He had progressed so amazingly fast.” That early summer Sunday in 1961, on the old Steinway in the Vanguard, Bill Evans unfurled a set filled with emotion without ever being tearful. Rarely before had that powerful element of his piano DNA been on such emphatic display. This subtle music has a stunning romanticism that never gives way to simple skill or facility. It is immortalized in My Foolish Heart, the Victor Young and Ned Washington standard that opens the album, interpreted without maudlin emotion by the three musicians. The elegance of the trio would be cut short just 10 days after the concert with the death of Scott LaFaro on U.S. Highway 20 in New York state between Geneva and Canandaigua…

Empathy (Verve, 1962)

In 1962, for his first recording for the Verve label, Bill Evans was accompanied by two new partners, the great west coast jazz drummer Shelly Manne and double bassist Monty Budwig. Recorded by Creed Taylor (producer of legendary The Girl from Ipanema by Jobim) in August 1962, Empathy was an unplanned record, as initially, Shelly Manne & His Men were performing in the Village Vanguard in New York on the same night as the Evans trio. Taylor secured an agreement with Riverside, the pianist’s label, to organize a session with him, Manne and his bassist Monty Budwig in famed sound engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. The result is fascinating, as Bill Evans sounds lighter – but no less exciting – than on his recent albums. His playing is tight and each phrase gets right to the point. The impressionistic pianist faced a more rugged landscape, and the muscularly swinging drummer became more lyrical. In short, each man advanced over unfamiliar musical terrain. “When I play with Bill, Shelly Manne explains, “I try not to get in his way because everything he does is so important.” The one-day episode (although 4 years later, the two men would reunite for A Simple Matter of Conviction with Eddie Gomez on double bass) worked to perfection. Lean and ultra-precise, Empathy is far less anecdotal than it seems.

Undercurrent (United Artists, 1963)

The first time Bill Evans set foot in a recording studio after the untimely death of Scott LaFaro, he did so with neither double bassist or drummer. On April 24, 1962, the 30-year-old guitarist sitting next to him, fresh from playing just two months earlier on saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ masterpiece The Bridge, is as understated as he is talented. Jim Hall was a kind of Evans double, a champion of purity who, like the pianist, loved silence as much as the notes and constantly recharged his creative batteries through classical music. An introspective aesthete who refused to indulge in the virtuoso pyrotechnics so beloved by the majority of jazz guitarists. The mimicry between the two men was almost unsettling but never impaired the intelligence of the music they performed. Hall’s guitar would sometimes even sound like a piano, making Undercurrent even more singular and striking. “It’s so easy to work with Bill. It’s as if he is constantly reading your mind. When I played rhythm, which he seemed to like, he automatically used little or no left hand, aware that I was occupying that territory.” The duo would reform in 1966 to record the Verve album Intermodulation, an equally essential recording.

Conversations with Myself (Verve, 1963)

For his second album for Verve, Bill Evans’ two accomplices were… Bill Evans and Bill Evans. Conversations with Myself, as the title indicates, captures an exciting experience in re-recording. The pianist doesn’t just stack three overdubbed piano tracks upon each other but re-thinks his music in three very distinct ways. Each track is a state of mind from a full-fledged artist. Behind that schizophrenic façade, Evans conjures completely accomplished recordings. Within this gigantic mirror effect, the lyricism of his piano takes on an even more infinite dimension, as in the theme for director Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus composed by Alex North. In a few seconds, the listener forgets the novelty/gadget aspect to concentrate on the complex and beautiful melodic interlacing. Bill Evans would repeat the experience twice: in 1967 with Further Conversations with Myself and in 1978 with New Conversations on which he played a Fender Rhodes.

At the Montreux Jazz Festival (Verve, 1968)

While Bill Evans always forged long-term bonds with his bassists, his relationships with drummers was always, shall we say… complex? When he appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival on June 15, 1968 with Eddie Gómez, the Puerto Rican bassist who would spend more than a decade by his side, he had no idea that the 25-year-old musician behind the traps, who’d made his name in the Charles Lloyd’s group, was about to transform the incipient live album into a pure masterpiece. Jack DeJohnette was ready to shake up Evans’ art with playing that was muscular and above all, relevant. These are daring musical phrases that still swing mightily, their zenith being the nuclear solo in Nardis. Playing the pianist’s favourite repertoire – Some Day My Prince Will Come and A Sleepin’ BeeDeJohnette unfolds an unprecedented freshness that inspires Bill Evans and pushes him to play beyond his own boundaries. Small wonder that the young drummer also knew the piano well, having played it as his first instrument… And let’s not forget Eddie Gómez who, in his Embraceable You solo, reminds us that he is a musical daredevil, a bulwark against the temptations of prettiness or sentimentality, as Evans himself would say…

Intuition (Fantasy, 1975)

While the trio remained his favourite configuration, Bill Evans always liked to shake things up. Solo, sextet, big band/orchestra (the stunning Living Time conducted by George Russell) and duo, as on this superb album recorded in November 1974 in California with Eddie Gómez, undoubtedly the double bassist with whom he enjoyed the closest harmonic convergence after the late LaFaro. Still resistant to most “modernist” inclinations (in the midst of the jazz-rock/jazz-fusion boom), the musician nonetheless has fun with his Fender Rhodes. “Electric piano is an instrument I consider a bit like the celesta or glockenspiel”, he explained in an interview with Jazz Magazine when the album was released. “From time to time, it feels good, it’s refreshing, it diversifies the sound. For certain things, like fast pieces, it’s perfect… But I remain very attached to the acoustic. For me, playing nothing but electric piano would be a disaster. There are just a lot of things that don’t work. But it’s useful for adding a bit of contrast.” And Intuition certainly does bring a certain contrast to a musical palette that remains characteristically “Evans”. Sound engineer Don Cody used a very precise filter, the Maestro Phaser, to achieve a singular Rhodes sound that perfectly pairs with the acoustic piano. With no drummer, the two men venture even further in their melodic explorations, managing as always to avoid the pitfalls of sentimentality. “Playing with only a bassist opens up new possibilities, it widens the space of the sound.” And when that bass is as inspiring and adventurous as Gómez’, the sky’s the limit! Fans of this fabulous duo can enjoy them further on the albums Eloquence (1975) and Montreux III (1976).

Bill Evans Live at Molde Jazz Festival (1980 Live Video)


You Must Believe in Spring (Warner Bros., 1981)

And if you could only keep one album… Recorded in August 1977 at Capitol studios in Los Angeles, the poignant You Must Believe in Spring, released 5 months after Bill Evans’ death, is a new pinnacle of pure musical beauty – distilled in sadness. The indispensable Eddie Gómez is obviously in the house, but steps lightly here, less voluble than usual. Drummer Eliot Zigmund, whom he met a year earlier, is equally impressionistic in his delicate use of the sticks and brushes. It’s an unprecedentedly melodic rhythm section that seems to have been designed exclusively to play with Evans… The posthumous album was finalized by Helen Keane, the pianist’s manager and producer, deliberately giving the album a melancholy, even dark tone. Death lurks in every song chosen. B Minor Waltz is dedicated to Ellaine Schultz, the pianist’s ex, who committed suicide by throwing herself under a subway train in 1973. We Will Meet Again is a tribute to Harry Evans, his brother and also a pianist, who committed suicide in 1979 (after the recording sessions). Finally, the theme to Robert Altman’s film M.A.S.H., written by Johnny Mandel, is subtitled Suicide is Painless. Through it all, Bill Evans and his rhythm section glorify and elevate the melancholy on what is without doubt his most moving record.

The Paris Concert: Edition One + Edition Two (Elektra/Musician, 1983 & 1984)

He is just 50 and yet bears all the weary stigma of an old man. When he stopped over in Paris, at Espace Cardin, on November 26, 1979, Bill Evans had still not recovered from his brother’s suicide a few months earlier. His body, ravaged by heroin and cocaine, was held upright by music alone. With a young rhythm section of double bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera, he nonetheless achieves a paranormal grace, as if liberated from his daily suffering. This live set, released in two parts in 1983 and 1984, perfectly captures this unexpected resurrection. Did some intuitive sense that the end was near empower Bill Evans to rediscover the verve of his legendary Village Vanguard trio? Johnson brings him the youthful exuberance of Scott LaFaro and, in some improvisations, pushes him to more and more creativity. His piano in the 17 minutes of Nardis, a Miles standard he played throughout his life, is quite unprecedented. The feeling is similar in Quiet Now by Denny Zeitlin, with LaBarbera’s endlessly subtle work. In short, the Paris Concert perfectly encapsulates the idea that, when facing death, your entire life flashes before your eyes.