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BILL EVANS: THE OSLO CONCERTS

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Bill Evans, Eddie Gomez, Alex Riel, Marc Johnson, Joe Barbera
Audio:  Dolby 2.0
Video:  Full Screen, B&W and Color, aspect ratio 1.33:1
Features:  See Review
Studio:  Shanachie
Length:  70 minutes
Release date: January 16, 2007

“Bill had this quiet fire that I have 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.”       -    Miles Davis

Film ***

I have played the piano almost every day since I was about fourteen years old.  My mother has played most of her life, and her mother taught beginner piano for many decades.  So the piano has been a big part of my life and the lives of the women in my family, and the music that has impacted me the most has been largely keyboard-based since it is what I am most comfortable with.  So I have heard my share of piano playing, professional and non-professional.  While there have been plenty of innovative players over the years, in jazz there is one player who for me stands tall above all of the others, who seems to be playing just for me, with lyrical improvised melodies and cascading chords pouring out of the big black box with the greatest of ease.  He is almost forgotten, and not even most jazz fans know him by name.  His name is Bill Evans.  While he was well-known before and after working with Miles Davis, it was that collaboration that would make him the most famous.

In the 1950s Miles Davis was looking for a piano player for a new project.  He hired a white pianist (usually musicians only played with others of the same race at the time) and he caught some flack from many when he did so.  This was also unusual for someone like Davis who had experienced a fair amount of racism first hand.  But this player was so good that Miles would call him up and ask that the phone be placed on the piano, just so he could hear him practice.  The above quote is from Davis’s autobiography, and obviously Miles enjoyed every minute of it.  Bill Evans played on all but one tune on Miles’ most famous album.   The album was Kind of Blue, which is considered by most to the one of the best if not THE best jazz album ever recorded, with its catchy, mysteriously cool modality.  Miles and Evans achieved something special in their chemistry that neither would quite ever duplicate.  While Miles receives most if not all of the compositional credit for Blue in Green, Evans always claimed it was mostly his tune, but he did not want to fight over it.  If Miles did indeed write it, then he wrote it with Evans in mind.  Both went on to create more great music, but their collaboration was clearly much more than the sum of the parts.  Davis was a fine alchemist, and Evans was a key ingredient.

Watching this DVD is eerie because I have never seen him perform in any video.  A few discs are out there, but this new release caught my eye because it has two concerts and also some interview footage with Evans shortly before his untimely death in 1980.

The first concert is from Oslo in October of 1966.  In addition to seeing Evans in his full glory, we meet the brilliant Eddie Gomez on bass and Alex Riel on drums.  Evans perfected the piano trio and elevated the other players to more than merely accompaniment status, especially his bassists.  Gomez does an especially interesting solo on “Very Early” and his synchronicity with his fellow musicians is polished.  The sound overall is also excellent.  The viewer may be confused at contrast of the blurry black and white footage with crystal clear sound.   

The second concert is from the Molde Jazz Festival in August of 1980.  Evans is still in fine form, and bassist Marc Johnson plays many fine solos with his bright and fluid tone. 

There are really two big complaints from me: the packaging is paper, which stains or gets ruined so easily, and the length of the whole package.  It is only 70 minutes, and I am sure he played more than four tunes in the second concert.  On the other hand, this was one of the last interviews he ever gave and the audio is excellent throughout even though it is only stereo.  A he leaves, he tells the photographer that it is too late, he has to go.  And Evans did indeed leave us on 9/15/80, not even two months after this concert.

Songlist:  1) Very Early, 2) Stella By Starlight, 3) If You Could See Me Now, 4) Autumn Leaves, 5) Time Remembered, 6) Nardis, 7) Five.  Second show:  8) Person I Knew, 9) Days of Wine and Roses, 10) Your Story, 11) Nardis, 12) After Concert Interview.

Video ***

The B&W is pretty blurry now and then, as could be expected for the time, but very few artifacts are visible.  The color section is much better for the reason that the technology is better.

Audio **1/2

Only stereo but as discussed above a very clear mix and excellent quality in both concerts.

Features **

It is not listed as a separate feature, but after the second concert, a Norwegian interviewer talks to Bill after the show and this was half the reason I purchased the disc.  Evans definitely shows his age but is still fairly lucid.  The disc menu itself is also nice because it shows him at the piano in each concert.

Summary:

The legendary producer David Foster lamented that he went into popular music instead of jazz partly because of a poorly attended Bill Evans concert.  He realized that Evans was largely forgotten like many other jazz pioneers.  But discs like this one preserve a musician whose inner light shined through his virtuosity and will enlighten and delight any listener and viewer.  While the DVD is strangely brief, it is still a very valuable document and shows his unappreciated brilliance.

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