Bill Evans Trio

Bill Evans knew he didn't have much time left when he began a nine-night engagement at San Francisco's Keystone Korner in the late summer of 1980. The influential pianist's health was failing as the effects of his long-term drug abuse took their toll. Determined to make his ultimate artistic statement, Evans insisted on playing the Keystone gigs rather than seek medical treatment. Seven days later Evans was dead.

Tape was rolling every night during his stay at the Keystone, the last official recordings Evans made. For legal reasons, the Keystone tapes haven't been released in the United States until now. About half the material from those Keystone sets -- eight CDs' worth of material -- is now available on The Last Waltz. (Eight CDs' worth of other material from the Keystone sessions were already released by Alfa in Japan in 1990 as the boxed set Consecration; Fantasy will reissue those discs this year.)

The Last Waltz contains 32 songs in 65 performances. "Nardis," for instance, is presented six times, and each time Evans says something new. In one version his opening improvisations are influenced as much by Brahms and Ravel as they are by Miles Davis. But when he hits the melody, he goes at it full force, throwing in embellishments with every phrase. On another version he employs the song's melody more often during his opening solo improvisation and then burns the melody with the trio before letting bassist Marc Johnson take an extended solo. Evans' last recorded version of "Nardis" presents yet another twist. His opening improvisation is filled with masterfully contrasted dark and cheerful moods. He often plays with the power of a 19th-century romantic. His harmonies are complex and his phrasing potent. In but a minute or two, Evans delves deeper than most pianists do in a whole set. Evans doesn't even play the melody until almost six minutes into the performance. The pianist said playing "Nardis" was like therapy to him. This is truly therapy that's valuable to others.

In addition to reworking some of his standard material, Evans revisits songs he hadn't played much during his last years, including Cole Porter's "After You," which is an audience request. Evans puts his characteristic blue touch on the song, invents new harmonies, and plays amazingly fluid lines. It's a magnificent, spontaneous solo version of a song he rarely played.

Some of Evans's deepest and most beautiful work is on Paul Simon's "I Do It for Your Love," His choice of chords adds extra emotion, and when he delivers fast runs, they are powerful but never flashy. In this instance, Evans passes the true jazz master's test as he takes a pop song and enriches it.

Evans burns some songs, gets intimate on others, and never ceases to be profound.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Paul J. MacArthur