Friday, February 15, 2008

Bill Evans | Conversations with Myself

Bill Evans’s Conversations with Myself defies an unspoken Jazz Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Overdub. Evans overdubbed three pianos, one in the left channel, another in the right, and the last sharing both channels. The result is exhilarating; a master musician solely collaborating with himself, crafting moving, often brilliant, performances.

Like most post-bop pianists, Evans was influenced by Thelonius Monk, who created memorable melodies while articulating notes and chords in offbeat blocks. Evans covers two Monk tunes on this set, “‘Round Midnight” and “Blue Monk.” (A third, “Bemsha Swing,” is included as a bonus cut in the album’s reissue.) The melody in “‘Round Midnight” is carried by the left and center pianos, while the right piano hits the chord changes and comps. In the latter part of the tune, the “conversation” the album title refers to becomes clear. The melody is started by the piano in the left channel and completed in the right, and then the pattern is reversed. Knowing that Evans planned and played one piano part at a time sheds significant light on his ability to rearrange and improvise. Hearing this on headphones is nothing short of awing.

Where the Monk tunes display a robust Evans, the greatest song in the album, “Love Theme From 'Spartacus,'” shows Evans at his most fragile. The song begins with sweeping cascades of notes, flowing from the middle piano to the right. The frail three-note melody is played in the right, though throughout the rest of the tune the melody is shared among all three and, as in “‘Round Midnight,” is also started by one and completed by another. Similar cascades of notes end the song, though unlike the beginning where the notes moved from the middle to the right, the notes move from right to left, in effect encircling the listener. The left piano plays the three-note melody in rapid succession across high registers before the tune ends in a sigh.

“NYC’s No Lark” is darker and more aggressive than the pensive “Spartacus.” The song is a lament for and an anagram of one of Evans’s close friends, fellow pianist and heroin addict Sonny Clark. (Evans used anagrams often. His “Re: Person I Knew” is an anagram of Portrait in Jazz and Explorations producer Orrin Keepnews.) The right piano’s dirge chord phrasing is a sturdy bottom for the left’s dissonant, offbeat notes. When the middle piano rises from silence to utter pathos, it clashes with the left piano as the right follows the chord progression.

To experience this album is sometimes overwhelming. After all, one Bill Evans was often heartbreaking, but now there are three. Where Evans’s natural extension of himself was the piano-bass-drums trio, here he individually embodies the trio with three pianos. Though the songs on this album aren’t the first or the last jazz tunes to use overdubbing, they are Evans’s extraordinary feats of emotion, planning, execution, and performance.

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