In honour of St. Patrick’s Day, embedded below is my favourite version of “Danny Boy” ever, a 1962 solo piano reading by Bill Evans. Evans was from Welsh stock on his father’s side and Russian on his mother’s, an interesting combination reflected in his playing, which was both romantic and intellectual.
I thought I knew how great a pianist Evans was until I heard this track about fifteen or twenty years after first encountering him. It made me realize he was even better than I’d thought, which I wouldn’t have considered possible. There are a lot of ways to go about it, but jazz piano just can’t be played any better than this. The crystalline sound and pearly touch, the gorgeous, crunchy chord voicings, the long, spring-loaded lines and tensile rhythm, the lyricism, the way he makes the piano sing, the poetry of it all – it’s just breathtaking. And to think he wasn’t even Irish – smile. In the end though, after all the analysis and attempts to describe Bill’s playing, perhaps his agent-to-be Helen Keane said it best when she first heard him: “Oh no, this one’s going to break my heart.”
Even more impressively, this “Danny Boy” was a throw-away done on a solo session that was never meant for release, but rather intended to pull Bill out of the deep, paralyzing depression he fell into after Scott La Faro was killed in a car crash at 25. It reminds me of something I experienced at a Modigliani exhibition a few years ago at the AGO. Along with his many famous portraits and some seldom-seen sculptures there were some ink and pencil sketches on rumpled paper, casually tossed off for some quick money or drinks when he was half legless in some Parisian bar. Even more than his major works, these brilliant, hasty little drawings made me realize how great an artist Modigliani truly was. Sometimes genius is best recognized when it’s barely even trying.
Bill’s very first chord here, a slightly jarring major-seventh with a raised fifth struck after the three-note pickup, signals that this performance is going to be some journey. He takes his time here, playing the old, familiar song out of tempo and very slowly at first, changing keys a few times, peeling away (or adding) layers. Just after the 5:00 mark he starts to go to town, playing jazz on the tune in tempo, swinging. He seems about done at 7:30 when he winds down and plays a slightly stumbling, almost barrelhouse ending, pauses……and then just keeps going, a little faster and looser, really taking the tune apart. Then he puts it back together by returning to the rose gardens and revisiting the melody, ending with some beautiful chords and a little blues flourish – simple, no problem…… look ma, no hands. It’s unbelievable – what are you going to do with a guy like that? Sit back, marvel and weep, that’s what.
The accompanying video is better than on any of the other available clips, which are quite static. It seems to be more American than Irish and has a few more ‘cheesecake’ bathing suit shots than some might like, but it’s mostly pretty nice……….enjoy.
I heard Bill play a number of times in person during the mid-to-late ’70s and carry one indelible memory of him. It came not from an onstage performance, but from a little warm-up just before his opening set on a Friday night at Basin Street, a club upstairs from Bourbon Street. A larger room than the downstairs club, Basin Street’s big stage was ideal for shows, big bands and jazz groups like the Bill Evans Trio which drew larger crowds. I was there early to get a seat at the bar and was sitting having a drink with trombonists Rob McConnell and Dave McMurdo at their table near the bandstand, while their wives were off powdering their noses. A tuner was touching up the grand piano as the room filled up with a dull, clinking murmur. When the tech was finished, he got up from the bench and beckoned Bill, who had been standing in the wings, to try the piano.
No scales in octaves or arpeggios for Bill, no………tentatively at first, then with growing fervour, he began to play Victor Young’s “Beautiful Love”, an evocative minor-key song he’d recorded beautifully several times and which, believe it or not, was introduced in the 1932 movie THE MUMMY. Bill played the spectral melody in a loose, relaxed tempo with those haunting block-chord voicings of his, the ones that seem to come up at you from under a grave, glowing in the dark like phantom embers, illuminating the melody by surrounding it with all these moving, singing voices. He filled some of the spaces in the melody with perfect little lines and off-the-beat comps; his time and phrasing all coiled precision. He just played so much music and, as Miles Davis once said of Evans, it all had “that quiet fire.” His deep limning of the song’s essence almost silenced the room, but not quite; most of those nearby eventually sensed that something very special was happening, off-the-cuff. Rob, Dave and I were just spellbound, eyes closed, barely breathing. When he was done, Bill nodded and smiled shyly, signalling satisfaction with the tuner’s work.
Rob turned to Dave and me, sighed and, with a shaky voice and tears rolling down his cheeks, said, “Fellas……that’s it, right there…. that’s what music is all about. That’s how it’s supposed to feel.” And we clinked our glasses in a toast.
I’ll never forget that, I get goosebumps just thinking about it. The sound of Bill’s incisive tune-up floating through the room with enough concentrated power to utterly destroy a battle-hardened guy like McConnell and reduce him to tears. As brilliantly as Evans played later that night with Eddie Gomez and Eliot Zigmund, I could have saved myself some money and just gone home right then and there; it didn’t get any better than Bill’s little piano-tryout, not even close. I was 22 and it was a visceral early demonstration that the greats are great even when they’re not “on”, and that at its highest level, music is mystical, ineffable, sheer magic. It can fill you with a wondrous joy or make you cry, quite shamelessly. Bill Evans could do both without breaking a sweat.
Thank you Bill Evans….. to everyone else, Sláinte and Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
© 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.