CD Review: Bill Evans - The Complete Fantasy Recordings

The late jazz pianist's entire output for the Fantasy label is available once again.
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It has been 35 years now since the great Bill Evans left this earth at the age of 51, a victim of multiple health problems and years of on again/off again drug use. In that time, his legend and influence have only grown and he is rightfully considered one of the true giants of jazz music. For much of his last decade, Evans recorded for the Fantasy label. A box set of his entire Fantasy output, The Complete Fantasy Recordings, was released but had been out of print for some time. This year sees the rerelease of the box in new, five inch by five inch compact packaging.

While some critics like to dismiss Evans' later years as being not as good or as creative as his earlier works, the box proves otherwise. This was a man who maintained his virtuoso's touch right until the end, all the while recording critically acclaimed albums, including his first record with Tony Bennett (Note: The second album the duo recorded, Together Again, was recorded on Bennett's Improv label and, as such, is not included here.

Twelve albums from this time period, including a few released posthumously, are included in the set. Also included is a 1976 concert from Paris which, at the time, was previously unreleased. Rather than just a box of straight reissues of the individual albums, the material is presented chronologically by session date, allowing the listener to see the progression of Evans' music throughout the decade. The final disc includes a 1978 interview with Marian McPartland. First broadcast in 1979 on National Public Radio, the hour-long conversation includes music from Evans.

There are numerous highlights in this collection. Disc one features Evans' recording from Tokyo 1973. The disc opens up with a laid back, breezy "Mornin' Glory." Bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morrell provide tasteful accompaniment that is at once intricate, yet stays out of Evans' way. The band soars on an excellent, up-tempo "My Romance." Everyone solos here and the musicians push each other to great heights in this fantastic recording.

The first five tracks on disc two are from a 1973 performance at Shelly's Manne-Hole in Los Angeles. The rest of the disc, and most of disc three are comprised of a show from The Village Vanguard, home of earlier Evans triumphs, from 1974. The 1973 material includes stunning solo piano renditions of "When in Rome" and "It Amazes Me" while the 1974 show showcases some nimble piano runs as evidenced by a potent "Turn Out The Stars," among others.

Evans' album with Gomez, Intuition, finishes disc three and takes up the first half of disc four. Disc four is finished by the tracks from The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album. Both albums are recorded as duos, with Gomez providing masterful backing for Evans on the former and Evans doing the same for Bennett on the latter. Both are now considered classics. "A Face Without A Name" highlights the Intuition tracks, with Gomez's descending bass line offering a perfect counterpoint to Evans' runs, while both singer and pianist are in fine form throughout The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album numbers, including a stunning "We'll Be Together Again."

Much of disc five is comprised of the Montreux III live album with Gomez, with the end of the disc and part of disc six including Evans' solo piano album, Alone (Again). Standouts here include a version of "But Beautiful" that lives up to its name, showcasing Evans' lyrical phrasing and "The Touch Of Your Lips." Previously recorded with Bennett, this version, sans vocals, allows Evans to cut loose more than on the previous version. Both are excellent interpretations, however. Disc six finishes with tracks from Evans' Quintessence album, one of two quintet albums he did while at the label. These songs show Evans' versatility and that he could thrive in a larger band setting. Of course, it helps when the players are all all-stars as well.

Most of disc seven consists of the Paris concert, with the remaining tracks and part of disc eight dedicated toward the Crosscurrents material. The band displays a spellbinding level of virtuosity on the up-tempo "34 Skidoo" on the Paris show, while Evans and the band take on the Bossa Nova stylings of "Pensativa" on the latter. Good stuff throughout.

Evans' final album for Fantasy, I Will Say Goodbye, makes up most of disc eight. Recorded in 1977 but not released until 1980, it finds Evans back in the trio format and in fine form, earning him a Grammy Award in 1981. Disc nine ends the collection with an interview with McPartland that includes musical selections from Evans. The interview and the playing are great. If there is one beef with this disc is that it is presented as one long track.

When Evans died in 1980 at age 51, the music world lost one of its true giants. Bill Evans - The Complete Fantasy Recordings demonstrates time and again the versatility of this master. The chronological presentation offers great insight into Evans' mindset throughout the 1970s and the set's liner notes, by Gene Lees and longtime manager Helen Keane, offer great insight into both the man as well as his recording sessions from people who knew him well. Highly recommended.