Bill Evans Trio

The Last Waltz (Milestone Records)

Pianist Bill Evans spent the first week of September 1980 in San Francisco performing a series of live shows at a local night spot. Following the gig, he headed to New York, checked into a hospital and was dead within days. Officially, the death was attributed to a bleeding ulcer, but the two decades Evans had spent wrestling with drug addiction had taken their toll and quickened his demise.

Those final live performances -- nine separate shows all recorded at San Francisco's long-gone Keystone Korner nightclub -- make up this eight-disc collection. The music -- which has never before been released in the U.S. -- is all that stands between Evans and the hereafter, and it makes for a glorious farewell from the famed musician.

At the time of these shows, Evans knew he was dying, and the specter of death hangs over the sessions like some existential cloud of smoke. But the music in this collection is no soundtrack to a wake, nor is it a last gasp from a frail artist. In spite of the grim milieu, Evans plays powerfully, sounding precise, buoyant and as full of energy as ever.

He was always a thoughtful and intelligent player, but unlike many of the unsmiling musicians who followed in his footsteps, Evans never let his intellect crowd out the sheer joy inherent in his playing. Nor did his work collapse under the weight of its own solemnity. So it is a fitting finale that he went out taking apart and reconstructing the standards that make up the lion's share of this collection's 65 performances.

Early on, critics relegated Evans to the "cool" margin of jazz music -- a sly way of condemning him as structurally chiseled and lacking a certain emotional depth -- but it was an incorrect label from the start. Sure, he could be meditative -- particularly when paired off with Miles Davis. But he also sounded playful in his solo outings, and at times earthy -- if not a little awkward -- when mixing it up with Charles Mingus or Oliver Nelson.

But Evans shined brightest when he was fronting his own trio, most notably in the late 1950s when he collaborated with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motion. That combo garnered a lot of attention, partly on the strength of its celebrated Village Vanguard recordings. But the band was also cut short by death -- in this case LaFaro's -- and for many listeners it froze in time the high point of Evans' career.

Recorded three decades later, The Last Waltz equals -- and probably surpasses -- the work on those renowned Vanguard sessions. Bass player Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera had been collaborating with Evans for several years prior to these final performances, and they offer capable and propulsive support to the unpredictable pianist.

Throughout the eight discs, Evans dazzles as he breaks down old Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart numbers with heuristic ease. He had played these chestnuts hundreds, maybe thousands of times, but his approach still sounds fresh. He discovers musical directions in "Autumn Leaves" and "Someday My Prince Will Come" that even his former employer, Davis, never dreamed of following. And the high point of each night's performance comes when Evans and Company twist their way through generous renditions of Davis' "Nardis."

It would be cheap melodrama to chalk up Evans' powerful final performances to some artistic last stand. No doubt, the swan song allure of the collection will hook those morbid fans drawn to the gone-too-soon necrophilia that makes classic jazz so appealing. But what makes this music so extraordinary is it captures Evans doing what he did through his entire career -- playing with a fierce dedication to his craft. There is plenty of drama here, but it is where it is supposed to be: in the melodies that Evans transforms into genuine art.

 
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