Of the many formidable talents of 1960s jazz, Bill Evans embodied the ability to find clandestine ideas in a handful of chords, and perform them through raw emotion.
Along with his creative twin Miles Davis, the pianist-composer was a pioneer in developing modal jazz. In short, the modal approach guided players through scales and melodies rather than chords. This freed up countless players who felt constrained by expectations to follow songbook chord progressions and resolutions and improvise within “the changes.”
The recent album Tales: Live in Copenhagen (1964) is a never-before-released set of 11 performances from two concerts that were originally broadcast on Danish radio during Evans’ inaugural European tour. A devotee to the jazz trio format, on Tales Evans is joined by bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Larry Bunker to great effect, in particular on the performance of “My Foolish Heart #2.” Over the course of his career, Evans routinely revisited the 1949 ballad, which had been previously popularized by Billy Eckstine. This second take of the song from the Copenhagen sessions captures Evans peeling back layers of ideas, creating a religious-like and highly personal moment, born from the universal experience of longing and melancholy. Opening with a solo-piano filigree bearing little resemblance to the ensuing song, Evans slowly walks the listener through the chord progression, Israels gradually joining him with subdued bass interactions. Bunker is a ghost-like presence on the performance, playing the bare minimum of snare brush and cymbal. At the song’s midpoint, Evans jots down and erases ideas, shifting from light, intervallic trills into surprise bluesy riffs; a minute later resolving to the main theme, then a hopeful crescendo; then the song is gone completely.
Listening to “My Foolish Heart #2”—like all of Bill Evans’ music—is a demanding experience, an exercise in the truest active listening. In the early-‘60s era of his career, Evans was revealed to be a cerebral romantic, able to bridge the impasse between his obvious harmonic and melodic sophistication and his soulful, dynamic creation of music. While he has regularly been incorrectly mislabeled as cool jazz, in hindsight it’s apparent that Evans created an otherworldly and dynamic minimalism. But for all of his musical knowledge (he was well-versed in classical romanticism), Evans didn’t play from the neck up. He was all heart.