Writing about a recording such as Everybody Digs Bill Evans can seem like an exercise in futility. Even at this early point in his recording and performing career, Evans seems to have everything in place—technique, sensitive lyricism, a way of interpreting standard material that borders on impressionism; overall, a musical conception that changed the way jazz piano was thought of, listened to, and played.
To those familiar with Evans’ work, there is no point in attempting to describe it in the extremely inadequate medium of words. To those not familiar with his playing, there is little hope of describing it well enough to give them more than the vaguest glimpse of it.
One can say that Evans swings superbly, a fact that is perfectly clear on his versions of “Night and Day,” “Oleo,” and Gigi Gryce’s “Minority.” But in fact, Evans has such a natural ability to swing that one cannot describe the various ways in which he swings with much accuracy. There is sophistication and charm, much like that found in the work of Ahmad Jamal, yet there is the powerful swing of a pianist like Red Garland as well.
When one champions the pianist’s lyrical abilities, and points to ballads like “Young and Foolish,” “Tenderly,” or “What Is There to Say,” one risks reducing his work to the merely ‘pretty.’ Evans’ work is pretty to be sure, but that in no way is meant to convey a sense that there is a lack of virility. In order to convey that which is beautiful, an artist must confront the considerable ugliness of the world and, often, of himself.
When Evans poses “Tenderly” as a jazz waltz, a genre at which he is particularly adept, he raises it from the hackneyed to the sublime, so that even when he moves into 4/4 for his solo, accompanied by Sam Jones’ stalwart walking bass, one is scarcely aware of what song one is listening to.
In many ways, Evans’ interpretations of standard material come to seem like the interpretation that the song was always meant to have. Even now, nearly forty years after this music was recorded, Evans comes across as an influential and definitive pianist—that is how ‘right on’ he was. His own composition, “Peace Piece,” performed without any rhythm section, compares favorably with the best work of contemporary pianists such as Keith Jarrett or Brad Mehldau.
Everybody Digs Bill Evans features Sam Jones on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums, and these guys keep up with Evans, often pushing him to greater heights. Soon after this Evans would form his legendary trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, and his playing would become looser and, hard as it is to believe, even more refined and sensitive as the years progressed. Yet one has only to listen to this album to understand that Evans had it all in place from the get-go.
Of the quotations on the cover from the likes of Miles Davis, George Shearing, and Ahmad Jamal, perhaps the most incisive comes from Cannonball Adderley, who worked with Evans in Miles Davis’ 1958 sextet: “Bill Evans has rare originality and taste and the even rarer ability to make his conception of a number seem the definitive way to play it.” Amen, Cannonball. Amen, Bill Evans.