Few musicians seemed less likely to make an impact on the New York jazz scene in the late Fifties than Bill Evans (1929-80), whose introspective solos and delicate touch were far removed from what was commonly considered "hard bop." Yet Evans was indeed heard, and quickly became one of the most influential musicians on any instrument of the last half century.
Evans was born in Plainfield, New Jersey and attended Southeastern Louisiana University. After a period in the Army, he returned to New York in 1955 and began working and recording with Tony Scott and George Russell. His subtly swinging, lucidly constructed solos with these leaders quickly attracted attention, and provided Evans with an opportunity to begin recording under his own name; but he was modest regarding his gifts, and for a time was reluctant to push himself into the limelight. All this changed after he spent several months during 1958 in Miles Davis's band, where he played alongside John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, and became a central figure in Davis's shift to modal improvisation.
The period with Davis allowed Evans to organize his own trio, which featured bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian by the end of 1959. These three players developed a new and more interactive approach to trio playing, one in which all instruments carried melodic responsibilities and functioned as equal voices. LaFaro's tragic death in a July 1961 highway accident ended the existence of this seminal unit; but not before it had recorded four albums, two in the studio and two at a Village Vanguard performance shortly before the bassist's death, that influenced several generations of pianists, bassists, and drummers.
While Evans excelled in even more intimate playing situations—he made memorable duet music with guitarist Jim Hall, singer Tony Bennett, and bassist Eddie Gomez, and on more than one occasion created fascinating studio recitals of multi-tracked piano—for the remaining two decades of his life, he continued to work in the trio format he had established with LaFaro and Motian. Personnel rarely changed in the Evans trio (Gomez was a member from 1966-1977, while drummers Marty Morell and Eliot Zigmund performed in the trio alongside Evans and Gomez from 1968-1974 and 1975-1977, respectively), and the unit's repertoire slowly grew to include evocative new originals and worthy standards, as well as the tunes that led to Evans's initial fame.
Despite this consistency of format and material, Evans remained uncommonly inspired, able to reach stunning emotional depths with a quiet lucidity that was unmatched. His lyrical melodic inventions, intricate phrasing, complex voicings, and beautiful touch remain as unmistakable influences on pianists more than 40 years after his death.