My buddy Carl Abernathy got me thinking about Bill Evans the other day and why he prompts an almost religious devotion from fans and students of piano (Evans, not Carl, although his fans are certainly devoted as well). Then I spied the newer (2005) "Bill Evans: The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961," Riverside, at the bookstore and sprung for it, which hasn't made me a convert (I already admired the guy, within reason) but has shifted my perspective on him some.
What strikes me, listening to these three CDs from a very famous trio session, is how cleanly Evans plays, with no hint really of the bawdy house or dance hall, the blues, rag or stride cutting contests, what some folks (not me) might consider "lower" forms of music in the jazz family tree. Now whether this means his music is jazz infused with European classicism, as many people say, I don't know. In my mind, the thing that stands out is his huge technical proficiency. I think he sounds so pristine not because of the classical elements he uses but because he was just that good.
I contrast him with Monk, no slouch as a pianist but not nearly as clean, probably intentionally so at times, and a step or three ahead in at-the-keyboard creativity (and as a composer). Evans, on the other hand, is plenty inventive, more so I'd venture to say than a lot of top-drawer jazz pianists, and that, I think, combined with his Horowitiz-like command of his instrument, is what has focused so much attention on him. I'll take Monk first, Art Tatum and maybe Bud Powell and McCoy Tyner after, but Evans would be the fifth if I were allowed disks from only five pianists on the desert island. (Actually, I would refuse to go if they let me have only five. Like I'm going anywhere without Fats Waller, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, or Keith Jarrett for that matter.)
The redone sound on the Evans "Vanguard" set, which has been widely available in various configurations before, including the landmark "Sunday Morning at the Village Vanguard" and "Waltz for Debby" CDs, is spiffy by the way. You hear everything super clearly right down to the occasional glass clink. One thing that does is really bring out the playing of bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. LaFaro, who died two weeks later in a car crash, in particular is as proficient as Evans and often as stunning. Interesting that the liner notes say they didn't get along personally. They sure did musically.