History is reductive. Music history — and especially jazz history — is perhaps more reductive. There’s a certain image we have of pianist Bill Evans: Lean, bespectacled, smoking, a faraway look in his eyes, head bowed low over the keyboard. The sensitive genius whose chordal approach influenced Miles Davis’ approach to harmony in time for Kind of Blue; the intellectual whose liner notes for that album reference Japanese painting.
Evans’ history of drug addiction, relatively early death at age 51 and the introspective romanticism of his playing tend to reinforce that image, but it’s not a complete one. A new — and previously “lost” live album from 1976, On a Monday Evening, paints a fuller picture of Evans, who was by now working with longtime bassist Eddie Gomez and relative newcomer to the group, drummer Eliot Zigmund.
Recorded on Nov. 15, 1976 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Wisconsin Union Theater, On a Monday Evening captures Evans at a high point in his life: He was recently married to Nenette Zazzara, and the couple were living with their two children in New Jersey, affording him a stability that he’d rarely had before.
PEOPLE spoke to music historian and NYU professor Ashley Kahn and Gomez and for more insight into the record and the historic evening.
“Most jazz histories are written as ‘something pushing something else off the stage,'” Kahn says, referring to the growing prominence of jazz fusion and other genres throughout the 1970s. “And this is absolutely not the case. The truth of it is that the stage was expanding. The awareness of Bill and respect for Bill had only increased with time.”
The next few years, however, were, to put it mildly, tumultuous for Evans. Both Gomez — his longest-serving bassist — and Zigmund departed in 1978, and he would eventually separate from Zazzara, though the pair remained married until Evans’ death. Then, Evans’ brother Harry committed suicide in the spring of 1979. Evans would die little more than a year later, in September 1980.
“It is a tough period for Bill, in that he’s trying to shift over to the idea of being a family man, of having a house,” Kahn says. “I think he was succeeding… this had never happened before in his life. If there was any point where we can point to some kind of domestic stability for Evans, it was now, in 1976.”
“There were many crests in Evans’ career,” Kahn says. “I wouldn’t call this year or this album specifically a high point, but it’s certainly among them. Personally, professionally, musically — where he was in ’76 was definitely a high point. The changes and tragedies that were about to befall him — the separation from Nenette, his brother’s death — those were years away. In the end, Evans was a survivor, and he had a very clear vision of what he was doing and why he was doing it. I think there was an inner strength and an inner wisdom to Bill that was often looked over. That picture we paint of the long-suffering, head held-down-low over the keyboard musician … this album is as good an argument as any against that image of Bill.”
Ten years. That’s how long Gomez had been playing with Evans when they recorded On a Monday Evening. “By this time, I felt self-assured and confident,” he says. “At the beginning, it was quite the opposite.”
Comparing Gomez’s bass work on the 1976 date to their Grammy-winning trio set with drummer Jack DeJohnette at the 1968 Montreaux Jazz Festival, you can hear how he’s settled into his role — his playing is more melodic, less concentrated on rapid-fire bursts of virtuosic runs.
“In art, sometimes, instead of leaving the canvas sparse, it’s easy to just fill it up when you’re not sure … By 1976, I was calmer and knew my way around a bit and had a real connection with Bill after all those years.”
Gomez found his “new guy” role taken over when Zigmund joined the band. “Being closer to Eliot — we had more contact offstage, we would talk more and hang out more — I just supported him and urged him to be himself, which was the kind of advice I got from Bill when I joined. It was a quick fit, though.”
“Bill didn’t hang out so much after the performance, or even before. [But] he could be very social with us and with me especially,” Gomez says. As for Evans’ personal issues during this time, Gomez says that Evans “tended to share his issues and his grief” but “wasn’t verbose about it.” “I knew about what he was going through,” though, he adds. “And you could tell when he was doing well with a treatment program — he’d put on weight and start dressing well again, taking care of himself. He was in a very good, positive place in 1976.”
“It was always there to hear [in the music],” Gomez continues. “Not that his music always sounds like grief and mourning, because there’s a lot of happiness in the music, too. In one way, Bill was an open book, but there is some shadow or a mystery as a person or with his personal life. He was a very thoughtful and articulate person; he wasn’t glib or casual about his beliefs or how they expressed them.”
Gomez didn’t have much contact with Evans in the final years of the pianist’s life. “Not for any particular reason, I just went on to do different things,” he says. “I always thought he would be around for a long time and continued to hope we would have played some more.”
“I still actually have dreams about Bill,” Gomez adds. “They’re really very realistic … Playing together, moments on the road, backstage or traveling somewhere. Those kind of surreal dreams. They’re good dreams. They’re good places that I was. I don’t live in those moments, but they’re definitely part of me and I do love them.”