Bill Evans and The Impressionists, Milton Court: 'understated elegance'
An evening exploring the relationship between jazz and musical impressionism proved intriguing says Ivan Hewett

Musical parallels: jazz pianist Bill Evans and French impressionist composer Claude Debussy 
Photo: Rex Features

Jazz and musical impressionism seem unlikely bedfellows, on the face of it. Impressionism of the Debussy-Ravel kind is all about flowing arabesques and hazy outlines. It evokes a dream. Jazz lives in the here and now, and is all sharp edges and bodily energy.

However Kate Williams, that fine jazz pianist, composer and leader of her own trio, has spotted an affinity between the two. Some months back she was playing Ravel’s charming little Tombeau de Couperin, and noticed a delicious chord change very like one in the music of Bill Evans, that tormented, driven genius of jazz piano who died in 1980. From that moment of illumination has sprung an evening-length concert, which brings the two together. We heard music by both Debussy and Ravel, mingled with some well-known Bill Evans numbers, performed by Williams and her trio and a chamber orchestra made up of Guildhall students.

It’s a plausible idea, as the rich harmonies and subtle voicings of Bill Evans’s music call for just the kind of sensitive touch a Debussy Prelude requires. There was a moment at the beginning of Evans’s Time Remembered when the concept became real, as Kate Williams bent over the piano, weighing the chords as they emerged, shifting the emphasis from one to the next.

Conductor William Goodchild (who along with Williams had arranged Evans’s pieces for the assembled forces) got the best from his young players. The Forlane in Ravel’s Tombeau tripped delicately along, and the tricky cross-rhythms of Debussy’s Danse emerged bright and clear. Williams and her Trio showed the understated elegance which has made them so admired among old-school jazz lovers. In Miles Davis’s Nardis a steely strength emerged too, in the way Williams took a tiny phrase and pursued it into new harmonic regions.

Bristol Jazz & Blues Festival

"...The impeccable performance by the Bristol Ensemble and Kate Williams Trio of new orchestral arrangements of Bill Evans compositions contrasted with some works by Ravel, Debussy and Satie that had influenced him."

Bob Weir

Read the full review of the Bristol International Jazz Festival HERE.

A Review by London Jazz News: 
by Jon Turney. 
Photos by Mick Destino (top) and Ruth Butler (below)

Kate Williams Trio/ Bristol Ensemble/ William Goodchild 
Bill Evans and the Impressionists 
 Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival, Colston Hall, 9th March 2014. 

Something a little more restrained in the middle of a jazz and blues festival that was heavily (and very enjoyably) weighted toward swing, gospel, funk and all things groovy. Here we are on a Sunday afternooon to hear Ravel, Debussy, Satie… and Bill Evans.

The affinities between the French musical impressionists and the lastingly influential pianist inspired this project, which was receiving its world premiere performance, devised by Kate Williams and Bristol Ensemble conductor William Goodchild. As listeners to this London Jazz News interview/ podcast with Kate Williams will know, she happened upon some chord voicings in Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin which were strongly reminiscent of Evans, doubtless a result of his studies at Southeastern Louisiana College in the early 1950s.

That was the seed for a collaboration between Williams’ own piano trio and Goodchild, who between them have arranged a set of Evans’ best known tunes for expanded ensembles. So we hear familiar themes like Song For Helen, Very Early (written while Evans was still a student), Turn out the Stars and 34 Skidoo with backing from the orchestra. The programme also includes Debussy’s Danse, and the four parts of the Ravel (Le Tombeau’s Prelude, incidentally, has appealed to at least one other famous jazz musician – being recorded long ago by Gary Burton, playing piano).

If this highlights the role of classical harmonies in jazz, the results sound pleasing rather than surprising. Evans wrote wonderful tunes. The orchestral arrangements are done with a nice, light touch, and performed immaculately by the Bristol players. They never quite swing, although an excellent rendering of Walkin’ Up, arranged by Williams for just the trio and pizzicato strings, comes closest. And there are several trio excursions which certainly do, driven by William’s regular partners Oli Hayhurst on bass and Tristan Mailliot on drums. Two pieces for the trio alone, Time Remembered and Miles’ Nardis, remind us what the stripped down jazz instrumentation can do unassisted by wind and strings.

Overall, this 90 odd minutes of not quite third stream music-making was absorbing, with many quietly thoughtful touches in the playing and arranging, although perhaps not helped by being so different in mood from most of the other things going on in the festival that surrounds it. The modest audience were very happy, though.

And what do we learn about Bill Evans? I am left with a keener appreciation not of the technical sources of his music, but more for the moods that moved him most deeply. That crystallises during Goodchild’s affecting arrangement of Satie’s Gymnopedie No 3. It has a quality which I associate more strongly with Evans than any other jazz musician. It isn’t the precise harmony, or the way he took trio interaction to new heights. It’s that slightly introverted, bruised romanticism which Evans developed over his entire career. As the whole concert suggests, it is not about the blues, but somehow a more European sensibility. The Satie brings it into focus for one piercing moment – that stays with me after the echoes of all the festive funk have faded.