Lorraine Desmarais Trio ©Brett Delmage, 2019
The Lorraine Desmarais Trio received two standing ovations in its sold-out tribute to Bill Evans at La Nouvelle Scène. ©Brett Delmage, 2019

The Lorraine Desmarais Trio
Bill Evans: Time Remembered (documentary film)
La Nouvelle Scène
Friday, January 25, 2019 – 6 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Before rapt listeners, Lorraine Desmarais deftly explored the legacy of Bill Evans on January 25.

The Montreal pianist, together with her long-time trio of bassist Frédéric Alarie and drummer Camile Belisle, gave an emotionally-charged performance at La Nouvelle Scène. It was her first concert in Ottawa in almost a decade, and received with distinct delight by the sold-out audience.

Evans released more than 70 albums in his 25-year career, and was known as a supremely intuitive interpreter and composer who added new concepts of harmonic language to jazz piano. He composed more than 60 tunes, many of which have become standards. His renditions of many Great American Songbook and modern pop tunes are considered classics.

Desmarais is a renowned Quebec jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader, who can easily hold her own with international stars. She was fully at ease with Evans' music – and clearly enjoying herself in the concert.

She was commissioned to play this tribute with her trio at the Orford Music Festival in 2011, and repeated it at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2017. She's played it occasionally since then at clubs and in concert in Quebec, but this was the first time in a program which also featured the recently-released film biopic of Evans, Time Remembered.

From her first words, Desmarais welcomed the audience: “Nous sommes absolument ravi d'être ici ce soir [We are absolutely delighted to be here tonight]”. She introduced each of the pieces, in crisp French with some English, which was easily understood. And the audience equally welcomed her, warmly applauding each tune.

The set list concentrated on Evans' own compositions, and threw in a few jazz standards frequently associated with him. The mood of the music shifted from jaunty to wistful to sweet to elegiac – but it was always played in a nuanced manner with care and attention.

The trio opened with Evans' “Peri's Scope”, a buoyant opener which Evans wrote for his girlfriend Peri Cousins. It was the first of several Evans tunes inspired by people he knew. “Song for Helen” was written for his manager, Helen Keane; it was a full-bodied, swinging number, which had Belisle smiling broadly as he traded 4's with Desmarais, and Desmarais moving her body with the music as she explored the theme with rapid strings of notes.

Desmarais also included a piece she composed in honour of Evans. “Bill” was included on her 2009 Lorraine Desmarais Big Band album, and was a thoughtful piece that captured both the loveliness and sadness of Evans' music.

Other highlights included “Funkallero”, one of Evans' rare bluesy pieces played with lots of verve; the swirling and reflective “B Minor Waltz”; the alternating bass and piano melodies in “You Must Believe in Spring”, each echoing and then building on the other; and Alarie's violin-like bowed bass solo in “Very Early”, flying across the strings in changing angles and creating a bright expressive tone.

The classic “Blue in Green”, from Miles Davis' Kind of Blue album, felt like falling into a deep pool of melody – an intensely contemplative conversation among all three musicians, and ending with Alarie bowing a deep, long, resonant note.

“Waltz for Debby” (dedicated to Evans' niece) has always been a favourite tune, and I enjoyed Desmarais' interpretation. The trio opened the tune as the traditional romantic waltz, but upped the energy and pace partway through to create a vibe full of zest and happiness. Alarie's singing and fluid bass solo near the end spiced the tune up even more. The audience responded with very strong applause.

This tune was recorded in 1961 by Evans' trio with drummer Paul Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro, shortly before LaFaro's tragic death in an automobile collision. Desmarais told the audience that Alarie had been loaned LaFaro's bass, which is now owned by the International Society of Bassists, several times – including for a tribute to LaFaro at the 2016 Montreal Jazz Festival, and for his 2017 album, In the Spirit of Scott LaFaro.

The Evans-Motian-LaFaro trio pioneered the idea of a three-way, equal conversation within a jazz piano trio, what has been described as “a monumental shift in thinking”. That same approach was clearly perceptible in this trio, with Alarie's bass taking as much a melodic as rhythmic role in the group, and Belisle's drumming not only providing the energetic base to the music but also, in his cymbals and snare playing, lightly ornamenting and filling it – when he wasn't out front with a gripping solo. There was a strong interactivity and a deep intense conversation within the trio throughout the show.

The trio closed with the standard “Autumn Leaves” – but, as Desmarais put it, “rearranged in our fashion”. She began alone at the piano, playing what almost sounded like a Bach-like oratorio. As the bass and drums entered, so did the recognizable melody, but the trio quickly started playing with it and taking it apart, including a resonant and almost clanging drum solo. When the tune ended with a last flourish on piano, the audience stood for an extended standing ovation.

The encore was “Israel”, a jazz standard Evans recorded several times with his trio, including with LaFaro and Motian. It was a sensitive and lovely piece, to which the piano, and drums, all gave a pointillist interpretation. Their accented and spaced notes (and tapping on snare and cymbals) outlined the romantic feel of the tune – before a rousing ending with a hard drum break and repeated flurries of notes on piano.

The audience responded with a second standing ovation.

Bill Evans: Time Remembered

The trio's performance was preceded by a showing of the documentary Bill Evans: Time Remembered, by American filmmaker Bruce Spiegel. Eight years in the making, this 90-minute film includes interviews with more than 40 fellow musicians, producers, friends, and family of Evans. Telling Evans' story from his birth until its death, it's an unromantic but clearly appreciative account of his life, the people he touched, his demons, and his huge contribution to jazz.

Released in late 2016, the film has been screened at festivals across Canada and around the world and been named best documentary by several, including the Spring 2018 Alternative Film Festival in Toronto. It also has been paired with a jazz trio performance several times in the U.S.

It was the first time I'd heard of this film being screened in Ottawa – and just seeing it alone would have been a wonderful evening.

Many of the musicians interviewed in the film – Paul Motian, Jon Hendricks, Don Friedman, Frank Collett, Billy Taylor, Gene Lees, Bob Brookmeyer, and Jim Hall – have since died, making one very thankful that Spiegel undertook this project when he did. Their commentary, along with those still living, was insightful and interesting, giving a rounded picture of Evans as both a person and a musician.

Spiegel combined the interviews with archival photographs and newspaper clippings, videos of Evans in performance, footage of places where he lived and performed, and even recordings of audio interviews with Evans, to explain where Evans came from and show where he achieved his biggest successes. He also included interviews with more modern jazz musicians like pianists Eric Reed and Bill Charlap to show Evans' longer-term legacy.

I particularly enjoyed the clips from Spiegel's interview with Paul Motian. Gruff and ostensibly unsentimental, he still clearly respected Evans and vividly remembered their trio with LaFaro and different shows they played. Similarly, Tony Bennett asked to be interviewed as soon as he heard about this project, and his words strongly evoked their duo recording sessions.

Evans' life was full of heartbreak – family and lovers lost to suicide, a life marred by drug abuse and illness and unsuccessful relationships – and yet the overall impression of this film is of consolation. Part of that, I think, came from the music; even the more melancholy pieces lifted my spirits with their beauty, and the upbeat ones were truly joyful.

And part comes from Evans' own ethos: as Tony Bennett says in the film, the last thing that Bill Evans told him was, “Just go with the beauty, and forget the rest.”

Set List

All songs by Bill Evans unless otherwise specified

  1. Peri's Scope
  2. Bill [Lorraine Desmarais]
  3. Funkallero
  4. Waltz for Debby
  5. You Must Believe in Spring [Michel Legrand]
  6. B Minor Waltz
  7. Very Early
  8. Song for Helen
  9. Blue In Green [Miles Davis, Bill Evans]
  10. The Two Lonely People
  11. 34 Skidoo
  12. Autumn Leaves [Joseph Kosma]
  13. (encore) Israel [John Carisi]

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