It’s no secret that Bill Evans’s work as a jazz pianist is some of the most unique, evocative music laid to keys in the past century. This is in no small part because of the way he could tease out performances from his ensemble that, while unified, carried a sense of elegant disembodiment. His finest work isn’t so much chamber music as much as music of the air, closer to what Loren Connors has been getting at all these years than what Evans’s contemporaries like Brubeck or Monk were doing at the time. Evans isn’t shooting to be in the pocket; he’s too washed out on the elusive tensions between players, the sounds of a band in the act of becoming, all members acting independently yet contributing to something powerful, holy, ghostlike.
Undercurrent is a peculiar release from Evans, coming after a year of almost complete silence after his peer and companion, bassist Scott LaFaro, was tragically killed in a car accident at the young age of 25. It’s worth mentioning that this accident occurred only 10 days after Evans and LaFaro had executed a particularly stunning live session that would result in two of their most beloved works, and this history can’t help but feel entwined in the spare, fragile playing from Evans and Jim Hall on their first collaboration, Undercurrent. Both complete masters of their craft, Undercurrent is a surprisingly spirited collection considering that there are no instruments throughout besides piano and guitar. Yet a sense of absence still bleeds through these recordings, a silence that is at once focused and centered, yet strangely adrift. The ease with which Evans and Hall pirouette around one another is fascinating, almost romantic in how effortlessly they trade leads, each contributing rhythms that propel their partner forward, less with a push than with silent, unspoken suggestion.
The resulting album is a tenuous artistic triumph; these detached numbers beckon to the voices no longer present in them, inspiring new dialogues that, while hopeful, carry the weight of something lost. In some ways, Undercurrent resembles a purgatory, a space submerged in the overwhelming expanse of death that nonetheless gazes upwards toward an unknown future, hopeful but uncertain. It’s just like that haunting photograph on the cover — unsettling, funereal, and lovely.