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Revisiting Bill Evans' "Peace Piece"

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A number of years ago, while going through a particularly difficult period professionally, I posted an item in praise of Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece.”
At the time, I noted that veteran jazz fans acknowledge that – among the universe of music they’ve absorbed over the years – there are a handful go-to tracks, favorite performances they can turn to if they need to be lifted up or cooled out. For me, those tracks include among others Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder,” Brad Mehldau’s take on Radiohead’s “Knives Out” and just about anyone doing “On Green Dolphin Street,” (although I prefer Stan Getz’s versions).
I was adding “Peace Piece” to the list as i was able to find solace in the aching silence of Evans’ composition.
I am in a much better place these days happy to say and, indeed, have had a wonderful holiday season with lots of time off (hence the dearth of posts). Listening to “Peace Piece” the other day, I found different dimensions in its musical and emotional resonance. The longing seems more universal and less personal, an expression of our ongoing, never-ending desire for peace in the world and less a plea for peace in my head. That’s to be expected, I acknowledge, but a welcome revelation nonetheless.
“Peace Piece” was recorded in 1958 and included on the pianist’s second album as a leader, “Everybody Digs Bill Evans.” One jazz historian notes that “Peace Piece” captures Evans “at a time when he was into playing block chords. That combined with his expert use of pedals gave him a fresh, distinctive sound that had never been heard before on the piano.” had this to say about the track.

This is a unique entry in the Bill Evans discography: a pastoral improvisation built on a gentle two-chord vamp. "Peace Piece" is more a mood than a composition. Evans was often asked to perform this work in later years, but he usually resisted, claiming that it had been the inspiration of the moment, and not something that could be recreated.
Yet there are many ways of fitting this lovely, if peculiar, performance, into the overall flow of Evans's life and times. He would rely on a similar harmonic structure in other settings – for example, on "Flamenco Sketches" from the seminal “Kind of Blue” album or in Evans's moving interpretation of Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time." We can also look at this work as anticipating the trend toward fewer chord changes that Miles and Trane would champion over the next several years. One could even focus on "Peace Piece" as the birth of New Age music, where sweet, two-chord vamps would come to reign supreme.
But Evans is not interested in providing unobtrusive background music or exploring simple modal improvisation. Halfway through his performance he starts incorporating more and more dissonance into his right hand lines. Soon we are in deep polytonal waters where the Windham Hills are just a blurry dot on the horizon. This is jazz music, my friends … but a type of jazz that no one else was playing, circa 1958. If more people had been listening, the jazz idiom might have been influenced by this performance. As it stands, only a few thousand copies of “Everybody Digs Bill Evans” were sold at the time of first release.

Even today, the album is not usually mentioned alongside such widely acknowledged masterpieces as “Portrait in Jazz” and “Sunday at the Village Vanguard.” More’s the pity because that means lots of jazz fans haven’t delved into the disc and the amazing “Peace Piece.” If you’re among them, give the track a listen and I’m sure you’ll understand why it’s a favorite of mine, one whose resonance transmutes and transcends.

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