I came to Bill Evan's 1974 "Symbiosis" a little late. Actually I listened to it for the first time last week. Although I've had the CD reissue for years, I understand what the delay was all about. I revere Bill Evans above all jazz pianists, yet I have my limits of veneration. By 1970 his playing had begun to significantly change, and not, to my ears, for the better. In his final decade, Evan's improvisations took on a brittle, slightly mechanical edge, marked by a heavier touch and distracting forays into the higher register that lent his playing an artificial flavor. His ballads became mannered and schmaltzy in a way that would have been previously unacceptable to him; his uptempo excursions frenetic and mechanistic. (Long before I knew of Evan's problems with cocaine during that last decade, I felt his playing was becoming increasingly and uncomfortably nervous.)
Others love this period, believing that Evans was stretching himself, deliberately taking a more aggressive stance than lent his playing a deeper swing than ever before. I mostly hear anxiety and artistic uncertainty. Of course there are performances of extreme beauty scattered throughout the last ten years, but for me, 1958 (when Evans joins up with Miles Davis) to 1968 ("At the Montreux Jazz Festival'' being the last fully satisfying album) is the period I return to when I want to get caught up in the umbra of pure creativity.
So "Symbiosis" was not high on my must-hear list. And, having finally lived with it for a bit, I'm certain it's no lost masterpiece.
It is a bit nutty though, that's for sure. Evans had previously collaborated with arranger Claus Ogermann on the disasterous hack job, "Theme from the V.I.P.s" and the disappointing 1965 album, "Trio with Symphony Orchestra." Now they were back together again, only this time Ogermann was the sole composer as well as arranger and conductor. His "Symbiosis," is a two part work with a schizoid feel: a jagged woodwinds-based first movement followed by an overblown orchestral movement. (A particularly misguided interlude finds Evans taking on the electric piano, an instrument that sounds as if it's causing him increasing pain with every key touched.)
The second movement opens with Evans featured, slowly etching a theme of fragile beauty that, while suggestive of a dozen tunes from the " Spartacus" theme to "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?," elicits a stunning Evans improvisation nonetheless. Calm, collected, avoiding cliches, the pianist sounds like his old self. And as a parting gift to both the featured soloist and the listener, Ogermann allows Evans the concluding minute of the work --a wistful reprise of the largo that reminds you why you spent the time working your way through this often bewildering project in the first place.