It was while in college as a 20-year-old in 1949 that Bill Evans wrote his first composition. In his biography, Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings, Yale University’s Peter Pettinger wrote, “...he produced a small masterpiece in waltz time that he called ‘Very Early.’ It is a highly disciplined piece of writing, its melody comprising a two-bar falling, and then rising, germ; it can withstand the most rigorous structural analysis. It exemplifies a fundamental lifelong characteristic: the application of logic to a creative musical process. That approach was the backbone of the form and content of Evans's art. And yet when we listen to his music, we are conscious not of the compositional process but only of the resultant poetry. Played ‘straight’ from the page, ‘Very Early’ is a lyrical gem; but it also provided its composer with a fruitful sequence for improvisation, the earliest of many compositions that sustained him around the globe for three decades.”
One of the highest compliments that can bestowed on a jazz artist is to have his/her composition performed and recorded by other recognized industry leaders. The more frequently this happens – and the more widely the tune becomes known among listeners – the more likely it is to become judged as a jazz standard.
In his fascinating book, The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire (Oxford University Press, 2012), noted historian and jazz critic Ted Gioia offers up 253 such examples, denoting them as standards “...based on their significance in the jazz repertoire of the current era.”
I don’t believe anyone can quibble with the final list of selections Gioia chose for his book, other than perhaps simply wanting to add a few more. In my estimation, “Very Early” is one of those pieces worthy of consideration of the title, jazz standard.
For someone of Bill Evans’ bonafides, it’s perfectly understandable why pianists, especially, would want to create their own take of this idyllic jazz waltz. Indeed, many of them already have. For starters, check out the myriad renditions available online by Michel Petrucciani, Kenny Werner, Doug McKenzie, Ariana Racicot, Stefano Battaglia and the 15-year-old prodigy Joey Alexander in performance with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra.
It was also a pleasant surprise to see and hear what is becoming an ever-growing stable of guitarists who have embraced this delightfully challenging piece, with the much-heralded John McLaughlin leading the pack. Since his eloquent interpretation of “Very Early” from the 1981 tribute album, Time Remembered: John McLaughlin plays Bill Evans, a host of others have followed suit, including Howard Alden, Tom Quayle, Gary Willis, Matt Otten, Jack Wilkins, Simon Peter King, Rick Stone, Tim Lerch, Jake Reichbart, Danny Whalen and more.
Still other instrumentalists, including alto saxophonist Phil Woods and vibraphonist Joe Locke, have added their own special versions to the mix, but my personal favorite translations of “Very Early”– after Evans – were recorded by two of jazz’s most lyrical but expressly diverse tenor saxophonist stylists, Stan Getz and Charles Lloyd.
Fabulous artists taking a tune, reworking and reinventing it to call it their own. This is what makes jazz so great.
Moon Beams (Bill Evans Trio, Riverside Records, 1962)
Bill Evans, piano; Chuck Israels, bass; Paul Motian, drums
Pure Getz (Stan Getz Quartet, Concord Records, 1992)
“Very Early” (solo begins at :20 second mark through 1:10)
Stan Getz, tenor saxophone; Jim McNeely, piano; Marc Johnson, bass; Victor Lewis, drums
Charles Lloyd Quartet: Montreux, 1982 (Elektra/Musician label)
“Very Early” (Lloyd’s solo begins at 1:50 mark)
Charles Lloyd, tenor saxophone; Michel Petrucciani, piano; Palle Danielsson, bass; Son Ship Theus, drums