Time Remembered: Chris Marker’s Bill Evans CD
On the art of lyrical compilation, from one medium to another
There are only indirect hints as to what Chris Marker liked and did beyond his films. In studying the world of this elusive director, every sign invites us to scrutinize it carefully. Marker appears in small details, such as the mix CD which one day arrived on my doorstep. If the address on the parcel hadn’t confirmed the sender as Tom Luddy, co-director of Telluride Film Festival and a close friend of Marker’s, I could have taken it to be Marker’s personal gift from the beyond.
The CD cover gave little away: Sandwiching a photo of pianist Bill Evans was his name and the words "joue pour Guillaume" [plays for Guillaume], along with an illustrated image of the Markerian animal familiar Guillaume, a wise if mischievous-looking cat, holding sheet music. A lyrical filmmaker, who could also compose and play the piano, had compiled his favorite tunes performed by the lyrical jazz pianist and composer Evans (1929-80). The fascination with compilation is also evident in the films. Marker would often juxtapose material from various sources—news footage, computer games, photographs and songs—to remarkable effect.
Luddy recalls conversations about jazz with the filmmaker, who used to tune in to KJAZ whenever he was in the Bay Area. One of his favorite satellite TV channels was Mezzo, playing classical and jazz around the clock. While the genre didn't feature much in his films, one could argue that jazz for Marker, like cinema, was something both personal and political. His jazz-related writings for Esprit (“Du Jazz considere comme une prophetie”) and Le Journal des Allumés du Jazz seem to bear this out. Marker even made a small contribution to jazz literature by writing the narration for a documentary about Django Reinhardt directed by Paul Paviot, who'd previously produced Marker’s Sunday in Peking.
“Marker also liked making special tapes and CDs for friends,” Luddy told me in an email. Probably compiled in January 1995, "Bill Evans joue pour Guillaume" reflects the ways in which jazz figured into Marker’s vigorously protected private sphere. The selection reveals the taste of a man who knows his subject thoroughly. Luddy confirms Marker as an avid listener when he talks of Marker’s obsession with Evans: “He loved Bill Evans’s versions of ‘Some Other Time,’ and he made a tape for friends of Evans’ versions, plus other versions by singers and pianists.”
A technology-savvy Marker gives detailed specification of the digital content of the CD on a printed cutout. It lists track titles and album of origin, track lengths, as well as the total file size: 1.1 hours, 644.2 MB!
Making a mixtape is like putting together a film program for one. It also has a delayed effect; like a message in a bottle sent out, only to be found later with the message intact. I have tried to decipher the message on this special disc. One thing is certain: It contains the after-4 a.m. kind of music—the ‘rite’ kind.
Solo – In Memory of His Father
The significance of memory. Only days after the passing of Bill Evans’ father came the pianist’s New York concert debut, for which he assembled a requiem interweaving earlier compositions with those of Debussy and Satie. This haunting, melancholic contemplation of loss and absence was played only once more during Evans’ professional career: in 1968, in memory of Robert Kennedy.
I Love You Porgy
Half of Marker’s choices here are live performances, suggesting an appreciation for the spontaneous. Recorded live on June 15, 1968, this was the first in a series of appearances (and recordings) by Evans at the most famous Swiss jazz festival.
Another Markerian preference: for solo works over group recordings, as if the filmmaker digs the pure artistic statement only when the artist in question is captured in quiet solitude.
Note the repeated use of proper nouns, especially the names of people, as if each brings back the memory of a real person: Porgy, Danny, Stella, Evan. Each has their own story to reveal.
Stella by Starlight
Marker’s compilation seeks to create a subtle transition from silence, long pauses, and solo performances to trio work. In "Danny Boy" there is minimal brush work by drummer Shelly Manne; here we hear the trio emerging in full.
Lucky to be Me
From Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town, now it’s time for Broadway and Hollywood. Marker loved musicals, and while filming Statues Also Die in London, he attended a 10 a.m. screening of An American in Paris daily. For every viewing, he was accompanied to Leicester Square by Alain Resnais.
In one of Evans’ most famous and alluring compositions, the air sparkles every time he caresses a key. This combines Evans’ enthusiasm for the impressionist composers with what has been called "practised improvisation"—French culture meets Afro-American improvised music. This is where the heart of Marker’s compilation lies, when the music functions as a sequence of abstract images.
My Man’s Gone Now
A piece from Porgy and Bess acts as a jump cut from a young, emerging Evans to one of his final recordings, made during a two-week residency at Ronnie Scott’s.
Letter to Evan
The epistolary, another format which appealed to Marker. Written for Evans’ four-year-old son, whom the pianist seldom saw owing to his busy tour schedule, it has been reported that Evans added the following notes under the composition sheet: ‘There is a precious message contained in this song if you can hear it. And I won’t tell you twice."
The work of the filmmaker and the pianist are closest here, when one considers their obsessive commitment to remembrance as a force of life.
All the Things You Are
A bit of a mystery. This track is incomplete and there's no supplementary information on the CD. My guess is that it's from volume 11 of The Complete Riverside Recordings.
Ravaged by drugs and less than two months away from an early death, Evans still managed to deliver some brilliant music. The closing song could be any listener’s story. Marker leaves space for self-identification.