Bill Evans: The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 (Riverside)

EvansWhen I reviewed the most recent Paul Motian Trio album awhile back here on CultureCatch.com, while putting his career in context I of course made reference to his time in the Bill Evans Trio, especially the edition with bassist Scott LaFaro. And now here comes a three-CD set compiling everything extant from their peak moment: June 25, 1961, "live," just ten days before the tragic death of LaFaro in a car crash.

Though he is generally ranked among the greatest and most important jazz pianists, Evans remains a controversial figure in some quarters, his highly influential piano style still criticized for what it supposedly lacks. Evans does swing, albeit subtly at time – although it's hard to imagine anybody attempting to deny that on this session, "All of You" swings like a mother, especially in the final set. There is blues in his playing where appropriate – here, listen to the two Gershwin songs, "My Man's Gone Now" and "Porgy (I Loves You, Porgy)" – but it's a feeling, without resort to obvious blues devices.

Yes, his harmonies are strongly influenced by the French Impressionists, and Chopin affected his idiomatic approach to the piano, but from Scott Joplin on, most jazz pianists have been influenced by classical music, including such luminaries as Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Art Tatum. As for the merits few can deny, the liquid smoothness of Evans's legato playing, not only on ballads but even on fast runs in relatively uptempo songs, should be a lesson to the too-numerous pianists who poke and jab the keys instead of caressing them, and his control of broad but finely gradated ranges of timbre (also called "tone") and dynamics is an underrated aid to his profoundly moving projection of complex emotions. There's much more to this music than its pretty surface. And while Evans continued to evolve over the course of his career, it's his style at this point in time that influenced so many other pianists.

This box appears in the U.S. in proximity to the 25th anniversary of Evans's death on September 15, 1980, but was available two years ago in Japan and last year in Europe. One wonders at the delay, but then, jazz is more enthusiastically supported in Japan and Europe than it is here, alas. The three discs offer the Vanguard performances in the order they were recorded during two afternoon and three evening sets, including, in its first U.S. release, take 1 of LaFaro's "Gloria's Step," the first performance of the day, previously rejected because it's interrupted by a power outage of, as original producer Orrin Keepnews writes (in new notes that vividly convey the context and aura of this legendary session), "barely a minute" – and less as heard here.

The original approved takes were initially released on two LPs, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. In their pristine original orders, those were fine listening experiences; as currently configured on CDs, they have alternate takes of the same pieces ordered consecutively; with just one such situation at the end of the final set, this new set now provides more enjoyable listening. More realistic, as well, now that we get to hear more audience ambiance, announcements, a repertoire discussion, and a snippet of good-humored chase-scene playing by Evans at the end of the evening.

The sound also seems a bit clearer and more sharply focused (perhaps that's due to mastering with the 20-bit K2 Super Coding System), allowing for even more detailed appreciation of Evans's sound – and LaFaro's, and Motian's. It's worth noting that this was all captured on a single portable Ampex tape recorder, suggesting that the superb balances heard were not achieved through post-production fiddling, but by a combination of careful preparation and the players' own acute musicality.

Balance, on several levels, was this trio's great trademark and, dare one say, innovation: Rather than the pianist dominating, the three musicians are more equal partners, in the sense that there is greater interactiveness and neither the bassist nor the drummer is relegated to the background.

LaFaro was crucial in this template: highly melodic, boldly assertive (but never overly aggressive), and with the considerable technique on a difficult instrument to pull off such a conception. It's not just that this is one of those rare jazz albums where we not only enjoy but look forward to the bass solos; LaFaro's ebullient playing alongside (not behind or under!) Evans is equally enjoyable, and his composing is featured twice, most notably on the lovely "Jade Visions."

Motian at this time was not as innovative and imaginative a drummer as he would become (and remains), but he's still far more here than a "timekeeper." It's like listening to three poets conversing/reciting in music, our reception tempered but also heightened by the retrospective knowledge that it was the last time they would do so. - Steve Holtje

Bill Evans - The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 (Live)

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Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based former editor of Creem Magazine and CDNow.com, editor of the acclaimed MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, and contributor to The Big Takeover, Early Music America, and many other hip periodicals.

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