Leader executive editor
The brilliant jazz pianist Bill Evans passed away at the age of 51 on Sept. 15, 1980, leaving behind an impressive body of recorded work from the mid-1950s until just a couple of weeks before his death.
Several live recordings were made that summer in 1980, including “Turn Out the Stars: The Final Village Vanguard Recordings,” a six-CD boxed set from June 1980 that was recorded at the famous basement jazz club in New York, where exactly 18 years earlier he had made his most famous recording, “Sunday at the Village Vanguard.” The Sunday recording included a two-set matinee at 5 p.m., called “Sunday Afternoon at the Vanguard,” followed by three evening sets that came out later as “Waltz for Debby.”
More unused material from that session, including Evans talking to the audience, was reissued in a three-CD boxed set called “The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings,” which is one of a handful of jazz CDs even a casual listener should own. It gets the top crown rating in the “Penguin Guide to Jazz on CDs,” and it’s stunning.
Evans, who had a substance-abuse problem for much of his life, had taken heroin before the Sunday performance, which may be why those recordings have an ethereal quality. “Sunday Afternoon at the Village Vanguard” was the first LP I bought as a teenager, and I knew nothing about heroin or Evans’ music. He’s the jazz pianist I listen to the most, and he may be the best.
“The Complete at Ronnie Scott’s 1980,” recorded in London less than two months before his passing, is also an important two-CD set, even if the piano is sadly out of tune.
Two eight-CD boxed sets called “The Last Waltz” and “Consecration,” recorded a couple of weeks before Evans died, are also essential. Drug addiction had ravaged his body — he was living on candy at that point — and although the music falters occasionally, Evans still played well even as he knew he was dying. Almost every night he performed “The Theme from M*A*S*H*,” also known as “Suicide Is Painless,” but he knew it wasn’t.
Other recently issued live recordings include “Waltz for Debby: The Complete 1969 Pescara Festival,” “Live in Buenos Aires,” “The Bill Evans Trio Featuring Stan Getz: But Beautiful” and several concerts before enthusiastic audiences in France and Germany.
Much of the information for this article comes from “Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings” (Yale University Press), a beautifully written biography by Peter Pettinger, a concert pianist who passed away before his book appeared in 1988.
Pettinger loved Evans’ music, and reading the book made me look for Evans recordings I didn’t have in my collection. The book lists more than 160 Evans records as leader and sideman. (You can find online bargains for as little as $5 but beware of ripoff prices.)
Evans made only a couple of mediocre records because of commercial pressures. The rest is never less than good, while much of his music is excellent and some recordings are masterpieces.
Evans produced a unique sound combining jazz with classical music: Evans, who was born in New Jersey on Aug. 16, 1929, had a degree in classical music from South-eastern Louisiana University in Hammond, La., and he had considered a classical music career before he set on an often-precarious life of a jazz artist in New York. He is buried in Baton Rouge.
After a brief, unhappy stint with Miles Davis in the late 1950s, Evans formed his own trio, although he appeared on Davis’ “Kind of Blue” after he left the group, contributing several compositions and adding a moody quality to the all-time best-selling jazz record.
Evans, along with the other supporting players — John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Cannonball Adderley on alto saxophone, Paul Chambers on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums and Wynton Kelly on piano on one track — received $150 for their work and no royalties.
Evans’ new group included Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian is the best known. They appear on the Sunday Vanguard session, which was recorded on June 25, 1962. Two weeks later, LaFaro died in a car wreck driving late at night to his parents’ home in upstate New York.
Evans was devastated and did not record for several months. The solo recordings he made after LaFaro’s death are melancholy but beautiful. They are “Solo Sessions Vol. I and Vol. II” and were released gradually over the decades.
Other Evans live recordings at the Vanguard “California, Here I Come,” from 1967, one of his happiest; and from 1973, “Since We Met” and “Re: Person I Know,” an anagram of Orrin Keepnews, the record producer who did Evans’ early Riverside records and lugged the live recording equipment down to the Village Vanguard for the historic Sunday session, the last day of a two-week engagement at Evans’ favorite club.
Keepnews also produced Evans’ other excellent Riverside recordings with LaFaro and Motian: “How My Heart Sings” and “Explorations.”
The most unusual Van-guard recordings were surreptitiously made by a fan named Mike Harris, who carried a portable tape recorder with him tucked inside a large bag whenever Evans appeared in clubs in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. Harris, a physicist and an amateur pianist, and his wife, Evelyn, sat near Evans over 14 years.
Although the sound is far from perfect, “The Secret Sessions, 1966-75,” which includes more than 100 tunes over eight CDs, is indispensable as it captures Evans and his trio in a typical nightclub setting, pretty much unaware they were being recorded — although Evans must have guessed eventually that his obsessive fans were carrying a tape recorder.
Keepnews, who died last year, cleaned up the sound as much as he could and issued them on the Milestone label. Harris says he has about 80 more hours of unissued recordings and is willing to part with them just for the cost of the tapes if a record company wants to issue them.
Perhaps Resonance Records, an up-and-coming label, might reissue more of Harris’ secret recordings.
Resonance recently issued two newly discovered Evans recordings from the 1960s: “Live at the Top of the Gate,” recorded in October 1968 by George Klabin, who did a jazz radio program at Columbia University, and “Some Other Time: The Lost Session from the Black Forest,” recorded in June 1968 by German engineer Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer.
The sound is superb on both, but the German recording, made in Brunner-Schwer’s home studio, sounds like a Super Audio CD on my stereo. Bassist Eddie Gomez appears on both double CDs. Marty Morell is the drummer at the Top of the Gate, while Jack DeJohnette, making only his second appearance on an Evans record, is the drummer on the German set.
DeJohnette also appears on Evans’ wonderful “Live at Montreaux,” which was recorded five days before the Black Forest session.
The Resonance sets include the usual repertoire of Evans compositions and standards: “You Go to My Head,” “Very Early,” “What Kind of Fool Am I?,” “I’ll Remember April,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Turn Out the Stars,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “These Foolish Things,” “Some Other Time,” “Emily,” “Round Midnight,” “Alfie,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Here’s That Rainy Day,” as well as “Someday My Prince Will Come” from Disney’s “Snow White,” a tune Evans helped turn into a jazz standard after recommending it to Miles Davis.
Evans’ solo recordings are often overlooked but are terrific and all of them are now available: Besides the “Solo Sessions,” they are “Alone” and “Alone Again,” along with “Conversations with Myself,” “Further Conversations” and “New Conversations.” The last three are overdubs and, although they may seem gimmicky, they got better as the series progressed.
We’ve been thinking a lot about Evans lately, wondering if his grave survived the flooding in Baton Rouge. We’ll check it out when the water recedes.