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How does one rate good execution of a flawed concept?
The Best Of Bill Evans is the latest in an abundant number of compilations claiming to capture the piano legend's finest work in a disc or two. Such albums almost never capture the range of any landmark performer, especially since most play on multiple labels and much of their material is unavailable for single-label compilations such as this.
Also, anyone looking for one Evans album arguably is better off with either the landmark Waltz For Debby or the companion Sunday At The Village Vanguard. Like buying Kind Of Blue instead of some "best-of" Miles Davis compilation, they offer a higher quality and more intimate look of Evans at his peak.
That said, this latest mid-budget release by Fantasy Jazz may be the best single-disc "best-of" Evans album and an ideal second exposure. Listeners with no interest in expanding their collection further will get some insight into the range of Evans' playing, while those interested in additional exploration can use it as a reference for formats most likely to appeal to them.
The fourteen-song collection has three major strengths: 1) it covers the peak of his development and career from 1956 to 1963, with one song from each of Evans' albums selected by longtime friend and producer Orrin Keepnews; 2) quality often prevails over familiarity as a number of lesser-known songs are included; and 3) notes from Keepnews about each of the tracks appear within.
Listeners won't hear development as much as variety. His progression from Bud Powell-like bebop to his famous trios focusing on melodic playing with greater interaction is evident for those listening for it, but the song selection doesn't attempt to define him that way. Two versions of his best-known ballad, "Waltz For Debby," open the album, for instance, followed early on by the up-tempo percussion showpiece "Night And Day." The little-known live performance of the blues-bop "Swedish Pastry" that closes the album shows that Evans hadn't abandoned the playing of his earlier days.
Inclusion of the stunningly brilliant solo ballad "Peace Piece," overlooked far too long among Evans' achievements, is proof of the focus on quality. Similarly, "You And The Night And The Music" is one of the best songs on 1962's Interplay Sessions, featuring trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and guitarist Jim Hall on the first Evans album with horns. There's a few times where standards prevail over more interesting material, such as "Time Remembered" instead of several other possibilities from 1962's Loose Blues (a recording featuring Hall and tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims that went unreleased until 1982).
To give a near five-star collection of songs a lower rating because it's a compilation may seem unfair, but ultimately The Best Of Bill Evans is a less interesting listen for casual audiences than most of the albums it borrows from. Still, it beats most other compilations it's likely to blend with indistinctly in record bins and Fantasy deserves credit for going beyond the usual quick-money budget release effort.
Track Listing: Waltz for Debby (solo), Waltz for Debby (quartet), Our Delight, Night and Day, Peace Piece, Woody'n You
(take 2), Blue in Green, Nardis, My Romance, If You Could See Me Now, You and the Night and the
Music, Time Remembered, Everything Happens to Me, Swedish Pastry
Personnel: Performers on various tracks include Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, Larry Bunker, Ron Carter, Paul
Chambers, Jim Hall, Percy Heath, Freddie Hubbard, Chuck Israels, Philly Joe Jones, Sam Jones, Connie
Kay, Teddy Kotick, Scott LaFaro, Paul Motian, and Zoot Sims