The consummate pianist's pianist, if you had to pick only one from the history of jazz, would have to be Bill Evans. Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson certainly have their thing, but their style is more elaborate technique than raw invention, and its very baroque nature tends to obscure its message. Evans, on the other hand, was cool and direct, with the cleanest harmony, the greatest intimacy, and the most stunning interactive improvisation. All these superlatives merely serve to emphasize that any jazz pianist who hasn't studied Bill Evans is just a bit ignorant.
This recording is the holy book, as it were, for the piano triono less. It was originally released in two volumes, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby, documenting one day Evans spent with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian in 1961. Evans made a heap of other recordings, but these three players became one for a period, and their shared zest for discovery led them to create some stunningly beautiful music. A bit academic for some, admittedly, given its overall reserved nature and insistence on subtlety, but not everyone hears music the same way.
Evans and LaFaro are no longer with us, but Paul Motian is still making great records, and it's interesting to compare them to material from over four decades ago. Motian's drumming remains light and nimble, and he's made a point of sticking with players who test his limits, like guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano. His unique way of swinging hard without being obvious about it still informs his playing today.
The most amazing thing about this box (a total of three discs with all the tracks from the above two volumes of the "holy book," plus more material, presented complete and in chronological order) is the way Scott LaFaro can finally be heard. LaFaro, a very active, forward bassist, was working with Ornette Coleman that year as well, and you can't imagine a less Evans-like figure than Ornette. (Just picture the introverted nerd in the suit playing free jazz.) LaFaro phrases his playing extremely lyrically, and when he gets a chance to solo (eg. on the Gershwins' "My Man's Gone Now"), he turns the tables on Evans and keeps him from "comping" in any expected way.
The abundant interaction between Evans and LaFaro has always been this music's main attraction for me, and the fact that I can finally hear the bass properly means I can now really begin to experience it again. As for the extra tracks, it's interesting to hear how similar the arrangements are on the alternate takes, but how different the solos can be. Pieces like LaFaro's "Gloria's Step," with its bluesy twist and saunter, are really worth hearing three times. Likewise with the two versions of "Waltz for Debby," with its combination of classical romanticism and vivid swing. Not all the extras are pristine, but they're all worth hearing, and the new notes by producer Orrin Keepnews are a real plus.
Personnel: Bill Evans: piano; Scott LaFaro: bass; Paul Motian: drums.