To look at Bill Evans in the 1950s and '60s, one might think that he was the most unlikely looking jazz titan to ever depress a piano key. Thin and bespectacled with a dweeb's haircut, Evan's was the picture of a bookish intellectual. He was well versed in the European Impressionism of Les Six and Debussy, deftly folding that introspection into performances of the American Musical Canon, as well as his own classic compositions. Serious about his craft, doubtful of his significance, Evans produced a body of music that had the most profound effect on all pianists to play jazz after him. Perhaps Bud Powell was as influential before Evans, but I think conventional wisdom does not tend that way.
Had Bud Powell and Bill Evans not existed, Jazz would have had to invent them. In piano performances, they represented muscle and finesse respectively. Using tennis as an analogy, the brilliantly technical Bud Powell was to the disciplined Bjorn Borg as the thoughtfully nuanced Evans was to the net play master John McEnroe. They were necessary presences in the music, both existing as a feather floating in the breath of culture.
After kicking around as a sideman for the likes of Tony Scott, Chet Baker, Cannonball Adderley, and Miles Davis (contributing to the fabulous Kind of Blue with the latter), Evans formed his first and perhaps greatest trio in late 1959 and released five LPs that were to define the art of the trio. Along with Bassist wunderkind Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, Evans perfected his democratic vision of trio cooperation, where all members performed with perfect empathy and telepathy. Three of these five LPs (now two compact discs) detailed this trio's performances one Sunday afternoon in mid-1961 at New York City's fabled Village Vanguard. It is these performances, currently available as Sunday at The Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby that comprise the number one best jazz live recording in this present series.
Pure and thoughtful musicality permeates the 20 performances of 12 disparate songs. Evans, LaFaro, and Motian slide over and under one another in a sumptuously alchemic solution, resulting in a single homogenous musical thought expressed in one voice from three distinctive philosophies. Evans is quiet on "My Foolish Heart," angular on the two Miles Davis originals "Solar" and "Milestones" originals, and totally inward on Porgy and Bess ballads "My Man's Gone Now" and "I loves You, Porgy." Scott LaFaro's "Gloria's Step" and "Jade Visions" are crystalline in their brevity and starkness, pulling the trio to the heights of perfect empathetic cooperation.
All that remains is the hope that one day Fantasy, Inc. will find the lost sides of that early summer afternoon 40 years ago and release a complete recording as they have done for so many other artists, including Evans. We should honor the quiet genius in these songs.
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