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Music Review: Bill Evans Trio – Bill Evans Live at Art D’Lugoff’s Top of the Gate

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The first time I ever had a chance to really listen to the Bill Evans Trio was back in 1961 when the Columbia Record Club sent me its monthly selection because I had forgotten to return the notification that I wanted some other record or nothing at all that month. The record that arrived was Waltz For Debby. Certainly I must have heard some of Evans’ work on some of the jazz radio shows, but I don’t know that I ever really listened seriously. As pianists went then, the names in my pantheon were Peterson, Brubeck, Shearing, and the like. Waltz For Debby arrived and with it the discovery of something that more than a few jazz lovers already knew—Bill Evans was an artist who could play with the best of them, and a good deal better than most.

So when over 50 years from the date of its recording, a release of two live sets from an October, 1968 gig at the Top of the Gate—a recording that had had only been heard one time on the Columbia University radio show of George Klabin, now president of Resonance Records and the man who had managed to record it—becomes available, it has to be a cause for celebration. This, of course, is not the original Evans trio that had played on Waltz For Debby. Bassist Scott LaFaro had died in a car accident, and drummer Paul Motian had left some time after. Eddie Gomez eventually took over the bass and Marty Morell the drums, and this was to become the trio that was to play together through the end of the ’60s and into the ’70s. This is the trio playing on the two-disc release from Resonance: Bill Evans Live at Art D’Lugoff’s Top of the Gate.

The only thing for fans to lament about this recording is that it took over 50 years to get it released. Not only does it show the virtuosity of the individual musicians, it clearly demonstrates their collaborative dynamism. Each disc features one complete set—nine tracks in the first set, eight in the second. Three of the songs in the first set are repeated in the second—”Emily,” the Jerome Kern “Yesterdays” and Monk’s jazz classic “‘Round Midnight”)—giving listeners an opportunity to compare the variations in the musicians’ performances on the same evening. The only Evans original is his “Turn Out the Stars” which closes the first set. Otherwise, the sets are made up of some jazz standards and familiar tunes, with perhaps one or two representing some of the trio’s earliest live and recorded versions of the songs.

The first set features a swinging “Gone With the Wind” and an elegant take on “My Funny Valentine.” “Emily,” which opens the set, begins almost introspectively before taking off with some nice interaction between Evans and Morell. “Witchcraft” has some inventive solo work from Evans and Gomez. But if you’re looking for some exceptional bass work, “Autumn Leaves” in the second set is truly something special. Indeed Gomez makes his presence felt through both sets. Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” is a sweet reading of the classic tune and “Someday My Prince Will Come” will make you forget Snow White, if not Miles Davis. The set ends with a subtly moody “Here’s That Rainy Day.” These are two sets that show convincingly that Evans, Gomez and Morell are at the top of their game.

The two-disc set includes a 27-paged booklet with a wealth of vintage photographs and essays and notes by producer Zev Feldman, jazz critic Nat Hentoff, and vibraphonist Gary Burton. Gomez and Morell contribute some personal memories. There are some notes from Klabin about the recording where he explains that Evans and the trio had not yet garnered the “respect” they were later to command, and that accounts for some of the background chatter that can be heard during the sets. It may also account for the sometimes less than enthusiastic applause. There is also a short piece on Art D’Lugoff and the Top of the Gate by his son Raphael.

All in all, this set is a welcome addition to the Bill Evans discography. Release is scheduled for June 12, 2012. Besides the two-disc CD set, Resonance will be issuing a limited pressing of 3,000 hand numbered 3-LP vinyl box sets which will include the content from the CD booklet. The music will also be available for downloading for those who prefer a digital version.

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