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Music Review: Riverside Profiles: Bill Evans

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While we often recognize true musical artistry upon the release of a CD or LP, it tends to be only with hindsight that we can truly define a musician’s most impressive period. This is certainly true of jazz pianist Bill Evans. No one doubted his talent and artistry then or now. Evans would record excellent albums until his death in 1980 and become one of the most influential jazz pianists of all time. Yet we know today that if there was a golden age of Evans, it was the period from 1958 to the summer of 1961 when he, bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian comprised the Bill Evans Trio.

During those years, Evans was recording as a leader for the Riverside label, one of the top jazz labels in the country. Evans is among several jazz giants to have CDs issued as part of the Riverside Profiles series. Evans’s CD covers the entirety of his career with Riverside, giving a taste of not only of the golden age but what preceded and followed it.

Only one tune, “Speak Low,” comes from the period before Evans joined the Miles Davis Sextet for eight months in 1958. Yet “Speak Low” is among the more bop pieces on the CD. It comes from Evans’s first recording as a leader with Riverside, New Jazz Conceptions. The 1956 session also marked the pianist’s recording in a trio with Motian, who would be an essential and critical part of most of his career. While New Jazz Conceptions showed both Evans’s bop and lyrical styles (a short version of his classic “Waltz for Debby” was recorded during the sessions), Evans seems to have been inspired by — and part of the inspiration for — Davis’s immortal Kind of Blue. After recording that LP with Davis, Evans again set out on his own with Riverside.

Riverside Profiles shows one of the more unusual yet memorable fruit of the post-Miles period, the solo “Peace Piece.” Coming from a direction almost entirely opposite of “Speak Low,” “Peace Piece” is an intensely reflective song that becomes tinged with a more freestyle, almost avant garde, sound. Evans’s next venture into the studio for Riverside would be highly notable. It was the first of what would tragically be only two studio recordings with LaFaro and Motian.

Selected from a December 1959 session is “Blue in Green,” which appears on Kind of Blue. The trio handling of this exemplar of modal jazz gives a different perspective on a song that Evans would claim he, not Davis, wrote. While some sources now give Evans songwriting credit while others recognize Davis and Evans as co-writers, the tune is credited to Davis on this release, as it is on Kind of Blue. The trio shows its growth and development on “Israel,” recorded in February 1961. Yet what many consider the highlight of the Bill Evans Trio was yet to come.

On June 25, 1961, the trio concluded a two-week stand at the Village Vanguard in New York City. The two afternoon matinees and three evening sets that day were recorded and parts released by Riverside later that year on the LPs Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. Riverside Profiles gives us the exquisite masterpiece title track of the latter, as well as the Gershwin tune “My Man’s Gone Now,” from the earlier release. These are just two of what are now considered historical and extraordinary performances. (Riverside released the entirety of the Village Vanguard recordings last year in an incomparable 3-CD box set last year.) Sadly, LaFaro died in a car accident 10 days later, making the Vanguard performances the trio’s last public dates.

Chuck Israels became the trio’s new bassist and in the spring of 1962 they recorded tracks that would be released on Moonbeams and How My Heart Sings. “Re: Person I Knew” appears from Moonbeams, the first LP recorded after LaFaro’s death. The tune, whose title is an anagram for the name of the LP’s producer, is a modal jazz piece, similar to “Blue in Green.” While that LP was heavy on ballads, the second LP by the trio, “How My Heart Sings,” was more upbeat and is represented here by the title track. While Israels and Motian remain integral parts of the trio, Evans seems more upfront on these cuts with a beautiful solo on “How My Heart Sings” (although the LP itself wasn’t released until after Evans left the label for Verve.)

The CD also contains one of the more unusual Evans configurations, the Evans-written title cut of 1962’s Interplay. The LP was recorded by the quintet of Evans, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. While Evans made his name as a trio leader and it is rare to see him in this type of setting, the cut reveals his versatility. Any time you get a stellar solo by Hall followed by an impeccable excursion by Evans on the keyboard and a plainly Davis-influenced solo by Hubbard you can’t go wrong.

In addition to the Evans retrospective, the release contains a bonus CD containing eight tracks from others Riverside recordings, including not only “My Foolish Heart” from the Evans trio’s sessions at the Village Vanguard, but cuts from Wes Montgomery, Chet Baker, Thelonious Monk and Cannonball Adderley.

Because the Evans compilation contains only 10 tracks (not counting the one on the bonus CD) and seeks to cover the entirety of his Riverside recording careers, fans can grumble about any particular choices or omissions. Yet in that regard it does exactly what a compilation should do. It gives an introduction to the newcomer, a wonderful overview for the established fan and leaves both wanting more.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.