What can be said about Bill Evans' classic Sunday At The Village Vanguard that hadn't already been said so many times over? If you're new to jazz, here's what you need to know: it is the beginning and the end of piano-bass-drums music. It's one of the five or six most essential jazz records of all time. And it's one of the very finest live documents from any music genre.
When you listen to this record keeping in mind that the bass player Scott LaFaro---one of the most promising bassists ever to emerge---was dead ten days later at the tender age of 25, it brings about a bittersweet sentiment because one of the most spectacular moments in jazz was a fleeting one. In a bit of irony, Evans' producer and record company head Orrin Keepnews sensed that this unit was not going to hold together for much longer, which led to these monumental recordings.
When I last covered a Bill Evans record, it was to discuss the first one by of the pianist's then-new trio consisting of LaFaro and Paul Motian on drums. Portrait In Jazz was taped right at the end of 1959 after several months of the trio playing together to the point where Evans felt comfortable enough to document the rapport they've developed in that time. It would, however, take another thirteen months before Keepnews was able to get the threesome back in the studio again.
Those February, 1961 sessions, out of which the trio's LP Explorations came forth, was marked by some visible tension between LaFaro and Evans. It appears that Scott had begun to view his boss as an unreliable junkie and voiced his desire to be compensated accordingly. Although the matter ultimately died down and the boys got to work creating another superb record, Keepnews grew wary that LaFaro would leave the group before long. Thus, he soon convinced Evans to cut a live record just months later before the opportunity to capture one of their increasingly acclaimed club dates would be lost forever.
That chance came in the last Sunday in June, 1961, at the end of a two-week stint at New York's Village Vanguard club. Having played first on the road and then a couple of weeks at this club, the Bill Evan Trio machine was well-oiled and playing at peak level. Keepnews taped enough songs for two albums to insure that he had enough good material for one album, but it quickly became clear that there were really no missteps the entire day. Given the tragic circumstances of the bassist's sudden death, Evans decided to select six tracks that highlighted LaFaro's contributions, thus creating a de facto LaFaro-led album, as an official one doesn't exist (some of the leftover tracks were used to forge the more group-oriented album Waltz For Debby).