When Bill Evans Trio bassist Scott LaFaro died in 1961, the shock of losing his close friend and musical soulmate drove Evans into a yearlong spiral of depression. It was only after Chuck Israels came on board to take over bass duties that Evans began to return to some semblance of his former self, either personally or musically.
In May 1963, the re-formed Bill Evans Trio (with Israels and new drummer Larry Bunker) settled down for a short stay at the Los Angeles club Shelly’s Manne-Hole. The Manne-Hole was, in the 1960s, what the Viper Room was to LA in the 1990s – a hip room owned by an elder statesman and beloved old-time scenester (The Manne Hole by jazz drummer Shelly Manne, and the Viper Room by jewboy drummer Chuck E. Weiss). Fans of Bill Evans usually point to the LaFaro-Paul Motian lineup as the best trio he ever put together, and surely some in the crowd at the Manne-Hole had that pre-judgement in the back of their minds even then, but hey… not so fast.
Anyway, so there’s Bill Evans, not long after the death of one of his closest friends and greatest musical collaborators, playing one of the hippest rooms in Los Angeles with a new band that might well suck the big one because it’s not Motian and LaFaro up there. And being Bill Evans, what does he do? If it were Monk, he’d probably have turned in a cold and spiky set of musical ‘eff yous’ and finished the night off demolishing the piano with his bare hands. Miles would have either not shown up or played one note for two hours with his back to the crowd. But that’s not Bill Evans’ way. At a critical juncture in his career with the weight of his reputation weighing on his shoulders, with a new band and a suitcase load of bad mojo, what does Bill Evans do? He plays even prettier.
Most people, even people who “don’t like jazz,” know Bill Evans from his work on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which album does surely contain some of the finest moments of his career. It is a fair showcase of his style; the refined, delicate, almost fragile-seeming touch, the string-of-pearls single note lines and the floating, extended harmonies derived from French Impressionist composers like Debussy, Ravel and Satie are all abundant. These are the tools with which Bill Evans crafted a career as one of the finest and most sensitive interpreters of jazz on the piano the world has seen. When he wanted to, he could swing and wail, but usually Evans’ playing seemed so cerebral, so human, so personal and humane, that even the wildest moments seemed perfectly in hand.
And so The Bill Evans Trio At Shelly’s Manne-Hole, destined for reissue soon by Concord Jazz, is a lovely little record. Evans seems to have developed a form of telepathy rather quickly with his new sidemen. Together the three dig into pieces that Evans knew by heart; “’round Midnight” is here, and so is “Stella by Starlight,” but the whole set is magic. “Isn’t That Romantic” and “All The Things You Are” (a Hammerstein and Kern composition) are practically master classes in how to play sensitive, textured jazz without the need to rise above a mezzo-forte.
Where the original trio were renowned for their ability to get inside a song, the new lineup is somehow even more sensitive and lovely even without the benefit of years spent together. Occasionally the group erupts into what I’d call a “bop moment,” but in general At Shelly’s Manne-Hole catches the pianist in a contemplative mood and the band magnifying the effect tenfold.
1963 was the same year that Evans recorded his famous album Conversations With Myself, using then-novel multitracking technology to create three-way piano dialogues with himself. Although I enjoy that album, I have always thought it feels a little closed off, stifling even, as if the conversation were for Evans’ benefit alone.
Although not as historically significant, The Bill Evans Trio at Shelly’s Manne-Hole is a more accessible route into the beautiful mind of Bill Evans at this critical point in his career. Evans’ ability to conjure himself into trancelike state of pure introspective creativity makes this album well worth having for any jazz fan, especially fans of Evans who are curious about the merits of his “other” trios.