May will be a good month for fans of pianist Bill Evans’ trios. A two-disc set of a previously unreleased 1968 gig, Bill Evans Live at Art D’Lugoff’s Top of the Gate is due out from Resonance Records, and Jazz Classics is releasing a remastered edition of his 1962 studio recording, Moonbeams. Moonbeams was the first recording Evans made with his new trio after a period of depression following the accidental death of his first trio’s bassist, Scott LaFaro in June of ’61. Drummer Paul Motian was still on board, and Chuck Israels replaced what many thought was the irreplaceable LaFaro. It and one other, How My Heart Sings!, were the only two albums recorded by this second trio, which soon gave way to the trio—Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morell on drums—that played together into the ’70s.
An all-ballad album, Moonbeams capitalizes on Evans’ lyric sensitivity. But producer Orrin Keepnews, according to Doug Ramsey’s liner notes for the remastered release, worried that the “steady dose of slower tempos” might make the band lethargic, and had it intersperse uptempo pieces throughout the sessions. He needn’t have worried; Evans is a master at playing with tempos. According to Israels: “The rhythms are more sophisticated, more inventive, more creative than almost any other jazz musician I know.” Turns out there were enough of these faster tunes for the second album.
The original album had eight tracks and included two of Evans’ original compositions. The new release includes alternate takes of three pieces as bonus tracks. It opens with Evans’ “Re: Person I Knew” which according to the original liner notes was meant as an anagram of the producer’s name, although the tense of the verb seems to have been changed to protect the spelling. While Evans’ work is often compared to the 19th century Impressionist composers, it’s haunting opening reminds me a lot of Erik Satie, as do a lot of other moments on the CD. The other Evans composition is the waltz time “Very Early” which closes the album. While the waltz is not typical jazz fare, in Evans’ hand you have to wonder why that should be.
In between there is a stunning version of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” for my money the highlight of the album. It is Evans at his lyrical best. And the rest of the set is equally fine. “I Fall in Love Too Easily” is followed by a powerful take on “Stairway to the Stars” which is given a bit of a bluesy vibe. “If You Could See Me Now,” “It Might as Well Be Spring,” and “In Love in Vain” round out the album. The bonus tracks are alternate takes of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” and “Very Early.”
Nat Hentoff quotes Bill Evans as saying: “It bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It’s not. It’s feeling.” There have certainly been those who have made it their business to analyze just what it is that he does that makes him such a great pianist. He is, after all, the very model of what you might call a pianist’s pianist. Certainly he is technically adroit, but a lot of people are technically adroit. As he says, what makes a great pianist, and what makes him a great pianist is the feeling. Evans, in his trademark position leaning over the keyboard, seemed to audiences to become almost at one with his instrument. He feels the instrument. He feels the music.