Although a review of any of Concord Music’s new releases in their The Very Best of… series—one that includes jazz giants like Chet Baker, Miles Davis, and Wes Montgomery—must acknowledge that “very best” as used in the titles of these albums refers to music recorded for particular record labels over a limited period of time. “Very best” does not refer to the artist’s complete career. That said, there is an argument to be made that when it comes to their compilation, The Very Best of the Bill Evans Trio, the title may well be appropriate.
It’s not that the Evans CD covers tracks from the pianist’s full career any more than any of the other compilations. It doesn’t. And it’s not that it looks beyond four albums the trio recorded for the Riverside label. It doesn’t. In that respect, the 18-month period in which these four albums were recorded may well represent the shortest period from which any of the other of the Very Bests have been drawn.
Appropriate, then, in what sense? This is not merely a Bill Evans Trio. This, for many jazz fans is thee Bill Evans Trio. This is the first Bill Evans Trio: Evans on piano, Scott LaFaro on bass, and Paul Motian on drums. Bassist LaFaro, so integral a part of Evans’ idea of what a jazz trio needed to be doing, was killed in an auto accident in June of 1961, just weeks after the last of the sessions that yielded the tracks on the last two of the recordings, Waltz for Debby and Sunday at the Village Vanguard. Evans was so affected by the death of the 25-year-old bassist that he didn’t play in public for months and didn’t record again until the following year when LaFaro was replaced by Chuck Israels. Motian stuck around and this second trio made two albums, one of which, Moonbeams, has been recently re-released on a remastered CD.
The title may also be appropriate because as Neil Tesser argues in the liner notes to the Concord release, this is a “unique, ground breaking ensemble” with a new idea about the piano trio. Instead of a showcase for the piano with support from the bass and the drums, Evans was looking for a greater balance, “a three-way conversation among instrumentalists.” Certainly, Evans’ aesthetic didn’t change in his later recordings. Still, there is something dynamic in interplay between these three musicians that was truly special. Moreover, these are recordings of innovative performances.
You can hear the creative dynamism on every one of the 11 tracks on The Very Best of The Bill Evans Trio from the opening number, “Autumn Leaves” to the closer, an almost nine-minute free-flowing romp through Miles Davis’ “Solar.” Bass and drums are continually highlighted. LaFaro takes a two-minute or so solo on “Solar” that shows just what the bass can do. And the standard “Autumn Leaves” has the musicians finishing each other’s phrases like an old married couple—make that “menage a trio.”
Other standards on the album include “How Deep Is the Ocean,” “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “Beautiful Love,” “My Foolish Heart,” and “My Man’s Gone Now.” There is a LaFaro composition, “Gloria’s Step,” as well as Evans’ own classic, “Waltz for Debby.” There is a truly excellent version of “Blue in Green,” a tune credited to Evans and Miles Davis. Although Tesser argues that it sounds like nothing Davis ever wrote. “Nardis,” another Davis piece, rounds out the album.
Other fine Evans trios were to materialize over the years. There would be a lot of great music, but the music this first trio recorded was something new, something different. The trios that came later were walking a path already trodden. This is not to say they didn’t make fine music. It is only to say that there is rightly some special space for the pathfinder. The Very Best of the Bill Evans Trio is an album will allow you to savor that special space.