It is likely that no one — not even the participants — knows when an extraordinary musical moment is going to occur. That was probably the case when pianist Bill Evans, bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian showed up at New York City’s Village Vanguard on Sunday, June 15, 1961.
The performers knew they would be recording their two afternoon matinees and the three sets they would perform that night. More than 40 years later, jazz fans owe a debt to the fact Evans agreed to record that day. What was captured on tape borders on legendary. While parts of the recordings were released on vinyl later that year as Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby, Riverside has now released a three-CD box set that contains the entirety of the material in the order it was recorded during the day’s five performances.
Given the ultimate result, things did not get off to an auspicious start. About a minute into “Gloria’s Step,” the first tune of the first matinee, the power to the recording equipment went out. Although it was quickly restored, even that gap exists for posterity in this compilation. Thankfully, that initial breakdown was not indicative of what was to come.
What the entirety of these CDs reveal is the higher level to which Evans, LaFaro and Motian took the jazz trio. This is not LaFaro and Motian serving as a rhythm section while Evans dominates center stage. This is a sublime yet intensive improvised musical dialogue amongst partners, a dialogue at which listeners can only marvel. At times, the interplay between LaFaro and Evans is as if they are speaking to each other in another musical dimension, transported there in part by Motian. LaFaro is not simply in the background keeping time or laying down a bass line. Even when not up front — and Evans gives LaFaro plenty of chances to be up front — his performance is as much a force in the entirety as Evans’s own inimitable style. And when LaFaro is up front, Evans trades roles easily. As he “comps” to whatever musical course LaFaro charts, he not only retains and reminds us of the elements of the underlying theme but lays the groundwork for his own subsequent improvisations when the lead is handed back to him.
While LaFaro and Evans often gracefully change rhythms and moods in the course of any one tune, this is done with and through Motian as the backbone. Yet while Motian keeps everyone on course expressively, he is never intrusive or overstated. His performances here are an exemplar of percussive eloquence.
Given the excellence that pervades the entirety of this set, it is unfair to highlight one or more songs over others. Still, the performance of “Waltz for Debbie” in the trio’s closing set — which was released on the LP of the same name — is a masterpiece. It is a prime example of the importance and legacy of this evening and this trio to modern jazz. And hindsight adds a tragic power to this. LaFaro died in a car accident less than two weeks after this recording, making the Vanguard performances this incomparable trio’s last public dates.
Taken in its discrete sessions or as a whole, this set can help create a true jazz fantasy. Take these CDs, put on noise-canceling headphones, close your eyes and listen. You will be in the Vanguard, hearing the clinking glasses, the occasional bar conversation and wanting to stare daggers at the woman who laughs a bit too loudly as some comment at her table, seemingly oblivious to the marvelous performance to which serendipity has brought her. All you long for is the ability to actually see these artists perform as they take you along on their musical journey.
This box set, originally released in Japan in 2003 and in Europe last year, was released in the U.S. this month to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Evans’s death on September 15, 1980. The box also includes a booklet containing new notes on the recordings by original producer Orrin Keepnews. In addition, the CD inserts are reproductions of the recording cards Keepnews kept during the sessions, allowing us to see his comments and other pieces of information used in completing production work on them.
Whether in the jazz or historical category, this release must be considered a contender for a Grammy Award. Yet awards and recognition aside, any true jazz fan must take note of this set. It truly is a slice of heaven in a box.