It is the afternoon of a Sunday in New York City, June 1961. Producer Orrin Keepnews, head of the independent jazz label Riverside, descends the stairs to the basement at 178 7th avenue, a small wedge-shaped room with low ceilings, known to jazz enthusiasts as the Village Vanguard. The simple looking room is an ideal spot for jazz
Five years earlier, in 1956, Keepnews first recorded Bill Evans for Riverside. The resulting album was New Jazz Conceptions and included drummer Paul Motian. Evans was an unknown entity then and the album sold a mere 800 copies in its first year. A few more albums followed, including the better-selling Everybody Digs Bill Evans in 1958, until Evans found the right musicians to form his vision of a jazz trio. That serendipitous event took place during an engagement Evans had at the Basin Street East club, playing the intermission breaks between sets by Benny Goodman who was making a comeback. Evans recalled: “They were paying him a tremendous price, chauffeured limousines. A big dressing room for Benny’s band, and we couldn’t even get a Coke without paying a buck and a quarter.” His drummer and bass player did not want to put up with this arrangement and quit the job. During the two-week engagement “I think I went through six bass players and four drummers”. Towards the end of the engagement bassist Scott LaFaro joined him and then Paul Motian, both sticking with him for nothing but the pleasure of making music together. His legendary trio was born.
They recorded their first album together on December 28th of 1959. Portrait in Jazz broke new grounds for jazz piano trios. Bill Evans wrote in the liner notes for the album: “I’m hoping the trio will grow in the direction of simultaneous improvisation rather than just one guy blowing followed by another guy blowing. If the bass player, for example, hears an idea that we wants to answer, why should he just keep playing a background?” Peri’s Scope, named after Bill Evans’ girlfriend Peri is a good example, with a syncopated middle part.
Hinting towards what is to come in the future from the trio, Spring Is Here is a great example of re-harmonizing a well-known standard and making it your own.
Evans later said about the concept of his trio: “What we tried to do was loosen up everybody’s role so that they were participating more, and with responsibility. It takes a really musical approach, an artistic approach, to know when to be really simple, and when you should break something up. That’s what I was looking for.”
After the release of their debut album the trio went on a coast to coast tour during the first months of 1960. It was the first trio tour for Bill Evans and it included an engagement at Birdland in support of the Count Basie band. For most jazz audiences they were mostly unknown and many times did not fill the clubs they played at. Paul Motian recalls: “A lot of gigs we did, we didn’t have full houses and people screaming and clapping when we played. I remember playing in the Village Vanguard with Bill and Scott LaFaro with only 4 people in the club, and talking to Max Gordon and saying, ‘Hey, man, can we go home; there’s only four people,’ and he says, ‘Oh, no, you’ve still got a table of people and you’ve got to play another set.’” But the trio kept playing, improving and gelling together as a unit. Motian: “One night Bill played Monk’s ‘Round Midnight so beautifully that Scott responded in a way that I can still hear. Those two guys brought tears to my eyes.” That deep emotion drew many listeners in the years to come to the music they made together.
The trio did not record any studio material in 1960, although the three musicians all participated in recording sessions for others. Bill Evans played on Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Paul Motian recorded with Bob Brookmeyer and Scott LaFaro recorded at the end of the year with Steve Kuhn and Pete LaRoca, and participated in Free Jazz, Ornette Coleman’s double quartet album.
A second album by the trio was recorded on February 2nd 1961. There were many arguments between Evans and LaFaro in the studio, likely caused by Evans’ drug addiction and LaFaro’s disapproval of that habit. Evans complained about a splitting headache, the works. But you wouldn’t guess any of it, as the very lyrical album sounds as cohesive as it gets, the three musicians playing as one. A couple of examples: Elsa, written by Earl Zindars, a favorite of Evans who also wrote How My Heart Sings, recorded by Evans in 1962. Israel by john Carisi, first performed by the Miles Davis nonet’s Birth of the Cool in 1949. An often covered standard, Bill Evans’ interpretation is one of the best of that song.
Evans’ album covers from that period unveil the declining nature of his health due to his Heroin habit. With each album cover his face is distinctly thinner. Stories abound by fellow musicians and others close to him who witnessed the sad effects. Keepnews: “He’d been a junkie for a couple of years by then, and I had to slip him a few dollars. I’m his friend, I’m his record company, I’m his producer. People say to me, ‘Why couldn’t you refuse him?’ Look, he was going to find the money, junkies do, and I wasn’t worried about him mugging someone in an alley. I was worried about him owing money to someone who would break his fingers if he didn’t pay it back.”
After the recording of their second album the trio played one week engagements in Chicago, Toronto and Detroit and did not play together for a couple of months, at which point they were booked for two weeks at the Village Vanguard. Orrin Keepnews had the foresight to record the trio live during this engagement, partly because Bill Evans was notorious in taking his time recording new material in the studio. The trio was still not the headliner material, and they were booked as supporting act to the vocal group Lambert Hendricks and Ross. They did get to play all five sets on Sundays, and on the Sunday of June 25th, their last date at the Vanguard, they played the matinee and evening sets. As fate had it, this was also their last date ever. The recordings from these sets are sprinkled with ambiance noise from the audience. Motian: “You know what I like best on that record? The sounds of all those people, glasses and chatter – I mean, I know you’re supposed to be very offended and all, but I like it. They’re just there and all.” The trio’s matinée and evening spots did not fill even the small 120-person capacity of the Village Vanguard. The constant audience ambiance adds greatly to the intimacy of the recording, but it does not represent a full house of people.
It is extremely difficult to pick up only a few tunes to showcase from the recordings made that day. All five sets were recorded, so I selected one tune from each set. From the first matinee set here is My Foolish Heart. Composed by Victor Young and Ned Washington, the song was nominated for an Oscar in 1949, but the original version of it was miles away from what the trio did with it. As a listener you can visualize how carefully the three musicians are listening to each other.
From the second matinee set comes My Romance, composed by Rodgers and Hart for the 1935 musical Jumbo. LaFaro’s phrasing on the high register of his instrument is remarkable. Motian on LaFaro: “I was playing with Oscar Pettiford, Tommy Potter, Curley Russell, Wilbur Ware, people who just played straight-ahead 4/4 time. Here was Scott LaFaro playing… People used to say, ‘He sounds like a guitar player.’” Orrin Keepnews said of the way Evans and LaFaro sounded together: “When they started working together what was clear from the first was that Bill had something very different in mind from the normal interplay of piano with bass. Most so-called trio records are just an accompanied piano player – the bass player’s function is to emancipate the pianist’s left hand. Bill was looking for something very different – a joined-together kind of thing.”
The third set was the first evening set and it started with a second take of a tune attempted but interrupted earlier that day, Gloria’s Step. The tune was written by Scott LaFaro, and pianist Don Friedman who worked with Scott Lafaro in 1961 revealed that the song’s name is after Lafaro’s girlfriend Gloria: “The song name originated because LaFaro knew the sound of Gloria’s footsteps when she came up the stairs to their apartment, not because she was a dancer.” Paul Motian’s brush work and sense of time here is eye opening. Drummer Joey Baron closely observed Motian’s unique feel of time: “Around a certain point, I started hearing another kind of groove that was going on, and that’s the kind of interplay that wasn’t necessarily about stating 4/4 all the time. It was more like a floating kind of time, more like a circle than a straight up-and-down hard groove, like Paul Bley and Bill Evans, that kind of school — the way Paul Motian would approach playing a ballad. To hear him play a ballad was really incredible, because he made it interesting rather than just a straight boom-chick, which a lot of drummers did. He really played a ballad.”
The fourth set includes a fine performance of Alice in Wonderland. Bill Evans loved the sentimental songs that were featured on Disney films. On the trio’s first album he performed Someday My Price Will Come, from the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Paul Motian: “Bill had a way of playing ballads that made me play in half-time, because the way he played made me want to play that way. Instead of quarter notes, I wanted to play half notes. The first time I ever did that shit was with Bill.”
The last set closed with Jade Visions, another Scott LaFaro composition. It is one of the most interesting tunes played on that long day, with a Zen-like mantra phrase in 9/4. It definitely feels like late night music, and you cannot always pinpoint where the pulse is. Motian on this phenomena: “All of a sudden, the time started to break up. I guess maybe during that period was when I first started to realize that the time was already there; you don’t have to play it all the time.”
Describing the experience of listening to this music, Ira Gitler wrote in the liner notes to the original Sunday at The Village Vanguard LP: “In listening to the album, I find myself so absorbed that consciousness of my body disappears and I become as one larger ear, equipped only with my psyche. I am not aware of the act of listening.”
That tune closed one of the best recording days in jazz music history. When listening back to the recordings he made in order to pick which tunes to release as an album, Orrin Keepnews had a difficult task on his hands. He later said: “I remember listening to the tapes and saying, ‘There’s nothing bad here!’ Normally, you can cut one or two things right away, and there was nothing bad.”
Jade Visions was also the last tune the band ever played. Ten days after the recording was made, Scott LaFaro crushed into a tree late at night driving on U.S. Highway 20 in upstate New York. He died instantly, only 25 years young. Bill Evans was devastated: “When Scott was killed, it was not only a blow from a standpoint of a dear friend dying, it completely cut off my feeling of realizing a lifelong ambition of having a certain kind of trio, with the kind of musicians that could take the music someplace. I felt the next major talent on bass was Gary Peacock, but that wasn’t until 1964.” Paul Motian: “Bill was in a state of shock. Look at my gig book: nothing, nothing, nothing with Bill, until December. Bill was like a ghost.” When selecting which tunes to put on the first LP featuring recordings from that day, the now classic Sunday At The Village Vanguard, Evans picked the two tunes LaFaro wrote, Gloria’s Step and Jade Visions, and did not pick any of his originals. A second LP with more material from that day, Waltz For Debby, was released the following year. Since then the complete five sets were released on CD. Orrin Keepnews was right: there is nothing bad here.
For more insightful information on Bill Evans I recommend Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings, the excellent biography by Peter Pettinger.
Also recommended are Ted Panken’s interviews with Paul Motian between 1993 and 2005.
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