Believe the Hype: the New Live Bill Evans Trio Album Is the Real Deal
Here’s Gary Burton on Bill Evans: Live at the Top of the Gate, due out June 10 from Resonance – “When I first learned of the existence of a never-released Bill Evans recording, a double-cd set no less, I admit I had mixed emotions. Bill was one of the most influential musicians of all time and a new recording would be major news to all serious jazz fans. On the other hand, so often in these cases when tracks surface decades later, it turns out to be something taped on a home recorder from the back of a club and the quality of both playing and recording is inferior.” You might as well know that the punchline is that Burton was blown away by this album, and he’s right, serious jazz fans will want to get their hands on this.
How to describe Evans to someone who’s not familiar with his music? His playing has a luminous, singing quality. As a player of ballads, he has few equals. His chops were wickedly precise, but he didn’t take gratuitous solos, preferring to inhabit the songs with a nitty-gritty, clustering, chordal approach that invited the bass to participate, and so many bassists did. The emotional resonance of his music gives away his fondness for Ravel and Debussy. There’s so much implied melody in his playing that half the time what you’re hearing doesn’t actually exist – and nobody played hipper chord substitutions. If you want to learn to play jazz piano, there’s no better place to start than with Bill Evans.
So why didn’t this album see the light of day until now? Maybe because nobody knew it existed other than the guy who made it. Resonance’s George Klabin recorded two sets of Evans with his trio – a young, hungry Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morell on drums – at the restaurant above the Village Gate on October 23, 1968 for Brooklyn radio station WKCR. And then it sat in an archive for four decades. But unlike the bootlegs that Burton alludes to, this is a professional recording. It’s not pristine – the piano is noticeably if not painfully out of tune, and occasional crowd noise pops up here and there. But it beats anything you can make with your phone – and most everybody who grew up in the mp3 age won’t be able to tell the difference, or care. As far as the quality of the playing is concerned, this could just as easily be called Bill Evans Live at the Top of His Game.
It gets off to false start with the first of two versions of Emily. On this one, the phrase “Em-I-Lee, Em-I-Lee” becomes incessant and cloying: the song hasn’t aged well, and the album wouldn’t be compromised without it. Although by the time the considerably more adventurous second set comes around, Evans gives it a far more spacious, laid-back interpretation, Gomez taking over with one of several vigorously tuneful solos. By the time Evans has made his way through tightly unwinding, gleaming takes on Witchcraft and Yesterday, he’s found a groove and launches into a marvelously low-key, purist version of Round Midnight, then takes My Funny Valentine so far from its origins that when he finally hits the vocal hook, it sounds he’s quoting from another song. The set ends with a a slow, richly bittersweet, suspenseful take on Burt Bacharach’s Alfie, and then the lone Evans original here (awwwww!), Turn Out the Stars, steady and quietly triumphant.
The second set is looser, and more playful: Evans quite likely was high by now, and he lets Gomez take centerstage on a second version of Yesterdays and a bit later bounces energetically into In a Sentimental Mood, engaging the bass as sparring partner as was his trademark. Meanwhile, Morell, whose deftly terse, swinging brushwork is key to everything that’s good about the first set, moves deeper into the backseat. The intricate interplay between Evans and Gomez picks up with a second, more brisk Round Midnight, a propulsive Autumn Leaves and then Someday My Prince Will Come, Gomez wailing on his chords for a deliciously strange, banjolike tone. The highlight of the night is Earl Zindars’ gorgeously bluesy Mother of Earl, which comes across here as something like Cole Porter’s Too Darn Hot as Scott Joplin might have written it – and might be the first trio recording of the song that Evans ever made. The band winds up the night with a literally wee-hours Here’s That Rainy Day. As emotionally impactful, cerebral piano jazz goes, it doesn’t get much better than this.
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