Essential Music: Live at the Village Vanguard, by Bill Evans

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For the first live recording of his trio, Bill Evans accepted to be taped at the Village Vanguard on June 25, 1961, playing with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. This was a Sunday, and the trio played five brief sets, all of which were recorded by Orin Keepnews, a producer Evans had worked with in the past and would do so again many times. The recordings were released on several albums: First, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, then Waltz for Debby showed the full range of songs from that day, and later More from the Vanguard was a collection of alternate takes. In 2003, a definitive set, The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard 1961, was released, which contains all the music from these three albums, including one interrupted track that had not been released.

It’s easy to look back and judge history through hindsight, but the patrons of the triangular basement room at the Village Vanguard probably had no idea that they were witnesses to a historical recording. From the very first notes of Gloria’s Step, a piece composed by LaFaro, you can hear the perfection that Bill Evans and his various trios would bring to jazz over the next two decades, and the magical rapport that these three musicians had on stage. But the recording equipment lost power during this first song, leaving a partial take with a dropout in the middle. Those who read symbolism into the vagaries of life might see this as a premonition of Scott LaFaro’s death only ten days later in a car accident.But the recording remains one of the most powerful live recordings of any jazz music. Evans plays with the detachment and subtlety that made him such a great artist, allowing the other members of his trio to be creative performers and not mere accompanists. Evans would record many albums throughout his career in this lineup, which became his preferred way of playing, but the one to return to is this sacred 1961 recording.

It’s almost a shame to hear the crowd mingling and talking behind the musicians, as though they were impervious to the beauty of the music; Evans would say, “I just blocked out the noise and got a little deeper into the music,” but Paul Motian claims that the crowd is what he likes best about the recording: “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.”

Each of the pieces played that day is a masterpiece, from the jaunty Gloria’s Step’ to the heart-rending My Foolish Heart, to the delicate Waltz for Debby, one of Evans’ most beautiful pieces. When they finished their last set, with only a handful of people still listening, playing LaFaro’s Jade Visions? twice, they all went home leaving history behind them.

(You can read a moving article about this famous performance, by Adam Gopnik, from The New Yorker.)

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