June 21, 2024

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CD review: Evans / LaFaro / Motian – Complete Trio Recordings – 2023: Video, CD cover

This is the breakthrough – the pinnacle of spontaneous musical communication. Three men breathing as one on a tiny bandstand.

Everything Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro, and Paul Motian had been working on for the previous 18 months led to this moment on June 25, 1961. The little-known pianist and his trio performed afternoon and evening sets that Sunday to a small audience that unknowingly sat through what would become a very famous – and final – set by the trio as a whole. The 25-year old LaFaro died tragically in a car accident just 10 days later. The performances on these LPs demonstrate a new and more interactive approach to playing as a trio, one in which all instruments carry melodic responsibilities and function as equal voices. Contrapuntal dialogues take place between Evans’s poetic piano and LaFaro’s bass, with Motian’s sustained riveted ride cymbal providing a carpet of stars. These recordings provide something of a sonic time capsule: sequenced in the original order of the five sets; the audience’s murmurings and applause peppered throughout; even an interrupted take is left intact.

Ranked time after time as one of the best live jazz recording sessions in history, and yielding two of Evans most classic albums (Waltz for Debby, Sunday at the Village Vanguard), The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 represents the pinnacle of spontaneous musical communication: three men breathing as one on a tiny bandstand.

This box set is the ultimate collectable item for any jazz fan. Pressed on 180-gram vinyl, this four-LP set comes with a 12-page booklet, complete with new liner notes by reissue producer Bill Belmont, as well as the original liner notes by the producer of the original recordings, Orrin Keepnews. Reproductions of session notes and photographer Steve Schapiro’s proof sheets from the performances add vintage context to the packaging. Also included in the box is a stunning metallic and black poster of the famous cover – Evans, in profile, deep in concentration at his piano.

Comprised of five albums in total, including the Trio’s two seminal sixties LPs, Portrait in Jazz and Explorations, this new box set from Cherry Red claims to collect ‘almost everything’ pianist Bill Evans recorded with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. Oddly enough, however, nowhere on the three discs are any of the extra takes and tracks from the studio sessions which were previously released.

Still, none of those extras are necessarily essential, and what we have left are two of the most influential jazz albums of the early sixties, plus two of the best loved live sets from the same era, across which three musicians in perfect syncopation re-wrote the rules of how to play in a small jazz ensemble.  Evans had been working with Miles Davis (he’s probably most famous generally for having co-written Kind of Blue with Davis a few months earlier), and exposure to Davis’ new ideas about jazz are evident throughout the Trio’s recordings.

It goes without saying that Evans’ piano playing is gorgeous, of course. There’s a reason why he’s been described as ‘an entire school unto himself for pianists and a singular mood unto himself for listeners’. His playing is delicate, even understated at times, but right at the front when when it needs to be.  But Evans works best alongside the other instruments. Cases in point – on Portrait in Jazz, ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’ or ‘Witchcraft’, a pair of bland piano bar jazz standards in most people’s hands, become something witty and full of life when Evans’ lively, playful piano runs meet LaFaro’s wandering and inquisitive double bass and Motian’s softly stroked drums. Listen to ‘Witchcraft’ enough and you might even forget Sinatra!

On Explorations, concentrate on the bass lines on ‘Elsa’ and ‘Nardis’ – it doesn’t sound too revolutionary now, but then…

The band are called the Bill Evans Trio, and Evans is the only name of the three that non-jazz fans are likely to know, but for me (and many others), LaFaro is the star of these recordings. He died in a car accident late in 1961, and these two albums – and a lesser collection with the Herb Geller Quartet – are pretty much the entirety of his recorded output, but his is still an amazing legacy (for an example of his brilliant live work, check out his extended solo on ‘Alice in Wonderland’ on Sunday Night At The Village Vanguard, the first of two legendary sets from a single day in New York in the summer of 1961, presented on disc 2 of the Cherry Red set).

For anyone wanting to explore further – click through the YouTube link below to watch the only known footage of Scott LaFaro playing live, from 1958:

It’s not all LaFaro and Evans though – listen to the latter on ‘Jade Visions (take 2)’: soft and sparse, leaving long languorous spaces between notes for Paul Motian’s shimmering drums. If Evans is the famous one, and LaFaro the tragic one, Motian is certainly the most under-rated member of the trio – in the face of Evans’ renown and LaFaro’s curtailed career it would be easy to overlook his drumming, but that would be a massive mistake. It’s almost not drumming at all a lot of the time, or at least not what most rock fans would call drumming. Delicate, full of brushed skins and shimmering cymbals like tiny bells, his is an artistry which deserves praise equal to that of the other two musicians.

After two discs of genius (and the live sets on disc 2 are the equal of the studio recordings on disc 1 – amidst the soft background laughter and chatter, and the clinking of glasses, there’s a genuine sense of being there on the two sets which you rarely get on live recordings of any era), you’d expect a bit of a drop in quality for the third disc, the earlier Birdland sessions from 1960, in which the Trio first played together. But this intimate club setting is as almost as glorious as the rest, and the addition of their first recordings together, with the jazz clarinettist Tony Scott on his album Sung Heroes, is a very welcome bonus indeed.

Side 1
1. “Come Rain Or Come Shine” (CD1: Portrait In Jazz)
2. “Autumn Leaves”
3. “Witchcraft”
4. “When I Fall In Love”
5. “Peri’s Scope”
6. “What Is This Thing Called Love?”
7. “Spring Is Here”
8. “Some Day My Prince Will Come”
9. “Blue In Green”
10. “Come Rain Or Come Shine”
11. “Autumn Leaves” (alternate take – mono)
12. “Blue In Green” (alternate take 1)
13. “Blue In Green” (alternate take 2)

Side 2
1. “Israel” (CD2: Explorations)
2. “Haunted Heart”
3. “Beautiful Love”
4. “Elsa”
5. “Nardis”
6. “How Deep Is The Ocean?”
7. “I Wish I Knew”
8. “Sweet & Lovely”
9. “The Boy Next Door”
10. “Beautiful Love” (alternate take)
11. “How Deep Is The Ocean?” (alternate take)
12. “I Wish I Knew” (alternate take)

Side 3
1. “Autumn Leaves” (CD3: 1960 The Birdland Broadcasts)
2. “Our Delight”
3. “Beautiful Love”
4. “Autumn Leaves”
5. “Come Rain Or Come Shine”
6. “Come Rain Or Come Shine”
7. “Nardis”
8. “Blue In Green”
9. “Autumn Leaves”
10. “All Of You”
11. “Come Rain Or Come Shine”
12. “Speak Low”

Side 4
1. “Gloria’s Step” (alternate take – CD4: At The Village Vanguard part 1)
2. “Alice In Wonderland” (alternate take)
3. “My Foolish Heart”
4. “All Of You” (alternate take 1)
5. “My Romance”
6. “Some Other Time”
7. “Solar”
8. “Gloria’s Step”
9. “My Man’s Gone Now”
10. “All Of You”
11. “Detour Ahead” (alternate take)
12. “Conversation”

Side 5
1. “Waltz For Debby” (alternate take – CD5: At The Village Vanguard part 2)
2. “Alice In Wonderland”
3. “I Loves You Porgy”
4. “My Romance” (alternate take)
5. “Milestones”
6. “Detour Ahead”
7. “Gloria’s Step” (alternate take 2)
8. “Waltz For Debby”
9. “All Of You” (alternate take 2)
10. “Jade Visions” (alternate take)
11. “Jade Visions”
12. “A Few Final Bars”

Evans, Bill / Lafaro, Scott / Motian, Paul Trio - Complete Trio Recordings  - Amazon.com Music

Evans / LaFaro / Motian: Complete Trio Recordings album review @ All About  Jazz

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