The Penguin Guide to Jazz, Penguin Books’ jazz encyclopedia, has for nine editions given “crown ratings” to albums the editors feel supersede their highest rating of four stars. My object in these “Preening” articles (because that’s what penguins do) is to analyze each crown album and decide if it is a 5-star work by our count. I don’t wish to criticize Penguin’s choices, but merely to catalogue and appraise the most acclaimed records in an art form that I believe is America’s greatest export.
A couple weeks ago drummer Paul Motian passed away. It was a great loss for jazz, but it also signified the ultimate close of a chapter in its history. Motian was the last surviving member of the first Bill Evans trio, a group that was active from 1959-61. Bassist Scott LaFaro died shortly after their last performance in 1961 and Evans died in September 1980. Though the group was only together for three years, their studio recordings and live performances are legendary. They are often considered one of the best small groups in jazz and were definitely some of the most revered improvisers to ever play the club circuit in New York City. They released four albums for Orrin Keepnews’ Riverside label: Portrait in Jazz, Explorations, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, and Waltz for Debby. The last two Penguin gave crowns, and it is those two that I shall profile today.
Come 7 or 8 o’clock on June 25th, 1961, Evans, LaFaro, and Motian had finished a long night at New York’s Village Vanguard club. They had played four matinees and two evening shows, each lasting about a half hour. Evans wasn’t the most well-known pianist to play the Vanguard (though he came in fifth in that year’s Downbeat Magazine reader’s poll), so there was a fair bit of talking and inattention from the audience through the sets, but the trio was more or less satisfied with its performance. Orrin Keepnews had been able to record the entire session, and planned to take the best cuts and turn them into another bona fide hit record for Riverside. However, ten days later, 25-year-old Scott LaFaro was driving on an unlit road to his parents’ place in Geneva, NY, when he lost control of his car and smashed into a tree. His death devastated Evans and Motian, and for many weeks and months afterwards Evans hardly touched his piano. Keepnews, who had originally only prepared for one record from the Vanguard sessions, hurriedly released Sunday at the Village Vanguard, appending to the title “Featuring Scott LaFaro.” By the time Evans had reformed his trio with Chuck Israels replacing LaFaro, a second album called Waltz for Debby was assembled from the same June 25th recordings.
It made sense to cover both albums in one article, because each offers a different image of the same event. In fact, if LaFaro had not died so suddenly after the sessions, Riverside might have only pressed one album like planned, perhaps excluding tracks such as “Gloria’s Step” and “Jade Visions.” It seems like Sunday at the Village Vanguard is more LaFaro’s record than Evans’, while Waltz for Debby represents the trio in a broader context. There is some truth to this, as the producers behind Sunday selected tracks that had a prominent LaFaro solo and they featured two of his own compositions, the aforementioned “Gloria’s Step” and “Jade Visions” (which is why they might have been disallowed had things ended less tragically). However, it is unfair to say the night belonged to just one musician, as both Sunday and Waltz for Debbyare brilliant because of the intense collaboration and interplay between Evans, LaFaro, and Motian.
Sunday at the Village Vanguard is a good place to start for those just discovering Evans, and yet I see it as the least accessible of the pair. As familiar as Cole Porter’s “All of You” is, Evans doesn’t insert the melody until the song is almost over, and “Jade Visions” dispenses with melody altogether, substituting a head for a two note motif. If the listener applies himself diligently enough, though, he may still be able to recognize some of these numbers. “Alice in Wonderland” is taken directly from the Disney cartoon’s opening theme, an early indicator of Evans’ relationship with Disney tunes, having covered “Someday My Prince Will Come” on Portrait in Jazz. “My Man’s Gone Now” is taken from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and in fact the trio played “Porgy (I Loves You, Porgy)” the same day. “Alice in Wonderland” and “My Man’s Gone Now” are lovingly extended on this set, the former discarding the fanfare of the original in favor of restless ascending and descending lines from Evans and LaFaro, and the latter dulling the fire of Bess’ vocal part into a languorous dirge. “Solar,” a Miles Davis chart, only hints at the head, Evans and LaFaro diverging into two separate melodies as if Bach had written it as a counterpoint exercise and not Davis. “All of You” plays around just as coyly, gaining matter gradually from Evans before racing to a dynamic climax fueled by Motian’s vigorous drumming. The album begins and ends with two LaFaro pieces, and where “Gloria’s Step” is a welcoming, memorable, and well-formed start to Sunday, “Jade Visions” is its reticent, unyielding, and amorphous twin. Both feature a taut partnership between bass and piano, but “Jade Visions” requires it completely. Listen to the first bars: LaFaro starts the song by himself, and when Evans joins in the pianist is a little ahead of the beat; both LaFaro and Evans adjust, and for the rest of the song the entire trio is locked in an unalterable rhythm. The focus these musicians exert is monstrous, and “Jade Visions” is its clearest window.
While it is inaccurate to call Waltz for Debby Evans’ record, it is more immediately identifiable with him than Sunday is. The title track is a Bill Evans classic, one of his own compositions and one that is linked inextricably to the artist (though Oscar Peterson would cover it frequently in his later career). “Waltz for Debby” is a musical portrait of Evans’ niece, and is one of his very first songwriting efforts. Here it is played with great relish, galloping just within the boundaries of 6/8 time, the melody on the piano echoed almost exactly by the bass. Also iconic to Evans’ career is “Some Other Time,” a Leonard Bernstein piece that the pianist originally picked up for his 1959 record Everybody Digs Bill Evans. The opening chords of the piece are noteworthy; allegedly, when Evans sat down to record the track the first time he began with the two chord ostinato and rather than continuing with the chord progression he instead improvised over those two chords. This resulted in an impromptu cut named “Peace Piece.” When Evans joined the Kind of Blue sessions after recording Everybody Digs Bill Evans, Davis and he discussed including “Peace Piece” on the record. Instead, Davis threw in some Spanish-tinged changes and “Flamenco Sketches” was born, which – though it is discrete from “Some Other Time” – still retained the same two chord ostinato. “Detour Ahead” and “My Romance” comprise the middle section of Waltz for Debby, and while the first weaves its way silkily through an obtuse melody, the second takes a Rodgers and Hart tune and suspends it briefly with Evans’ solo piano before Motian brings it back to Earth. The album ends with “Milestones,” the only recorded instance of Evans playing Davis’ modal masterpiece. The arrangement gives LaFaro a lot of room to move, and his lines on this recording are among the best of his career. The remaining song is “My Foolish Heart,” originally featured in a 1949 film of the same name. Out of all the songs recorded in the Vanguard sessions, out of all the multiple takes and different interpretations of standards, this song stands as my favorite. It starts so gently, barely louder than the clinking glass from the audience, but as Motian double-times certain measures and LaFaro rattles his bass strings with a heightening temper the song takes off, and it flies for a few moments, LaFaro insightfully supplementing Evans’ idiosyncratic quarter-note triplets with the most economical notes, before it descends into the murk in which it began.
There’s no question Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby are great achievements, but how does someone rate the same effort twice? I could say Sunday doesn’t deserve a perfect score because it was a hurried response to Scott LaFaro’s death, but likewise I could just as easily deny 5 stars to Waltz for Debby for cashing in on the legend of the Vanguard set too late. Does that mean I should give neither 5 stars, or does it mean I should just condense the two into one blanket score and give it a 5? Consider this, though: in what world is the mean score of 4.9 and 4.9 a 5.0? If the individual records are not strong enough on their own, it would not be any more beneficial to combine them, in hopes that the result is more than the sum of its parts. I would say June 25th was a perfect night for the Bill Evans trio, and in order to justify it, I believe that both albums are strong on their own. Besides, criticizing an album for its sequencing or its release date is a bit absurd, especially when it is the only thing stopping a critic from giving it a perfect score.
I do not think I shall give every one of Penguin’s crown albums 5 stars, and yet I can predict I will give it to a majority. It seems like all I give is 5 stars, and yet the reader must take my situation into perspective: out of the thousands of jazz recordings existent today, only forty or so have been deemed “perfect.” That’s a tall order. Yet, I’ll be damned if I don’t spend great time deliberating about the difference between a 5 and a 4.9, and after much deliberation, I’ve decided that Bill Evans fits that tall order. He brought something new to jazz, a classical expertise that broadened its scope past blues and spirituals. He popularized certain techniques, inspired pianists from Keith Jarrett to Brad Mehldau, and led one of the best live bands of all time. Indeed, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby are classic because they arrest a moment in time – in this case, a particular day – and give people a vision of a remarkable group through a tiny mousedoor. Most of us will never know what it’s like to hear such an elastic and versatile trio play on stage, but Sunday and Waltz for Debby get us pretty close. For that, I am indebted to these LPs, which are truly some of the best live recordings of all time.
Sunday at the Village Vanguard — 5.0
Waltz for Debby — 5.0
Stream: “Some Other Time”
Stream: “My Foolish Heart”
Stream: “Jade Visions”
Stream: “Alice in Wonderland”