‘The Legendary Bill Evans Trio’ reviewed

❉ A glorious three-disc, five-album Box Set including two seminal LPs, Portrait in Jazz and Explorations.

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 on the 2011 CD.

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.

Bill Evans Trio: ‘The Legendary Bill Evans Trio’ 3CD Box Set (El Recordings ACME361CDT) is available from Cherry Red Records, RRP £44.99. Click here to order from Cherry Red Records.

 Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

 Stuart Douglas is an author, and editor and owner of the publisher Obverse Books. He has written four Sherlock Holmes novels and can be found on twitter at @stuartamdouglas

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