Midweek Music Moment: Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961, Bill Evans Trio

Today’s music moment comes about only because of today’s news. The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings 1961, the outstanding performance by the Bill Evans Trio, is one of 25 new additions to the National Recording Registry.

In making the announcement, the Library of Congress said the five sets the trio performed on June 25, 1961, “are recognized as some of the greatest live recordings in the history of jazz.” I’ll certainly second that. In honor of this event receiving deserved recognition for its role in American music, I have combined two reviews I wrote when a box set of the recordings was released in the U.S. to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Evans’s September 15, 1980, death:

It is likely that no one — not even the participants — knows when an extraordinary musical moment is going to occur. That was probably the case when pianist Bill Evans, bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian showed up at New York City’s Village Vanguard on Sunday, June 15, 1961.

They knew they would be recording two afternoon matinees and the three sets they would perform that night. More than 40 years later, jazz fans owe a debt to the fact Evans agreed to record that day. What was captured on tape borders on legendary. While parts of the recordings were released on vinyl later that year as Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby, Riverside has now released a three-CD box set that contains the entirety of the material in the order it was recorded during the day’s five performances.

Given the ultimate result, things did not get off to an auspicious start. About a minute into “Gloria’s Step,”‘ the first tune of the first matinee, the power to the recording equipment went out. Although it was quickly restored, even that gap exists for posterity in this compilation. Thankfully, that initial breakdown was not indicative of what was to come.

What the entirety of these CDs reveal is the higher level to which Evans, LaFaro and Motian took the jazz trio. This is not LaFaro and Motian serving as a rhythm section while Evans dominates. This is a sublime yet intensive improvised musical dialogue amongst partners, a dialogue at which listeners can only marvel. At times, the interplay between LaFaro and Evans is as if they are speaking to each other in another musical dimension, transported there in part by Motian.

LaFaro is not simply in the background keeping time or laying down a bass line. Even when not up front — and Evans gives LaFaro plenty of chances to be up front — his performance is as much a force in the entirety as Evans’s own inimitable style. And when LaFaro is up front, Evans trades roles easily. As he ‘comps’ to whatever musical course LaFaro charts, he not only retains and reminds us of the elements of the underlying theme but lays the groundwork for his own subsequent improv when the lead is handed back to him.

While LaFaro and Evans often gracefully change rhythms and moods in the course of any one tune, this is done with and through Motian as the backbone. And in keeping everyone on course expressively, Motian he is never intrusive or overstated. His eloquent performances should serve as an exemplar for any percussionist.

Given the pervasive excellence of the box set, it is unfair to highlight one or more songs over others. Still, the performance of “Waltz for Debbie” in the trio’s closing set — which was released on the LP of the same name — is a masterpiece. It is a prime example of the importance and legacy of this evening and this trio to modern jazz. And hindsight adds a tragic power to this. LaFaro died in a car accident less than two weeks after this recording, making the Vanguard performances this incomparable trio’s last public dates.

Taken in its discrete sessions or as a whole, this set can help create a true jazz fantasy. Take these CDs, put on your headphones, close your eyes and listen. You will be in the Vanguard, hearing the clinking glasses, the occasional bar conversation and wanting to stare daggers at the woman who laughs a bit too loudly as some comment at her table, seemingly oblivious to the marvelous performance to which serendipity has brought her.

Any true fan of the jazz trio would have loved to be in her place. Unable to do that, consider this release a slice of heaven in a box.

It bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It’s not. It’s feeling.

Bill Evans, Liner notes, Sunday at the Village Vanguard

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