Bill Evans’ Lost Session Released at Last

album cover


GILLESPIE-COOTS: You Go to My Head*+. EVANS: Very Early*+; Turn Out the Stars*+; Walkin’ Up*+. NEWLEY-BRICUSSE: What Kind of Fool Am I? (tk 1*, tk 2*+). DePAUL-RAYE-JOHNSTON: I’ll Remember April*. RODGERS-HART: My Funny Valentine*+. WRIGHT-FORREST: Baubles, Bangles and Beads (tk 1*, tk 2*+). BURKE-VAN HEUSEN: It Could Happen to You*. ELLINGTON: In a Sentimental Mood*+. MASCHWITZ-STRACHEY: These Foolish Things*. BERNSTEIN-COMDEN-GREEN: Some Other Time*+. A. & D. PREVIN: You’re Gonna Hear From Me (2 tks*+). PORTER: It’s All Right With Me. FREED-LANE: How About You?* + KAPER-WASHINGTON: On Green Dolphin Street*+. BRODZKY-KAHN: Wonder Why*+. RAMIREZ-DAVIS-SHERMAN: Lover Man / Bill Evans, piano; *Eddie Gomez, bass; +Jack DeJohnette, drums / Resonance Records 9019, available as 2-CD set (with extensive liner notes) for $24.98 from manufacturer here or as digital download from iTunes.

Bill Evans was a lucky man. Despite a heroin habit that drained his finances and his health for a quarter-century, he was still able to play at or near peak efficiency throughout his storied career, and after several years in which he experimented (quit successfully) with a variety of modern jazz styles, he discovered that audiences swooned over his soft-grained, relaxed, rich-toned piano sound in a trio setting. It was love at first hearing, via the Sunday at the Village Vanguard sessions, and it stayed that way until his premature death in 1980.

Yet along the way, a slightly harder jazz side of Evans sneaked out now and then, and this remarkable session, made in Germany on June 20, 1968, is one such example. Eddie Gomez was his regular bass partner by this time, but drummer Jack DeJohnette was sort of a new addition, along for the ride as part of a European tour that included the Montreux Jazz Festival (a live session from Montreux with DeJohnette was issued by Verve, his label at the time). Thus this set is remarkable as being the only studio recording he made with that drummer, as well as having been lost for nearly 50 years and being one of his most swinging and adventurous sessions.

According to the notes, the recordings were taped somewhat hastily in a one-day session between live performances at the recording studios of MPS Records, with the agreement that none of it would be released without authorization from Evans and/or his agent, Helen Keane, because he was under contract to Verve at the time. Somehow or other, both parties forgot about it (or maybe Evans just didn’t care) and the tapes were filed away in a vault at the SABA electronics factory in Germany’s Black Forest. A chance meeting between Zev Feldman, the A&R man for Resonance Records, and one of the sons of MPS founder Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, led to his being told about the album and being able to hear one track (he doesn’t tell us which one), which spurred Feldman to convince Resonance president George Klabin to allow him to pursue the full tapes for an official issue.

Well, here it is, despite a road through red tape that makes the Black Forest look benevolent. Coming to an agreement with Brunner-Schwer’s family was the easy part; they then had to clear the rights with Evan Evans, Bill’s son, who manages his estate, Universal Music Group who owns the rights to all of Evans’ Verve-days recordings, and of course the sidemen who are both still alive. Finally, all hurdles had been cleared and the recording is issued at last.

As Marc Myers puts it in the notes, this album came near the beginning of what he calls Evans’ “percussive poet” years, featuring “a more robust, confident piano approach with pronounced chord and finger strikes and an increasingly agitated, almost rushed feel.” I refer to it as a return to his bebop/Tristano roots, which he occasionally dabbled with even during his soft-grained, romantic years. Myers refers to them as “swinging romantic” years, but for me they were only intermittently swinging and largely romantic—or, at least, only the softer material was issued. Read my review of Evans’ Loose Blues session from 1962 elsewhere in this blog, and you’ll see what I mean.

Whatever the case, it’s wonderful to hear Evans clearly enjoying himself and playing at or near peak form in this release. Myers correctly describes DeJohnette’s drumming style on this session as a “swarm of gentle, abstract snare figures and pesky cymbal rustlings” which created “a dramatic and provocative backdrop” without interrupting Evans’ flow of ideas. In some selections he dispenses with the drums entirely…no one is quite sure why. But anyone who is familiar with the Evans-Gomez relationship will recognize that the bassist, though less exploratory harmonically than Scott LaFaro, had the advantage of constantly nudging Evans towards a more swinging, less overtly introspective approach to his playing. In other words, Evans swings harder here than he had for quite some time on studio recordings.

As was usual for Evans during the bulk of his trio career, the program consists of older standards with a few originals (Very Early, Turn Out the Stars, Walkin’ Up) tossed in for flavoring. What impresses one from the outset, however, is the slightly more aggressive and swinging style in which he plays—not terribly dissimilar from that one heard on the Loose Blues session, i.e., extended bebop lines in the right hand with occasional chord feeds in the left, leaning occasionally towards extensions of the chord in his improvisations without unduly disturbing the overall tonal structure. (To a certain extent, this is what Mozart did as well, writing and playing nice tunes in a tonal framework but leaning towards spiky harmonies or dissonance occasionally to flavor the music.) Only two pieces irked me, through no real fault of Evans’: What Kind of Fool Am I? because it’s a song I’ve always detested, although in his two takes of it the pianist does his level best to raise the musical level above the slag-heap of pop effluvium, and On Green Dolphin Street because it is, in my view, the absolute worst “jazz standard” ever written. Nothing about it is good or interesting, not the melody, not the chord changes, nothing. It’s just an ugly little song with nothing to recommend it, and not even a great musician like Evans could make me like it any better.

Otherwise, this is prime Evans in the period just before he made the trio with Gomez and drummer Marty Morell his standard working group. The quality of the playing is of a very high order, certainly as good if not better than any of his contemporary performances, including the live set from Montreux. Hearing how he transforms What Kind of Fool is as good an indication as any of how his musical mind worked, even when he was “sort of” coasting (well, for Bill Evans he was coasting…for most other pianists, this would be peak work). Both here and in his own Very Early, he vacillates between a 3/4 and a 4/4 feel, generally leading from the first tempo to the second but also going back and forth a bit. As was so often the case, too, he so transforms some of these songs that even in the theme statements startle us by his cleverness and invention—listen, particularly, to the oft-familiar You Go To My Head and I’ll Remember April, the latter taken at a brisker tempo than most jazz musicians are prone to do. In Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood he creates “walking chords,” descending chromatics in the left hand to accompany his right-hand playing.

Gomez plays here what I would characterize as a “happy bass.” He skitters up and down the instrument, enjoying the interaction, playing improvisations that are largely rhythmic rather than harmonically daring. As time went on he would expand his role within the trio, but there is nothing to complain of here. The sensitive, Debussy-like Evans, with rich chords and almost floating sense of time, is heard in three numbers, My Funny Valentine, Some Other Time and Lover Man. Myers, in his notes, seems surprised that in several pieces DeJohnette does not play. I admit I was rather shocked, too, but one must remember that this was a one-day marathon session, and Evans might not have chosen all the tracks for release. Certainly he would have omitted the strange, unfinished solo performance of It’s All Right With Me, on which he has a couple of false starts, gets going pretty well, but then stops in the middle of nowhere. As long as they were in the studio for a few hours, why not re-make it? But he didn’t. Curiouser and curiouser.

DeJohnette’s playing is absolutely perfect for this style, but—if I may be permitted a caveat—a bit under-recorded. Perhaps this was one reason the session was forgotten by Evans and his manager, Helen Keane? You never know. It’s also impossible to tell, at this remove, whether or not the distancing of the drums from the microphone was accidental or artistic choice. Certainly, I can’t recall any drummer recorded in the studio quite so far back as DeJohnette is here, not even on any other Bill Evans album. That being said, the only reason I can think of for this album’s long gestation period before release was the insistence of Verve Records to keep Evans identified in the public mind only with that label. As I’ve said many times, major labels suck.

The recorded sound is typical of its time, warm and rich, favoring the sound of the Steinway he played on and the bassist if not necessarily the drummer’s cymbals. I, for one, am very happy to finally have this excellent and unusual recording in circulation

May I recommend another lost session, albeit not one that was never issued, to Resonance Records: the 1963 Serenade to Sweden album by pianist Duke Ellington playing with three French horns and a rhythm section (arranged by Billy Strayhorn) with the legendary Swedish jazz singer Alice Babs? Babs went to her grave hoping against hope that this session would be issued on CD, but it was never reissued at all after its 1963 incarnation on the Swedish (only) Reprise label. I’m sure someone has the tapes somewhere, but so far as I know it only exists in high-priced but worn copies of the original LP that occasionally surface on eBay. Yet the music is extraordinary, completely improvised in the recording studio by Babs and Ellington, then scored by Strayhorn and recorded on the fly. It is the only major studio album by Ellington that was never available after its initial release, and it deserves to be.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

Return to homepage OR

Read my book: From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed history of the intersection of classical music and jazz


One thought on “Bill Evans’ Lost Session Released at Last

  1. Terence Smith says:

    I love this review with its celebration of those Bill Evans recordings
    with more assertive touch and attack. Thank you
    for calling attention to this gem of a “new” 1968 record !

    As Lyn Bayley knows, there are several records around that time
    ( ’67 or “68) on which
    Evans shows a very assertive attack and energetic rhythmic feeling-
    and emphatic, good humored phrasing of his message(s).

    These qualities are also prevalent in another posthumous Resonance Release:
    Bill Evans – “Live at Art D’Lugoff’s Top of The Gate …
    And with Philly Joe Jones and Gomez, on Verve(1967, but not released till
    later): “California , Here I come.” Both are 2 record sets.

    Full disclosure: I find that all eras and dimensions of Bill Evans
    a deep, “extra-dimensional” quality, for me. As I
    revisit Bill’s most signature recordings, I feel more and more that he deepened
    and widened the sense of what swing can be, both for solo and ensembles.
    Maybe this is especially true of the most “romantic” trio moments ?
    I am paraphrasing, but Evans once responded in an interview
    with Les Tompkins,
    who was speculating that Bill must love the Romantic Era,
    because he sounds so romantic: “Maybe. I do love the Romantic music…
    to me, Bach is so Romantic it’s ridiculous….( paraphrase:)I think my main thing
    is swing, phrasing, and conveying rhythm feeling less literally, by displacements, etc”

    But maybe that’s only part of Evans’ justly enduring resonance.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s