Bill Evans Live at Ronnie Scott’s

Cover Bill Evans - Ronnie Scotts

what a performanceARLEN-CAPOTE: A Sleepin’ Bee. A. & D. PREVIN: You’re Gonna Hear From Me (2 vers.). KERN-HARBACH: Yesterdays. EVANS: Turn Out the Stars. Very Early. Waltz for Debby. G. & I. GERSHWIN-HAYWARD: My Man’s Gone Now. MANDEL-MERCER: Emily (2 vers.). RODGERS-HART: Spring is Here. G. & I. GERSHWIN: Embraceable You. BRELTON-EDWARDS-MEYER: For Heaven’s Sake. CHURCHILL-MORAY: Someday My Prince Will Come. ZEITLAN: Quiet Now. MONK-HANIGHAN-WILLIAMS: ‘Round Midnight. YOUNG-WASHINGTON: Stella By Starlight. BACHARACH-DAVID: Alfie. PREVERT-KOSMA-MERCER: Autumn Leaves. DAVIS: Nardis / Bill Evans, pno; Eddie Gomez, bs; Jack DeJohnette, dm / Resonance Records HCD-2046 (live: London, July 1968)

This first release of these July 1968 performances by the Bill Evans Trio marks the fifth collaboration between Resonance Records and the Bill Evans Estate. Two of the previous four releases also feature this particular trio. After releasing the “lost” studio session made in the Black Forest in Germany just prior to this engagement, producer Zev Feldman asked Jack DeJohnette if he had any recordings from this London engagement. DeJohnette told him that he did, but that the audio was quite poor.

Fortunately, this turned out to be only partially true. After first hearing the tapes, Feldman decided they were too sub-par to use; but as it turned out, according to the liner notes, “we discovered that what we’d been trying to listen to were actually multitrack tape recordings and the setup we’d been trying to listen to hadn’t allowed us to hear all the tracks. Once we got that sorted, it was amazing to hear the music come alive. These performances were inspired!”

Personally, I agree with the inspiration part of this session—in my view, it is even more exciting than the Black Forest recordings—but I can quite agree that the sound is much improved. No, it’s not as horrible as that once-lost session that Clifford Brown and Sonny Rollins played at the Bee Hive, or the live Five Spot recordings of the Thelonious Monk group with John Coltrane on tenor sax, but it’s scarcely state of the art. The sound is rather shrill, even a bit tinny; having once heard Eddie Gomez live in concert – the one member of this trio I did manage to hear “live” – I can assure you that his bass tone was much richer and fuller than this. I say that because pianos vary from place to place, and although Ronny Scott’s was (and I think still is) a very famous London jazz club, and Scott tried to keep his house instruments in top condition, I really don’t know what this particular keyboard really sounded like in the club, but Gomez brought his own bass.

I do, however, agree with Feldman regarding the high quality of these performances. As much as I admire Evans, I’m pretty judicious when it comes to which albums I keep, though I have several of them. In his early years, Evans was a very adventurous pianist who played in a number of very different and complex settings, including his recordings with George Russell and Charles Mingus, but one he became really famous due to his soft-grained playing at the Village Vanguard with the Scott LaFaro-Paul Motian trio, he pretty much became Mr. Soft Jazz, and although he was always head and shoulders above the rest of that breed, soft jazz is soft jazz and I’m not a huge fan of it. Evans’ Loose Blues album is my favorite of his studio recordings from the ‘60s. Interestingly, when Russell invited him back to play piano on his Living Time album of the early 1970s, with its very edgy, atonal qualities, Evans reveled in it, but when the album was released hundreds of his fans wrote to him and said that if he EVER made another recording like that they would abandon him. Personally, I really don’t care much for the music on that Living Time album, but I admired Evans for leaving his musical “comfort zone” and stretching out into something quite experimental.

On these performances, sound quality aside, Evans is far from the soft jazz pianist most of his fans have come to love and accept as “his” style. On the contrary, he is literally explosive on these performances, playing with a harder attack (as he had on Loose Blues and some of the earlier stuff), in places (i.e., Yesterdays) almost explosive in his approach.

Nor do I think this is just due to the harder, thinner sound quality of the piano as recorded here, because on some of the ballads, such as his own composition Turn Out the Stars, he clearly begins in a soft mode but, surprisingly, begins attacking the keyboard harder when he reaches the improvised section. And it isn’t just the harder attack that mark these performances as special; he literally creates entirely new compositions, with full 16-bar shapes, within these improvs. In short, Evans was on a real creative “high” during this engagement, locked into what he once described in an interview as “the universal overmind.” Was he possibly off narcotics during this engagement, or at least cutting back? We’ll never know what exactly inspired him so, but inspired he most certainly was here.

I may be prejudiced in this respect, but I think that DeJohnette was a more exciting and dynamic drummer than those he normally used in his trios, and this, too, may have acted as an inspiration. Interestingly, although Gomez is playing at his usual high level, Evans only gave him a few spot solos here and there in the first five numbers. Much of the time, you have to hear what he’s doing behind the pianist to appreciate how well he, too, played on this gig, but fortunately he is closely recorded which makes it easy to hear. One thing that makes me think I am right about this is that every time DeJohnette increases the volume and/or starts to kick into high gear, Evans responds with even more exciting playing.

Emily is the sort of performance that, had the microphone placement been a little less up-close, might indeed have sounded “soft,” and here, as in a few other numbers, I think the recorded sound is a bit misleading. Yet once again, listen to what happens when DeJohnette suddenly kicks his drums into gear: Evans increases the tempo, hits the keyboard harder than in the first chorus, and again takes off in new directions. And listen to how crisp and controlled his fast playing is! Then, suddenly, the pianist relaxes the tempo a little, pulls back on the volume and gives Gomez a full chorus—and does he respond! The entire performance of Embraceable You is given over the Gomez’ bass, and he responds with some of his most imaginative playing.

Of course, by this point in his career, Evans’ repertoire had also come to revolve around a set repertoire of pieces old and new that he was comfortable with and thus could play around with in live performances, and these sets are full of them. A Sleepin’ Bee, Yesterdays, Someday My Prince Will Come, My Man’s Gone Now, Spring is Here, Embraceable You and Autumn Leaves were all Evans staples in addition to his own compositions. Two numbers here of particular interest, however, are the then-popular song Alfie (a tune I always hated in the vocal version by Anthony Newley) and Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight, neither of which he played very often, and he does a great job on them here.

Perhaps one reason why these performances are so exciting is that Evans and his trio were playing in a well-known jazz club, not a cocktail lounge, and thus many of the audience were professional musicians. He could be himself with them and not worry about whether or not his “soft jazz” fans would complain that his playing was too edgy.

The album comes with a lavish 44-page booklet that includes, among other goodies, interviews with DeJohnette, Gomez and Chevy Chase, who is himself a jazz pianist and a huge Evans fan. One teaser from the booklet: I had absolutely no idea that future actress Blythe Danner had been a jazz singer who worked with Chase in live performances.

No two ways about it: this is the finest vintage jazz album of the year to date. If it doesn’t win a Grammy, someone in the Grammy nominating committee has tin ears. But I’m giving it one of my coveted “What a Performance” awards because it deserves it.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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