Thursday, December 10, 2009

December 10: Bill Evans, "Sunday At The Village Vanguard"

Artist: Bill Evans
Album: Sunday At The Village Vanguard
Year: 1961
Label: Riverside

Much like fine art, various music genres pull directly from the previous generation, and this is how new styles and sounds are birthed. However, it is a rather rare occasion when a musician borrows from what appears to be a sharply contrasting genre, yet this is often where the greatest musical moments occur. Without question taking much of his approach to jazz from the impressionist classical movements of Ravel and Debussy, Bill Evans stands today as one of the most dominating jazz pianists in music history. Clearly having massive influence on the playing of greats like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, it was Evans who brought a far more relaxed, almost "cooler than cool" feel to the jazz movement in the late 1950's. Also responsible for massive headway in the post-bop and modal styles of jazz, Evans placed great value in having proper technique, as well as a solid understanding of musical harmony, as he felt this was the key to enabling a pianist to fully explore each and every musical idea. Evans honed these qualities as part of Miles Davis' famed sextet, and Evans played a key role in both the preparation, as well as the execution of Davis' legendary album, Kind Of Blue. Following these sessions, Evans assembled his own group, and their live performances and studio work stands today as some of the most pivotal work in jazz history. Undoubtedly one of the greatest live performances ever captured, Bill Evans and his greatest trio cemented their names as jazz legends with their monumental 1961 release, Sunday At The Village Vanguard.

While the music found on Sunday At The Village Vanguard is absolutely phenomenal, it also stands as one of the saddest tributes ever paid to a musician. Recorded on June 25, 1961, bassist Scott LaFaro died in an automobile accident only ten days later. Recorded over five sessions that day and evening, the album clearly shows that there was an unparalleled chemistry between the three musicians. While the original release contains what are unquestionably the finest moments of the performances, in 2006, Riverside Records re-released Sunday At The Village Vanguard as a multi-disc set, containing nearly all of the material that was recorded that day. The recordings on the original release feature some absolutely stunning moments, especially when the trio put their own spin on the Miles Davis classic, "Solar." Mixing together modal and angular progressions, the version presented by the Bill Evans Trio easily rivals the original in terms of which should be considered the definitive version of the composition. It is the way in which the three musicians blend together so many different styles and musical theories that makes the music so unique, and it also serves as a testament to the unparalleled level of musicianship within each member. Taking all of this into account makes the loss of LaFaro even more tragic, as one can only imagine the amazing compositions that could have been had he not met such an untimely demise.

The trio that is featured on Sunday At The Village Vanguard is without question one of the most visionary and musically exceptional groups to ever play together. Constantly pushing one another to greater heights, Bill Evans also makes a point to give each of his bandmates plenty of time to shine, and this extremely balanced approach further distances their sound from that of their contemporaries. At the time, nearly every group that was fronted by a piano was basically a showcase for the featured pianist, yet it is clear that Evans was looking for far more interaction between the musicians, and the resulting music is pure jazz bliss. Even before becoming a part of the Bill Evans Trio, bassist Scott LaFaro had already made his name playing alongside the likes of Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, and Chet Baker among many other jazz luminaries. As he did with his previous frontmen, LaFaro is absolutely stunning throughout Sunday At The Village Vanguard, and it is his interplay with Evans' piano that presents one of the greatest jazz pairs in history. Playing with similarly exceptional results, drummer Paul Motian has played with a wide variety of musicians, across nearly every genre and excelled in every style. In fact, Motian backed Arlo Guthrie in 1969 at the "Woodstock Music And Arts Festival." As is found all over Sunday At The Village Vanguard, it was the team of LaFaro and Motian that developed and expanded the counter-melodic style of jazz, and their influence impacted nearly every jazz player that followed.

While the tracks on Sunday At The Village Vanguard primarily feature the finest work of LaFaro, one cannot overlook the absolutely masterful performance by Bill Evans. While there is unquestionably a balance in the music, and each member of the trio shines brilliantly, there is little question that it is Bill Evans who is leading the charge, and his musical vision that is guiding every song. Combining the classic style of traditional jazz with impressionist harmonies and melodic piano lines that seem to "sing," the amount of musical innovations that Evans made throughout his career is almost immeasurable. Even if one is not aware of the stunning changes and original takes that Evans is making on each track, it is still clear to any listener that there is a beauty unlike that of any other jazz pianist within the playing of Evans. At its most basic level, one can hear the heavy influence of classical composers on his style, as even with the lightest touch on the piano, Evans conveys massive amounts of emotion and character. Whether he is dancing across the keys when covering the Cole Porter classic, "All Of You" or creating an amazingly intimate mood on the Gershwin song, "My Man's Gone Now," Evans playing is truly phenomenal on every track. The fact that this was Evans' first trio is absolutely astonishing, as it is clear in retrospect that he managed to find his perfect match on the first try.

The jazz trio is a time honored tradition, and many of the most important works of the genre came as a result of just three musicians. Pushing forward the role of the pianist in the jazz group, as well as pioneering countless new styles in the overall genre, few musicians stand so dominant on their instrument than Bill Evans and the piano. Proving that fusing together the classical jazz style with classical music influence can result in some of the most musically advanced and enjoyable sounds ever, it is almost impossible to find any player who came after that was not in some way influenced by Evans' efforts. After leaving the ranks of Miles Davis' famed sextet, Evans constructed his own trio, and the power and talent he found helped to create some of the most important jazz music ever recorded. Though they had already established themselves as one of the most visionary and creative jazz rhythm sections of their time, Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian find a perfect final piece, and their work with Evans remains absolutely essential to the progression of the jazz genre. Presenting ideas like instrumental balance, juxtaposing harmonies, and what can be seen as the basis for the post-bop sound, one can only speculate on the innovations that could have been had it not been for the tragic passing of LaFaro. Each member of the trio is absolutely phenomenal on every song, and the combined effort results in Bill Evans' 1961 release, Sunday At The Village Vanguard remaining one of the most pivotal and overall awe-inspiring recordings ever released.

Standout tracks: "My Man's Gone Now," "All Of You," and "Gloria's Step."

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