FIVEFOUR RECORDS (U.K.) (Released June 2007)



BILL EVANS -piano, with: Dick Garcia, George Russell Smalltet, Lucy Reed, Tony Scott Quartet and Tentette, Bill Evans Trio.

A CD review by Jan Stevens

This “new” release from U.K.’s FiveFour Records, is an important one for Evans fans and collectors alike, inasmuch as it gathers tracks from the first five professional recordings Bill Evans did, primarily as a sideman, (excepting the 1954 Jerry Wald dance-band albums), during 1955-56. Its seventeen tracks allow some nice musical surprises in a variety of settings, but perhaps its most significant aspect is the inclusion of the three long-unavailable tracks Evans did for guitarist Dick Garcia. In addition, the CD features some of the cuts that show Bill’s prominence in George Russell’s landmark “Jazz Workshop” sessions, a tune from singer Lucy Reed's 1955 album, four Tony Scott tracks from two different dates, and the three Evans compositions from his own first album, which all make this CD a sure bet.

We get Evans the journeyman jazz pianist -- already a focused and inventive accompanist, as well as Evans the often fiery and fiercely melodic post-Bud Powell improviser. These are the first records with the “new kid in town” that made guys like Miles, John Lewis and Mingus sit up and take notice (all three would utilize the pianist, of course, in upcoming major projects) In the larger sense, Bill had already “arrived” musically by then, when he arrived in NYC to make his way in the jazz world after his stint in the US Army ended. His college degree and years of gigs with dance bands and informal jazz groups already honed a still-progressing but noticeably unique harmonic vocabulary, and his improvisations were technically superb with fresh ideas. This was all illustrative of a guy who studied not just Bud, Bird and Nat Cole, but all the jazz that came before. These recordings show Evans the working professional, and offer a significant glimpse of what was to come. His energy and invention as a hired hand are often superb.

Dick Garcia was a fine, lyrical guitarist, with a clean Barney Kessel-like tone, best known for his work with legendary pianist George Shearing in the 1950s and for several dates he did with Charlie Parker. Like Evans, Garcia also spent time gigging and recording with clarinetist Tony Scott, and his first and only date as a leader was “A Message From Garcia” (Dawn DLP 1106 , out-of-print) . In 1955 the guitarist used Evans with Jerry Bruno on bass, and Camille Morin on drums for three tunes for that record, all included here. “Emergence” opens with Garcia’s intriguing original “Kimona My House”, a bluesy minor vamp starting out with a unison piano-guitar melody until the satisfyingly and refreshing bridge. “Like Someone in Love” follows, Evans’ first encounter with this standard ballad , which he would next record for an Art Farmer record in 1958 (and return to later several times on his own with stunningly reworked harmonies). Garcia is the main attraction here, playing lovely, quite singable lines, though he chooses to keeps the harmonies basic. Evans shows himself a polite and sensitive accompanist as he always did - laid back, but listening hard to the lead player and laying down a pad of sensitively placed chords. His own half-chorus is basic and unremarkable, yet making nice use of a repeated motif and his favored thirds. The third cut is a medium-tempo “Ev’ry Night About This Time”, a 1942 hit for the Inkspots, which was also recorded by Dorsey and Frank Sinatra. Though his solo maintains interest as it moves, it is indiscriminately cut off by Garcia’s abrupt return for the last eight bars and the tag. Bill lays down some steady, relaxed bop lines that echo Sonny Clark and Horace Silver. Out-of-print for too long, it’s great to finally hear Evans’ work on this session after all these years, the somewhat distantly- recorded piano notwithstanding.

Once your CD player hits tracks #4 -9, it may be best to first go take a vitamin B-12, or maybe a vodka and tonic, for it’s George Russell time. But don’t run away just yet, since some very hip piano playing and ferocious yet compelling ensemble work is about to happen. Russell’s “Jazz Workshop” sessions (March, October and December 1956) have been extensively written about, but suffice to say these five selections are some of the best, and Bill’s playing a bright and shiny treat. In those heady days for jazz as a vital part of American culture, the Russell album was part of an RCA series that would feature the work of several composer-arrangers. This one took almost a year to complete. The musicians took these difficult charts quite seriously, and they were often taken home for private study by the players between dates. It still sounds fresh, even triumphant - despite the primitive recording standards of that era -- though our jazz ears are now more conditioned to the subsequent work of artists like Charles Mingus, Don Ellis, Brubeck, Miles, Eric Dolphy, Jack Reilly, Frank Zappa and others, all of who were, at different times, clearly influenced by Russell. Imagine how this sounded in the buttoned-down, complacent fifties! Clearly- stated riffs are established, then compete against each other in cross rhythms, then cross-pollinate with drums, as the harmonies sometimes make the atmosphere momentarily more stable, then not, as they collide in fragments, with occasional half-step dissonances and other apparent irregularities. Yet there is plenty of jazz tradition contained in it, even now-standard impressionistic harmonies at times, and iit’s simply easier to listen to than it once was. It still sounds hip and ahead of its time, and surely Russell’s work would get more “outside” in the coming decades, but it all sounds more “user-friendly” than I imagine it must have been in 1956. It seems fair to say that some of these and other Russell compositions from that period (like the arrangements on “New York, N.Y” from 1958, for example) are in need of more attention. (Just please, I beg you, not the 1971 “Living Time” collaboration with Evans for Columbia Records)

The music was passionately and aggressively performed by a crack team of great players like Hal McKusick, Barry Galbraith, Art Farmer, Milt Hinton, and even on the second take, Paul Motian and Teddy Kotick – both of who were on Evans’ first album for Riverside in September of that year. Bill fits right in beautifully with this ensemble, and with great enthusiasm and panache to boot. The highlight may be the famous “Concerto for Billy the Kid”, both takes of which are included here. As Russell stated, it was written “to supply a frame to match the vigor and the vitality in the playing of pianist Bill Evans”, truly a fait accompli clearly realized here.

Sometime after the first date that the piece was recorded in October, it was decided to run “Concerto” down on tape again at the December session. This CD is remiss in that it does not mention that he first take is mono and the remake is in stereo. This makes a big difference inasmuch as the parts are clearer to hear from the start – after the drums begin, the piano and bass vamp sets up the structure – one which is far less audible in the mono take. The compoaser's juxtaposition of instruments against each other is part and parcel of his work, and the stereo take faciltates that as the music gradually comes alive. There was a very serious method to Russell's madness, since the subtleties (and a change in drums and bass) make for a fascinating comparison. Bill’s brilliant high energy ideas on his solo in both versions, are highly regarded and always noted as a unique milestone for the pianist, and rightly so. Though I have most of these tracks, I haven’t listened to them for years, and I found this portion on the CD exciting all over again.

Next up is “Baltimore Oriole” a Hoagy Carmichael tune from the very dated 1955 album “The Singin’ Reed” by vocalist Lucy Reed, who Evans had befriended while stationed in the Chicago area during his Army hitch. Bill has a few nice fills in between Reed’s over-the-top vocals on this song, but one has to wonder why only one selection, and this one in particular, was used here. Perhaps this was the only one that the rights were obtainable for, if in fact they were, but who knows. The CD notes say this was recorded 1956, but based on the Pettinger and Larsen discographies, this is an error.

The late clarinetist Tony Scott, who featured Evans on several albums and gave him some steady work and good exposure when it counted – is the leader on the next four selections. First up his own “Aolian Drinking Song” , which never leaves its F minor tonality, and Bill’s bouncy solo is a profound lesson in how to keep the interest level high, while the chord never changes. Continuing with the quartet that also included bassist Les Grinage on bass and drummer Lenny McBrown, Scott presents a Shearing-inspired rendition of the old chestnut “Deep Purple” (from “The Touch of Tony Scott” album). Evans decides on the locked-hands chording approach he often employed, a fundamental Shearing technique. It runs under two minutes, and may have intended for juke box play, but it’s nice to hear Bill’s voicings, as well as the move from F Major to A flat (just as he would do much later on “Days on Wine and Roses”). Tony Scott’s ten-piece ensemble is then featured, with the even more overplayed “My Old Flame”, albeit with a clever horn arrangement – but oddly, next to nothing is heard from Mr. Evans. However, the next cut makes up for it – Monk’s beautiful “Round Midnight”, with Bill introducing the melody and Scott entering after the first eight bars, his sweet tone evoking the poignancy of Artie Shaw at his most sensitive. It’s an exquisite version, pristine and direct. The famous interlude popularized by Miles is not utilized, and no one solos, but hold your breath. Evans is about to have the last word, with a passionate and quite unexpected ending all his own. It’s golden.

Perhaps FiveFour Records (or the ubiquitous Lonehill Records) will make a hereby recommended choice and decide to reissue Tony Scott’s rare 1959 album “Sung Heroes” – an amazing album with not only Evans, but Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. Used copies are going for around fifty dollars, if you can find them at all, so that would be a real coup!

The last three selections on “Emergence” are Bill’s own “Five”, Displacement” and his solo version of “Waltz For Debby” from the 1956 “New Jazz Conceptions” record. Why they are included in this collection is a mystery, since the album is readily available both separately, and in the Riverside box set. I assume they were taken from the 20-bit remastered version, released March 2004, since the sound is bigger and brighter and generally superior to the first CD release of the album in 1991.

Bill Evans’ self-contained and already solid jazz piano style circa-1956 would gradually evolve into a stunning, innovative paradigm of new ways for playing melody, further rhythmic experiments and unmatched harmonic intuition that, before the decade was out, would turn the jazz world on its ear forever. “Kind of Blue” was less than two years away, and then came the colossus which was the Evans-LaFaro-Motian trio of 1959 -1961. But these early tracks, also showcasing the tasty work of a few other mighty players of those days (some whose careers would also soon blossom) are more often than not, a luminous representation of what a young Bill Evans was capable of in the very first year(s) of his twenty-five year recording career.

This CD has some of the music that sparkled even way back then -- before Miles, before the travesties of the drug addiction, before the dizzying heights reached with LaFaro, before the other personal tragedies and the health problems, before the world-wide fame and the memorable victories of the last trio. It lets us feel some of joy and the raw flame in Evans that was already discernible once that red light went on and the tapes were rolling. Make yourself a part of it, think beyond the familiar history and just enjoy.

-- Jan Stevens is a professional pianist and teacher in NJ. He is also the webmaster of the Bill Evans Webpages.

(See our discography listings herein for more specific information on the original releases of the recordings contained in this new collection.)

©Jan Stevens 2007. All rights reserved.
Portions of this article may be freely quoted but permission for reprinting electronically or otherwise may be obtained only by contacting the author.