Recorded live at the Village Vanguard, 1978 by Mike Harris

CD review by JAN STEVENS

This is an historically intriguing release, but there are several real problems with this CD, one before it is even opened: the title itself. By overwhelming consensus, there was nothing “sentimental” about Bill Evans piano style or technique. Sure, the set is named after the old Tommy Dorsey big-band classic that is performed in this live trio set, but nonetheless, it is a weak title and perhaps a confusing misnomer for those uninitiated with Evans' previous work

Recorded “secretly” in January 1978 at the Village Vanguard, Evans’ home base in NYC, by Evans fan extraordinaire Mike Harris (who also gave us the CD box set
“The Secret Sessions”), the trio-in-transition at the time had the pianist with his old pal Philly Joe on drums once again, and the bassist Michael Moore. As Moore explains in the CD’s notes, he was auditioning for the bass spot in the trio that Sunday night - and got the gig. He left about six months later, somewhat disenchanted with what he describes as Bill’s desire “to be hot and play lots of notes”.

This particular trio was not officially recorded during the period, so this album at least serves as an importantl curiosity. But it is too often a difficult listen. An astute reviewer quite accurately described the sound of this CD as kind of a Philly Joe Jones album, featuring Bill Evans, with the “occasionally audible Michael Moore”. The bassist is indeed a marvelous player, of course, and solos well on some selections --he sounds superb on Jimmy Rowles “The Peacocks” ( the best track here, in my opinion, and yet another sensitive reading by Bill) . Though a total professional, Moore is a bit tentative at times in the ensemble, which was to be expected considering he wasn’t even in the group yet -- especially if we consider the ambitious Evans repertoire at the time, and Bill’s taking liberties with tempos, transitions and rubatos.

But it is the overpowering, devil-may-care drive of Philly Joe Jones’ drums that is often annoying . As has been noted, Jones always provided a strong, swinging pulse and propelled Bill to a more driving swing, ever since their first sessions in the late fifties. The Verve LP release recorded in 1967, entitled “California Here I Come”, (and now part of the Verve CD box set ) is also firm evidence of that. The same can be said here, especially on their high- flying version of Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” --- yet mostly, the drummer just sounds too loud, and even clunky at times: inappropriate tom-tom accents all over “Turn Out the Stars”, questionable accents in “Re: Person I Knew”, for just two examples. The bass drum is right in-your-face, and Philly Joe's prominence in the final mix is just short of unbearable on the harder swing tunes. An obvious conclusion is that Mike Harris vantage point in the audience was probably on the drummer’s side of the small Vanguard stage, and Fantasy / Milestone apparently couldn’t do much about it in the final mixing of these tapes. Thus we get a Bill Evans -- the master of pianist nuance -- with hardly any audible nuances at all; the piano sounds distant and one-dimensional. Though recorded better at various times by Harris between March 1966 and January 1975, the “Secret Sessions” set had similar problems occasionally. Those familiar with the sound on other ‘live’ Vanguard recordings from the seventies such as “Since We Met’, and the "More From The Vanguard" LP can attest to the fine quality of the instrument there. After all, as the late Vanguard proprietor Max Gordon liked to point out, Bill himself picked it this particular Yamaha piano for the club. Though glimpses of Evans’ consistent brilliance come through, almost by default, too little of that is sonically apparent here.

Bill’s energy and focus are certainly in good form throughout (though rushing the time here and there), and his melodic invention sounds most inspired on the ballads -- notably the aforementioned “The Peacocks” and “When I Fall in Love”. But too much of what encompassed his genius , and what he was then starting to reach for (after eleven years with Eddie Gomez) would seem to be most often indiscernible here. Hardcore Evans fans and completists will want this CD certainly, for the transitional period it represents -- and without doubt, it shows a glimpse of the splendor of the pianist’s later years, as he reached for even greater melodic clarity and a harmonic wisdom that has yet to be achieved by others. But even though we know from the get-go that it's an amateur recording we're hearing --- and we can be thankful Mike Harris caught what he did when he did on many a Vanguard night ---this CD's sound, and Philly Joe's being at the forefront -- is a continual deterrent to appreciating this trio performance, so let the casual listener be forewarned.

It would not be until the following year (but after the short-lived trio with drummer Eliot Zigmund) that Bill Evans’ fortuitous discovery of Marc Johnson’s telepathic bass virtuosity and the simpatico of Joe LaBarbera on drums would be the impetus for his final phase -- passionate new vistas of creativity and, some might say, a newly magical pianistic vision which became his brief crowning blaze of glory before the end.

(C) Jan Stevens 2003. All rights reserved.
Reprinting electronically or otherwise may be obtained from the author by express email permission only