On the afternoon and evening of June 25, 1961, the Bill Evans Trio performed a pair of shows at New York’s Village Vanguard that, when subsequently released by Riverside Records, became essential components of any serious jazz library: Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby.
The albums, though not Evans’ first, firmly established the pianist as one of the certified geniuses of the genre and altered the notion of what a jazz piano trio was all about. But for many who’ve heard them, there is an element of melancholy permanently affixed to these sessions—one that extends beyond the music itself—as they represent the final official recorded statements of Scott LaFaro. Only 25 years old, LaFaro, one of the most innovative and promising double bassists on the scene during this fertile period in jazz, died in an automobile accident just 10 days after these landmark gigs.
Although the Evans Vanguard performances, which also included the brilliant Paul Motian on drums, remain Scott LaFaro’s highest-profile contribution to the music, he had, by the time of his death, become one of the most in-demand bassists in jazz. His professional career lasted a mere seven years, but during that brief but prolific tenure he collaborated with a dizzyingly diverse array of leaders, among them Evans, Benny Goodman, Ornette Coleman, Stan Kenton, Steve Kuhn, Stan Getz, Victor Feldman, Booker Little, Herb Geller and Chet Baker.
The great tragedy of LaFaro’s untimely passing invariably leads to questions of what might have been. But for countless musicians, the relatively little he was able to accomplish left, and continues to leave, a sizable impression. LaFaro, simply put, changed jazz bass playing.
“Everyone uses the word ‘interactive,’ and Scott was this,” says bassist Marc Johnson, who played with Evans years after LaFaro. “But he was also very melodic. He understood harmony and he had a linear concept for moving through harmony. So, as a bassist, he’s not only providing a root function, but he was also interjecting melodic asides and ideas or even just filling the space rhythmically. And that became an interactive concept, especially in that group with Evans.”
Johnson has penned liner notes to a new collection of previously unreleased LaFaro recordings, Pieces of Jade, recently issued on Resonance Records as part of the label’s Heirloom Series. The disc features five tracks recorded in 1961 with pianist Don Friedman and drummer Pete LaRoca; a near-23-minute 1960 rehearsal of “My Foolish Heart” (a polished five-minute version of which ended up on Waltz for Debby) featuring only LaFaro and Evans; an extensive 1966 interview with Evans, who discusses LaFaro with then-radio host, now-Resonance founder George Klabin; and a solo piano piece by Friedman of more recent vintage, “Memories for Scotty.” Some of the Friedman-LaFaro-LaRoca tracks were previously issued on a Japanese collection, but all of it is new to the American market.
“I don’t remember why exactly we were there,” says Friedman today, “because we weren’t recording with anybody. But for some reason or other we were in this studio and the engineer said, ‘Why don’t you guys play something and I’ll let the tape go?’”
LaFaro has always been praised for his adventurous solos, and his forays on Pieces of Jade are no exception. But within the trio as well he was constantly probing. “He developed this way of playing the bass that I don’t think anybody was doing,” says Friedman. “He progressed so amazingly [fast]. I first heard him with the Buddy Morrow band [circa 1955]. It could be because of the music he was playing, but he wasn’t necessarily an outstanding player [yet]. But it wasn’t much after that that he became this amazing bass player.”
Klabin agrees. “I became more impressed with him as time went on. I call him the Charlie Parker of the bass. He used the bass in a way that it had never been used before, from a technical standpoint. The sliding notes—I don’t know if anybody else was doing that. He was a seeker. He was not fearful. His whole idea was to leap in and sometimes go overboard and then come back from that, rather than holding back and being cautious. That’s how great music is made—taking chances.”
Simultaneous with the release of the new CD is the publication of Jade Visions: The Life and Music of Scott LaFaro (University of North Texas Press), a comprehensive biography—the first on LaFaro—written by his sister, Helene LaFaro-Fernández. The book takes its name from one of only two compositions LaFaro completed and recorded, the one that closes the original Sunday at the Village Vanguard LP (the other, “Gloria’s Step,” opens it). Younger than Scott by two years, Fernández wrote the book—which also includes a complete discography, a technical dissection of LaFaro’s music and more—in order to clear up some of the mysteries and misinformation that persist about her brother. Says the author, “The longer he’s been gone, the more interest there seems to be.”
Despite his continuing impact, even most jazz aficionados know little about LaFaro. The bio provides not only a detailed account of LaFaro’s too-short life, but also insight into his personality. “Scotty liked to be an enigma,” she says. “And he was terribly intense about his practice habits. When everybody else was out at the pool, Scotty was inside practicing. Have a meal, back to practice. So some people thought he was aloof but most of them changed their minds when they got to know him.”
LaFaro did not begin his musical endeavors as a bassist. Prior to taking up the upright bass, he had already tried his hand at piano, clarinet and saxophone. But upon entering Ithaca College in upstate New York in 1954, not far from the family’s home in Geneva, N.Y., LaFaro latched onto the bass and never looked back. Within a year he was playing professionally.
Surprisingly, says Fernández, LaFaro “didn’t like very much what he recorded—he thought it was like watching a home movie. He liked what he did with Pat Moran. After that he was never too keen on much.
“But he did remark to the family that he liked the work he’d just finished on the Vanguard sessions that Sunday.”
Originally published in December 2009