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Bill Evans Trio: Getting Sentimental

You may think you are one of Bill Evans’ greatest fans. Then you learn the story of Mike Harris and realize that, compared to the purity of Harris’ obsession, your own interest in Bill Evans was peripheral to your existence, and deficient in both commitment and sacrifice.

For the last 14 years of Evans’ life, Harris and his wife, Evelyn, surreptitiously taped dozens of the pianist’s gigs at the Village Vanguard and other New York venues, using a small battery-operated Uher Report L recorder in an oversized carpetbag, with a hole cut for a Sennheiser mike.

Obviously many legal hurdles had to be overcome before any of the Harris material could be commercially released. It finally saw the light of day in 1996, on the Milestone label, 16 years after Evans’ death. Orrin Keepnews selected the material for the eight CDs of The Secret Sessions, with extensive digital editing and reprocessing by Joe Tarantino and Kirk Felton to make the tapes listenable. It is a document unique in recorded jazz. The sound quality is inferior even to the worst modern professional recordings. Yet there is an exhilarating sense of participation in moments stolen and therefore rescued from the shadows of history, especially when inspiration strikes Evans like blinding light.

The Secret Sessions includes material from 1966 to 1975. There is nothing from the last five years of Evans’ life, because Warner Bros. declined to waive its control over material that came from the time when it had Evans under contract. Now suddenly there appears Getting Sentimental, a single CD of additional material from the Harris tapes, recorded at the Village Vanguard on January 15, 1978, and cleared by Warner Bros. for release.

This particular performance was special to Harris. He played it in his car “each morning for many years” on his commute to work on the Hubble Space Telescope. (Harris is an optical physicist.) In the liner notes, David Prince attempts to make a case that this tape is historically significant because it documents a short-lived trio with bassist Michael Moore and drummer “Philly” Joe Jones, on the night when Moore was literally auditioning for the job as Evans’ new bass player.

Moore does fit in surprisingly well. As for Jones, his near-quarter-century intermittent association with Evans was always a case of opposites attracting, and the dynamic tension between Evans’ intellectual romanticism and Jones’ raw explosiveness usually worked. But the most important reasons that Getting Sentimental needed to be released lie elsewhere. There are two:

First, Evans was having a good night. His repertoire on January 15, 1978, will be familiar to Evans fans, but his encounters with several of these songs touch feelings that even Evans rarely reached. “Gary’s Theme” has that hush, that pooling of emotion in time suspended, that Evans owned. So does “The Peacocks,” although Jones’ nervous energy puts an edge on Evans’ meditation. “When I Fall in Love” is an off-hand, spontaneous, astonishing melodic transposition. “Emily” is like wave after wave of affirmation. It is an example of what Mike Harris must have had in mind when he describes Evans’ art as “a glimpse into what life could be, should be, but seldom is.”

The second purpose for Getting Sentimental is that it provides access to the unique experience of the Harris tapes without requiring the investment in an 8-disc set. Given the problematic sound quality, only Evans scholars and hard-core fans who own everything else should buy The Secret Sessions. But everyone needs Getting Sentimental, because it is rare to steal great improvised music outright from the inexorable, merciless passage of time.

Originally Published