In the new millennium, archival albums of previously unreleased music have become a jazz record phenomenon. They are so prevalent that most jazz polls have now changed their “reissue” category to “historical/reissue,” so that new recordings do not have to compete with unearthed masterpieces. And there have been some masterpieces: At Carnegie Hall by Monk and Coltrane; Road Shows Vol. 1 by Sonny; Echoes of Indiana Avenue by Wes; Live in Europe 1967 by Miles. Now there is another: Oct. 23, 1968, two complete sets of Bill Evans at the Top of the Gate in Greenwich Village.
Evans may have played 200 nights in 1968 and this was just another gig, which is why the incandescence of the piano playing is astounding. Fast pieces like “Autumn Leaves” are explosions of affirmational lyricism. Slow pieces like “Alfie” are profound existential inquiries, personal and universal, illuminated from within by the glow of Evans’ chord voicings. In both versions of “Emily,” he turns the opening melodic figure into devastating human yearning just by lightly touching it. Gene Lees’ famous description of Evans’ music is “love letters written to the world from some prison of the heart.”
There are some deep love letters in these two sets. But even on a piece as crystalline as the final track, “Here’s That Rainy Day,” Evans builds passionate urgency. By 1968, especially in a live setting, he was a less introverted pianist than the one who made the iconic Village Vanguard recordings seven years earlier. Eddie Gomez, in his second year of an 11-year tenure as Evans’ bassist, is fast and flamboyant. Drummer Marty Morell never solos. He was brand new with the trio, understandably tentative but already sensitive with his energy.
Archival albums are all about the package, and the package here is cool: remembrances, photos, memorabilia, unabashed nostalgia. There is even a reproduction of the American Federation of Musicians contract for the engagement, signed by Evans. “$1000 in cash to the leader weekly.” The most important virtue of the package is the sound. George Klabin, now president of Resonance Records, was a 22-year-old engineer in 1968. He also had his own jazz radio show on a Columbia University FM station. Klabin recorded the two sets on a Crown tape recorder with four good microphones, mixed it live to two-track and broadcast it, once, on his show. Evans’ piano is not in perfect focus, but there is sufficient air and life in this recording to facilitate time travel. Forty-four years collapse and we are there.