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Bill Evans: The Complete Bill Evans on Verve

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The big news about The Complete Bill Evans on Verve is not that it is complete, however important it is to have under one (tin) roof the pianist’s enormous output for the label. Nor is the big news the odd packaging, although the package demands comment. The big news is that the box contains 31 previously unissued tracks of Evans with Philly Joe Jones and Eddie Gomez at the Village Vanguard and 34 with Larry Bunker and Chuck Israels at the Trident Club.

Bud Powell and Max Roach, Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey, Evans and Philly Joe; magic resulted from those relationships of pianists and drummers. The joy that Evans and Jones found in making music together suffuses the three CDs worth of music they taped with Gomez at the Vanguard on two nights in the summer of 1967. Five versions of “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” comprise a chronicle of their affinity as they trade four-bar and then two-bar phrases in controlled outbursts of energy, humor and passion. It is a routine, but a routine built on spontaneity and surprise. There are five cuts of “G Waltz,” five of “Emily,” four of “California, Here I Come,” four of “You’re Gonna Hear From Me,” four of “Alfie” and several tunes Evans rarely played, including “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe,” all fresh and full of adventure in the presence of the rapt Vanguard audience. Gomez, a year into his eleven-year tenure and getting the hang of Evans’ music, loosens up and matches Jones’ drive. These tracks and 25 of the Evans-Jones-Gomez trio from the same period in Fantasy’s “Secret Sessions” box constitute an archive of one of the great jazz partnerships.

In the Trident engagement three years earlier, Bunker’s drumming is precise, befitting a premier percussionist. His fires are stoked lower than Jones’, but his intensity stimulates both Evans’ swing and his lyricism. Israels’ playing is some of his most powerful on record. Among pieces Evans rarely or never otherwise played are “‘Deed I Do,” “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” and “My Love is an April Song.” As in the case of the Vanguard sessions with Jones, a few of these performances were issued on LP. Evans, apparently, wanted none of the Trident date released. It is difficult to imagine why.

The other troves of newly unearthed music are from the Trio 64, Stan Getz and From Left To Right sessions. With bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian in Trio 64, there are instructive alternate takes of “Always” and “I’ll See You Again.” Peacock indicates that he might have developed into the logical successor to Scott LaFaro if he had stayed with Evans. The Getz material consists of unissued takes and fragments including a riotous minute and 19 seconds of him and Evans attempting the Gene Krupa Trio arrangement of “Dark Eyes.” It is the only recorded evidence I’ve heard that Getz was capable of overt humor. Nonetheless, he clearly has fun with Richard Davis, Elvin Jones and Getz in powerhouse performances on several takes of “My Heart Stood Still,” “Night and Day” and “Funkallero.”

From Left To Right may have been, as Phil Bailey suggests in his session notes, “aimed at the easy-listening audience,” but it contained one of the finest solos of Evans’ career on “The Dolphin.” Mickey Leonard’s orchestration in the “after” version of the piece complemented perfectly what Evans played “before.” Now we learn that there were seven “before” takes (all here) and that the one used in the album was a doctored breakdown. There were eight takes of “Why Did I Choose You?,” four of “What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life?,” three each of several other pieces. Without Evans or producer Helen Keane to ask, it’s hard to know why so many were necessary. In the pieces on which he uses electric piano, Evans achieves the impossible; he transmits his unmistakable touch through the electronic keyboard. Leonard’s writing is exquisite.

As for the rest of the Verve recordings, there is little to add to what has been said and written about them over the years. Evans is brilliant; playful in the trio sessions with Shelly Manne, reflective in chamber music with Gary McFarland and Jim Hall, the perfect accompanist in the sessions with Monica Zetterlund and Jeremy Steig. His “with Symphony Orchestra” album holds up best because of the success of his originals, “My Bells” and “Time Remembered” and Klaus Ogermann’s “Elegia.” The Granados, Bach, Chopin and Scriabin pieces are less gripping. The album recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1968, with drummer Jack DeJohnette inspired, captures Evans at the pinnacle of his art. It is beautifully remastered.

The three-piano, two-piano and solo albums, Conversations With Myself, Further Conversations With Myself and Alone, are reproduced entirely, with a couple of fragmented takes added to Alone. They are classics of recorded piano, regardless of idiom.

The collection ends with three tracks of Evans performing with Don Elliott at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957, when his first trio album had just been released and he was barely known. The next year he became Miles Davis’ pianist. His Riverside albums began to sell. His life, and jazz piano, changed.

Now about the package. Verve’s innovations in CD packaging are well known and generally admired. This one is more likely to be notorious. The hinged sheet metal box opens to disclose two interior sections holding a book and another, removable, metal container with the discs. My review copy appears to have spots of rust in places, but that may be part of the design. The corners of the sleeves are riveted into place and pivot out to allow the listener to remove the discs, an action requiring dexterity. With patience, it can be done. The design of the box is reminiscent of that of a block of apartment houses I saw in Bratislava shortly after the Communist regime collapsed in Eastern Europe. The box has sharp edges. It might be well to keep it off of polished wooden surfaces.

The book has 157 pages of discographical information, pictures, essays, session notes and interviews. One interview is of Evans by pianist John Mehegan, another of producer Creed Taylor by Phil Bailey. There are two no-holds-barred discussions led by Bill Kirchner, one with pianists who admire Evans, one with musicians who worked with him. There are many photographs, some apparently new to print, of Evans and his associates and a marvelous one of him, his parents and his brother. The type, as it must be in CD-sized formats, is tiny. Some of it is doubly hard to read because it is in light ink on light or busy backgrounds, a sadism in which art directors seem to delight. Production of the book included the recall of a badly glued batch. That caused delays in the release of the album.

The package could be better. The music could not be.