The Vinyl Grouch: Bill Evans at the Complete Village Vanguard Recordings (1961)

By Ken Micallef

Journeys through vinyl old and new, whether mastered from analog or digital sources, with great music the only common currency

Listening to pianist Bill Evans’ recently released box set, The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 (Concord/Fantasy), it’s easy to understand why jazz was loved and popular then and why it’s decidedly un-loved today. Sucker-punching an ill-informed public that wouldn’t know Louis Armstrong if he walked up and sold them a joint, the media has been whipping on jazz a lot lately, from the Rocky wannabe jazz charade masquerading as a film, Whiplash, to the unconscionable parody of tenor saxophone great Sonny Rollins in the usually urbane pages of the New Yorker. This lazy, uninformed view of America’s original art form has filtered down to many venues, including John H. Darko’s Digital Audio Review, where the typically astute audio writer (and excellent photographer) expresses his distaste for certain jazz artists in his piece, “6moonbeams #1”:

Do you enjoy the music you hear at audio shows? In the main, I do not. My tastes are more closely aligned with FactMag and The Quietus coverage than or Gramophone. Not every audiophile subsists on a diet of Jazz At The Pawnshop or Harry Belafonte but you wouldn’t know that from wandering the halls of the average hi-fi show.

And later in the same piece:

The majority of music heard at shows is clearly aimed at the dominant demographic: middle-aged white men who savour the familiarity of Diana Krall or Hotel California … I’m not advocating that we all start listening to A Place to Bury Strangers or The Haxan Cloak, but there’s a hidden thirst among a mostly silent minority for greater musical variety.

On one hand, I take issue with John’s remarks, but on the other I couldn’t agree with him more. It’s like, “Finally, someone said it!” Though I haven’t heard Belafonte or the trite, Swedes-play-trad Jazz at the Pawnshop at a show in years, my ire is reserved for the “white man blues” often played at shows, wherein some crusty white dude strums his acoustic guitar and moans about his troubles with a soul so saccharine you wish the ghost of Howlin’ Wolf would strike him dead. The jazz-fumbling, mealy-mouthed Diana Krall prevails as well, typically in exhibitor’s rooms designed to lure the wealthy yet dead-in-the-ears audiophile who equates multiple drivers, shiny surfaces and a husky female voice with “high-end audio.” This kind of customer evaluates audio with his eyes, not his ears. Too much in our hi-fi hobby is about the gear and not the music, and the industry loves it. How else to get the rubes to upgrade year after year if the gear isn’t the primary focus? We music lovers are the losers, as well as such fascinating artists as, yes, The Haxan Cloak, and fellow electronic music purveyors, Oneohtrix Point Never and Holy Other, folk satirist Father John Misty, and such ear-friendly jazz journeymen as drummer Reggie Quinerly, guitarist Gilad Heckselman, trumpeter Marcus Parsley, and on such albums as One Quiet Night and Day Trip, guitarist Pat Metheny.

I’m not a fan of what typically passes for jazz at audio shows (you definitely won’t hear Wayne Shorter, Archie Shepp or Ornette Coleman), but it’s my bet that Darko has never heard Bill Evans’ concert LP masterpieces, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby. The original tapes from which these two recordings were culled have now been restored (grafting hundreds of snippets of tape together in Pro Tools) to feature all of the music (and crowd chatter) from those afternoon and evening performances from June 25, 1961. The four-LP box set is jammed with goodies. Pressed on 180-gram vinyl, the LPs (each in its own polyethylene inner sleeve and standard cardboard sleeve) are packaged with a 12-page booklet, complete with new liner notes by reissue producer Bill Belmont and the original liner notes by the set’s original producer, the recently passed Orrin Keepnews. Reproductions of Keepnews’ session annotations and photographer Steve Schapiro’s proof sheets are also included, as well as replications of Bill Grauer Productions, Inc.’s “Recording Data Sheets,” and a poster of the famous cover — Evans, in profile, the true tortured jazz artist.

I like to think that if an adult Darko had been present at the Village Vanguard that day in 1961, he would’ve fallen under the spell of Evans’ lyrical, smart, seriously innovative swinging jazz just as thousands have, ever since. Evans, with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, basically invented the template for the jazz trio we hear today in pianists from Brad Mehldau and Frank Kimbrough to Jason Moran and newcomer Tigran Hamasyan. Not that such legendary pianists as Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Oscar Peterson and even Horace Silver, all working during the Evans era, weren’t equally important, but Evans brought a tenderness, a sense of beauty, introspection and a new way of improvising interactively with the bassist and drummer that has most influenced today’s jazz pianists, including Keith Jarrett and Fred Hersch. Adding to the recordings’ sense of mystery was the death of equally innovative 25-year-old bassist LaFaro in a car crash ten days after the Vanguard performances. LaFaro’s death took a brutal emotional toll on Evans, who was, according to drummer Paul Motian, “numb with grief” and “like a ghost” after LaFaro’s death. Evans eventually went on hiatus for months after LaFaro’s death.

The four LPs of The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 reveal the Evans’ trio’s almost spooky level of musical communication. They stand as marvelous, intimate recordings a half century later.

Listening to LaFaro’s “Gloria’s Step” and “Jade Visions,” “Solar” or “Milestones,” you’re instantly caught up in the trio’s beauty and sophistication, developed over two years prior to the Vanguard Date, that inform every selection. And for live recordings from 1961 the audio — tracked on an Ampex two-track setup next to the stage — is stunning. Every brush stroke, every piano note, every upper register bass pluck is exceptionally well-defined and tonally rich. It feels like you’re sitting tableside, you almost feel one with the trio.

You’re hearing the rules of piano trio improvisation being rewritten, where each member of the trio has an equal melodic, rhythmic and comping role — a revolutionary idea in the early 60s. In Oscar Peterson’s trio, for example, Oscar played like a fiend while Ed Thigpen and Ray Brown kept time and traded occasional fours. Evans called this new method of improvisation the “internalized beat,” where everyone solos, and, conceptually, no one solos – the group expression becomes one. It’s exquisite music yet also bittersweet, not only for the loss of LaFaro, but due to Evans’ harmonic sophistication, brilliant ballad playing and solo skills. Evans’ music perpetually leaned to the darker side of the emotional and psychological spectrum. These introspective performances delight and swing, but also make one to reflect on Evans’ loss, and perhaps, our own.

Vinyl Quality: 9/10

Would Darko dig it? I think he would. He’s honest when saying he wants to hear the music he loves at shows. A silent majority does exist in hi-fi I circles, 30- (or 40-) some-things like Darko, and for example, AudioQuest’s Stephen Mejias (formerly of Stereophile), our very own Scot Hull, DeVore Fidelity’s John DeVore, and 1000s of non-industry true believers who not only appreciate digital and analog reproduction, but for whom the quest to enjoy music at its deepest levels is what ultimately satisfies and drives them, not the quest for gear. And that’s exactly what drove the early years in hi-fi, in the shape of the “Space Age Bachelor pad” esthetic, found in the early ‘60s pages of Playboy and Audio. Stereophile’s Art Dudley and Herb Reichert would gladly pony up for the gear cherished in that now fuzzy ‘60s era: Thorens and Rek-O-Kut turntables, Tandberg reel-to-reels, Klipsh and Wharfdale speakers, Fisher, McIntosh and Marantz amplifiers, all similar to those seen in this audio/style think-piece from The Selvedge Yard.

Same as those ‘60s audiophiles, today’s listener wants to hear his or her music, not the sounds that made grandpappy go all tingly. Jazz of the 1960s was the popular music currency of the day. Just as today’s hip-hop vocalists dream of being the next Beyonce or Kanye, ‘60s crooners such as the doomed Beverly Kenney, ultra hip Mark Murphy, and 100s of others evolved during the swing era, ingrained in public tastes from the days of the big bands and bebop. Bill Evans was arguably the most popular and influential jazz pianist of the ‘60s due to his lyrical, cerebral and wistful piano style as well as his image, which established the now clichéd icon of the serious jazz cat deep in thought, hunched over his keyboard, choosing each note as if it was his last. But Evans’ best-selling jazz was highly melodic and available then only in the LP format, which required the musician to pack a lot of very approachable, listenable, swinging sounds into one 40 minute LP.

Music Quality: 10/10

Transferred from 44.1 digital files originally extracted for a Japanese CD box set, Bill Evans’ The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 is an intensely enjoyable listen, “low resolution sampling rate” be damned. Though set producer Bill Belmont has received much criticism for cutting the vinyl from 44.1 files rather than the original tapes, the sound is intimate, warm, and clear without sounding overtly cold or digital. Similar things can be said for Concord’s hard-to-find but still in-print OJC series, and Blue Note’s ongoing 75th Anniversary reissues. Do these vinyl reissues capture the lifelike presence, tonality and palatable immediacy of the original pressings? Of course not. But they are superior to the LP reissues of the late 80s and 1990s, when CD’s “Perfect Sound Forever” lie flashed dollar signs in front of a music industry sorely in need of a cash infusion. Vinyl is back and here to stay. Nine million units sold in the US in 2014!

If you’re a jazz newbie, check out Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby. Analogue Productions offers excellent LPs of both titles. Or for $99.99, go for the complete experience with The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961. It could begin the start of a beautiful love affair with jazz.

About the Author

Ken Micallef

When not rustling words for DownBeat, Electronic Musician, Bass Player and Modern Drummer magazines, Ken Micallef feeds his vinyl LP habit, photographs New York City’s remaining neighborhoods, and reviews audio equipment for PFO. A native of Detroit, Michigan, Ken currently resides in Greenwich Village, New York City, a swift subway ride to the city’s well stocked and overpriced used vinyl stores. His LP prizes often find their way to his Facebook page, Jazz Vinyl Lovers, where love of jazz and the occasional turntable photo keeps heads turning and the conversation buzzing.

Raised in the Deep South, educated as a commercial artist, Micallef is also a regular contributor to Autodesk’s online business magazine, where Smart Buildings, Industry 4.0, and the Internet of Things provide grist for the mill of future design and cloud-based and 3D manufacturing.

Ken’s current rig includes Shindo electronics, DeVore Fidelity and Snell speakers, a Kuzma turntable and various cartridges.

You can find more of Ken on his website, his photo site Greenwich Village Daily Photo.

Financial Interests: Ken contributes to several music-related media outlets including Positive Feedback Online and Digital Audio Review.