LP Review: Bill Evans - The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961

The final recordings of this classic lineup of Bill Evans' trio, presented in a lavish vinyl box set.
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In June 1961, fans unknowingly watched Bill Evans and his trio, which consisted of Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, make Jazz history with their performance at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village, New York City. Though Evans has rightly since become a giant in the jazz world, he wasn't very well known at this point, despite having already played with Miles Davis and, as a result, the shows were sparsely attended. The performances would provide material for two of Evans' best-loved albums, Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby, and they would prove to be the last for this lineup, as Lafaro died in a car accident days later at age 25.

The original LPs were chopped up from what was on the master reels. Songs were faded, songs were omitted and much of the between-song banter was removed. In 2005, an attempt was made to remedy this by going back to the original reels, piecing in bits where the engineers believed it went and adding in the extra performances. The results were released on CD as The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961. The album is now available in a 4-LP, 180-gram vinyl box set of the same name.

The box set's packaging is pretty lavish, including a silver and black lithograph of the famous cover, old and new liner notes that feature pictures of the master reels and reproductions of the recording data sheets. A reproduction of the photo proof sheet is also included. Each LP is housed in its own color-coded, thick sleeve with nice inner sleeves. Some LP box sets just place the records in paper sleeves and call it a day. This set goes that extra step. But what of the music?

Disc one opens with "Gloria's Step," which was interrupted by a power outage onstage. In spite of this and the crowd's virtual indifference to the music they were about to see, the trio turn in a virtuoso performance that is at once melodic and challenging. LaFaro and Evans duel, taking extended solos on bass and piano respectively, pushing each other musically.

"Alice In Wonderland" follows -- a pretty, melodic ballad that really showcases LaFaro's chops as Evans steps aside to allow his bassist to shine. The song, like the first, come from the first afternoon set and received polite applause from the audience. Throughout the LPs, one can hear glasses clinking and smatterings of conversations. These may have been giants playing, but they weren't giants in the eyes of the fans, at least not yet.

The remaining LPs cover the other sets recorded that day, a second afternoon set and two of the three evening sets, marking, literally, the last recorded moments of this great trio playing together. There are numerous highlights, including a wonderful rendition of "Porgy (I Loves You, Porgy).""...A Few Final Bars," which closes out the proceedings, was Evans' humorous response to being told the tape was about to run out and his way of filling that time. As the band was recording for album release, there are repeated tracks. This collection presents every surviving recording made that Sunday. While the same digital transfer used to make the CDs was apparently used to cut the vinyl, the sound is warm and surprisingly full, remarkable considering the recording's age and the fact it was done on an Ampex two-track recorder.

Evans' masterful piano work continues to influence jazz pianists to this day. He and his trio cut enough material to create two legendary jazz albums on that Sunday in 1961. The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 showcases the final performances of a brilliant trio and is a must own for Evans' fans.