The fall of 1962 was nearly disastrous for Bill Evans. The pianist's heroin addiction was out of control, and his life and career were in disarray. To feed his creeping narcotics habit, Evans had recorded voraciously between April and August of that year, with the Interplay session for Riverside of August 21-22 being his last studio date until December.
As the fall of 1962 began, Evans was suffering personally and drifting musically. Two turning points saved his career:
The first was a booking into the Village Vanguard. Since the death of bassist Scott LaFaro in a July 1961 auto accident, the Bill Evans Trio was without a bass player of merit. In the autumn of 1962, Evans was playing different club dates in New York, including a long run at the Hickory House on 52d St. using bassist Hal Gaylor. But when Evans moved into the Village Vanguard, Chuck Israels was on bass along with Paul Motion on drums.
Critic, producer and lyricist Gene Lees, who was like a brother to Evans at the time, relates the following in Peter Pettinger's book, Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings:
"During ten weeks at the Hickory House, the thing just wasn't happening for the trio. But suddenly, during the Village Vanguard engagement, it began. The change is startling, reflected even in Evans' appearance and morale. A certain wisful lethargy that had crept into his playing is gone. His ballads are as extradordinarly evocative and lovely as they were in LaFaro's time, and his uptempo things seem, to me, at least—even stronger than before."
At the Vanguard, says Lees, Israels challenged Evans and raised his morale. (Unfortunately, no recordings that I'm aware of exist of these turning-point club dates.)
The second turning point was the hiring of a new manager. Thanks to Lees, Evans' contract with two managers—Bert Block and Joe Glaser—was invalidated, since the dual arrangement was a union oversight and infraction. This opened the door for manager Helen Keane, who heard Evans during his fall run at the Vanguard. "Bill and I met and liked each other immediately," she says in Pettinger's book. Fortunately her management business was doing well. "I was able to give the dedication and commitment to Bill and build him without starving to death."
By the end of 1962, Evans' Riverside Records contract was about to end and a new one with Verve was starting. It's during this period—on the heels of his seminal run at the Vanguard— that Evans recorded what I believe is one of his most delicate and least-known albums.
The album is The Gary McFarland Orchestra/Special Guest Soloist: Bill Evans.
Like Evans, McFarland—a cutting-edge vibraphonist, composer and arranger—had just joined Verve. McFarland, according to Lees, was in awe of Evans and wanted to record with him. So Lees functioned as go-between, bringing the pair together for a recording session.
McFarland wrote and arranged six songs, and they were recorded over two dates—December 18, 1962 and January 24, 1963. McFarland's compact 11-piece "orchestra" for the date included Jim Hall on guitar, Phil Woods on alto and Ed Shaughnessy on drums as well as four strings.
But Evans initially was a no-show, says Lees in the liner notes of a recent re-issue of the album:
"Bill was badly strung out on heroin at the time and would often be late because he was out on the perpetual search for junk. I won't say Gary was in a panic—he was much too together for that—but he went ahead and rehearsed the orchestra just hoping Bill would turn up. Bill came to that session with the orchestra already prepared, and Bill sight read that stuff. It was the most astonishing feat of musicianship you could possibly imagine."
McFarland met a strange and sad end. In November 1971, he was at a New York City bar with a friend and consumed a drink that contained liquid methadone, which triggered a heart attack that killed him instantly. Evans, of course, died in September of 1980.
In my opinion, this album is vastly underrated and pretty much overlooked. If you dig Bill Evans, add it to your collection. The mood McFarland created for this album is brooding, light and fabulous. I spent yesterday listening to it again and again, perhaps upward of 20 times. It never disappointed and was filled with surprises.
Wax tracks: Unfortunately, The Gary McFarland Orchestra/ Special Guest Soloist: Bill Evans, is not available at iTunes. But you can buy a reissued and remastered import from the UK here for about $19.
The standout on the album for me is Peachtree, which showcases Evans' transformed approach and splendid chord runs just as Gene Lees heard them during this period. Though it's Gary's date, it's truly a jazz portrait of Bill Evans.
Wax clips: If you want to see and hear what Evans, Chuck Israels and Paul Motian sounded like during their Village Vanguard run in the spring of 1962—before Israels departed the trio and then returned in the fall—check out this clip and this one. Both were taped for an NBC TV show called Camera Three and are part of the famed Francis Paudras collection.