Many jazz listeners are unaware that Bill Evans' How My Heart Sings! and Moonbeams for Riverside Records were recorded on the exact same date and with the same personnel—Evans on piano, Chuck Israels on bass and Paul Motian on drums.
The session—recorded on May 17, May 29 and June 5, 1962—came less than a year after the death of bassist Scott LaFaro in an auto accident. LaFaro had been Evans' perfectly matched pulse on the upright, and Bill took LaFaro's death very hard.
Evans' eight known recording sessions between July 1961 and May 1962 are largely scatter-shot. Without a steady bass player with whom he was comfortable, Evans kept busy as a sideman on most of the recording dates. There's a solo outing during this period and a duet album with Jim Hall (Undercurrent), which to my ear doesn't quite gel.
By early 1962, Evans was reunited with Chuck Israels. Peter Pettinger, in his book Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings (1998), picks up the story:
"After several months working with Chuck Israels in his group, Evans felt ready to record a new trio album. Three days after finishing Undercurrent for United Artists, he was back in the studio with Riverside. Orrin Keepnews tells how he planned the session: 'I had a special challenge for them: for some time I had wanted Bill to do a totally laid-back, all-ballads album, but feared that a steady dose of slower tempos might perhaps over-relax the group to the point of lethargy. My solution was to make a second, somewhat livelier record at the same time, literally alternating the two repertoires to provide enough variation to keep everyone alert. The ballads eventually formed the album Moonbeams and the more up-tempo numbers went to make How my Heart Sings!"
So which album is better? I listened to both yesterday and the winner to me is clear: How My Heart Sings! While Moonbeams may have made sense in concept, Keepnews' original fear proves correct—and is evident throughout the album. It has the pace of a funeral march. All of the ballads are taken way too slow, and its plodding, over-thought feel leaves Evans cold. Bill is best when the pace rollicks and he's able to surf the bass lines and brushed beat—and he's always a sure thing on a waltz—any waltz.
By contrast, How My Heart Sings! is sterling. The two standouts (and there are many on this disc) are I Should Care and 34 Skidoo, an Evans original. This album is Bill at his gentlest and most delicate. Given the tidal wave of Evans recordings in recent years from 1970-1980, you forget his soft, pensive period of the early 1960s. By contrast, during the last 10 years of his life, when he faced increased health problems, Evans seems to have exchanged grace and lyricism for anger and repetition, hammering out the same songs over and over again at volumes too loud and tempos too fast.
How My Heart Sings! is perhaps Evans' high point of his Riverside period. For a comparison of his approach on I Should Care, I compared this album's version with the one on Bill Evans at Town Hall (1966). The live version of the song by Sammy Cahn, Axel Stordahl and Paul Weston is a beaut. But the one on How My Heart Sings! comes out ahead for pure punch. Bill lingers wonderfully on chords, holding them for the briefest second with a touch of pedal before releasing and moving on. The sound is incredible.
Listen as I Should Care builds with rolling chords and melodies, and Motian's brushwork becomes firmer and firmer as the song progresses. Listen as Bill takes complete control of the song with a soft touch, leaving plenty of space between chord runs.
In fact, after yesterday's listen, How My Heart Sings! has become my favorite Bill Evans album, which is saying something. It's warm, sensual and rich with emotion. Not only is Evans moving at a splendid pace, but Chuck Israels runs alongside Evans pefectly while Paul Motian's brushwork is spectacular—like the sound of pine bough brushing against a window pane.
This is the Bill Evans album to beat!
Wax tracks: Treat yourself to an import here. Avoid the $7.97 US version, which sadly is from 1991. The richness of this album will be lost on such a dated release. Instead, spring for the import. Go here—but instead of paying $22, pay around $17 for a new version sold by another seller (I bought mine from MusicJapan_JP). Just scroll down and click on the "used & new" link.
Wax clip: Evans' playing was so feathery and bright in the early to mid 1960s. Go here for an example of How My Heart Sings from 1965 (the song begins after Bill's opening theme and Humphrey Lyttelton's intro). Compare Bill's sound then with the boredom and bombast that set in here with 34 Skidoo. Then compare the 1979 34 Skidoo with the one on the album How My Heart Sings! What a shame. While the 1979 clip, to be fair, was recorded a year before his death—Bill's interest and playing in my estimation had checked out some time earlier, probably around 1970 or 1971.