Sometime in 1956 or 1957, pianist Bill Evans traveled up from New York to vibraphonist Don Elliott's music/recording studio and home in Weston, Connecticut, for a few hours of playing. Was Evans invited up for dinner? Did he need a place to stay? A few days of relaxation?
The purpose of the trip isn't known nor is the exact date (though I will take an educated guess below).
What is known is that Elliott recorded their duets and Evans' solo works, and the result of the pair's private woodshedding was released in 2001 on a remastered CD, Tenderly: An Informal Session.
The recording is significant for many reasons. As you listen to Evans and Elliott swap comments on the CD, you start to realize that this was probably more than a mere get-together. Based on what you can hear of Evans' remarks and Elliott's replies while playing, Evans seems to be conducting a master class—helping Don loosen up and push his improvising skills and "jazz feel" into new territory. The result for Elliott was something of a Music Minus One session—with Bill Evans live in the studio!
At different points, we hear Evans shout out friendly advice. For instance, at the end of Tenderly—which is played as a waltz—Evans says, "All of a sudden it comes to you, Don [laughter]. Because I've been messing with it for a while." They are words of encouragement to a somewhat dejected Elliott.
On I'll Take Romance, another waltz, Elliott starts out soloing stiffly. Then he shouts out to Evans, "Can I think in 4?" Evans shouts back, "You got to feel in 3." Elliott then has a breakthrough and Bill says, "Yeah."
At the end of a blues, Evans compliments Elliott: "That was fun, man. You were good. I like to flow three like that, with no four going but you know where you're at. That's crazy. If everybody could do that, if the bass was playing the same way, why not?"
If you're a careful student of Bill Evans, you know that he was most at home in waltz time, which makes his commentary here that much more interesting and revealing. Rather than merely just favoring 3/4 time, he clearly was developing a theory about running a swinging waltz feel behind any 4/4 signature. Fascinating.
Though the CD offers no specific date for the session other than to say it was recorded in "1956-1957," I'm guessing after a bit of discography mining that it was held very early in July 1957—just before Evans and Elliott would play together on July 6 at the Newport Jazz Festival as the Don Elliott Quartet.
More evidence to support this July date surfaces toward the end of Everything Happens to Me, when Evans starts to fool around with modal scales similar to those he used less than a month earlier on the Brandeis Jazz Festival recording session with George Russell and Gunther Schuller.
My best guess is that Evans was staying at Don's place over July 4th before the two headed up to Newport, R.I., to play at the festival on July 6, a Saturday back in 1957.
Another fair guess is that it was recorded around Christmas 1957. On the CD, Evans plays I'll Know as a solo. The song, from Guys and Dolls (1955), could have been a tuneup for his Guys and Dolls Like Vibes date of January 15, 1958, when he split the arrangements with the session's leader, vibraphonist Eddie Costa. Less than a month later, on February 10, Evans would record again with Don Elliott on The Mello Sound of Don Elliott.
I'd still put my money on the July date, since it makes more sense that Evans would be up in Connecticut helping Elliott improve his game before the Newport Jazz Festival appearance rather than braving the cold to tune up with a vibes player before his Eddie Costa date.
On the CD, Evans and Elliott play together on four tracks—Tenderly, I'll Take Romance, Laura and a blues. All of these duets are splendid examples of Evans as a teacher, and they serve as a behind-the-scenes snapshot of Evans' development as a leader.
Then, either because Don grew frustrated with his own limitations or because he became fascinated by Evans' playing, he decided to record Evans playing solo. (Elliott was an amateur recording enthusiast and had set up one of the first multitrack studios in Weston and New York City.)
Evan's plays alone on I'll Know, Like Someone in Love (listen how, at one point, Evans stops to change keys), Love Letters, Thou Swell, Everything Happens to Me, Stella By Starlight and Funkallero.
Evans also plays one of the most interesting solo versions of Sonny Rollins' Airegin. In fact, Airegin is probably the most gripping track on the CD as Evans works out chord structures and counter melody lines.
Another reason why this album is so special is that in addition to being a relaxed vibes-piano date, Evans' piano playing is remarkably strong—with great use of pedal tones and chord changes.
The date captures Evans with all the "goods," right on the brink of great success and just before the tragic self-inflicted drug battles that would follow. Evans would join the Miles Davis Sextet in May 1958 and grow increasingly serious and somber as his drug problem intensified.
But on this bright and breezy (circa) 1957 recording with Don Elliott, Evans was still demon-free—exhibiting optimism, offering encouragement and playfully experimenting with time and chord changes. Which is what makes this CD a must-have for anyone who adores Bill Evans.
JazzWax tracks: Tenderly: An Informal Session is best described as a connoisseur's pick, since it's a private recording rather than a professionally produced, polished album.
While it's an ideal buy if you are interested in Bill Evans—I adore this album—note that this is a practice session, which means in some cases songs aren't complete, and there's no logic to why one song follows another, except that Evans and Elliott chose them.
With that said, you may want to download a track for a buck to sample the album (Tenderly, for example, or I'll Take Romance). To download individual mp3 tracks—or to buy the CD—click here.
To me, this album still remains the best document we have thus far of Bill Evans as confident jazz innocent on the verge of fame and misfortune.
JazzWax video clips: While the CD, Tenderly: An Informal Session may create the impression that Don Elliott was a fledgling player, he actually was quite seasoned by 1957.
Click here to see a clip of Elliott playing vibes on Conception with the George Shearing Quintet in 1951. In addition to Shearing and Elliott, that's Chuck Wayne on guitar, Denzil Best on drums and John Levy on bass.
Elliott played many instruments, including the mellophone. Click here to see a fabulous 1954 clip of Don, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Mundell Lowe, Billy Taylor, Eddie Safranski and Ed Thigpen playing Denzil Best's composition, Move.
And if you want to learn more about Tenderly: An Informal Session and pianist Bill Evans, click here for Jan Stevens' review of the CD at BillEvansWebPages.com.