Serious discussions about pianist Bill Evans' recordings start with his live sets at New York's Village Vanguard in June 1961. These dramatic recordings were produced by Riverside's Orrin Keepnews and capture the pianist in perfect poetic form with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. Now, a new two-CD set being released on Tuesday by Resonance Records matches Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. The new album captures Evans in New York with his new trio—bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morell—at Art D'Lugoff's Top of the Gate in October 1968. As I write in today's Wall Street Journal (go here), this CD set is the most important live Evans document to emerge in decades and the most rewarding on multiple levels. [Photo of Bill Evans above by Raymond Ross/CTSImages]
Recordings of Bill Evans at the Top of the Gate were always rumored to exist. When I interviewed Art D'Lugoff in 2008, a year before his death, he told me there were recordings and he assumed that Orrin Keepnews had them. When I asked Orrin about them last year, Orrin said he knew nothing about them. Now it turns out that Evans tapes do indeed exist—but they belong to engineer and Resonance founder and owner George Klabin.
Back in October 1968, George [pictured] was a student at Columbia University. He was head of the jazz department at the college's radio station and a voracious jazz fan. George had interviewed Evans on the radio in 1966, so when he heard that Evans would be playing at the Top of the Gate, he asked Evans' manager Helen Keane if he could record the new trio.
Keane [pictured] said he could. "Helen lived near my mother on 96th St. just off Madison Ave., so I knew her from the neighborhood," George told me last week. "Helen also knew I had high recording standards, since I had taped a concert a couple of years earlier. The rules on the Bill recording were simple: I could record the trio provided Helen received a copy of the tape and that I played the tape only once on the air. Which I did. Then I put the reels away. I suspect Helen let me record because she wanted a demo of the newly formed trio for potential recording and concert opportunities. But we'll never know."
According to The New Yorker's archives, Evans, Gomez and Morell went into the Top of the Gate on October 15. Eight days later, George showed up with a 50-pound, two-track Crown recorder, four expensive mikes and a mixer. "Whenever I had extra money I bought mikes," he said. "I put one on a boom and aimed it into the open grand piano. I had one on Eddie, one on Marty and an area mike. I used a Neumann U67, a Beyer dynamic, a Sennheiser condenser and an Electro-Voice dynamic mike, which I had wrapped in foam and placed directly in the bridge area of Eddie's bass."
For the next few hours, George sat at a table in front of the stage watching his Crown's level needles as the 7-inch reels turned. Morell told me last week he recalled George sitting at a table in front of Evans, who was on the left side of the stage from the audience's perspective. George taped the two sets in full—nearly 90 minutes of music. [Pictured above: Two images from the Top of the Gate]
That's what you hear on this CD set. Klabin wisely edited out applause between songs, clinking glasses and chatter. It's just prime Bill Evans, and the results are nothing short of astonishing for three reasons.
First, the sound is breathtaking. As I mention in my Wall Street Journal piece today, the sound quality will make you think you have been seated at a table placed on the stage in the middle of the musicians. I kid you not—the fidelity is that vivid and intimate. [Photo of Bill Evans above by Jan Perrson/CTSImages]
Second, the song choices are a dream. This is a Nardis-free CD set, which will come as a relief for those who don't care much for the joyless song that Evans played relentlessly. There are 17 tracks in all—nine in the first set and eight in the second. For fans of Evans in the '60s, you will be more than satisfied with spirited and exciting versions of Emily, Witchcraft, Yesterdays, 'Round Midnight, My Funny Valentine, California Here I Come, Gone with the Wind, Alfie, Turn Out the Stars (an uptempo version), In a Sentimental Mood, Autumn Leaves, Someday My Prince Will Come, Mother of Earl and the first trio version of Here's That Rainy Day. [Photo above of Bill Evans and Eddie Gomez by Fred Seligo/CTSImages]
Third, and perhaps most important, Evans' playing is electrifying and loaded with confident and lyrical risk-taking. Gomez and Morell [pictured] work to gel around the pianist, and the collective thrill is clear. This was Morell's first club date as the trio's new drummer. "Bill was particularly energetic that night, and there was a lot of exploration and excitement by the trio," Marty told me. "I had just joined, so what you hear is us getting to know each other musically."
If you listen to tracks from Bill Evans: The Secret Sessions that were recorded surreptiously with a single mike at the Village Vanguard around this time (in August and December), Evans to me tends to sound lackluster and was just going through the motions. The exuberance and frolic found in the new Top of the Gate set are a distinct cut above. I suspect this is because Evans knew he was being recorded by George Klabin, who he knew cared deeply about the music. Evans didn't want to let him down—nor did he want a flat demo.
As for other live recordings Evans made in the '60s, the Top of the Gate towers over them all. The list includes the 1960 Birdland Sessions (the fidelity off the radio is poor), At Shelly's Manne Hole in 1963 (the song choices aren't great) the Bill Evans Trio Live at the Trident in 1964 (superb, but the song choices aren't perfect), Live in Paris, 1965 (again, the fidelity is lacking), Live in London (brilliant, but a sandy recording) and Bill Evans at Town Hall in 1966 (a concert setting and a bit formal).
Bill Evans Live at Art D'Lugoff's Top of the Gate is a masterpiece, and George Klabin should be thanked repeatedly for releasing it. For those who have spent years yearning for a highly intimate Evans recording that brings the artist as close as possible to the ear and provides marvelous material and execution, your ship has finally come in.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find the two-CD set of Bill Evans Live at Art D'Lugoff's Top of the Gate at iTunes and Amazon here.
For the Evans fan with a fetish for vinyl, there's a limited edition set here featuring three 12-inch, 180-gram LPs mastered by engineer Bernie Grundman at 45-rpm for superior sound. The LPs were pressed by Record Technology Inc., and the set comes with a four-panel LP insert with all of the liner notes and images found in the the CD.
In-depth liner notes are by Nat Hentoff, Gary Burton, Eddie Gomez, Marty Morell, George Klabin, Raphael D'Lugoff (Art's son) and producer Zev Feldman.
JazzWax clip: Here's a promo video for the new Bill Evans Top of the Gate set narrated by album producer Zev Feldman.