On June 25, 1976, three months before Bill Evans recordedTogether Again, his second album with Tony Bennett, the pianist appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival in New York with Bennett. In fact, the event at Carnegie Hall was billed as An Evening with Tony Bennett and featured two sets—one with the Bill Evans Trio and a second with Evans and a massive orchestra accompanying Bennett.
Evans, who died 32 years ago this past Saturday, kicked-off the evening by backing Bennett alone on My Foolish Heart. Then the Bill Evans Trio performed a set alone followed by Evans and the orchestra playing behind Bennett as he sang about a dozen standards. Evans reportedly seemed out of place in the second half, lost among the strings, reeds and pop vocals.
According to Peter Pettinger, author of Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings, the vocal set ticked-off someone in the orchestra seats, "who stood up shouting, 'This is supposed to be a jazz festival. Bring back Bill Evans!' "
That passage in Pettinger's book always puzzled me. How could a sober fan do something like that at Carnegie Hall? After listening to the Bill Evans Trio's set—now available for the first time as a download at Concert Vault, a site that specializes in unreleased concert recordings—I understand why. Evans made it virtually impossible for Bennett or anyone else to win back the audience.
Evans' trio at the time featured bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Eliot Zigmund, who joined the trio after Marty Morell's departure in February 1975. Introduced by Bennett, the Bill Evans Trio launched into six songs—Sugar Plum, Up With the Lark, Twelve Tone Tune, Someday My Prince Will Come, Minha and In Your Own Sweet Way. All are sterling renditions.
What makes this Evans concert special is the firm grasp the pianist had on the material and the taut and rolling way in which his improvised passages spool out. There's powerful exuberance and rigorous attacks, but Evans never overplays or rambles. The improvisational lines here have a daredevil feel but avoid becoming rushed or plodding. They are, in a word, sublime.
For example, Twelve Tone Tune here may be one of his finest ever—diving into the complex original with the excited abandon of a bowler who can't seem to roll anything but strikes. Evans' chord voicings are spectacular and his energy level surges, pushing his sidemen to keep up.
Someday My Prince Will Come opens beautifully and Evans remains fatherly throughout, performing as if reading Snow White to a child. The Disney waltz rises and falls with ease, and Evans is ever-mindful of the song's delicate joy and playfulness.
The ballad Minha is thoughtful and passionate, and Evans avoids the mistake he typically made on songs like this—thrashing about like a motorist trying to bang his way out of a parking space by slamming the vehicles in front and back. Here, his rendition is reaching and sobbing rather than testy and bullying.
Dave Brubeck's In Your Own Sweet Way is last, and like all the others it features an introduction so beautiful and dramatic it will break your heart.
In June 1976, Evans put on a show so perfect and moving that he made it impossible for Tony Bennett—or anyone else—to follow him. Wave after wave of lyrical chord voicings and gutsy improvisation thrilled the audience several times over. As you'll hear, a masterpiece by any measure. If only we had a second set.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Bill Evans Trio: Newport Jazz Festival, June 25, 1976—1st Set at Wolfgang's Vault here. Sample tracks. The fidelity is superb, and the download is just $5.
Leave yourself time, though. Once you start nosing around Concert Vault, you'll find dozens of recordings you will want to sample and download.
JazzWax note: Nenette Evans, Bill Evans' widow, just wrote a lovely and revealing post for Rob Rijneke's Bill Evans, Jazz Pianist fan site in the Netherlands. You'll find her post here (click on "news/search" in the right-hand column and then on "Nenette Evans: Essays, Reflections and Interviews").