Most fans of pianist Bill Evans know him as one of jazz's great trio leaders from 1959 until his death in 1980. You also may know that in the years preceding 1959, Evans was a prolific sideman—popping up on a wide range of recordings led by superb artists such as Tony Scott, Miles Davis and Hal McKusick.
One of the finest dates from his pre-Davis period was trombonist Jimmy Knepper's A Swinging Introduction from September 1957. This Bethlehem date featured Knepper (tb), Gene Quill (as), Evans (p), Teddy Kotick (b) and Dannie Richmond (d). The recording session came a month after both artists appeared on Charles Mingus's East Coasting and two months before they were on an extensive series of Tony Scott dates.
Evans first recorded with Knepper on the inventive Third Stream recording Brandeis Jazz Festival: Modern Jazz Concert in January 1957. They also both appeared on The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones, one of the first six albums Creed Taylor produced for his maiden Impulse label in 1960.
Knepper [pictured above] was a brilliant ballad player, using a pillowy, crying technique on his horn to extract the passion of slower songs. He also was a monster uptempo workhorse but retained the same round sound. Alto saxophonist Quill was a shrill bebopper, a high-octane instrumental gunslinger who often was paired with Phil Woods and was featured on many East Coast studio sessions that called for a special sound at the high end of the reed section. Knepper and Quill together here are pure magic—the rubbery Knepper scraping against the sandpapery Quill.
But the bonus on this album is the boutique Evans solos. By 1957, Evans was perfecting the patiently-paced elegant sound he would employ during his stay in the Miles Davis Sextet in 1958. On virtually every track on the Knepper-led album, Evans is given micro solos after the horns, displaying solid ideas that lift off despite the short amount of running room.
This is especially true on Ogling Ogre, the mid-tempo How High the Moon, Idol of the Flies and Avid Admirer.
By the spring of '58, Evans had passed into the extraordinary maze known as the Miles Davis Sextet. When he emerged in November, he would be a very different player and person—professionally more grounded but personally more reckless and with a nagging drug habit.
JazzWax tracks: Jimmy Knepper's A Swinging Introduction is going for about $50 today as a CD import. But you'll find all of the tracks on Bill Evans: The Sideman Years (Fresh Sound) as a download here and at iTunes. Track numbers 11-16 make up the original album, bringing your grand total to under $6. Merry Christmas!
JazzWax clip: Here's the loping How High the Moon from A Swinging Introduction...