If Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue is the most common entry point for a new jazz fan and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is number two, a typical next step would be an album by Bill Evans. The LPs drawn from the Village Vanguard sessions in 1961, when he recorded with his great trio that included Scott LaFaro on bass Paul Motian on drums, are widely considered to be the pianist’s high-water mark, but he was an artist of unusual consistency, not just in quality but also in musical vision. While the ’60s and ’70s were a time of rupture in jazz, with the rise of free improv and fusion, Evans mostly worked within relatively narrow parameters—acoustic post-bop played with trios, some solos, a few duos, an occasional date with a larger band.
When you pair Evans’ endlessly listenable style with a seemingly bottomless well of recorded gigs, you get a reissue cottage industry boosted further by the vinyl revival. Every Record Store Day seems to bring a new Evans release or two. The latest of these, Treasures, is a collection of previously unissued performances—over two hours of music, 2xCD or 3xLP—made for Danish radio and cut between 1965 and 1969. It runs counter to some recent Evans reissues by featuring an array of instrumental configurations, and it’s a strong showcase of how he adapted his playing to reflect the settings.
The first section finds Evans in two different trios he worked with for a short time, and running through tunes he played frequently—standards like “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and “Beautiful Love,” along with a couple of standards Evans wrote himself, “Very Early” and the immortal “Waltz for Debby,” which appears three times in this collection. These are relaxed, warm sets with Evans in top form.
The second disc contains later trio recordings, this time featuring bassist Eddie Gomez, eventually the pianist’s longest-tenured collaborator, along with drummers Alex Riel (on the ’66 set) and Marty Morell (from a ’69 session). Evans and Gomez were like two halves of one musical mind, and it’s always fascinating to hear them together, as Gomez moves easily between supporting rhythm, undergirding the harmonic foundation, and playing melodic leads. There are some excellent livelier cuts in the mix this time, like the humming “Autumn Leaves” and the hard-swinging “Emily.”
But while the earlier trio work here is good and the latter is great, the more tantalizing Treasures sessions are those with the Royal Danish Symphony Orchestra and the Danish Radio Big Band, and those that feature Evans alone. The pieces for orchestra were arranged by trumpeter and composer Palle Mikkelborg and recorded in 1969, and included Evans compositions along with this album’s title track, written explicitly for the performance. For me, there’s something slightly vexing about hearing a jazz pianist backed by an orchestra of this size, if only because I struggle to hear the loose interplay to which I’m accustomed. That said, Mikkelborg’s arrangements hold interest, sprinkling modernist dissonance in with the lush cinematic swoon.
In this arrangement, the perfectly melodic “Waltz for Debby” sounds like something out of a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, while “Time Remembered” has a gorgeous, low-lit ambiance. Evans was experimenting with orchestra periodically in the late ’60s—his lesser-known LP Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra came out in ’66, and he had a series of live dates with orchestra in the city that year—and Mikkelborg’s sympathetic backing gives a good sense of how his harmonic approach translates in such a setting.
Bill Evans alone is always full of surprises. He used his solo work to explore extremes of touch and density. On one piece, he might leave chasms of silence and finger each note with almost painful delicacy, and on another, his playing might be very dense, as if he’s compelled to explore every structural possibility simultaneously. His quest for harmonic intrigue even led him to record several albums of him accompanying himself, multi-tracking his improvisations so that two or three pianos were heard simultaneously. I think of his solo material as something apart from his small-group work, unlike, say, Thelonious Monk, whose musical personality is more unified.
The full range of Evans’ approach to solo piano is heard in these sessions cut for radio in 1965. His composition “Re: Person I Knew” is a piece of rare beauty, mysterious and lyrical, and his version here is organic and alive, expanding and contracting as if it were a living, breathing thing. Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” opens with a knotty and angular intro before the eternal melody glides out of the clouds, and Evans sometimes seems like he’s wrestling with the tune, trying to extract every viable idea from its harmonic shape. Evans recorded a classic uptempo version of “My Funny Valentine” with guitarist Jim Hall on the 1962 album Undercurrent, but here he takes it at medium tempo and lingers over the individual notes in a way that makes you hear the lyrics in your head before adding inventive embellishments to the melody in his arrangement’s middle section. A few songs later, he ends his solo set with “Epilogue,” the haunting fragment threaded through his 1958 LP Everybody Digs Bill Evans.
Treasures is kind of like four mini-albums in one: You get a taste of Evans in a pickup trio, another with him and one of his most reliable collaborators, a suite for orchestra, and then an excellent solo set. As with so many previously unheard releases from Evans’ vault over the past decade, both the sound quality and the overall package are excellent, reinforcing the idea that this is important music that demands to be preserved properly. This even though Evans probably didn’t give these sessions much thought once they were over—he was a busy man during these years, always on the way to the next gig.
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