When I first started this blog I decided I was only going to cover the greatest vinyl albums of all time. Only flawless records everyone should own would make the grade — people are pushing all sorts of physical product out of their lives so only share the essentials. Pretty much instantly, however, that evolved to writing about records across a spectrum of greatness, from the interestingly imperfect to the uniquely blemished. People aren’t perfect so why should works of art be?
Flawed people are often the most interesting. Bill Evans was a deeply flawed person but he made four albums with Scott LeFaro and Paul Motian that are as close to perfect as anything can get. So, of course the first Bill Evans album I wrote up for this site was the one he recorded right after those utterly brilliant albums came out. And then, I spent half of it nattering on about the petty joys of bargain record shopping.
But, if I could take X number of albums with me to anywhere, from a deserted island to Valhalla, those four Bill Evans Trio albums would be among them. I will get to all of them here eventually but lets start with Waltz For Debby — the final release of the bunch.
The defuse not-quite-there beauty of this album sleeve captures something of Bill Evans’ music — its a state you can be in but not quite one you can touch. Ken Deardoff designed the cover. you can really only see this on the large LP sleeve but It looks like he took a photo of a woman in silhouette and then, using cut paper, added a slightly different pose of the same woman inside of the photograph. She is just looking at you but also looking away from you in profile.
Ken Deardoff only spent a very limited part of his career designing album sleeves for Riverside (or any other label) before turning to book cover design around 1963. Many of his book designs should be familiar to the type of person who spends their time on the internet reading about old jazz records. Here are some of Deardoff’s designs for the mighty Riverside label:
I will cover most of these albums some point in the future.
Here are the four official Riverside albums of The Bill Evans Trio with Scott LeFaro & Paul Motian. He didn’t work on Portrait In Jazz but the other three were designed by Ken Deardoff, though others took the portraits of Evans on the sleeves.
Buy all of these records. Play them often. Listen to them until you die. Carry the music with you into the great beyond.
A big part of jazz is the exploration of harmony, searching for different, and new combinations of, chords to use in a song. Bill Evans was a quiet revolutionary — he changed the way jazz was played, and the scope of its harmonic language, but he did it in such a sublime, beautiful way that non-musicians and casual listeners just notice the beauty of the songs.
So, Bill Evans expanded the harmonic language of jazz and his use of time and space in his playing is just so sublime. But all of his instincts were good. Waltz For Debby is also a great example of how well balanced a Bill Evans set was with standards, his own songs, and jazz tunes by other writers.
Bill Evans was a songwriter of the first order but he concentrated on interpreting standards. Jazz uses standard songs because they all have distinct melodies that are different from one another — which was universal once upon a time but is not the case anymore in popular music. Standards are brilliantly written (including the chords they use), say something about the human condition, and can be interpreted in different ways. Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra had the ability to turn songs into standards and change the numbers in ways that had other artists interpreting the standards through their interpretations of them. Those changes include harmonic ones but also song structure, and tempo. Their tempos became the defining ones. Not just fast or slow but the exact right tempo.
Standards are memorable and hummable but complex. Later jazz tunes, are different more like neat little tunes than fully written songs in the classic sense. Take “Nardis,” one of my favorites, written by Miles Davis. This number is still widely recorded but Bill Evans codified how it should be played. Miles Davis gave it Cannonball Adderley to record but he was initially unhappy with how the saxophonist recorded it. Bill Evans was on the Adderley session and heard something different in the song and recorded in with his trio. When Miles heard Bill Evans’ reading of “Nardis” he felt that Evans had captured the essence of the song and he decided he didn’t even need to record it himself — it was perfect. Miles had a bad habit of stealing the writing credit for songs from his collueges and he did so with Bill Evans’ “Blue In Green.” The way Evans played “Nardis” was so sublime that people assumed he actually wrote it — but Evans always vouched for Miles as its author.
I think Miles Davis and Bill Evans are similar — jazz musicians listened to their versions the most. I am guessing that Keith Jarrett’s sublime reading of “My Foolish Heart” came from him listening to Bill Evans’ utterly spellbinding version that kicks off Waltz For Debby and not from hearing it in the old movie it was written for.
His fellow musicians may have dug Bill Evans but the pianist had some self esteem issues. He first recorded for Riverside in 1956 but refused the label’s continued offer to record more because the pianist didn’t think he had anything new to say to the world yet. In 1958, he also doubted he was up for the task when Miles Davis invited him to join his band. Miles Davis was never shy in praising Evans or in giving him credit for opening up his musical horizons.
Maybe this same personality is what partially led Bill Evans to expand the scope of the piano trio in ways that elevated the rhythm section and viewed Scott LeFaro and Paul Motian as creative partners. Now, Bill Evans must have had a strong ego, he was a soloist after all, but this is a band where he had to listen intently and never lose track of anything his drummer and bassist where doing. Compare that to Erroll Garner, another flat-out amazing pianist. Garner often started a song off with an improvised fanfare and his rhythm section didn’t always know exactly which song it would lead to or where it would resolve. But, it never worked the other way around. By contrast, each member of The Bill Evans Trio had to be utterly connected to what every member was doing at every nanosecond or the whole thing would come tumbling down.
Scott LeFaro was an East Coaster, like Bill Evans and Paul Motian, but he started out professionally as part of the 1950s Cool, West Coast jazz scene. LeFaro played with such defining West Coast stars as Chet Baker, Cal Tjader, Stan Getz, and Victor Feldman. He also played with Ornette Coleman when he was based in L.A. Paul Motian, a finesse drummer rather than a tub-thumper, had played with Bill Evans before, in different settings, and the three got along well together. In some ways the styles of Motian and LeFaro were aligned with what would become “free” jazz but what they do never feels assaultive and the songs end up coming together rather than splitting apart.
Waltz For Debby was the trio’s last original album together as Scott LeFaro had been killed in an accident before its release. It doesn’t bill itself as a live album, but that is exactly what it is, from the same sessions that had produced Sunday At The Village Vanguard. Produced by Riverside honcho (and all around force for good) Orrin Keepnews, the set was engineered by David Jones, who specialized in capturing live recordings. The tinkling of glasses and a background buzz of light conversation only enhances the set.
The title track is the second recording of a tune Bill Evans wrote to show his love for his niece. The first time he recorded it Evans quickly put down the melody. Nobody noticed it but its a lovely tune and he kept playing it live. Here, “Waltz For Debby” gets a reading that would turn the song into a standard.
Most songs in the jazz cannon came from Broadway, film, or Tin Pan Alley but “Detour Ahead” was an actual jazz standard, by The Soft Winds, a tasty drummer-less trio from the Swing Era that included the guitarist Herb Ellis (who would go on to a long partnership with Oscar Peterson). The tune was a favorite during the Beatnik Era and the three greatest female jazz vocalists, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan, all recorded it before Evans did.
This album just features one little trio captured at a club date but every song is taken on its own and looked at in different ways. “My Foolish Heart” is pained and bruised while “Waltz For Debby” is on the borderline of positive and carefree without quite crossing over into it — it is more like the happiness you get from viewing somebody else having fun rather than having it yourself. Check out LeFaro’s extended solo on “Debby” where he skips over the tempo like a stone going across a lake. “My Foolish Heart” displays the deep influence Classical impressionism had on Bill Evans while “Detour Ahead” is bluesy and searching. The last two songs are around the seven minute mark — very long for a piano record, even for a jazz record in 1960. These guys are stretching out but it doesn’t feel like they are at all — nothing feels flashy or gratuitous — its all about the emotion and story of the songs.
Side 2 starts off with an upbeat take on Rodgers & Hart’s “My Romance” that displays a completely different kind of love than what is on “Waltz For Debby” but it comes out as no less pure and positive. The pained beauty comes seeping back in with Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time.”
I was not into genres at all growing up — as a pre-teen, beyond The Beatles, I was into certain pieces of music and songs than artists or genres growing up. Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece” was one of the few jazz tunes I recognized, and was transfixed by, whenever I bumped into it childhood. I was similarly taken with Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie.” They are both haunting numbers. Evans came up with “Peace Piece” in the studio while working out his own unique intro for “Some Other Time.” Everyone was so taken with “Peace Piece” that it ended up being recorded for Everybody Digs Bill Evans while “Some Other Time” was put away until this live recording.
Standards and even more “casual” jazz tunes by the likes of Horace Silver have a beginning/middle/end song structure to them. “Peace Piece” is tied to Bill Evans internalization of French impressionism but its two chord vamp don’t ever have to resolve — the music could just float on forever. Jazz musicians quickly fell under the spell of the tune even as it gained recognition with the public but Bill Evans would not record it or play it again (maybe he did once again??). He viewed it a crystallized moment in time that was captured but was not to be repeated. What he did instead was play the lovely “Some Other Time,” with his intro that let people know where he came up with “Peace Piece.”
The album ends with “Milestones,” a pioneering Miles Davis modal number that led to another step for jazz. But, Davis’ version of “Milestones” feels like club be-bop even if it isn’t — add in Bill Evans and you get the dreamier calm sea of modal jazz that informs the Kind of Blue album. Bill Evans’ trio take on “Milestones” splits the difference — much of it being in his lighter touch — and the way he plays behind the beat. In the Miles version the stabbing vamp is leading the tune ahead while Evans leans back and dances lightly around in the space that LeFaro and Motian are creating.
The digital reissues of Waltz For Debby add in a gorgeous reading of Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” but “Milestones” is where my LP ends. I have “Porgy” on a later 2-record set titled The Village Vanguard Sessions.
In terms of total dedication to music and an outwardly collegiate vibe, Scott LeFaro and Paul Motian were perfect matches for Bill Evans. If there is a word that sums up their work together it would be lyricism. The three were forging new paths in music but did it so beautifully that they don’t get tagged as avant-garde.
But, Motian and LeFaro were not happy, or silent, about Evans’ addiction issues. In the sweepstakes to life’s unfairness LeFaro was killed in a car accident coming home from listening to music with friends. This reminds me of Clifford Brown’s equally tragic early passing in a car accident — they were both only 25 years old and were widely considered groundbreaking geniuses on their respective instruments.
Bill Evans was inconsolable about LeFaro’s death and was unable to perform for nearly a year. He programmed Live At The Village Vanguard to focus on Scott LeFaro’s talents as part of his peerless trio while Waltz For Debby is a more well-rounded view of the entire trio and of Bill Evans’ point of view.
Paul Motian stayed with Bill Evans until 1964, when he walked away from the trio after a San Francisco performance where the pianist was openly high. The drummer was mad at Evans but also at the sniggering audience, who he felt was cynically rewarding him for it. Motian, like Riverside’s Orinn Keepnews, went on to live a long, productive, artistically rewarding life. The drummer just kept playing at the highest caliber for decades, including a long association with Keith Jarrett, another brilliant jazz pianist whose mercurial personality was the opposite of the polite, inward looking Bill Evans.
Different snatches of music often randomly pops into my head but I don’t really recall the sound of Paul Motian’s drums when his music isn’t playing in front of me. Instead of his drums lingering in my mind it is pieces of his music from the amazing groups he was in that remain. One ECM session he led nabbed my top spot for Best Jazz Albums of the 2000s back when I actually got paid to put together lists of jazz albums. Motian passed away in 2011 from a form of blood cancer caused by exposure to pollutants such as mercury and lead. Bill Evans split the difference between LeFaro and Motian when his body gave out in 1980 after years of abuse.
Joe Dante likes to quote Orson Welles saying that happy endings just involve stopping early before you get to the ultimate tragedy. Happily, the members of the trio heard here are all still young and immortal on Waltz For Debby. Bill Evans would go on to wider public acclaim at Verve Records and would record widely until he died. That said, Bill Evans’ best work is with Riverside. I am not sure if they are the single finest series of recordings any artist has ever cut at any label but they are for me. I doubt I am alone in thinking this. And of those Bill Evans Riverside albums, Waltz For Debby, and the three other trio albums with Scott LeFaro and Paul Motian, are at the summit.
— Nick Dedina