Saturday, March 10, 2018

Bill Evans - The Secret Sessions

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

As I have often remarked, this blog is as much about shining what Howard Rumsey, the late bassist and bandleader, referred to as “the solo spotlight” on great Jazz writers as it is about “the music and its makers.”

Doug Ramsey has for many years contributed cogent and coherent “reflections on the music and its makers,” a phrase which forms the subtitle of his book - Jazz Matters. You can locate more information about Doug and his books by visiting him at

I wrote to Doug and requested his permission to reproduce his insert notes to Bill Evans: The Secret Sessions. Doug’s explanation of what made Bill Evans so unique in the development of Jazz piano in particular and Jazz in general and his description of how Mike Harris surreptitiously went about preserving some of Bill’s distinctive “in performance” stylings combine to form one of the best “Jazz stories” that Doug has ever written.

I’ve always thought that Doug’s ability as a storyteller is one of the qualities that makes him such a special Jazz writer.

Doug’s notes are preceded by those of producer Orrin Keepnews, a man whose intercessions on his behalf did so much to keep Bill and his music alive - literally!

By way of introduction, Bill Evans forever changed the way that chords are voiced on the piano, and his frequently telepathic interplay with his sidemen in his trios remains a very influential force long after his 1980 death. Evans recorded frequently during his career, with many classic albums cut for Riverside and Fantasy (all of which have been made available on CD); but none of the music on this remarkable eight-CD set has been released before.

Recorded in secret by a devoted fan (Mike Harris) at the Village Vanguard and now put out in this magnificent box with the approval of the Evans estate, the 104 performances that make up Bill Evans: The Secret Sessions, Recorded at the Village Vanguard, 1966-1975 [Milestone 8MCD-1-121-1] feature Bill Evans at his very best, sounding both relaxed and explorative while playing before attentive audiences. With Eddie Gomez or Teddy Kotick on bass and such drummers as Arnie Wise, Joe Hunt, Philly Joe Jones, Jack DeJohnette, John Dentz, Marty Morell, and Eliot Zigmund, Evans is heard on 26 occasions during the 1966-75 period, mixing together fresh versions of familiar songs with some selections that he performed much less often.

The recording quality is quite good and the playing is consistently inspired and full of subtle surprises.

Producer’s Note
Orrin Keepnews

“Bill Evans and I were important elements in each other’s careers when we were both quite young. (Among the most celebrated of his early albums produced by me were the two that emerged from a full Sunday at the Village Vanguard in 1961.) Working closely with him back then, I soon came to realize that he was among those highly talented artists for whom recording does not come easily. Such people usually manage to overcome the self-consciousness of the studio, but it definitely adds to the stress of creativity. Recording “live” in a club or concert environment can be helpful - but if a Bill Evans (or similarly, a Sonny Rollins or a Wes Montgomery) could never cease to be very much aware of the presence of tape machines and microphones. When I first learned of a storehouse of secretly recorded Evans performances, I had a series of mixed feelings, but certainly my principal reaction was that it couldn’t have happened to a more appropriate guy!

It is a particularly intriguing concept if you keep in mind Bill's lifelong reluctance to go into the studio. I find myself inventing only mildly exaggerated advertising copy: Now you can possess permanently the kind of unselfconscious Evans performances that club audiences fleetingly held in their heads, but until now had been totally unavailable to mere record-buyers! Actually, you will find the reality slightly less melodramatic. Bill in the recording studio was not exactly a loser, and this material is not wildly different in nature. But there truly is a great deal here that none of us had previously encountered on records, a relaxation and spontaneity, an ability (indeed an eagerness) to improvise himself into and out of a variety of unrehearsed or unlooked-for situations in relation to his bass player (except for the very first night it is Eddie Gomez) and each of several drummers. And there is something wonderfully revealing about hearing, in several instances, the same repertoire under varied circumstances — the approach changing over the years, the familiar song sounding not at all the same with a different drummer.

The details of how an ardent fan turned himself into an unauthorized chronicler of Bill's performances over a decade and more are recounted in the accompanying essay by Doug Ramsey. When I first became aware of the tapes, Mike Harris was well into what turned out to be a lengthy process of making everything proper. The various parties who have an interest in this material (the Evans estate, the accompanying musicians, the club, record companies with whom Bill had contractual relationships at the time he was taped) have now been dealt with. In particular, retroactive thanks certainly seem due to the late Max Gordon, founder and longtime operator of the Vanguard, and current appreciation to his colleague, widow, and successor, Lorraine Gordon.

As for the artist himself, and how he might have felt about the release of these recordings, that's a matter on which we're obviously never going to have a first-hand opinion. But I can presume to say that we have the next best thing. It certainly counts for something that his family has approved. And there are also the two people who, over the years, were closest to Bill's musical output. The more important of the two by far was the late Helen Keane, who as Bill's manager guided his career from very early trio days and also served from the mid-1960s as his record producer. Helen's death, in the spring of 1996, came before she could have any active input in the preparation of this project. But she certainly knew quite thoroughly how he had sounded in this particular club during these years, and she had approved the concept in principle by agreeing, despite her long illness, to serve the project as a consultant.

Helen was going to be backing me up, and my own Bill Evans credentials as the second of the musical authorities are twofold: as already noted, I was Bill's first record producer, which was a seven-year association; after that, I was his friend and fan for the rest of his life. There is no way I could have refused the invitation to produce this compilation. It involves a responsibility that, following Helen's death, I suspect I have taken even more seriously — to select material and performances that would make the most of this unique opportunity.

Somewhat to my surprise, under the circumstances, recording quality was not actually a major problem. Obviously, what we have here is far from studio standards, but in fact the consistently high playing level keeps you, for the most part, from paying too much attention to that. Bill was very much a variable and fallible human being, but the ability to eventually rise to the occasion, which I had been strongly aware of in the recording studio, was apparently also a factor in his daily working life. The late 1960s was a frequently troubled period in his life, but you don't really find that reflected here. I'd sum up the matter of sound quality by shifting the burden back to the listener. You must appreciate the circumstances — in this case, it's necessary to give a little to get a lot, to tolerate a less than perfect balance between instruments and a piano sound that is not optimum in order to be able to eavesdrop on the amazing creativity of a truly great jazz artist.

Mike Harris, our secret benefactor, clearly had a pretty good idea of what he was doing. When a trio appeared in that room, even back in the Sixties, the piano (which clearly was kept in better condition than the average nightclub keyboard) invariably was placed at the very front of the raised bandstand. Accordingly, its bulk, interposed between the bass and the Harris equipment, helped create a reasonable balance. In this room, drums have almost always been set up in a small alcove at the rear and at the far right (from an audience perspective). This also had a suitably compensating effect, although obviously much would depend on the drummer himself. Bill's choice of percussionists was not consistent, ranging from quite light to extremely aggressive, but he was fully aware of that. So the nights with Philly Joe Jones on hand not only offer a much more present drum sound, they also tend to display a very different level of intensity from the leader.

Although a full decade is covered here, from 1966 to 75, the spread is not particularly even. There's a great deal more early material available, largely because Max Gordon was particularly fond of the pianist and during the mid and late Sixties brought him into the room with great frequency. And in those days, jazz clubs quite routinely booked a group for two and three weeks at a time. But before the end of that decade, rapidly growing public acceptance made Evans much less available to Gordon. Bill's being on tour or working other New York clubs meant that there were years when dedicated Mike Harris and his tape machine hardly got any shots at Bill in the Vanguard. (In addition, the company for whom he recorded during his last few years, having plans of its own for final sessions taped at the Vanguard, understandably declined to waive its control over material within its time frame.)

I have selected the repertoire for this compilation by keeping in mind both variety and what I think of as "continuity." Bill added a vast number of songs to his personal play list over the years, made you consider many of them his special property, and then eventually grew somewhat tired of them, which meant they were played more rarely, although usually not completely abandoned. Of course I haven't been able to include all of those, but I didn't miss too many, and there are quite a few deliberate encores. (Inevitably I was restricted by what actually was played on the taped evenings, and also by a quantity of mechanical problems, mishaps, and assorted recording gremlins that made it difficult or impossible to include some familiar numbers.) And wherever possible I have shamelessly used my position as producer to give preference to my personal Evans favorites — although, to my credit, there are only two performances of his Re: Person I Knew, the title of which is an anagram using all the letters in my name.

Several compositions remained important parts of his program on a regular basis over the years, so I considered it essential for there to be three and four performances, over the eight-disc span, of signature pieces like Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight," Anthony Newley's "Who Can I Turn To," Miles Davis's "Nardis," and "Blue in Green" (whose authorship has caused some controversy, but was probably jointly created by Bill and Miles), as well as such major Evans works as "Waltz for Debby," "Time Remembered," "Turn Out the Stars," and "Very Early" — although almost never with the same drummer playing a piece more than once.

On the important subject of drummers, there is one positive prejudice that Bill and I definitely shared. We both regarded Philly Joe Jones as one of the most charming and most difficult of human beings, and also one of the most talented. It was among the unexpected pleasures of working with this material for me to find that the very brief period in 1967 when Joe was for the first time part of Bill's trio had included substantial — and well documented — time at the Vanguard. The bulk of one disc in this set and all of another are given over to some of those performances and, with due respect to several other excellent drummers, including my good friend Jack DeJohnette, these are for me the strongest moments of a very strong compilation.

As a final point, one of the evenings with Philly Joe provides a striking example of the kind of decision-making that was an inevitable part of producing so unorthodox a compilation. May 28, 1967, was a high-energy night at the Vanguard; Evans and Jones were locked into a groove that seemed on a direct line from their adventures together, nine years earlier, as part of the rhythm section for the memorable Miles Davis sextet that included Coltrane and Cannonball. They were playing numbers that I can't recall otherwise ever hearing from Bill Evans: a Charlie Parker favorite, "Star Eyes," and Sonny Rollins's hard-driving "Airegin." But the tape itself was not on their wavelength. It was the only time Mike Harris was to discover after the fact that he had been using defective tape, that several of these burning performances had "dropouts" in the music—momentary but noticeable sound gaps. The faulty tape contained several other one-of-a-kind numbers, the only appearance on these discs of "Haunted Heart," "Little Lulu," and Bill's composition, "Peri's Scope." It is only proper to inform you of these flaws, but you'd probably spot them for yourself.
For the point is that they are there, that I didn't have to debate very long about whether musical merits and rarity warranted including them. (Clearly, one advantage of a situation that's imperfect to begin with is that you don't have to run away from an occasional more
drastic misstep like this.)                                                                   

 © -  Doug Ramsey; copyright protected, all rights reserved; used with permission.

“The evolution of jazz music as a distinct form of creative expression is contained in only eight decades of the 20th century. The maturing of the art of jazz piano improvisation is an index to the astonishing speed of that development. It took less than 40 years, and its main current ran from James P. Johnson through Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans, with Art Tatum standing apart as an unclassifiable phenomenon.

Evans, the last great jazz piano innovator, inherited and expanded the art transmitted through the fountainheads of piano style. He was only 37 years old when he recorded the first of the pieces in this collection. Hines, Wilson, and Powell were still alive in 1966. Indeed, at the age of 62 the protean Hines was rejuvenating and deepening his creativity. His artistic growth continued throughout his life, something he had in common with Evans.

After young Bill Evans got out of the Army in 1954, he became an indispensable sideman and soloist on the New York jazz scene. He recorded his first trio album late in 1956 and little more than a year later had begun to enhance his reputation through brilliant work with Miles Davis. Acting on insights gained from the music of Debussy and other impressionist composers, he enriched his chords beyond those of any other jazz pianist. Comparisons that come to mind are with harmonies that Gil Evans and Robert Farnon wrote for large orchestras and with some of the mysterious voicings of Duke Ellington. Even in his earliest trio work he stretched and displaced rhythm and melody and hinted at modes and scales as the basis for improvisation.

With the 1958 Davis sextet that also included saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, bassist Paul Chambers, and, initially, drummer Philly Joe Jones (replaced before very long by Jimmy Cobb), Evans had enormous influence in determining the course that mainstream jazz follows to this day. Although in his own groups he was to remain within the song form all his life, at this time Evans clearly accelerated Davis's change from a repertoire of popular songs and jazz standards to pieces with fewer chord changes and greater demands on the taste, judgment, and imagination of the soloist.

Davis saw ways of using the pianist's approach to open up and simplify harmonies. By applying modal changes, the two men even transformed a twelve-bar blues, already the simplest traditional jazz form. By 1959, their work together helped lead to the landmark Davis sextet recording, Kind of Blue. (It is fair to say that of important players and writers whose styles were not set before 1960, most developed in the shadow of that album.) Their modal and scalar approach to improvisation profoundly influenced John Coltrane's turn toward fewer harmonic guideposts. Independently, at about the same time, alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman was soloing on melodic lines, which he wrote without key centers, modes, or scales. Taken together, the two methods led to Free Jazz or The New Thing, the avant-garde jazz of the 1960s. The movement did attract a fair number of poseurs enchanted by the idea of playing music without having to know anything about it. Today, most of them are otherwise employed. But Free Jazz also had the beneficial effect of opening the minds of real musicians to new possibilities.

In addition to an overall influence on Davis's musical thinking, Evans also profoundly affected him as a player. In the autobiography, Miles (Touchstone, Simon and Schuster), there is this comment:

"Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall. I had to change the way the band sounded again for Bill's style by playing different tunes, softer ones at first. Bill played underneath the rhythm and I liked that, the way he played scales with the band."

After leaving Davis, Evans invariably employed the trio format. His 1961 recordings at the Village Vanguard in New York City, made with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, exemplified an early pinnacle of his conception of trio playing in which the three instruments often seemed to function as one. He opened improvisational possibilities that pianists have been exploring and developing for more than three decades. Unless a young pianist set out to recreate ragtime and stride or to play outside of harmonic guidelines, he or she is all but certain to work from the Evans legacy. More than just pianists are his inheritors. Players of virtually every melody instrument have absorbed the Bill Evans sensibility, and it can be argued that even drummers play differently because of his rhythmic influence.

Critics often defined Evans's music in terms of romanticism and introspection. This evaluation was reinforced by the sight of him at work, his forehead parallel to the keyboard, seemingly intent on melding with the piano as his spirit entered the instrument. He was the very image of a musician in the depths of concentration — withdrawn, intellectual, painfully lyrical. That is the cliche vision of Evans. It ignores an element as essential to his music as his melodic lyricism and his magical voicings. It ignores time, rhythm, swing.

In the mid-1950s, the muscle, drive, and fire in a pair of performances recorded by Evans had electrified the jazz community. Both were with George Russell. One was "Concerto for Billy the Kid," the other, "All About Rosie." They stand as two of the most intensely swinging statements ever recorded by a jazz pianist. Evans never lost the ability to galvanize audiences with his rhythmic force. In this collection you will hear the lyricist, the creator of deep pools of chords, the master of pointillistic shimmer, the harmonic genius concerned with his trio's performing as an entity — but you will also experience the drive and excitement of an avatar of rhythmic performance. In the master drummer Philly Joe Jones, his colleague from Miles Davis days, Evans had a soul mate in time. Their work together on two of these compact discs is a study in exhilaration and empathy.

The music heard here was captured in the club that had been the scene of Bill's triumphant 1961 recordings. "Captured" is exactly the right word. It was all recorded in secret at the Village Vanguard by Mike and Evelyn Harris — a man and his wife who were, and remain, devoted to the music of Bill Evans.

Born in Manhattan in 1935, Mike Harris was educated at Cornell University and became an optical physicist. In the early Sixties, after serving in the Navy, he moved to Connecticut to work at Perkin-Elmer, a firm specializing in exotic analytical optics. There he was part of the Apollo moon program. He also helped to develop the optical guidance system for the Hubble space telescope. "That was the part that worked," he says, not the notorious failed mirror. He often traveled to New Mexico in the 1970s on Perkin-Elmer projects for the Air Force. He retired in 1990.

Harris is an amateur pianist who started on the instrument at the age of six and as a child studied at the Diller-Quayle School of Music in Manhattan. As a young man, he was inspired by the Emil Gilels recording of the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto and learned to play it. Then he went on to the Rachmaninoff Second. A nine-foot concert grand occupies his living room. He says that he did not have concert-level technique, but just kept working at the concertos until he had them down. For many years Harris has been a student of the playing of Bill Evans. He took a few lessons from John Mehegan, one of the first teachers of jazz improvisation to develop a discrete learning system. In one of the few brief conversations Harris had with Evans, the pianist had recommended Mehegan.

But until 1962, Harris had never heard of Evans. When he finally encountered him, he found an obsession. In a sense, his story typifies the experience of many people who discovered Evans in the early Sixties, although undoubtedly few others took the discovery quite so seriously.

"I liked jazz, but I had kind of gotten away from it. I had records by Chet Baker, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Terry Gibbs, but I was working diligently on classical music in those days. As far as piano goes, I had just never heard anything that convinced me it was the way jazz piano should be done. One afternoon, I was driving into New York on the Cross County Parkway and listening to Billy Taylor's program on WLIB-AM. He played 'Waltz for Debby’ and I said, 'What the hell is that?' I drove immediately to a record store and bought everything of Bill's I could find, which were his first four albums, New Jazz Conceptions, Everybody Digs Bill Evans, Portrait in Jazz, and Explorations. I said, 'Okay, that's it. It's not going to get any better than that.'" The albums, it should be noted, were on Riverside and had been produced by Orrin Keepnews, the man who has assembled this compilation.

"He had it all, the lyricism, the fascinating harmonies, although at the time I had no idea what he was doing. Now I know he was dropping the root for the bass to handle and he was voicing his chords differently, using those principles he had extracted from Debussy, Ravel, and Scriabin. But I didn't know that. All I knew was that he had the great harmonies, he had the melodies, the swing, the touch. That started a lifelong fascination with his music."

Mike and Evelyn Harris at once established a pattern that lasted until Bill died in 1980. For 18 years, whenever Evans was appearing at the Village Vanguard, they were there twice a week. Evelyn, a college teacher with a Ph.D. in sociology from New York University, was Mike's companion in the venture that eventually was to result in The Secret Sessions.

To begin with, however, the Harrises were just ordinary weekend listeners, choosing Friday nights and Sunday afternoons for their Evans expeditions into Manhattan because the audiences, particularly for the regrettably long-vanished tradition of the Sunday matinee, were apt to be smaller, more attentive, respectful. They had quickly decided that Saturday nights were impossible; the Vanguard, Harris recalls, was full of noisy couples on the make. Quiet soon became particularly important, because by 1966 Harris had decided not to let the Evans performances get away.

"If Beethoven or Mozart would suddenly be reincarnated and start playing concerts, someone would sure as hell record everything the guy did. Bill was being recorded once a year, if that, and this incredible music was just going up in the air 363 days out of 365."

Harris says he grew determined to record Evans in part so that he could transcribe the solos for practice, but primarily because he felt a calling to preserve the music. Posted on his wall is a quote from Evans that Harris says summarizes his motivation. It comes from an interview Evans gave in July, 1980, to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:

"I want to communicate a qualitative thing, what I consider to be above the ordinary, outside of ordinary experience. I don't want to reflect all the frustrations or all the rottenness that surrounds us. I really want to capture something else, something very special, communicate that, prove that it exists and let that feeling have some important, maybe spiritual, quality. It has to do with a sense of beauty, but I think once somebody perceives a thing like that, it can change their lives, so that you can say, 'there's something real, and I might as well live with that.’"

Harris asked Max Gordon, the founder and longtime proprietor of the Vanguard, if it would be all right to bring in his Tandberg Model 64 reel-to-reel tape deck, a high-quality, full-sized home recorder that could not be concealed. According to Harris, Gordon shrugged, said he didn't care, didn't think the players would mind, but guessed that the musicians' union wouldn't be too happy about it. Harris recalls Gordon commenting that many people brought in small recorders. He took that observation "as license" and rented a Uher 4000 Report L, a small battery-operated machine used by journalists for interviews. He packed it in an oversized carpetbag and cut a hole for a rented RCA microphone. On a Friday night in the spring of 1966, he and Evelyn arrived at 9 p.m. for the 10 o'clock set and staked out a table in

front of the piano, where he could triangulate the microphone on the bass and the drums. Partly concealed under the table was the makeshift portable recording kit with the volume control preset.

When they listened to the tape later, they found it overloaded, distorted, and recorded at too slow a speed. Adjustments made, on the next try they got a good recording. The band during that engagement included Teddy Kotick, a favorite of Charlie Parker and George Wellington who in 1956 had been the bassist on the first Evans trio recording. Arnie Wise was the drummer. Bill had just returned from Florida, where he spent a few weeks after his father died.

"It was the only time I ever saw the guy look healthy," Harris says. "He'd been playing golf down there and had a tan. He was relaxed and his playing was fantastic."

Evans's health was a constant worry to his friends because it was governed by his drug addiction. There were several chapters to this story, beginning with a heroin habit dating back almost to the start of his career. In the mid-Sixties he finally took an active role in the rescue effort led by his longtime manager, Helen Keane, and with the help of the synthetic drug methadone accomplished a withdrawal from heroin. There was a period of recovery and "normalcy," but by the mid-Seventies the pianist was increasingly involved with cocaine, which Helen considered much more destructive for him. Adding to the tragedy was Bill's awareness of the consequences of his habit and his ability to be articulate about its effects. Without question, drugs led to his early death. Through his nightmarish experiences with pushers, debt collectors, the pain of trying to stop, fear of hassles with the law—the squalid facts of a junkie's existence — his musical ability never flagged, his growth never stopped. The veteran bassist Bill Crow has a story from Bill's Vanguard days of the 1960's.

"I lived in the neighborhood and haunted the place," Crow told me. "Bill's group was wonderful, in all of its incarnations. I saw him one Sunday when his right hand was paralyzed temporarily from a misguided needle. He would dangle the dead hand over the keyboard and drop his forefinger on the keys, using the weight of the hand to depress them. Everything else was played with the left hand, and if you looked away, you couldn't tell anything was wrong. Bill looked so wounded and sad in those days that I passed up a chance to be in the trio for a week in Pittsburgh. I wish he could have lasted longer … he opened up all our ears so much."

When Mike Harris first recorded the trio following the death of Harry L Evans and that Florida respite, Bill was in great shape. Even a piece rooted in his grief reflects that fact.

"Turn Out the Stars" is the second of three themes from a requiem for Harry Evans. Bill first performed it at a Town Hall concert in February of 1966, less than a month before this recording. The piece was loaded with his conflicted feelings about his father and remained one of the emotional high points of his repertoire for the rest of his life.

The results of that first successful evening encouraged Harris to buy his own Uher recorder and a Sennheiser microphone. His subrosa career as Evans's electronic Boswell was underway. He and Evelyn became fixtures at the club through the Sixties and Seventies.

Harris says he remembers saying to his wife on several of those nights, "You know, what we're about to hear is the very best thing happening in the whole world right now."

When he was working on an Air Force project in Albuquerque, Harris learned that Evans was booked into the Vanguard. He concocted a story about having to go home. He flew more than 2000 miles so that he and Evelyn could man their recording post at the table down front, then he went back to New Mexico on Monday morning.

The Village Vanguard is the last of the great old New York jazz places, surviving the Half Note, Eddie Condon's, Jimmy Ryan's, the Royal Roost, the original Birdland, Nick's, Minton's, the Jazz Gallery, Slug's, the Five Spot, and dozens of other clubs. The Vanguard is an underground wedge, a Greenwich Village basement below 178 Seventh Avenue South. It can accommodate about 300 people a night. It has acoustics of unusual purity, good sight lines, and a past that has moved many to suggest that it be declared a National Historical Site. In 1935, when he displaced a speakeasy known as the Golden Triangle, Max Gordon first presented poetry at the Vanguard.

"It was originally one of those real Bohemian hangouts," Gordon told Leonard Feather. "There wasn't much music for the first couple of years — just a piano player." Then, in 1938, he turned the Vanguard's little stage over to an ambitious group of talented young people who called themselves The Revuers. They included Adolph Green, Betty Comden, and Judy Holliday. Their piano accompanist was Leonard Bernstein.

"The Revuers stayed about a year," Gordon said, "and after that we had a lot of folk artists and we began to go in for jazz in the early 1940's."

The club's Monday night jam sessions attracted major players, among them Nat Cole, Earl Hines, Cootie Williams, Charlie Shavers, Vic Dickenson, and Dizzy Gillespie, a young trumpeter who also spent a good deal of time uptown helping to develop what came to be known as bebop. For much of the Forties, the house trio was Eddie Heywood, Zutty Singleton, and Jimmy Hamilton, playing for dancing and all those visiting musicians. Still, jazz took a secondary place to comedy, cabaret, folk, and popular music until the mid-1950's, when Gordon decided to "refresh the whole entertainment setup." By that, he meant bringing in the greatest players in modern jazz.

Through the rest of the century, the best jazz musicians in the world have performed regularly at the Village Vanguard. Because of the empathy, knowledge, and attentiveness of the audiences, Gordon's congeniality, and the club's friendly acoustics, it was an ideal place to record. Some of the finest performances of the era were put on tape there by dozens of musicians including Sonny Rollins, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie in a series of Sunday afternoon jam sessions — and Bill Evans with the trio that for many listeners defined his art.

With Scott LaFaro and Paul Motion, Evans achieved a unified musical thinking and singleness of purpose that in many respects was never matched by his subsequent groups, which in no way minimizes Bill's later efforts or the individual achievements of several trio members. LaFaro, who died in a car crash in July of 1961 (less than two weeks after the trio's classic Vanguard recordings), was taking the jazz bass in a new direction. Working on cues from the playing of Charles Mingus, he was making the instrument an interior voice, a commentator, a Greek chorus, and a full partner, not just a member of the rhythm section. He was moving into a realm beyond timekeeping and beyond the solo role created by Jimmy Blanton and continued by Ray Brown and Oscar Pettiford. He inspired a generation of bassists, and he perfectly fit what Evans had in mind. The pianist was devastated by his sudden death. "Musically everything seemed to stop," Bill told Martin Williams. "I didn't even play at home."

When he did start performing again, it was alone. Not until months later did he hire another bassist. Chuck Israels did not have LaFaro's meteoric technique, but his solid musicianship and aggressiveness fulfilled Evans's requirement for a bassist who could participate in the essential three-way conversation. After Israels, he worked temporarily with several bassists, including Teddy Kotick, before Eddie Gomez, who is on all but the first evening represented here, joined the trio in 1966. Eddie became the bassist who worked longest with Evans, and during his 11-year tenure, they developed a rapport that made the most of his abilities to solo and to merge into Bill's trio esthetic. Although Gomez once said it took him three years to feel comfortable working with a man he had idolized for years, his playing throughout this collection demonstrates his suitability for the most challenging bass assignment in jazz. These later trios may have lacked the synchromesh subtlety of the LaFaro-Evans-Motian group, but they had Gomez's strength, and a degree of communication between piano and bass that approached extrasensory perception.

Mike Harris is unsure whether Evans knew he was being recorded in the club. The two shy men talked, but not often and not long, and neither raised the subject. "I think in over 15 years he might have noticed," Harris says. "We were always toting this rather large, rather heavy hag, and I figured that at some point he would just look at us and say, 'I know what the hell you're doing/ but it didn't come up."

It did come up years later during negotiations with the Evans estate for the release of the Harris recordings. The respected music business lawyer Bill Traut served as Harris's representative in three years of dealings with the family, the attorney for the estate, and the several record companies to which Evans had been under contract during the Sixties and Seventies. Ultimately, Fantasy acquired the tapes under arrangements that respect the rights of everyone involved.

One late-arising problem came with the realization that only one set of tapes existed, with no duplicate safety reels. The material was in Connecticut; Fantasy is in California, and the company was understandably more than reluctant to entrust this cargo to any impersonal form of commercial shipping. The eventual solution came when Keepnews volunteered to fly from San Francisco to take possession of the tapes and serve as their courier. This included the ceremonial transfer of a tape-filled metal case in a New York hotel lobby, lacking only a set of handcuffs attaching the case to the producer's arm to pass as a scene from a Hollywood spy thriller. Back at the Fantasy studios, the combined job facing Keepnews and Fantasy engineer Joe Tarantino was formidable: listen to and evaluate countless hours of several editions of the Bill Evans trio; select eight Compact Discs worth of appropriate performances based on considerations of musical and technical quality, repertoire, personal preference, and instinct; and then apply digital technology to bring the amateur recordings up to the highest quality level possible under the circumstances. In his Producer's Note (...), Keepnews expands upon the challenges and choices involved in this arduous task and other aspects of the Secret Sessions project.

Nearly all of the songs Evans performs in this collection were staples of his repertoire. "Very Early," "Waltz for Debby," "Autumn Leaves," "Who Can I Turn To," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "'Round Midnight," "Turn Out the Stars," "Blue in Green," "Time Remembered," and the magnificent "Nardis" were core pieces. "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" came and went in the Evans book. There is a generous sampling of other songs he played more rarely. Bill seems to have accommodated some selections to his special relationship with Philly Joe Jones. "I'll Remember April" is in that category, along with "Star Eyes," "Airegin," and "You and the Night and the Music" (which was the lead track on the unique 1962 Evans quintet album, Interplay, with Philly Joe, Jim Hall, Freddie Hubbard, and Percy Heath). "Easy Living" was on his first Riverside LP, but he did not often play it. "Little Lulu" and "California Here I Come" may have been on Bill's mind in 1967 because he had just recorded them for Verve. Similarly, Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance" was a part of his 1974 MGM album Left to Right, recorded around the time of this rare live performance of the tune. "Sugar Plum" and "Mornin' Glory" were on 1971's The Bill Evans Album, his only trio LP for Columbia.

A few words about the sidemen, and their post-Evans activities:

Teddy Kotick was inactive through most of the 1960s and 70s, but worked and recorded with the tenor saxophonist J.R. Monterose in the late Seventies. He died in 1986 at the age of 57.

After Eddie Gomez left Evans in 1977, he became a part of the group called Steps Ahead and worked with Jack DeJohnette, Hank Jones, JoAnne Brackeen, and others. He has also recorded under his own name, sometimes in projects emphasizing his virtuosity.

Philly Joe Jones worked again with Evans for a year in the late 1970s, toured with pianist Red Garland, and in the early Eighties led a band devoted to the music of his friend and associate, the arranger Tadd Dameron. He died in 1985.

Arnie Wise, Evans's drummer during 1966, was with the trio when Verve recorded the Town Hall concert. Later, he recorded with singer Helen Merrill and vibraharpist Dave Pike.

Drummer Joe Hunt, a veteran of George Russell's sextet, worked briefly with Evans and spent many years in New York before he moved back to his native Boston in the 1990s.

Jack DeJohnette, except for Jones the best known of the drummers here, followed a notable stint with Miles Davis by leading several versions of his own band, Special Edition, and more recently has served as a member, along with bassist Gary Peacock, of Keith Jarrett's celebrated all-star "Standards" trio.

John Dentz worked with Stan Getz and Mose Allison, recorded with Art Pepper, and was the drummer with Supersax as recently as 1986. He lost his hearing and is no longer active in music.

Earlier in his career, Marty Morell had played with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and recorded with Red Allen, Gary McFarland, and Steve Kuhn. He was Evans's regular drummer from 1968 to 1975. Based in Toronto since 1974, he works as a studio percussionist and has recorded with Rob McConnell's Boss Brass and with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler.

Eliot Zigmund was the trio's drummer during Evans's last two years with Fantasy Records and the beginning of his final Warner Bros, period. He has recorded in recent years with Michel Petrucciani, a leading pianist among the legions inspired by Evans. Zigmund devotes much of his time to teaching.

It is impossible to know whether Bill Evans would have agreed to release of the Harris tapes, but in that Canadian interview a few months before he died, he made three observations that addressed the general proposition of unauthorized taping and of the contrast between live club performances and studio recordings.

"You're never going to hear on record what you may hear live," he said. "Our best performance is gone into the atmosphere. We never have really gotten on record that special peak that happens fairly often. And there's just nothing like that physical contact [with an audience]."

Evans made it clear that he did not approve of recording musicians unawares, but he talked about one instance in which he was not entirely sorry that it had happened. The occasion was Columbia's taping in 1958 of the Miles Davis quintet in an afternoon performance at New York's Plaza Hotel during a party for Columbia executives.

"We had no idea that it was being recorded, and of course the sound was not at a high level. But I'm happy about it simply because it's the only Miles recording with me and Philly Joe. See, we had a particular thing going with Paul [Chambers] and Philly and me together as the rhythm section. I play differently with Philly. You can hear the rhythmic things that happened, the laid-back feeling and all; that I didn't get with Jimmy Cobb because he's a different kind of drummer. So, it's interesting from that standpoint."

Bill was asked if he was reluctant to do live broadcasts for fear of their being taped and released as bootleg recordings. His answer disclosed a degree of resignation.

"No, with little cassette recorders and all, there's no control. There are quite a few black market records out in Europe."

These CDs are not black market records. The man who taped the music has strong feelings about its release.

"I just refuse to feel guilty about it," Mike Harris says. "I know I perhaps should, but I think what i did was a public service. Michel Petrucciani put it well. He once said, 'Bill Evans was God on Earth,' and that's the way I felt. I'm glad this music will be heard."

The last time Mike and Evelyn Harris heard Evans at the Village Vanguard was in June of 1980, and something unusual happened. He came to their table and volunteered that he would play "Time Remembered," a particular favorite of theirs and a piece they had often requested.

"He was saying his goodbyes to a lot of people," Harris says. "He knew he had a short time."

Bill Evans died on September 15,1980. He was 51 years old.”


  1. An excellent tribute to Evans and his music. Thank you.

    1. I think the thanks go to you, Mike. Without you, this post wouldn't exist.


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