"Bill [Evans] was being recorded once a year, if that," notes Mike Harris, who surreptitiously recorded all of the music found on this revelatory eight-CD collection, "and this incredible music was just going up in the air 363 days out of 365." Thanks to the sheer devotion (obsession?) of Harris, it wasn't. Harris and his wife were always front-and-center at New York's Village Vanguard whenever Evans brought his trio in for a run, tape machine humming. Evans was notoriously reluctant to record, so, moral issues aside, the release of secret Evans recordings carries even more weight than it would for nearly any other jazz musician. Evans always made bold decisions at the piano in terms of chord voicings and rhythmic innovation--these elements are on display across his body of recorded work. On this set, however, the music itself--the nature of the actual notes and chords that he chooses and the resulting "sound"--is often quite bold, as is his expression and execution (touch) of them. Long pigeonholed as a "cool" pianist, Evans even sounds like Bud Powell
at moments! Of course, Evans's amazing beauty and subtlety is in boundless display as well. Spanning 1966 to 1975, the set features the technically stunning Eddie Gomez on bass for all but 8 of the 104 cuts, plus a rotation of seven drummers, each one pushing the music in new directions. Of special note are the nearly two discs' worth of 1967 material with the great Philly Joe Jones at the kit. Dating back to their very brief tenure together in Miles Davis
's late-1950s sextet and also Evans's own albums like Everybody Digs
, the aggressive Jones seemed to inspire the pianist more than any other drummer. Also illuminating is the repetition of favorite numbers throughout the box; to hear Evans reinvent these songs (his own as well as standards) almost every year (if not every month) is nothing short of fascinating.
Like that of any other genre, jazz's history is written primarily by famous recordings, but since jazz is based on improvisation, its recorded history tells a mere fraction of the story. Evans's two classic 1961 Vanguard recordings--Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby--are considered by many to be some of the most wonderful piano-trio recordings in history, yet who's to say the trio (with Paul Motian and Scott LaFaro) didn't improve on them the next day or the next week or even the day before? This collection minimizes that risk, as it were, brilliantly showing the development and progression of a great musician. Evans's genius may be the least obvious of any jazz musician, but it emerges clearly and definitely throughout the course of these eight CDs. "You're never going to hear on record what you may hear live," Evans himself said shortly before passing away. "Our best performance is gone into the atmosphere. We never have really gotten on record that special peak that happens fairly often." Not true, thankfully. --Marc Greilsamer