To say that the cover is the most striking thing about this album is not to put it down — it’s one of the greatest covers in jazz history, with its excellent album name, its beautiful colors, and its perfect typography showing off laudatory quotes about pianist Bill Evans, from such experts as Miles Davis (in whose sextet Evans had been playing), George Shearing, Ahmad Jamal, and Cannonball Adderley. It was only 1958, and album art really never got any better than this.
But as cool as the cover is, the music inside is even cooler. This was Evans’ second record as a bandleader, and he just flat-out cooks, burning through classic songs and beautiful originals alike. Some tracks are glacial and cool, like “What Is There to Say?”, and others, like “Oleo”, are uptempo swingers. But Evans’ technique is so original and accomplished that the whole record holds together with no problem at all. The best example of this, perhaps in his whole career, is “Peace Piece”. Originally based on a Leonard Bernstein composition, this crystalline piano solo evolved into a modal song that is about as close to perfect as anything ever recorded. Evans takes his sweet time building up a gentle tension before bursting out with a series of aggressive filigrees that resolve just as quickly into the ether. The template for Miles Davis’ modal classic, Kind of Blue, (which Evans inspired, played on and wrote liner notes for) can be found right here in seven perfect minutes.
Of course, Evans is extremely fortunate in his choice of collaborators. Sam Jones’ bass work manages to be both majestic and good-humored on “Tenderly”, and he undergirds the cooking session on opener “Majority” with his usual aplomb. And one cannot ever say enough wonderful things about Philly Joe Jones, one of the best drummers who ever hit a skin. To hear his Latinate opening tattoos at the beginning of “Night and Day” is to understand what jazz music is all about, and he provides great support on the slow numbers as well.
But why are we talking about a really good jazz album from 1958, now, in 2007? Because Orrin Keepnews, the producer of the original session, has been asked to pick some of his favorite records in connection with a re-issue project. (Other titles in the series include records by Thelonious Monk, Flora Purim, and Wes Montgomery). Keepnews contributes a fascinating essay here about the circumstances of this album’s creation, and his notoriously tempestuous relationship with Evans. It makes the entire package really come together, and gives people who already love this record a good reason to get it all over again.