Over his 23-year recording career as a headliner, the great jazz pianist Bill Evans visited the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires only twice, playing a total of three shows. Two of them are captured on Morning Glory and Inner Spirit. Incredibly, though they happened six years apart, in 1973 and 1979, they were both recorded by the same sound engineer, Carlos Melero.
The shows have been widely bootlegged over the years, but before his death in 2021, Melero turned the original tapes over to the Evans estate, managed by Evans’ son. In conjunction with the nonprofit label Resonance Records, the concerts have finally received an official release in the form of these two double albums, the vinyl versions of which were Record Store Day exclusives.
Historically and for Evans aficionados, these are vital releases. They capture Evans at two distinctive points in his later career, fronting each of his two final trios. Melero recorded the concerts straight off the soundboard, so the quality has always been quite good. The sound has been cleaned up for these official releases, so while occasional tape hiss makes its way through, the overall fidelity is about as good as one could ask for.
Along with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, Evans is one of only a handful of bebop-era musicians whose aura has continued to grow and still accompanies them, fully-formed, wherever they go, with every archival release, reissue, or retrospective. That lends an undeniable gravitas to releases like Morning Glory and Inner Spirit, but there is a catch. Each album comes with not one but several accompanying essays. Everyone from jazz historians to the four surviving musicians to Melero himself lends their perspective. The reverence surely is due, but the compounding effect threatens to overwhelm the music before one even hears it.
But the music holds up on its own. There is not a lot one can say about Evans’ playing that hasn’t already been said and often said well. It is mostly subtle and incredibly nuanced, to the point where some have called it “minimalist”. It’s as if, somehow, the entirety of Evans’ rich yet tragic life comes through in every note he plays. Perhaps friend and fellow pianist Richie Bierach puts it best when he says, “Bill’s always playing a ballad, even if it’s up-tempo… Bill made you think he was playing right to your ear. It was personal.”
That’s the case with both of these releases, tape hiss and all. The repertoires include a wide and representative mix, with Evans originals like “Turn Out the Stars” and “Waltz for Debbie”, well-known titles such as “I Loves You, Porgy” and “My Romance”, and interpretations of popular music like Bobbie Gentry’s “Mornin’ Glory” and the M*A*S*H theme.
There are also some lesser-known surprises. Morning Glory includes a wonderfully placid take on “Esta Tarde Vi Llover” by Mexican romantic composer Armando Manzanero as well as Evans’ own relatively experimental “Twelve Tone Tune”. One of the highlights of Inner Spirit is likely the first-ever recording of the tender and lovely “Letter to Evan”, written for the pianist’s son. The sets are almost entirely different, having only a couple of songs in common. Therefore, one’s preference for one over the other may depend on the track list or the lineup. Morning Glory, recorded at the Teatro Gran Rex on a wintry morning in 1973, features bassist Eddie Gomez and Marty Morell. Inner Spirit finds the final Evans trio, with Marc Johnson on bass and Joe LaBarbera on drums, at the Teatro General San Martín in 1979.
It is difficult not to associate each performance’s general tone and mood with what was happening in Evans’ personal life at the time. In 1973 Evans was in methadone treatment for his heroin addiction and enjoyed the stability that afforded him. He was engaged to Nenette Zazzara, the only woman he would marry. Morning Glory is more relaxed, sometimes to the point where Sanchez and Morell are barely audible, as on the ponderous opener, “Re: Person I Knew”. It contains more upbeat numbers, and the general air of satisfaction is reflected in the encore, an emphatic yet perfectly-controlled take on Victory Young’s “My Foolish Heart”.
Six years later, Evans was again recovering after a bout of cocaine addiction, but his body was breaking down, and he was estranged from Zazzara. His time on Earth was short, and he felt it; the accompanying photos show a man who is gaunt and more pensive than usual. Inner Spirit contains plenty of tenderness, but Evans’ playing is also noticeably more percussive and, on “My Romance”, even aggressive. In “I Loves You, Porgy” and others, he seems especially focused on exploring and extrapolating on his technical skill.
Perhaps some of this difference is also due to the personnel. Fellow pianist Bill Charlap has said, “Bill Evans was an orchestra. You didn’t need any other musicians.” And he was right. Evans’ left and right hands are like two separate instruments or sections. At times it isn’t easy to believe only one pianist is playing. In a sense, Evans’ richness puts pressure on his fellow musicians to “earn” or justify their spaces in the music. Both trios are unquestionably potent, and the virtuosity of all four backing musicians is self-evident. But the chemistry among Evans, Johnson, and LaBarbera is incredibly fluid and effortless. Whereas Gomez plays higher on the neck, even bowing his bass at times, Johnson has a fatter, more grooving sound that fits with Evans’ more visceral playing, while LaBarbera makes full use of his trap kit without overdoing it.
If Morning Glory is sublime, Inner Spirit moves into transcendence. If there were any question, it is settled on the latter’s final track, an absolutely fabulous rendering of Miles Davis’ “Nardis”. For the first seven-plus minutes, Evans plays solo, in the words of pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, “composing in real-time”. Then, after the tune picks up, both Johnson and LaBarbera deliver breathtaking solos. Completists might wish to note this is the only time LaBarbera used mallets instead of sticks on “Nardis”, due to the venue’s acoustics. Inner Spirit also has an air of extra poignancy about it, as Evans succumbed to the ravages of addiction less than a year after its recording.
Evans himself preferred recording in the studio to playing before an audience, and his greatest studio works remain the best place for newcomers to start. But for the many who inevitably wish to dig deeper, Morning Glory and Inner Spirit offer compelling—and officially-sanctioned—examples of one of the true greats at work.