By 1961, Bill Evans was on a roll. The acclaimed jazz pianist was part of the ensemble that played on Miles Davis’ seminal Kind of Blue in 1959 and formed a trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian later that year. The trio released Portrait in Jazz in 1960 and Explorations in 1961. One day later that summer, on 25 June, they played five sets in the afternoon and evening at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The sets were recorded and eventually released as two highly influential jazz recordings, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. But not before tragedy struck.
LaFaro was killed in a car accident only 11 days after those Village Vanguard sets. Evans was understandably paralyzed with grief, unable to play for several months. Anyone who witnessed LaFaro’s fiery bass playing in those final months would have been shocked to know that this immensely talented musician would be taken far too soon at the age of 25. Listening to those two posthumous releases – as well as the first two – one can feel the seemingly unlimited potential LaFaro possessed.
Craft Recordings, the unbeatable reissue label, are known for their eclectic roster of artists, but lately, they have been going full speed ahead with Evans’ catalog. Waltz for Debby was reissued this past July, Evans’ 1975 collaboration with Tony Bennett is being reissued later this month, and last month saw the reissue of Sunday at the Village Vanguard. The new vinyl, part of Craft’s Original Jazz Classics series, produces stunning sound quality, pressed on pristine 180-gram vinyl with all the original artwork. There are no bonus tracks or additional LPs. Slipping this record out of its sleeve and placing it on the turntable will make Evans fans feel like they’ve stepped back in time – only with warmer, higher-quality sound.
Opening with “Gloria’s Step”, a LaFaro composition, the trio slides gracefully into the set. The song is a loose shuffle, with Motian providing a swift, brushed tempo as Evans and LaFaro’s lyrical, often dizzying notes intertwine. It isn’t until George and Ira Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now”, the album’s first standard, does the tempo slide into balladry. The piano and bass notes are suffused with a combination of sadness and wistfulness, and the record’s crisp clarity is tactile. Underneath those elegant notes, you can hear the clinking of glasses and small murmurs of conversation from the Village Vanguard’s patrons. It’s never distracting and not really disrespectful; instead, it conveys the atmosphere of a small, exciting, likely smoke-filled jazz club. The tempo then jumps into high speed with an intense, crackling take on Miles Davis‘ “Solar”, ending the first side.
Evans’ brief solo piano introduces “Alice in Wonderland”, which sees the trio once again visiting standards, as the Sammy Fain / Bob Hilliard composition is from the Disney film of the same name. Motian’s playing is a bit more animated, still on brushes but more playful, with liberal use of cymbals that immerse the listener. Once again, Evans and LaFaro use the song’s ample run time with gorgeous, mesmerizing solo runs. The same jumpy playfulness is shot through Cole Porter’s “All of You”, with Evans incorporating his usual classical motifs, bringing these standards a whole step further than previous versions ever attempted. By that measure, it’s easy to see how later trios led by the likes of Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau were inspired.
Like its opening track, Sunday at the Village Vanguard closes with another LaFaro composition, “Jade Visions”, with an almost funereal tempo giving the song a sense of mystery and foreboding. Evans and LaFaro are locked in expert interplay as Motian provides the necessary rhythmic accompaniment.
Sunday at the Village Vanguard was released in October 1961, mere months after the performances and LaFaro’s untimely passing. The companion release, Waltz for Debby, hit record stores in early 1962. The bright, inventive performances are captured perfectly in these new vinyl releases, and listening to them is an exciting, riveting, and perhaps bittersweet experience, as they caught a unique, influential group of musicians at their peak, never realizing for a second that it wouldn’t last after this one incredible day of music in a small nightclub in the Village.