You can’t talk about Bill Evans, especially in the early ’60s, without talking about Scott LaFaro. LaFaro died tragically in a car accident just ten days after he, Evans, and drummer Paul Motian made their famous recordings at the Village Vanguard. Evans was distraught by the news. There are claims he didn’t touch his piano for months. He did eventually make a few sideman appearances. He made a record with guitarist Jim Hall. He began to dig into music again after the loss of his close musical companion.
But it wasn’t until Spring 1962 that he reassembled the trio with Motian and new bassist Chuck Israels. Evans had known Israels since the bassist was attending Brandeis and playing with several bands. The new trio tightened up over some quiet shows and then finally joined Orrin Keepnews in the Riverside studios to cut a record. But a strange thing happened. They cut two records. Keepnews wanted the trio to make an all-ballad record, but figured recording just ballads might be a bad idea.
So the band cut 16 tracks, vacillating between ballads and more up-tempo numbers. The results were two excellent albums. The first was the ballad-based and beautifully bittersweet Moonbeams. The second is this gem, How My Heart Sings!, now reissued by the Concord Music Group. If LaFaro’s memory hangs understandably over Moonbeams, then How My Heart Sings! sounds — from the title on down — like more of a celebration.
The band is in fine form throughout. Motian handles the sticks and brushes like a true impressionist, dancing around the structures, giving us a faint glimpse of them but never giving away the whole thing. Evans is, as usual, surprising in his melodic variety and skill, and the pure lightness of his playing his is striking from moment to moment. He and the band shift time signatures, often mid-song, seamlessly, and the whole album glides at its own lively yet peaceful pace. Israels, meanwhile, never tries to imitate LaFaro here, and that is just one of his charms as a bassist on this record. One of the great tensions in this band was always between the subtlety of Evans’s piano work and LaFaro’s more aggressive basslines. Israels brought his own style to these records, and though it does have its own sort of aggression, it’s not LaFaro 2.0. Instead, this is a new dynamic, nearly every bit as strong as the “classic” trio.
Israels also doesn’t hide in these tracks. He takes “Walking Up”, away with a wonderful back and forth with Evans to close the tune and you can hear in his playing what Evans describes in the notes as the bassist’s “bright moving pulse.” His opening to the Gershwin classic “Summertime” conveys all the heat and sweat and slow joy the title implies, and makes an oft-recorded song, amazingly, distinct, laying a new ground for Evans’s piano to skitter across. The three players gel well in their version of Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way”. Israels may step out once more, using thumping solos to carve out space in the shuffling track, but it’s when the band works together, when Evans lets a few chords trickle into the solo, when Motian snaps on the snare, that the song really pops. Other songs, like the title track, a song written by composer and Evans’s favorite Earl Zinders, the band shifts time signatures — from 4/4 to 3/4 and back again — effortlessly, building a playful tune that always feels more than it thinks.
How My Heart Sings!, and its companion record Moonbeams, are not returns to form, but continuations of the excellence Evans and his trio established on earlier, more famous recordings. There are some unreleased takes here, to give you perspective on tunes like “In Your Own Sweet Way”, but the event here is simply revisiting a great album. Yes, you feel the loss of LaFaro in these recordings, but to dwell on that is to miss the excellent playing of another bassist and the gelling of a new version of one of the great jazz trios of all time. Even at its most upbeat, there is something bittersweet about these tunes, but they are also the sound of Evans rising out of grief, honoring his bandmate and friend not by looking back, but by pushing forward.