The most famous version of the Bill Evans trio was this version, featuring Evans’s delicate, precise, emotive piano, Scott LaFaro’s sensitive, deep-listening bass, and Paul Motian’s drums, at once creating rhythm and texture, not just timekeeping as most drummers were charged with at the time. The trio opened up some of the possibilities for how a jazz trio could be structured, eradicating strict barriers between the solos and the background, with each player an equal force in the music, not simply the leader up front with a backing rhythm section and if the style sounds familiar to you, it’s because this trio made it possible for players from Keith Jarrett to Vince Guaraldi to take a similar vibe, with a loose rhythm, and impressionistic, introspective piano chords to create their music.
The Evans/LaFaro/Motian trio recorded only two studio albums before Scott LaFaro perished in an auto accident days after the group recorded a pair of live sessions. The live sessions, released as Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby were quickly prepared to pay homage to LaFaro’s brilliance and his legacy, but for me, as stunning as these albums are, the studio session, recorded a few months earlier, tops even those high water marks. The album opens with a fast tune, “Israel,” that stands as one of the finest recordings of the group, showcasing everything that makes them great – Evans’s startling rhythmic fire (something his reputation as a melancholy, introspective player sometimes obscures), LaFaro’s melodic improvisations that create remarkably sympathetic counter-melodies in perfect synch with Evans’s own improvisations, and Motian’s drumming which, as noted, tended to fill in the mood space of the piece and stick to its mood, not mark off the beat like a human metronome. After “Israel” the group moves into “Haunted Heart” a balance of both the melancholy and lightness that characterize Evans’s playing, and “Beautiful Love,” another uptempo number that shows off the interaction of LaFaro and Evans in fine form. What used to be the first side closes with “Elsa” a much more spacious and introspective work and shows the group at a level of nearly complete collective creation. Side two starts with “Nardis” which, after “Israel,” is probably the highlight of the session and a longtime touchstone for Evans in his career. The middle of the second half again gets introspective with the lighter “How Deep Is the Ocean” and “I Wish I Knew,” another piece in the same mood as “Elsa” before closing with “Sweet and Lovely” an uptempo romp that again shows off both Evans’s rhythmic fire and proves that he’s not only the melancholy master he’s often portrayed as.
While both the pair of studio album and live albums that the group recorded are eminently worthwhile, this one is the one that, for me, shows off their range and talents the best, gives the lie to the perception of Evans as a mood-setter for a downbeat evening. And though he made plenty of music worth hearing throughout his career, this trio remains the touchstone for everything he did. Start here and then work your way outward.
- Patrick Brown