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Everybody Still Digs Bill Evans: A Career Retrospective (1956-1980)

Ken Micallef digs into a big Bill Evans boxed set….

Concord’s Craft Records imprint is renowned for their excellent CD and LP reissues and frowned upon (by some) for their $100-per-LP, “one-step,” “Small Batch Series,” limited edition vinyl packages. With Everybody Still Digs Bill Evans: A Career Retrospective (1956-1980), Craft returns to what it does best, creating interesting compilations–with a twist. June 25th is the release date for this five-CD set, available for $69.99 preorder from craftrecordings.com. The set includes both familiar material and a previously unreleased live recording of a later period Evans trio.   

Arguably the greatest jazz piano influence of the 1960s, the immediate forebearer of Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, Jacky Terrason, and many others, Bill Evans epitomizes the tortured artist syndrome, the musician as isolated, difficult genius, Evans’ legacy as important to jazz as such equally heroic but troubled musicians as Charlie Parker, Jaco Pastorius, Bix Beiderbecke, and Billie Holiday. Evans’ music still resonates deeply with jazz aficionados today, his passing on September 15, 1980 at age 51, not that distant, and seemingly endless reissues and documentaries keeping his work alive and accessible.

Regardless of recording, Bill Evans’ creativity shines as art, his melding of engrossing melodies, brilliant technique, unique phrasing, and sure swing–coupled to a certain interior darkness—remains rare and rewarding. 

His reissue sales on par with John Coltrane and Miles Davis (whether from domestic sources or sketchy EU labels), Evans’ profound lyricism, lovely compositions, and innovative trios still resound with listeners. Everybody Still Digs Bill Evans: A Career Retrospective (1956-1980) culls from prior Riverside, Milestone, Fantasy, Verve, Warner Bros., and Elektra/Musician CD titles. It’s kind of a primer for those not already in possession of such comprehensive Bill Evans’ offerings as 1991’s 12-CD set, The Complete Riverside Recordings; 1996’s 9-CD The Complete Fantasy Recordings; 1997’s 18-CD The Complete Bill Evans on Verve, and 2005’s The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings. In an era of downloads and streaming, the 60-plus remastered tracks of Everybody Still Digs Bill Evans confirm our fondness for physical product and the public’s endless fascination with Bill Evans.

The 5-CD box set arrives in a beautiful, fabric-wrapped, hard-cover portfolio style book (12” x 10” with a foil-stamped cover). The case feels and looks like velour, a favorite material of ‘60s and ‘70s designers of then-trendy clothes and furniture. The 48-page book features rare photos and liner notes by writer, Neil Tesser, including an overview of the box set’s tracks. Everybody Still Digs Bill Evans was produced by Nick Phillips and includes newly remastered audio by engineer, Paul Blakemore.

Disc one, “Trialogues, Vol. 1,” (not “Triologues”?) partially covers Evans’ trio sides with drummer Paul Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro. The unique interplay and shared sensitivity of this first trio as heard on the Riverside titles, New Jazz Conceptions, Portrait in Jazz, Explorations, Waltz for Debby, and Sunday at the Village Vanguard, still towers above all other Evans’ releases. Where later Evans’ trios seemed to bring out the muscle and flash of his collaborators, seemingly drawing on earlier jazz trio templates, the Evans, LaFaro, and Motian trio created an exceptional way of listening and interpreting which had its ultimate fruition in the roster of Manfred Eicher’s ECM label. The first trio’s thoughtful, deeply empathetic approach, as well as its innate chemistry, is what makes their music so compelling some 60 years later.   

Disc two, “Trialogues, Vol. 2,” focuses on “Evans’ trios from the mid-60s onwards, as he resolved the loss of LaFaro and began collaborating with such sidemen as Eddie Gómez, Eliot Zigmund, Joe LaBarbera, and Marc Johnson,” stated the liner notes. Disc three, “Monologues,” focuses on Evans’ solo performances, including such seminal works as “Peace Piece,” “Waltz for Debby,” and the Miles Davis-penned “Nardis,” which Evans made entirely his own. Evans’ solo work is the next logical destination after you’ve imbibed his major trio recordings.  

Disc four, “Dialogues & Confluences,” highlights Evans’ collaborations with Tony Bennett, guitarist Jim Hall, bassists Eddie Gomez and Marc Johnson, and an excerpt from Marian McPartland’s long-running NPR show. Additional work with Freddie Hubbard, Cannonball Adderley, Toots Thielemans, Zoot Sims, and Lee Konitz round out disc four. 

A newly discovered live 1975 performance by Evans, Eddie Gómez, and Eliot Zigmund from Oil Can Harry’s in Vancouver, BC, makes up disc five, “Epilogue.” Audio restoration by Plangent Processes and meticulous mastering bring you to what sounds like the third row of an intimate club, and the results are masterful. Gomez left, Evans center, Zigmund right, it’s a deeply swinging performance of such gems as “Nardis,” “Blue Serge,” “Quiet Now,” “The Two Lonely People,” plus others. The concert will be available on two 180-gram vinyl LPs as On A Friday Evening. It’s prime Evans in many ways, especially when the pianist plays solo, though it lacks the telepathic synergy and subtlety of the first Evans, LaFaro, Motian trio. For all that’s played by Evans’ later trios, it’s perhaps what’s not played that makes his first trio, to many ears, perfect.      

For those new to Bill Evans or who call themselves completists, Everybody Still Digs Bill Evans: A Career Retrospective (1956-1980) is a worthy purchase.  

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