One of the big surprises from the third Record Store Day celebration this year came from the good folks at Resonance Records: a previously unreleased live recording of the great Bill Evans from 1968. This show is fascinating as it is one of the rare recordings of Evans with long time bassist Eddie Gomez and the legendary Jack DeJohnette — they only played together for about six months.
Prior to these recent releases, there was only one document of this trio in the entire Bill Evans catalog. In fact, Bill Evans at The Montreux Jazz Festival won the artist his second Grammy award that year.
Over the past several years Resonance Records has unearthed previously unknown live and studio sessions by this scantily documented but legendary trio. If you missed my earlier review of the studio recordings as recorded by the equally legendary Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer of the MPS label, please click here.
Some Other Time: The Lost Session From The Black Forest is a fabulous release. Also from this period Resonance issued Another Time which was recorded by Netherlands Radio Union in Hilversum. All of these releases very much set the stage for Bill Evans Live at Ronnie Scott’s.
An instant classic, Bill Evans Live at Ronnie Scott’s sounds quite wonderful in all its natural, monaural ambient-but-up-front glory made from a tape recorded by DeJohnette and taken from his personal archive. In appreciating this recording, it is both fascinating (and important) to take a big step back to consider how it was made. This will help you appreciate just how good it sounds all things considered.
You see, DeJohnette pretty much found a sweet spot on the stage and the club that would allow him to capture Evans’ piano and Gomez’ bass without being overwhelmed by his drumming and yet still capture the vibe of venue. And it was positioned so he could obviously control the tape machine and change tape reels as needed.
In the liner notes during an interview with no less than Chick Corea, DeJohnette explains the technique:
“We played at Ronnie’s like for a month; the trio played every night of that. I was recording it with what was, at the time, a hip recorder. I stuck the microphone in the piano near Eddie’s bass and it recorded the piano, bass and the drums leaked in, and Bill was really stretching. But playing there a month is why it was so good.”
I am guessing that Mr. DeJohnette’s “hip recorder” of the time was one of those nifty portable Uher reel-to-reel units like Frank Zappa used to document many of his shows (or perhaps a Nagra). Whatever it was, the unit gave him enough control to get a good sounding document of what the band was doing.
These tapes are not perfect from an audiophile perspective but that should not sway you from buying this if you love Bill Evans’ music because ultimately it is about the performances. There are several moments where the microphone is overtaxed into distortion (usually by the drums, not surprisingly) but in general the sound quality is quite remarkable. Again, this is for a recording made with one microphone sitting in a piano in 1968! You might hear some drop outs every now and then, again not surprising for 50-plus year old tapes
Ronnie Scotts sounds like it was a very intimate club. Perhaps it was undersold some nights but at times it sounds at times like there are 20-30 people there, which is a bit mind numbing when you consider Evan’s stature in the jazz universe some 50 years after this recording.
Some of my favorite tracks on this so far include “Someday My Prince Will Come,” the timelessly tender “Waltz For Debby” and the sublimely swinging “Very Early.”
Speaking of swing, this recording brilliantly captures the Evans-DeJohnette interplay, so listen for his inimitable swagger. Its that simultaneously tight-loose combination, in the pocket yet instinctively outside when appropriate. This texture lifts Evans considerably and the connection between trio is palpable as they react to — and play off of — one another.
Pressed at RTI on dead quiet, thick black 180-gram vinyl and mastered by Bernie Grundman, Bill Evans Live at Ronnie Scott’s is a grand package with strong attention to quality control details. The album features many previously unreleased photos and exclusive interviews in the LP sized booklet. And then there is the fantastic cover design featuring a previously unpublished painting by the legendary David Stone Martin. The album’s layout was modeled after one of the classic Clef/Norgran/Verve Records albums from the 1950s!
Bill Evans Live at Ronnie Scott’s is an important release for 2020. No doubt, if you love Bill Evans, you’ll want to get this one. 7,000 copies were made so you should be able to find a copy out there. You can click on the title anywhere in this review to get it via Amazon. Or, try to find it from your favorite independent record store.
What a great way to wind up 2020 with a terrific Bill Evans album. Bravo Resonance Records!