Written by Bernie Brink
This month, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of two iconic recordings by the Bill Evans Trio, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. On Sunday, June 25, 1961, the trio entered the renowned Village Vanguard for the final day of a two-week stand. Then, Sundays were known to feature the same artist all day long, playing two matinee and three evening sets. On that closing afternoon, the trio was followed in by record producer Orrin Keepnews.
These recordings are groundbreaking in the level of musicianship and interplay on display. Bill Evans’ trio concept was rooted in classical chamber music, his belief that the trio should be a meeting of equals. Rather than the standard arrangements of two rhythm players accompanying a lead voice, Evans’ idea was for all members of the trio to improvise and contribute in equal measure. This visionary concept is evident throughout these recordings, the three musicians in a constant contrapuntal dialogue. Check out the rhythmic exchange between Evans and bassist Scott LaFaro on “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Their collective improvisation is virtuosic in their assured melodic sense. Similarly, drummer Paul Motian is rarely caught playing straight time – don’t let the understated sound of the brushes disguise the inventiveness of his rhythmic contributions!
These recordings are special also because they are the final recordings of this legendary trio; just ten days after those Vanguard performances, LaFaro was killed in a tragic car accident at just 25 years old. LaFaro’s death had a profound impact on Evans, who drifted “like a ghost” for months afterwards. When selecting takes for the album Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Bill Evans made a point of emphasizing LaFaro’s contributions. Thus, LaFaro can be heard soloing on every take, and the album begins and ends with two LaFaro compositions: “Gloria’s Step,” a tune LaFaro wrote for his girlfriend, inspired by hearing her ascend the stairs to her apartment; and “Jade Visions,” a haunting, atmospheric work that was the last song the trio performed that evening.
While the hope had been to capture enough music for a live album, all of the music recorded that day was exceptional. Not only did it lead to the two albums Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby, but everything recorded that day was released in 2005 as The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961, all five sets of music. You can hear these vaunted recordings every Monday on The Key Players and throughout the month on Jazz 93.5 as we celebrate their 50th anniversary.