THE BILL EVANS WEBPAGES
: "Moonbeams" review


BILL EVANS TRIO -"Moonbeams"

 

Bill Evans- Piano
Chuck Israels- Bass
Paul Motian- Drums

Recorded May 17, 29, and June 5, 1962 at Sound Makers Studio in New York City

Produced by Orrin Keepnews



by John Vallero


For devout followers of pianist Bill Evans, the date June 25th has become
something of a Holy Day. It was of course on that day in 1961 that an
Evans- led trio, featuring Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums,
concluded a two- week engagement at New York’s Village Vanguard by
recording the entire day’s output. The initial hope was that a live
record could be milked from the notoriously particular Evans, who, in an
era when prominent jazzmen were releasing as many as five and six LPs a
year, had recorded a total of four albums as a leader since 1956. But
there were far better reasons for assembling the mobile two- track that
Sunday afternoon.

From its inception in the fall of 1959, it had been almost immediately
perceptible to those paying attention that this was not your ordinary jazz
piano trio. Two stellar records, Portrait in Jazz and Explorations, had
charted the development of something unique brewing between these three
musicians. Rather than providing a blanket for individual meandering, the
delicate interplay shared by this triumvirate began to take on a feeling
of collective, simultaneous improvisation, with the soloist barely
discernible from the accompanist. The hours spent coaxing their
instruments and minds into arriving at the same destination had begun to
bear fruit, and it was in that Greenwich Village basement that it now
seemed as if anything and everything was possible for this group.
Together they had reached a new level of creative unity and artistic
beauty that few, if any, improvising bands could hope to match, and it was
still only the beginning. Ten days later, however, Scott LaFaro was
killed in a car accident, and what had seemed so attainable on that Sunday
in June was now gone forever.

The news of the bassist’s death devastated Evans on both a personal and professional level, to the point where he avoided playing the piano, even
in private settings, for several months. Musically, picking up where he had left off, sans the spark that had driven him, was a daunting task.

The trio had been propelled by Evans’ romantic lyricism and divine touch just as much as it had been by LaFaro’s rich sustain and explosive fills.

Finding a replacement on the same wavelength was simply not doable. When
Bill and Paul Motian reconvened some six months later for a series of club
dates, a young man named Chuck Israels was in the bass seat. In Israels,
the band had not necessarily found someone to pick up where LaFaro had
left off, as much as a new, individual voice- one that was sympathetic to
the intimacy and balance that Evans was striving for.

By springtime of the following year, the group had coalesced to the point
where it felt comfortable to make a record. Evans’ mastery of the ballad
form was already well established, yet he had never attempted anything
close to an all- ballads program in the studio. Following producer Orrin
Keepnews’ suggestion that a second, more bop- oriented record be recorded
simultaneously to avoid any languidness, the “second trio” produced two
records over three studio dates, the up- tempo How My Heart Sings and
Moonbeams. The latter remains among the most personal and important works
in the entire Bill Evans catalog.

Evans’ lush, urban romanticism had become a defining quality of his work,
dating back to his time spent with Miles Davis. When Bill played, it was
as if the piano was truly singing. Under his pliant touch, melodies took
on a life of their own, soaring upwards, with exquisitely chosen notes
rising and holding for just the right amount of time before falling
earthward like burning stars. Indeed, nobody before or since has handled
a ballad like Mr. Evans, and every second of Moonbeams showcases this
extraordinary talent.

The soft, droning left- hand chords of the Evans original, “Re: Person I
Knew” (a quirky anagram of the name Orrin Keepnews) establish the pensive,
late- night mood that comes to permeate the entire album. Beginning with
a loose, unaccompanied piano statement (on an out- of- tune, somewhat
“dead” sounding instrument which is present throughout the entire record)
before sliding into a limber, smoothly swirling structure, this tune
proved to be the ideal vehicle for drawing in both performers and
listeners, surely a reason why it would become one of Evan’s most oft-
requested compositions throughout the next two decades. On this cut,
LaFaro’s absence is instantly noticeable. Though the group interacts
well, there is little question of who is in charge. It is Evans, playing
with a muscular rhythmic quality unlike anything he had done before, that
carries the performance through each phase.

Though he had always been the driving creative force behind the bands
bearing his name, it wasn’t until Moonbeams that Bill Evans sounded like a
full- fledged leader. On earlier trio LPs, LaFaro’s roaring presence had
often been so significant that Evans’ piano became more of an
impressionistic collage, rather than a leading voice. But comparisons
between the two groups are inane and unnecessary. What cannot be denied,
however, is that the piano was the unquestionable limelight of this new
trio. With Israel’s more reserved and spacious style, along with Motian’s
ever-sensitive rain- like brushwork, Evans was able to inject a sense of
firmness into his ballad playing, while still retaining his signature
tenderness. In the LPs original liner notes, Joe Goldberg, commenting on
the achievement of this difficult balance, described Evans’ playing as
having “the delicate strength of silk thread.”

While the rhythm section maintains a slow, luscious throbbing, that “silk
thread” pushes the album along through its dream- like state. As the trio
makes its way through a suite of gorgeous re- workings of standard tunes,
it becomes less and less apparent that a jazz group is actually
responsible for this feeling of serenity. Indeed, if one closes their
eyes it seems as if they have been overtaken by a swell of foamy pink
clouds that float lazily through the sky. Very rarely does Evans pierce
through this effect by reaching for the keyboard’s utmost registers. On
this record, the majority of his playing is done with full, intricately
locked hands around middle C. When his lead line does extend upward, it
is only in brief, rippling movements, as on the sparkling melodic tweaking
he applies to “It Might As Well Be Spring.” It was through this unique
application of slower tempos and long, contemplative solos on jazz and
popular song forms that the trio was able to, in some sense, surpass the
realm of a jazz group, and enter into the world of improvised chamber
music.

Following the six covers, the record concludes with “Very Early,” another
gem from the pen of Evans. Written as a college assignment when the
pianist was not yet twenty years old, this moderate ¾ waltz showcases the
often-overlooked compositional brilliance of Bill. Like practically every
other piece of music that he conceived, “Very Early” was smart, logical,
scientific, and intensely rich, both melodically and harmonically. Though
he had waited close to fifteen years for the piece to make its recording
debut, Evans would return to the tune often throughout the remainder of
his career, but usually at far more rapid pace that never would have
worked in the context of Moonbeams.

For the better part of a century, the legacies of musicians have been
preserved through the recordings that they made. With more than four
decades of hindsight, it seems almost as if a record such as Moonbeams was
made specifically to define the dynamic artistic legacy of Bill Evans for
later generations. Despite his tremendous faculty and comfort with
blistering tempos, Evans’ reputation will forever be tied to his
unparalleled mastery of the ballad, a talent on full display throughout
this recording. Today we can view this record as a documentation of the
very essence of its main creator. It is intense, intelligent, romantic,
beautiful, and tragic all at once. But in 1962 it was just a step in the
right direction for a group trying to discover its own voice. It is a
unique and noteworthy achievement in either sense.

 

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