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Columns > Patrick Buzby

Published: 2003/11/28
by Patrick Buzby

The Village Vanguard Sessions

A few weeks ago, I scanned my vinyl collection
searching for a suitable aural diversion, in a
rare-of-late instance of having some time on my hands
and nothing to which I had to listen. The thought
came to mind to check out some Bill Evans, but,
through some mental misfire, I intended to grab one of
the 70’s ‘twofer’ reissues of his early recordings
(Peace Piece and Other Pieces) and ended up placing
one disc of another one (_The Village Vanguard
Sessions_) on the turntable instead. Rather than
replacing it, I decided to keep listening, and to try
to get something out of examining this set for usage
in this month’s column.
The Village Vanguard Sessions is one of those records
that have been staring at me, with the
suit-and-tie-clad Evans’s doleful gaze against the
brown backdrop of the cover photo, since I started
listening to jazz as a kid. Unlike a few records that
some might consider more complex (Ornette Coleman’s
Shape of Jazz to Come, for instance), these 1961
Vanguard performances stubbornly resisted revealing
their secrets to me for many years. Whereas the
appeal of the Peace Piece set lies in the young Evans
laying out some unusually exuberant piano work over a
hard-bopping rhythm section (bassists Sam Jones and
Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones), _the
Village Vanguard Sessions_ is heavier business. Not
heavy enough to keep one of the original releases from
that date from becoming one of the top sellers in that
label’s reissue series, but heavy for me nonetheless.
The first roadblock lies in the fact that the
majority of the Vanguard program consists of
standards. Intimately familiar to Evans, his cohorts
of the night (bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul
Motian), and most other jazz musicians and listeners
of the day, they were a foreign language for a native
rock listener such as myself. Listening to many cuts
on this set this month brought back memories of
plunking through pages of the Real Book (the
melody/chord change reference manual for jazz players)
on the piano, or searching for vocal versions of these
tunes, to get acquainted with the fundamental melodies
which the trio circumnavigated on this night. The
melody readings seemed more literal on these new
listens, but I could still sense the deep
introspection that characterized Evans’s playing in
those years, an introspection that led to beauty
(probably the main reason for those sales) but that
lets his playing slip away from the listener without
directed effort.
What makes this record most worth bringing up in the
jamband forum, though, is Scott LaFaro’s bass playing. As the liner notes to this set explain, Evans had a
notion of creating a more conversational mode of trio
playing, and he found an able accomplice in LaFaro.
Chopsy, adventurous, sometimes described as arrogant,
LaFaro takes a position at the front lines of the
music much as Phil Lesh and Jack Casady would a few
years later. On some cuts, it sounds as though Evans
and LaFaro are completing one another’s sentences, in
others as if they are spurring each other towards an
exalted exclamation. Aside from his playing, LaFaro’s
two compositions (‘Gloria’s Step’ and ‘Jade Visions’)
point towards a school of impressionistic,
asymmetrically-constructed jazz writing that would
flourish by the decade’s end. Something I only
noticed this month, and which had never been remarked
upon before to my knowledge, is that ‘Jade Visions,’
the final track of the set, stops abruptly, without
the dutiful applause that ends the other cuts.
This Vanguard date marked the last time Evans and
LaFaro played together – days later LaFaro was killed
in a car accident. Listening to this set now, it
seems as though a great deal of records, including
much of Evans’s subsequent music, most piano-trio jazz
and much of the ECM label’s output, amount to an
attempt to imagine what could have come after those
final notes. This was the case even after the age of
standards receded into the past, after Evans started
coming out of his shell (check out the aggressive
‘Gloria’s Step’ with Eddie Gomez’s bass on the 1973
Tokyo Concert), and even after some ECM types tried
altogether different instrumentations. (Gary Burton
and Ralph Towner, for instance, paid homage to Evans
in 1974 with vibraphone and 12-string guitar.)
It may take some time before I return to _the Village
Vanguard Sessions_, but I feel confident that when that
next listen arrives, my perspective will be different
again. The chance to find, develop and report on
these perspectives is what keeps me in the listening
and reviewing business.

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