Bill Evans, The Riverside Recordings at 45rpm

For all the stir over newly excavated tapes by Bill Evans (and the stir is justified), the heart of his discography—the stuff for which he's most celebrated now and will likely be for eons to come—beats in the albums he recorded on the Riverside label from 1956–62. This is where "the Evans sound" was minted and nurtured—the lyrical way with a ballad, the sprightly spin on show tunes, the harmonic lushness with an edge, and, at the era's peak, the coining of a new sort of jazz trio: not a piano backed by bass and drums, but three musicians careening off one another as equilateral sides of a triangle.

All 10 of Evans' albums from this period, plus a Cannonball Adderley album featuring him as sideman, are included in a limited-edition boxed set by Analogue Productions—Chad Kassem's audiophile reissue house in Salina, Kansas—mastered at 45rpm (so the 11 albums are spread out on 22 discs).

Kassem released a similar box in 2010, mastered from the original master tapes by Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman, and pressed on 180-gram vinyl in Germany by Pallas. The new set is struck from the same parts but pressed on 200-gram vinyl at Kassem's own QRP plant. I don't have the earlier version, so can't gauge the improvement, if any, that comes from the thicker slabs or the finer machinery (though, judging from other comparisons I've done, I'd guess the QRPs have an edge).

But I will say this: these are, for the most part, extraordinary-sounding recordings, better than any you're likely to find (with one exception, and more on that later). If you love the music, you should consider the purchase, which, depending on your perspective, is very expensive ($600) or in line with market prices for two-disc 45rpm LPs ($54 per title).

The two best albums in the set, by wide consensus, are the pair recorded live, back to back, in July 1961, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby, featuring Paul Motian on drums and Scott LaFaro on bass—the most inventive and agile trio-mates anyone had heard up till then and rarely, if ever, since. (Ten days after the Waltz session, LaFaro died in a car accident at the age of 25.) Just behind those two, and not by very far, is Explorations, a 1960 studio session, with the same trio.

The set's earlier three albums—New Jazz Conceptions (1956), Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1958), and Portrait in Jazz (1959)—are very pleasurable, and each has its moments of greatness (notably the magical modal "Peace Piece" on Everybody Digs); but if Evans had died of an O.D. before the Vanguard dates (a plausible premise, given the heroin habit that started to ravage him three years earlier), we would now regard him as a tragic figure of great but unfulfilled promise.

After LaFaro's death, Evans waited almost a year to record his next album—another trio date, this one in a studio, with Motian again on drums and Chuck Israels on bass. Israels, exactly LaFaro's age, was a very competent but more conventional bassist, and you hear the difference right away. Where LaFaro and Evans formed a collaborative duo, Israels was more an accompanist. As a result, the critic Joe Goldberg astutely observed in his liner notes, Evans was pushed into the role of leader, and, for the first time, he sounds like one—more forceful, energetic, even (when the occasion called for it) swinging than before.

The session produced two albums, recorded within a month of each other: Moon Beams, released in the summer of 1962, and How My Heart Sings, delayed until the fall of '63. Moon Beams has proved more enduring—an album entirely of ballads, many of which ("Re: Person I Knew," "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," "I Fall in Love too Easily," "It Might As Well Be Spring," "Very Early") Evans would play and record many times over his next two decades. Heart consisted entirely of up-tempo numbers, and, while it's a fine album, these songs didn't make much of a stamp on his playbook. Not till later in the decade did he grow comfortable with up-tempo—and, even then, only fitfully.

In between the release of those albums came Interplay, a quintet session—the only time, in his stint with Riverside, that he played with a group larger than a trio and the first time in five years that he played without Motian. It's an all-star band—Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Jim Hall on guitar, Percy Heath on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums—but they don't click. It's the least satisfying album in the whole box.

Evans reverted to the trio format for his last album on Riverside (soon after which the label went bankrupt), a live date, At Shelly's Manne-Hole (the name of drummer Shelly Manne's jazz club in Hollywood), with Israels on bass and Motian replaced by Larry Bunker. It's a moving, melancholic session, but it lacks the combustive energy of the earlier trios.

Finally, there's Cannonball Adderley's Know What I Mean, a quartet date recorded in 1961, a few months before the Vanguard trio sessions, with Evans as sideman along with Percy Heath on bass and Connie Kay on drums. Evans and Adderley had played together in Miles Davis' great late-'50s sextet; Heath and Kay were members of the Modern Jazz Quartet. This is a joyous album—and a rare chance to hear Evans backing a saxophone.

And now we come to the important question: how do these albums sound? For the most part, very, very good. The Cannonball is the surprise of the collection—stunningly well engineered, by Bill Stoddard at Bell Labs. Adderley's piercing tone is hair-raisingly present: maybe the truest alto sax I've ever heard on record.

Going back to the beginning, New Jazz Conceptions, the one mono album in the box, is a bit muffled. Everybody Digs Bill Evans and Portrait in Jazz are more open and dynamic, though imaging is vague, the result either of channel-bleeding or the notion—common in early stereo recordings—that each and every instrument should be split or spread across the soundstage. Explorations, another Bill Stoddard production, marks a big leap forward, very live-sounding except for a vague soundstage. The later, post-LaFaro albums sound very good but aren't quite heart-stoppers.

That description fits the two Vanguard sessions, both miked by Dave Jones and, famously, among the best and best-sounding live jazz recordings ever. And here I'd like to get into some slightly wonky comparisons.

I own two pressings of Waltz for Debby: the 45rpm slabs of QRP vinyl in this box (struck from Gray and Hoffman's 2010 remaster) and an earlier Analogue Productions LP, reissued in 1992, mastered at 331/3rpm by the legendary Doug Sax. Both are brilliant (and way, way better than any CD reissue, including the SACD put out by Analogue Productions). The 45rpm QRP wins for the piano's luster and the overall ambience, but Sax's 33 (which is long out of print) kills when it comes to the snap of the drumkit and the pluck of the bass.

It's not clear why this should be. Both LPs were mastered from the original tapes. It could be that the tapes wore a bit in the 18 years separating Sax's handling from Gray & Hoffman's. But there might be something else going on. Chad Kassem told me that he remembers Sax working on this project for many hours. This suggests that Sax did some tweaking—nothing wrong with that: many tapes need tweaking. The bass and drums are on the left channel; the piano is right-to-center. It's possible (Kassem doesn't remember, and Sax is no longer with us) that Sax goosed the left channel, boosting the level and adjusting the EQ. Whatever happened, the left side sounds more like the way energetically played bass and drums sound live at the Village Vanguard.

Then again, the Analogue Productions' 45rpm QRP of Sunday at the Village Vanguard, which seems to have been recorded with the same set-up, combines the best of both Waltz for Debbys—the lush ambience of the QRP 45 and the brash percussiveness of the Doug Sax 33. So maybe the tape is a factor. That is, maybe, for who knows what reasons, the master tape for Sunday was in better condition than the master tape for Waltz.

Which leads to another puzzle—and another entry in the audiophile sweepstakes. This past summer, Mobile Fidelity released its own 45rpm 2-LP "UltraDisc" pressing of Sunday at the Village Vanguard in a deluxe box that includes photos, separate folders for each disc—a product that looks as expensive as it costs ($100 retail). Like Gray & Hoffman, MoFi's Krieg Wunderlich worked from the original master tapes—and more recently—but MoFi used a "one-step" plating process, which is two steps less removed from the master tape than other processes. (I will leave it to my colleague Michael Fremer to describe the technique involved.)

It's a close call, but the MoFi does sound better than the Analogue Productions, especially on the drums and the bass. Is this due to the one-step process, or did tweaking play a role? I asked Wunderlich, who emailed me, "I recall setting the machines up asymmetrically (left was different than right) in order to get the image to focus." So the different tweaks employed by different mastering engineers does seem to have made some difference.

In any case, all this is a bit academic, since MoFi sold out its entire limited run in pre-orders. (Many of them were bought up by scalpers, so you can now find copies on eBay for $300.) Still, MoFi's John K. Wood tells me more single-step pressings are on their way—perhaps another Evans/Riverside title (depending on the tape quality) and certainly, as already scheduled, Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water, Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, and Donald Fagen's Nightfly. (The Fagen seems an odd choice: it is a great-sounding album, but it was recorded in 3M digital. Was there an analog back-up?) So watch that—and this—space.

Meanwhile, the Analogue Productions boxed set is still for sale from the source, and if you value this music, there's no better way within reach to hear it.

Anton's picture

Thank you for a great survey.

My deal killer for this set is the 45 rpm, itself. I can’t abide the short sides!

How did you feel about the albums’ flow?

NeilS's picture

Aside from the inconvenience and impact on flow of the short sides, perhaps those folks who pre-ordered the set at $600 (over $6.75 per track) are feeling more than a little let down about immediately seeing this set offered by "scalpers" at $300 new on eBay today.

supamark's picture

It's a Mobile Fidelity (MoFi) product that he's talking about selling on ebay for $300, this is a review of the Analog Productions box set.

NeilS's picture

I wonder if it sounds twice as good at twice the price of the MoFi set?

garybx's picture

The $300 MoFi ebay price is for ONE album. This $600 box set is for ALL of the albums.

supamark's picture

I would bet it's tape degredation, here's a link to an interesting interview/article with Bruce Swedien in Sound On Sound (pro audio magazine) discussing recording/mixing Thriller and recording in general. He used to record the percussion, then immediately mix that to another 24 track and store the original tape until mixdown - locking 3 decks together. His technique (and love of Blumlein stereo mic'ing) are interesting.

Also Fred, I'm really enjoying your political writing on Slate but when you gonna review more equipment?

MASantos's picture

I bought this box set a few years ago, for many reasons one of which was it being a limited edition which would make it keep its value.
Fast forward to 2017 and acoustic sounds releases the exact same box set, pressed in house. Same masters, same content.
Where is the limited edition factor here then?
I have no intention of selling mine save for a dire need of money, but it bothers me that one of the top players in the industry doesn't keep abide by its own standards and sales information.

JackA's picture

When I see name like Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman, I begin to laugh. Two Shysters.

Steve Hoffman, rip from vinyl for CD, Yeah, a true audiophile.
Sterephile should know better.