Revinylization #10: Bill Evans's Live at Montreux

The late pianist Bill Evans may be the most reissued jazz musician in the catalogs of audiophile record labels. There are reasons for that: He played standards, mainly ballads (many audiophiles shun the avantgarde), almost never in groups larger than trios (stereo systems often do best with small-scale ensembles). Whether by design or chance, his best recordings were miked by superb engineers. Perhaps because of that, proprietors of high-end labels have cherished Evans's music with heightened passion.

Chad Kassem's Analogue Productions has reissued most of Evans's albums, some more than once. The pièce de résistance is Riverside Recordings, a limited-edition boxed set of all 11 albums Evans made from 1956–1962, each mastered at 45rpm and spread out on two slabs of 200gm virgin vinyl—22 slabs in all. The highlights of that set are the two masterpieces from 1961, Waltz for Debby and Sunday at the Village Vanguard, both recorded live at that New York jazz club with Paul Motian on drums and Scott LaFaro on bass. Ten days later, LaFaro, one of the most innovative bassists ever, died in a car accident at the age of 25. Evans's subsequent four albums for Riverside have moments of greatness, but they're a mixed bag.

In 1968, near the end of a 5-year stretch with Verve Records, Evans caught fire. He overcame a decade-long heroin addiction, which had deepened after LaFaro's death, and added the final spice to a new trio. Eddie Gómez, who, as he once put it, played bass as if it were a horn, had taken over LaFaro's slot two years earlier. Now Evans found a new drummer: Jack DeJohnette, who combined Paul Motian's subtle polyrhythms with a rocker's propulsiveness. (Miles Davis liked this combination so much that, after just a few months, he hired DeJohnette away for his new rock-jazz fusion band.)

For those few months, Evans's trio brought back the elegiac lyricism of old, infused with a new buoyancy and a driving swing—terms not generally associated with the introspective Evans. It energized his own playing, which in turn egged his bandmates to keep the pressure up.

Evans took the trio to Europe that summer, and when they headlined the jazz festival in Montreux, Radio Suisse Romande taped the concert; it was such a rousing success that Verve released it as an LP. At the Montreux Jazz Festival stands as Evans's best—and best-sounding—post-1961 album. And now Analogue Productions has reissued it, as it did with the Riverside titles, mastered at 45rpm on two discs of its proprietary 200gm QRP vinyl.

Kassem reissued this album once before, in 1994, on a single, 180gm, 33.3rpm LP. Mastered by Bernie Grundman, it sounded better than Verve's original pressing. The new 45, mastered by Matt Lutthans and stamped on the late Doug Sax's cutting gear (which Kassem bought and had restored), sounds better still.

There is a fiercely live quality to this pressing. Instruments loom on the soundstage with 3D precision. Gómez's bass is vibrant with wood: You hear every pluck, and when he snaps a string, it makes you jump. DeJohnette's trap set is equally clear—every bass beat, stick stroke, and cymbal sizzle—and when he takes a solo, it gets loud but not muddy. Evans's color tones, shifting harmonies, counterpoints, and pedal shifts have never pierced the ambience so audibly, at least not on other pressings of this recording.

There is one flaw: The piano's upper registers sound a bit tinkly, and the overtones lack bloom—the result, I suspect, of excessively close miking. This was a problem with the original release too, but there, the bass and drums weren't so boldly painted, so it was less noticeable. Then again, I suspect the bass and drums—and the other aspects of the piano—are so bold and detailed in part because of the close miking. So there's an up and down side.

For almost 50 years, this was thought to be the only document of DeJohnette's brief time with Evans. Then Resonance Records unearthed tapes of two other sessions, recorded within days of the Montreux Festival, and released them. The first, Some Other Time: The Lost Session From the Black Forest, was a studio date; it was good but had stretches of rote playing. The second, Another Time: The Hilversum Concert, recorded live before an audience in the studio of the Netherlands Radio Union, was almost as good as Montreux. (Evans is one of several jazz musicians whose best albums are live.)

It's not quite as good as Montreux, however—maybe because the Swiss crowd was larger and, judging from their wild applause, more enthusiastic. Nor does it sound nearly as good as this new 45rpm pressing of Montreux.

Gómez stayed with Evans for another decade after DeJohnette's departure. A string of good drummers followed, as did some good (and several not-so-good) albums; none had the Montreux magic. Some of the best sets were released posthumously: Live in Paris (1972), The Paris Concert: Edition 1 and 2 (1979), The Last Waltz and Consecration (1980); those last two—each 8-CD boxed sets—captured every set of a riveting nine-night gig at San Francisco's Keystone Korner two weeks before Evans died, at age 51, of complications from drugs and other ailments.

The classics are still the Village Vanguard sessions. At the Montreux Jazz Festival is the one to get after that.

NeilS's picture

"...The late pianist Bill Evans may be the most reissued jazz musician in the catalogs of audiophile record labels. There are reasons for that: He played standards, mainly ballads (many audiophiles shun the avantgarde), almost never in groups larger than trios (stereo systems often do best with small-scale ensembles). Whether by design or chance, his best recordings were miked by superb engineers..."

I don't dispute any of the above, but I think if he's the most reissued jazz musician it's mostly because he was in my opinion, one of the greatest jazz pianists of the 20th century, a brilliant composer, interpreter, improvisor and arranger, and is a powerful continuing influence on jazz pianists. It's not only his own discography as a solo artist - if you've heard Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" you've heard Bill Evans. If you've heard Chet Baker's instrumental album "Chet", you've heard Bill Evans. You can't go wrong checking out his albums with Tony Bennett or Stan Getz, either. As a matter of fact, I think you can't go wrong checking out anything with Bill Evans playing.

I think his unique talent and the appeal of his recorded work to successive generations help explain why someone who hasn't drawn a breath in 40 years is still celebrated, and why his extensive catalog of recordings has not gone out of print and is still mined for reissues and newly discovered material.

Dennis 6352's picture

All well said, sir.

fetuso's picture

Haven't seen a column by Mr.Kaplan in quite some time. Nice to once again have his perspectives on jazz.

Allen Fant's picture

Excellent review- FK.
I am a strong proponent of Bill Evans' music.

Herb Reichert's picture

Thank Mr. Kaplan,
Enjoyed and learned from every word.


volvic's picture

Such a nice summation of a great artist. One gripe though and it has nothing to do with Mr. Kaplan's writing. Am I the only one who shuns 45 rpm reissues because I don't feel like getting up to flip sides after 15 - 20 minutes? Am I missing out here?

Jim Austin's picture

Jim Austin, Editor

volvic's picture

Keeping my Geddons!!!

Rashers's picture

a single disc version of this album at 33rpm last year. The sound is excellent - to my ears about the same as the original pressing.

Long-time listener's picture

... and in-depth discussion of the release in question, in the context of the artist's entire career. What a review should be.

Lack_of_credibility's picture

My jazz collection is still "young", with a lot of Miles, plenty of 'Trane, Art Blakey, and a few others. But based on what Fred wrote here, I have the Complete Village Vanguard coming, and Montreux.

I was just thinking, I started out reading Stereophile for the equipment reviews, and that's pushing 25 or so years ago. But recently, I've come to appreciate almost as much, and maybe more, the music reviews. It's a great way to discover new music.

Thanks Fred, and thanks Stereophile!