Saturday, March 14, 2015

Bill Evans The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings 1961, 2014

Why (or why not) do you need (or want) this four-record vinyl set?

The four records here include everything that was recorded (and survives) on that fateful day in 1961 when Evans and company played four sets, and it all got recorded. These recordings went on to become two classic jazz albums that have never been out of print since their 1961 release (!), Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debbie. The recording represents for many the pinnacle of Evans' work, even though he enjoyed popularity and success until his death in 1980. Evans is most famous for developing and expanding the language of the piano trio, and this trio, with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, is credited with redefining that language forever. Add to the facts that LaFaro died in a car crash shortly after this recording, and you get a slice of history that cannot be repeated.

Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debbie are both available in excellent reissued vinyl versions, so this set either needs to be better sounding than those records or offer something unique in the tracks that haven't appeared on vinyl previously. All of the tracks here were released in 1991 on the 12 CD set The Complete Riverside Recordings except for the incomplete first take of Gloria's Step, but that means buying 12 CDs of material that many Evans fans own much of already. You can also get all of this material on a 3 CD set with the same name from 2005. And you can also buy the CD reissues with bonus tracks of the two aforementioned releases, and get all but two of the tracks here. But this is the only way to get the whole enchilada on vinyl.

The original two-track tapes required some editing that could not be done without damaging the tapes. So when the 2005 CD version was produced, the music was transferred to digital for editing, and these vinyl pressings are made from those digital files. Surprisingly, in 2005 the tapes were digitized at 44 kHz (standard CD resolution) instead of a higher sampling rate, and it certainly begs the question of how much better this music could have sounded if digitized in a higher quality transfer. All that said, the vinyl here sounds very good. The pressing quality is exceptional, with less surface noise than I may have ever heard on any vinyl. Ever. If there is a small amount of digital hash/edge to the piano, you're going to have to turn it up very loud to hear it. And here's the kicker- digital transfer aside, this version is closer to those original two-track tapes than any of the reissued vinyl versions out there, which were sourced from mixed down masters that could only be second generation copies at best. And what this means is that Scott LaFaro's bass sounds better than it ever has on vinyl in the past. If you know these recordings, the bass has always been well presented, so the improvement isn't night and day, but it seems quite real to my ears. And the interplay between Evans and LaFaro is essentially what has made this one of the great moments in Evans' career, and in all of jazz history, for many an aficionado.

Add to that the alternate takes and never-released tracks available on vinyl for the first time, and you have something very special indeed. Do you need this if you already own Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debbie? I can't tell you. For me, having more from this trio in my collection is well worth it. The additional music is in many ways the equal of the tracks released on those two fine original releases, but I doubt I would have purchased it myself (I received the box as a birthday gift). Having now heard it though, I would certainly have purchased it for myself. Especially because of the particularly excellent pressing job and overall sound quality.

The box comes with a decent book, and a nice poster-type thing. The packaging and presentation is fine, although it's not the reason to buy. You have to want this music, and you have to want it on vinyl, because you can get it all on the CD version for less.

You probably don't have a friend as good as the friend that gave it to me. If after reading this, you wish you had a friend like mine, but you know you don't have that kind of friend, you'll just have to buy it for yourself.