Bill Evans – Live at Art D’Lugoff’s Top of the Gate

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Amid the pomp and circumstance of the releases of a myriad of new recordings in 2012, the releases of two significant records will forever be burned in the memory. The first is Echoes of Indiana Avenue a “lost” recording by the guitarist, Wes Montgomery; the other is a double feature: Bill Evans Live at Art D’Lugoff’s Top of the Gate.

Both are Resonance Records releases and both are exquisite recordings, but the latter is something special. It is a seminal audiophile recording by George Klabin, President of Resonance. Moreover it is one of the earliest known recordings of Bill Evans’ new trio featuring the inimitable bassist Eddie Gomez and one of the finest drummers in the business, Marty Morell. The recording was made on October 23, 1968 on a then state-of-the-art Crown two-track tape recorder which could be run at both 7 ½ and 15 ips. Klabin also noted that he used four microphones including a Neumann U67, a Beyer dynamic, a Sennheiser condenser and an Electro-Voice dynamic mike that he used to “wrap in foam and place directly in the bridge area of the acoustic bass. Klabin’s ingenious setup also included a single Ampex 4 input stereo mixer assorted cables and mike stands and a Beyer stereo monitoring headset. All of this bears mention as the recording sparkles with bite and extraordinary clarity and captures the great pianist, and the then up-and-coming bassist and drummer who sound as they were unfazed by the genius of their new employer (although they make reference to how nervous they actually were).

Of course the double-record, in the end, is all about the great Bill Evans, who is at the top of his game. This is significant as the pianist was his most vociferous critic and more often than not felt he was never up-to- the-mark; something he felt as all his life he played in the shadow of his older brother and pianist, Harry Evans. But Evans’ playing here is marked by the sheer ingenuity of a man who was so gifted a musician that great music seemed to pour out of every pore in his body, much like Ahmed Jamal, Errol Garner and Red Garland before him. But in the alternating turbulence and quietude of his own genius, Evans created something special and—like the recordings he made with his earlier and possibly most famous trio that included the great bassist Scott Lafaro and drummer Paul Motian—in the realm of advanced harmonics. Most of Evans’ harmonies feature added note chords or quartile voicings. This created and sustained by a self-sufficient language for the left hand, a voicing so distinctive that no one had ever heard something like it before. This allowed the transition from one chord to the next with hardly ever having to move his left hand. With this technique Evans seemed to have created an effect of a seamless and continuous flow of harmonies around the central register of the piano. Whether languid or gently rushed, Evans’ left hand hovered around middle C, harmonic clusters echoed with pristine clarity, and allowed the pianist enough room for contrapuntal independence and re-harmonisation with the bass.

Evans can be heard to rely heavily on motivic development—either melodically or even rhythmically—as he does on his classic rendition of “Witchcraft” and then again on “Turn Out The Stars,” where motives are broken and later recombined to conform re-imagined melodies. Melodically, Evans is sublime throughout. His playing employs long looping lines that are characterized by Florentine arches. Contained within this superbly crafted sonic architecture, melodic lines may also sweep upward in a series of parabolas that leap and twist in the air above the piano, where Evans always sits, bent into the keyboard as if tasting the notes before he releases them, fast and furious. Lest it seem that the pianist is self-absorbed—which he often is—Evans leaves much room for his ingenious bassist, Eddie Gomez to take his sinewy bass notes into a musical topography all its own, thus ascribing, very early on, a singular voice to the diminutive Puerto Rican-born, New York based musician. Gomez seems never to play in the shadow of his eminent predecessor, Lafaro; rather he creates a superb subtext for Evans’ pianism. In doing so, with equal measures of melodic invention and rhythmic imagination in an interminable stratospheric dance, Gomez opens up the way for drummer Marty Morell to drop in, with a series of fat depth bombs that appear to punctuate his advancement of the melodic thread; until that is, Morell picks up his brushes and swishes and sashays his way through a beauteous version of “Gone With The Wind” until Gomez and ultimately Evans brings the song back into its erstwhile orbit.

The Second Set of the magical recording is just as vibrant as the first; perhaps even more so as the musicians have reached deeper into the musical vortex that all of Evans’ power seems to emanate from. Here his opening bars to “Emily” are even more sensational than the one that Evans and the trio played in the First Set. As the song progresses, Evans displays yet another characteristic of his unique sensibility as he infuses the song with a new motivic development: Here the subtle changes in melodic contours ascribe changes in colour and depth of shading. In this rendition of the song, Evans and Gomez together trade harmonic motives; then Evans abruptly changes up proceedings by adding a brilliantly conceived sequenciation of melodies; transforming one motive into another. All this as his left hand creates a dynamically evolving landscape of harmonic colour. The classic re-imaginations of “In A Sentimental Mood” and “’Round Midnight” are ever so breathtaking and in many respects are the highlights of the Second Set. The veritable silence of the diners during these two charts who are otherwise heard in the background throughout, testify to that as the music plays.

The excellent work put in by George Klabin during what must not have been the easiest recording to perform and then the work put in by producer Zev Feldman (who also collaborated on the Wes Montgomery recording) as well as re-mixing and mastering engineer, Fran Gala deserve special mention for not only preserving the unique analogue sound quality, but for also making the recording sound so true to life. While this is a pre-requisite of every audiophile recording, the digital format can fool the ears with an often synthetic sound. In the case of Bill Evans Live at Art D’Lugoff’s Top of the Gate the remarkable analogue, audiophile sound is present throughout and even the digital presentation of the record does not take anything away from that, for this might as well have been a “double-lp”.

Tracks: CD 1 First Set: Emily (Take 1); Witchcraft; Yesterdays (Take 1); Round Midnight (Take 1); My Funny Valentine; California Here I Come; Gone With The Wind; Alfie; Turn Out The Stars. CD2 Second Set: Yesterdays; Emily; In A Sentimental Mood; ‘Round Midnight; Autumn Leaves; Someday My Prince Will Come; Mother Of Earl; Here’s That Rainy Day.

Personnel: Bill Evans: piano; Eddie Gomez: bass; Marty Morell: drums.

Bill Evans/Live at Art D’Lugoff’s Top of the Gate – Website: www.resonancerecords.org

Label: Resonance Records

Release date: June 2012

Reviewed by: Raul da Gama