Jazz in a Box
A tale of two jazz artists
By Greg Cahill
Even in the expansive world of jazz reissues, Miles Davis hogs the spotlight. The newly released six-CD set Miles Davis: The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (Columbia/Legacy) has grabbed a lion's share of press attention this holiday season. Immaculately packaged, it boasts five hours of music, much of it never before released. The Cellar Door Sessions showcases the late trumpeter's much-maligned fusion excursions with a talent-laden sextet that included guitarist John McLaughlin, pianist Keith Jarrett, soprano saxophonist Gary Bartz, electric bassist Michael Henderson, drummer Jack DeJohnette and percussionist Airto Moreira.
In its unadulterated form, this music bristles with nervous energy and a rawness that is almost unparalleled even in the jazz world. But without the studio grooves, these live club sessions tend to meander as the musicians explore what at the time was uncharted terrain. It's not easy to listen to and requires a real commitment from all but the most diehard fan of Davis' uneven fusion period. Certainly it's nowhere near as interesting as other recent Davis box sets, which have garnered nine Grammys collectively. Unless you are a completist, this is a box set you can pass on.
More satisfying is Bill Evans: The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 (Riverside). This beautiful sounding three-CD set (remastered using the label's patented 20-bit K2 sound-coding process) captures the brilliant, introspective pianist and former Davis sideman Evans, bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, one of the greatest of all jazz trios, during a four-night engagement at the fabled Village Vanguard nightclub in New York.
Whereas Davis' Cellar Door Sessions is filled with uncertainty and an undercurrent of adventure, the Vanguard Recordings is a much more refined and focused vehicle for Evans' beautiful lyricism. The two recordings are as different as night and day.
The audiences on these Vanguard sessions are scant (Evans still wasn't commanding much of a following then), so these recordings capture in minute detail the intimacy of those landmark sessions as this new reissue restores much of the crowd ambiance, the soft chatter and clinking glasses, purged by original producer Orrin Keepnews.
You also get an additional botched take on "Gloria's Step" (the result of a power outage), the songs placed in their original chronological order and the stunning sonics. Otherwise, this set closely mirrors material that appeared previously on 1973's Complete Fantasy Recordings. It belongs in the music library of every serious jazz fan.
It's interesting to find these two box sets on the marketplace at the same time, given the connection between the two artists. As a sideman for Davis, Charles Mingus and other notable jazz players, Evans established himself as a solo artist with the 1956 album New Jazz Conceptions. He went on to lead two celebrated trios under his own name and to record on several landmark jazz albums, including Davis' classic Kind of Blue, Mingus' East Coasting, George Russell's Jazz in the Space Age and Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth.
A quiet, somewhat nerdish-looking figure, Evans didn't integrate easily in the hip jazz world. In his 1989 autobiography, Davis recalls the hazing he inflicted on Evans when the pianist took over Red Garland's coveted spot at the keyboards in Davis' band. One day, just to mess with his head, Davis told Evans that to stay in the band he would have to sleep with all the other band members, all males. Evans gave it serious consideration for 15 minutes before returning to Davis to say that he'd like to please everyone, but that was something he couldn't bring himself to do.
"I looked at him and smiled and said, 'My man!'" Davis writes. "And then he knew I was teasing."
One thing Evans couldn't resist at that time was heroin, a habit he picked up while playing in Davis' band. Yet Evans left an indelible mark on Davis and the trumpeter's influential work. Davis credited Evans with bringing the classical influences that underscored much of Davis' finest work, including what Marin jazz writer Grover Sales once characterized as Davis' "Debussy-like lyricism and reflective romantic delicacy."
Despite the demons that dogged him throughout his life, the artfulness of Evans' improvisational work—so apparent in The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings sessions—was a driving force throughout his career. He still stands as a beacon of '60s jazz.
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