So many times we get our hopes up over news of a “recently discovered” or “newly unearthed” archival release of a musician’s work – only to be disappointed by the poor quality of the original recordings. (Which may have been the reason they weren’t released during the artist’s lifetime.)
Not so with Bill Evans: Live At Art D’Lugoff’s Top Of The Gate – not so at all. In fact, next to piano genius Evans and his bandmates Eddie Gomez (bass) and Marty Morell (drums), the real hero of this two set/double-disc collection is a man by the name of George Klabin. Klabin was a senior at Columbia University when the Evans trio played the intimate Top Of The Gate in October of 1968; he recorded the sets from 10/23/68 for his radio show on the college’s FM station, WKCR.
The quality of this recording would be impressive by anyone’s standards; the fact that it was accomplished by a young man toting a 50 lb. two-track tape recorder and four different mics, mixing on the fly through a set of headphones is nothing short of amazing. By virtue of perfect mic choices and placement, Klabin – who is now both the founder and president of the Rising Jazz Stars Foundation, as well as Resonance Records– nails the warmth and depth of the trio’s sound with just enough crowd noise to remind you that it was live. (Catch the silverware clanking in the opening moments of “Emily” on Disc Two – it was definitely the dinner hour.) Klabin placed Evans’ piano dead-center in the mix with Morell and Gomez flanking him on the left and right; the result allows you to direct your ears as you wish on any given listen. And there’s so much to listen to.
You would never guess that Morell had _just joined _ the trio by listening to the results of their formation flying on this recording: the complete opposite of a showboat drummer who bides his time between solos, Morell burrows into each tune’s groove and holds down the fort. He responds to the emotions of Evans’ and Gomez’ interplay with subtle accents and flecks of spice, along with his rhythmic foundations that allow the other two to venture out on their own.
A quick scan of the song titles and credits will reveal that there is only one Evans original on Top Of The Gate (the playful “Turn Out The Stars” that concludes the first set) but no matter: this lineup could take a standard such as “In A Sentimental Mood” or “Someday My Prince Will Come”, find its soul, and make it their own. Listen to the versions of “Yesterdays” from each set: both find Gomez taking the wheel about a minute in, but it’s a totally different adventure each time. And when Evans reenters, he’s already head-down and rolling, navigating his chosen path of the moment before bringing the melody back home.
Evans ushers in “My Funny Valentine” alone with wistful sweetness before his bandmates arrive to stir things up. (Listen as Gomez simply burns up his bass beginning at the 2:50 mark while Evans offers some light chords and Morell shores it all up.) Dig the dynamics of “Mother Of Earl” as it goes from quiet entry to a joyous dance in the sun before retreating once again; “California Here I Come” makes its case before busting into a big grin and a promise; Gomez will spin your head around with his break on “Witchcraft”; and Evans lays down some of his most dynamic playing of the album on the two takes of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight”.
All in all, this is an incredible performance – one that any fan of Bill Evans’ music will want to get into; and not a bad place for the novice to begin, either. The flavors are many; the delivery is stunning.
Hats off to you, Mr. Klabin. You knew your stuff. And I bet you still do.