Sunday at the Village Vanguard

Bill Evans : Sunday at the Village Vanguard (#30)

Bill Evans | Sunday at the Village Vanguard (June 1961)
Jazz – 42:00

“It bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It’s not. It’s feeling.”

As I’ve already pointed out elsewhere, it is very difficult to analyse music. Without wanting to sound too pretentious – and there is no way of doing this in a way that doesn’t – music has the ability to root itself deep within your soul and touch emotions directly. Words are limited in their ability to describe this in any adequate way. There is a reason why I chose the title of this entire blog as Where Words Leave Off. It comes from a quote by the German poet and journalist Heinrich Heine, who set much of his own work to music; the full quotation reads “Where words leave off, music begins.” I agree with Heine’s assessment – music is able to convey so much more than words are able to do. A good piece, from a classical arrangement to a three-minute pop song, can make you feel elated or melancholic; it can raise you to laugh at the world, or draw on your darkest miseries. There is a reason why so many teenagers turn to music as they struggle with their place on this earth; it is as if the music itself understands them in their inarticulate attempts at expressing themselves.

Many musicians would prefer that their work speaks for itself, rather than being over-analysed. One such musician was the jazz pianist Bill Evans. For Evans, his instrumentation was based on ‘feeling’ the music as he would direct his fellow musicians – usually he worked in a trio – in a range of jazz moods and styles. Having worked with some of the greatest jazz players in his early years (including George Russell, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis), he decided to head out on his own in 1959, bringing in bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian with him. By the time of their recording of Sunday at the Village Vanguard, a live performance at the Greenwich Village jazz club, the three men had become so tight that they were able to second guess each other as they played, constantly complimenting one another. As a result, they produced what many cite as one of the greatest jazz albums of all time – no small feat given the number of fellow jazz musicians also laying claim to this with their productions at this time in history.

Perhaps my biggest problem with this form of jazz is the very thing which Evans and his bandmates are so keen to create – pieces based on feelings rather than set patterns. Riffs quickly come and go within each number, and there is never a coherent flow to the sound. Having brought up on the traditional pop song, my ears are desperate to hear the progression of verse, chorus, verse, chorus. At this level of jazz, however, each piece can change rapidly from one tempo to another; from one style to another. Humans like to seek patterns in everything and there is a feeling of discord when experience jazz that this pattern doesn’t obviously exist. True, it is easy to appreciate the musicianship on such pieces, and you cannot fault their ability. Evans’ piano playing is exquisite; his fingers lightly touching the keys as they flow up and down the instrument. Likewise, the gentle drumming of Motian is wonderful while all credit must go to LaFaro for his work. LaFaro was killed in a car accident just 10 days after the performances were recorded. As a result, a devastated Evans insisted that LaFaro’s bass was put to the forefront of the selected tracks. It is certainly worth it, to hear him work the bass with such skill.

However, skill does not necessarily make the album great. And while I can sit back and hear their greatness as musicians and wonder at their ability to work with each other, I find this a difficult album to listen to. As with many styles, if it moves too far into a particular genre, only die-hard fans are able to ‘get it’. For everyone else, it can become a chore – a worthy but dull experience. While some jazz albums have made me want to know more, I feel so out of my depth with Sunday at the Village Vanguard, that listening to it becomes too much like hard work. I want to understand why the musicians are making the choices they make, but instead it sounds like this is a practice session or, at times, as if they are warming up (these aren’t the only musicians to face this assessment – according to legend, sitarist Ravi Shankar once thanked an audience for their applause by pointing out that he was simply tuning his instrument).

You cannot help but feel that this is an album made purely for the enjoyment of those making it, rather than those listening – they are able to enjoy where they are taking it, while those in the audience can only hope to admire without ever really engaging. Evans may have wished that his music was felt at a deeper level, but, based on this live album, it is something I cannot do. I can only admire intellectually – and, in doing so, I have failed to appreciate his work. Which is a great shame, as I want to like it. I really do. But sadly I can’t.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Sunday at the Village Vanguard here:

Next time: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music by Ray Charles


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