Bill Evans: You Must Believe in Spring
Craft Recordings CR00456
You Must Believe in Spring
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Review by Mark Werlin - March 1, 2023
In the past few years, the recorded legacy of Bill Evans has been expanded with previously unreleased live and studio performances, some with excellent sound quality, including Bill Evans: Another Time (The Hilversum Concert) and Bill Evans: Some Other Time (The lost session from the Black Forest). Yet his production from the middle to late 1970s, when he was very active on the club circuit, in concerts and in the studio, has received less attention, and few of his recordings from that period have been released on SACD.
The appearance of this 1977 trio recording “You Must Believe in Spring” in three formats, SACD, 24/192 download, and 45 rpm LP set, not only reestablishes the album as a high point in Evans’ discography, but provides SACD jazz collectors with an opportunity to hear an analogue-era minor masterpiece remastered with state-of-the-art audio restoration technology.
After Bill Evans completed a five-year contract with Fantasy Records in early 1977, his manager-producer Helen Keane negotiated a lucrative multi-album deal with Warner Bros. “You Must Believe in Spring” was the first album produced under that contract.
The working trio of Evans, Eddie Gomez and Eliot Zigmund recorded the sessions at Capitol’s studio in Hollywood with engineer Al Schmitt at the board. For various reasons, the trio album stayed in the can while subsequent, non-trio Warner Bros. titles “New Conversations” (overdubbed piano), “Affinity” (duo with Toots Thielemans), and “We Will Meet Again” (quintet) were all released in the last few years of his life. Though the pianist himself thought it contained some of his best work, “Spring” was held back until after Bill Evans’ death.
In contrast to Evans’ often turbulent 1980 performances at the Village Vanguard with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera, “Spring’s” gentle waltzes and introspective ballads convey an atmosphere of unperturbed calm and relaxed confidence. The sessions were well prepared, and the presence of a 9’ Steinway concert grand must have been gratifying; Evans was well-known for criticizing the poor condition and mediocre quality of pianos provided to him in studios and clubs.
While the LaFaro/Motian group was innovative for its equality of voices and harmonically probing interpretations, by this point in his career Evans allows the head melodies to flow under his fingers with less interrogation and complexity. Bassist Gomez, whose soloing on earlier trio albums was often emphatically self-declarative, plays in this context with a lighter touch. Drummer Zigmund offers subtle accompaniment in subdued shades and textures.
The album has little to reproach, and perhaps because it didn’t break new artistic ground, biographers have consigned it to the sidelines. In “Everything Happens to Me – A Musical Biography”, Keith Shadwick writes: “At this time Evans seemed content to find new material and simply play it beautifully.” In “Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings”, Peter Pettinger summarizes his ambivalence about the album, which he considers to have “some of the most thoughtful and carefully constructed playing of his later years. But his improvising, though emotionally charged, is neither rhythmically nor melodically fresh.”
A close listening, with open-mindedness to the shifts in his style, suggests that Evans found a new musical path, through rhythmic restraint and a less analytic approach to interpretation. Opening with an Evans original, “B Flat Waltz”, dedicated to his late partner Ellaine, the album sequence develops a contemplative musical narrative. The transition from Evans’ waltz to the title track, from the pen of Michel Legrand, is seamless. Gary McFarland’s “Gary’s Theme”, a gorgeous waltz, followed by another Evans original that was later dedicated to his brother Harry, “We Will Meet Again”, completes the original Side One. Played straight through, the four pieces flow together into a thematically and rhythmically balanced suite of waltzes paired with ballads. It is an eloquent, affecting performance that conveys musical and emotional depth.
The album’s Side Two demonstrates Evans’ appreciation for the work of his fellow pianist-composers. It begins promisingly with Jimmy Rowles’ composition “The Peacocks”, followed by “Sometime Ago”, an emotion-laden standard from Argentine pianist Sergio Mihanovich. But the forward movement grinds to a halt at the banal “Theme from M*A*S*H”, which Evans adapted by modulating the head melody through a cycle of descending major thirds.
Three bonus tracks compensate for the brief length of the original album. The first extra, a Broadway chestnut, “Without a Song”, follows the form of the other tunes in the set: an arranged opening; development and soloing; and an arranged ending. Eddie Gomez’ ebullient melodic invention and Eliot Zigmund’s energetic display liven the mood. If you’re not averse to revising history, program your SACD player or create a playlist with the 24/192 files that reorders the tracks to set “Without a Song” as the ending for Side Two.
The last two bonus pieces sound more impromptu. “Freddie Freeloader”, a feature for pianist Wynton Kelley in its original appearance on “Kind of Blue”, gets an unusual treatment. Rather than state the theme in the opening, Evans launches into multiple choruses of soloing with the changes only ambiguously indicated. As Gomez begins his solo, Evans finally plays the head theme—on a Fender Rhodes electric piano. It’s a half-humorous effort, and not entirely successful. The final track, however, “All of You”, captures the excitement and dynamics of a live club set closer.
“You Must Believe in Spring” was intended for a more mainstream audience than Bill Evans’ albums for Riverside and Verve. The jazz buyer of 1977 was attuned to Creed Taylor’s polished CTI productions and the smooth jazz/R&B radio format. It’s not surprising that the approach to recording a piano trio had changed considerably from 15 years earlier. Al Schmitt positions the piano center, using multiple microphones to spread the instrument’s width in the stereo panorama. In front of the piano is Eddie Gomez’ bass, captured with a contact mic; he favored the responsiveness of contact microphones, which he continues to this day to endorse. Eliot Zigmund’s kick, snare and hi-hat are also in the center, set back, with a left-right spread on his toms and other cymbals. Overall, the mix has more of a pop music feel than a jazz vibe. The drum kit seems to be located directly behind the piano, while the bass is encapsulated in its own space. A far cry from the recreated nightclub ambiance of the 1961 Village Vanguard recordings and the studio dates ca. 1961-65, but judged on its own merits, the album captures the instruments with excellent clarity and wide dynamic range.
It's a refrain among SACD enthusiasts that analogue-recorded albums should be transferred to DSD directly from tape. But engineers might interpose a PCM stage in the remastering process to alleviate tape defects. One of the most interesting developments in audio restoration is Plangent Processes Playback System, which was used in the production of this SACD. A proprietary tape head block facilitates capturing the high-frequency tape bias signal. In the digital domain, the engineer can remediate the effects of wow and flutter – slow or rapid deviations from the original recorded pitch – which occurs when an older tape has become stretched. Correcting signal irregularity results in a more accurate reproduction of the live sound of the piano, especially in slower passages and on sustained notes.
Unlike the SACD, the 45 rpm LP set of “You Must Believe in Spring” was mastered directly from the original tapes by Kevin Gray. I don’t have access to that release, which sold out quickly in 2022, but I can advise that the 24/192 download version sounds nearly indistinguishable from the SACD. Both digital releases were mastered by Paul Blakemore at Concord Mastering, and are unreservedly recommended.
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