Revinylization #29: Bill Evans, Inner Spirit: The 1979 Concert at the Teatro General San Martin, Buenos Aires

Do we need yet another unearthed recording of the Bill Evans trio? I count 22 albums or boxed sets—a total of 49 polycarbonate or vinyl discs—of posthumously released sessions, many of them in just the last few years. But this latest discovery, recorded in Buenos Aires in September 1979, is a stunner. So, to answer the question above: Yes, we do need this recording.

The Resonance 2-LP set (also available as 2 CDs; both sets include extensive photos and liner notes) is the album’s first commercial release. An Argentine label issued a bootleg several years ago and a German CD followed, made by recording the LP. (You can hear the surface noise.) Both go for a pretty price on the second-hand market. So, Inner Spirit—as Resonance has titled the album—qualifies for a Revinylization pick. It’s one of the best late-era Evans albums, period.

It’s no coincidence that 12 of the 22 posthumous albums I mentioned—36 of the discs—were recorded between 1979 and ’80, the final year and few months of Evans’s life. (He died in September 1980, at age 51.) He was a classic case of Gene Tierney’s line: “A flame burns brightest just before it goes out.” Racked for years with drug addiction and bouts of depression, his last few studio albums ranging from mixed to lackluster, Evans caught an exuberant second wind toward the end—yet no one who didn’t see him live in those months knew it, not until the reels and reels of tapes from those sessions were dug out of the vaults.

The first to make a splash was the two-volume Paris Concert, recorded in November ’79, released by Elektra in 1984. Many, including me, were startled that the pianist we’d dismissed as a druggie whose best days had long passed could still eke out the Ravelian lyricism and sharp wit of his work from the late ’50s and ’60s. Inner Spirit was recorded two months before the Paris concert, and it is by far the better set. Listen to the first bars of the first track, “Stella by Starlight.” They’re warm-up notes, but they sparkle, they shimmer, they exude a harplike magic. And when Evans moves into the melody, there’s exuberance and joy, tempos that modulate from rousing to musing, and swing that’s gentle but constant.

Bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera, who had only recently joined the band, are fully into their own, playing as two sides of an isosceles trio, not just as backup for the piano—and not in a way that copies their predecessors, but rather with their own original, diverting sound. The highlight, though, may be Evans’s solo take of “I Loves You, Porgy,” one of his most gorgeous renditions, or performances of any piece of music, ever.

It’s worth contrasting this set with some of the other great recordings from Evans’s final months. The Final Village Vanguard Sessions, a 10-LP boxed set from Mosaic recorded in June 1980 (released in 1996), is riveting, but it’s also frantic; you can hear the cocaine. The Last Waltz and Consecration, recorded in August–September 1980 (released by Milestone in 2000 as two 8-CD sets, the first documenting the late sets of all eight nights, the latter all the early sets), has a mesmerizing glow—you can feel the end coming, and the flame is burning—but the sound quality is just okay.

By contrast, Inner Spirit is exuberant but not overwrought. It has the glow, but of a spirit that’s very much alive. (It must have been a good time for Evans; some of the candid photos in the liner notes show him smiling and relaxed.) The only exception is Johnny Mandel’s M*A*S*H theme, “Suicide Is Painless,” which Evans played often in this era, always buoyant, frenzied—odd, since his beloved older brother, a brilliant musicologist, committed suicide a few months earlier, as did a girlfriend many years earlier. Was this dark humor or just stark blackness? For all the lightness in his playing, much darkness coursed through Evans’s life.

The sound quality on Inner Spirit is very good. As the engineer, Carlos Melero, recalls in the liner notes, the mikes were Neumann U 87s (two on the piano, one on the drums), and an AKG D224E on the bass pickup, all fed into a two-track Revox tape recorder running at 7½ips.

This was the same gear Melero had used at an Evans concert in Buenos Aires six years earlier. Simultaneously with Inner Spirit, Resonance has issued that session on 2 LPs and 2 CDs under the title Morning Glory; the sound is good, but the music is not nearly as spirited.

Resonance’s Zev Feldman, an Evans fanatic, obtained the original analog tapes; the bootlegs had been struck from an nth-generation copy. They were in decent shape—no wow, flutter, or other damage—except that the high frequencies had faded; the drums were barely audible. The sound-restoration artists, George Klabin and Fran Gala, transferred the tapes to digital files and boosted the highs. They did an excellent job; the highs seem natural, not at all pasted on. The piano’s upper octaves sparkle. Its lower midrange was probably miked too closely, but it sounds at worst a little thick, not distorted. The drums are a bit buried in the mix, but not badly: The lightest cymbal taps and brush strokes come through clearly. The bass is a bit overprominent but not jarringly so.

The LPs, mastered by Bernie Grundman, sound a bit better than the CDs—more detail, air, and texture—but not by that much. Either way, this is a pleasurable album—an instant, long-delayed classic.

(Also see Tom Conrad’s review in Record Reviews.—Ed.)

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