How Bill Evans’s must-hear London concert finally made it to record

The year 1969 was a busy one for pianist Bill Evans.

In January, February and early March, Evans and bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morell recorded What’s New with flutist Jeremy Steig. In February, the trio was recorded furtively at New York’s Village Vanguard (The Secret Sessions). Then they moved on to Holland in late March (Live In Hilversum 1969) and Italy in July (Autumn Leaves). Back in New York in early November, Evans began recording From Left to Right, his moody Rhodes/acoustic piano album backed by an orchestra. Later that month, the trio recorded live in Copenhagen (Jazzhouse) and Amsterdam (Quiet Now).

Finally, on Dec. 1, the Bill Evans Trio opened at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, a run that would last until Dec. 27. At various points during the month, the gig was beautifully recorded. The tape captured Evans at his gentlest and poetic best, a throwback to his perspicacious playing of several years earlier. Now, the music from December, 1969, has just been released on Evans in England (Resonance). This two-CD set with a 36-page booklet of liner notes and interviews was produced by Zev Feldman.

According to Feldman’s introductory essay, the tapes were in the possession of Léon Terjanian, a resident of Strasbourg, France. Terjanian is among the world’s many “trench coat” tape collectors who own private and previously unreleased recordings of major jazz artists and trade them among each other. According to Terjanian, the tape’s recorder was a guy named “Jo,” a fictitious name to protect the person’s identity. Terjanian continues in his notes that “Jo” used a Beyerdynamic mic on the floor between the piano and bass connected to an Uher tape recorder resting on his knees and covered by the tablecloth.

Bill Evans
Credit: Courtesy of Resonance Records

Feldman traveled to Strasbourg twice to meet with Terjanian and to hear the tapes, research them and negotiate for their release. Terjanian, an entrepreneur, had befriended Evans and filmed him in Lyon, France, in 1978. He used the footage in his film, Turn Out the Stars, which he screened just once at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 1981.

Bill Evans
Credit: Courtesy of Resonance Records

As Feldman was readying Evans in England, he reached out to me for the album’s main liner notes. To confirm that Evans actually was at Ronnie Scott’s in December, 1969, I called the club in London to verify the dates. They weren’t sure, since their records were incomplete. So I went off to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center, one of the finest arts research facilities in the city.

After an hour on the microfilm projector scrolling through the 1969 Melody Maker, the indispensable British music tabloid that published from 1926 to 2000, I found ads for Ronnie Scott’s promoting the Bill Evans Trio’s appearance throughout December (Blossom Dearie opened for the trio).

Ronnie Scott's ad promoting the Bill Evans Trio.

For the notes, I also interviewed Marty Morell, my favourite Bill Evans drummer. I love Morell’s delicate but determined touch and how he plays in and around Evans’s piano. After listening to the tapes, Morell said, he was certain the music was recorded in December, 1969. During the trio’s visit to London, he recalled, he agreed to endorse Paiste cymbals, a Swiss company with offices in London. Midway through the Ronnie Scott’s run, he said, he switched out his Zildjian cymbal for a Paiste “Free Ride” — a cymbal without a bell. The model let him ride the cymbal without overshadowing Evans’s playing, something that Evans’s mother had groused about months earlier in Washington, D.C. Morell said he could hear the cymbal switch.

Marty Morell
Credit: Jan Persson/CTSImages.com, courtesy of Resonance Records

The final mind-blower that emerged from my research for these notes was the origin of Elsa. Composed by Earl Zindars, the song was an Evans favourite and has appeared on numerous Evans albums over the years. The list includes Explorations, Trio ’65, Paris 1965, Momentum, Live in Paris 1972 and Re: Person I Knew, among others.

Despite going through the liner notes of these albums and thumbing through books, I realized that no one ever bothered to look into why Earl Zindars named the song Elsa. Who was this woman? I called Anne Zindars, the late composer’s wife. “That’s exactly what I asked Earl,” she said, laughing. “After Earl wrote the song, I asked him, ‘So, who’s Elsa?’ Turns out the song was named for the lioness, Elsa, in the 1960 book Born Free, which then became a movie in ’66. Earl loved the book when it came out.”

Eddie Gomez
Credit: Jan Persson/CTSImages.com, courtesy of Resonance Records

I think you’ll find that Evans in England is the finest live recording by the Evans-Gomez-Morell trio and easily in the top five live albums by Evans in general. For me, it’s bested only by Sunday at the Village Vangaurd/Waltz for Debbie recorded in 1961 and Bill Evans at Town Hall in 1966. As you’ll hear, the music in London is alive, spry and patient — without keyboard agitation or complaint. All 18 tracks feature Evans at ease, Gomez is warmly conversational, and Morell on sticks and brushes frames the music with a delicate but urgent touch. We’re lucky that material of this audio quality and artistic grace surfaced and that Resonance producers Zev Feldman and George Klabin had the wisdom and determination to track down the music and pull it into the marketplace.

Bill Evans died in September, 1980.