Digging Through Bill Evans’s Career with KLH Albany II Bookshelf Loudspeakers

June 2021

Everybody Digs Bill Evans—the name of a recording released in 1959—seems like little more than a hip album title until you reflect on the broad admiration the late jazz pianist engendered in most of the people who encountered his playing. Even in the atypically aggressive performances toward the end of his life, listeners could hear his sensitivity and heart, to say nothing of his deft touch and ability to find original ways of phrasing—even with a hoary chestnut like “Danny Boy.” So outsized is his influence it’s actually possible to make the case that Evans played a disproportionate role in making Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue the album that many people—including those who generally dislike improvised music—cite as their favorite jazz recording.

Evans died on September 15, 1980, at the age of 51, the victim of years of alcohol, heroin, and cocaine abuse. Doctors cited cirrhosis, pneumonia, a peptic ulcer, and hepatitis as the clinical causes of his death. Evans’s friend and occasional collaborator Gene Lees—a long-time editor of DownBeat magazine, singer, and lyricist—called the death “the longest suicide in history,” reflecting on the pianist’s out-of-control cocaine addiction during his final years.

James Hale

It may seem odd that there’s never been a thorough retrospective of Evans’s recording career, but consider the number of labels he worked for between recording his debut as a leader, New Jazz Conceptions (1956), and his final studio album, We Will Meet Again (1979): Riverside Records, Milestone Records, Fantasy Records, Verve Records, Warner Bros. Records, and Elektra/Musician Records. It took veteran record producer Nick Phillips to wrangle all the loose ends to create Everybody Still Digs Bill Evans: A Career Retrospective (1956–1980), a five-CD collection on Craft Recordings (CR00299). Phillips told me that many jazz artists recorded for multiple labels during their careers, and third-party rights have made career-spanning collections difficult to achieve. However, he explained that amalgamations within the music business over the years recently made the process easier for this collection:

In the case of Bill Evans, fortunately, a majority of his recordings are now owned by Concord. Concord had acquired Fantasy Records back in 2004, and Fantasy had already owned the Riverside, Milestone, and Fantasy labels. Then, in 2017, Concord acquired a number of jazz masters from Warner Bros., including Evans’s Warner Bros. and Elektra/Musician albums. So, the only label left with a truly substantial body of his classic recorded work was Verve. It took some time, but after a whole lot of persistent and patient follow-up by Craft Recordings, which is Concord’s catalog division, they were able to license the remaining tracks from Verve’s parent company, Universal, and the pipe-dream of producing a truly career-spanning Bill Evans collection—from his first recording as a leader in 1956 to his last in 1980—finally became a reality.

Befitting Evans’s lofty and enduring reputation, this collection is an elegant throwback to the heyday of the jazz box set in the 1990s. It is housed in a fabric-bound, hardcover book, containing 48 pages of photos and ephemera, as well as comprehensive liner notes by Grammy Award–winning writer, radio host, and music journalist Neil Tesser, who offers insight into the life and career of Evans through recent and archival interviews. Grammy winner Paul Blakemore remastered all the material, which includes a recently unearthed 1975 set recorded at Oil Can Harry’s, a club in Vancouver, Canada.

Bill Evans

The majority of the box set’s musical selections are culled from Evans’s trios, with whom he released more than 40 albums. Discs 1 and 2 offer highlights from those recordings. The first disc spotlights his Riverside sessions, from Evans’s earliest days working with Philly Joe Jones, Paul Chambers, Sam Jones, and others, to the formation of his landmark trio with drummer Paul Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro—who died tragically in 1961—to the post-LaFaro trios featuring Motian, Chuck Israels, and Larry Bunker. The second disc focuses on Evans’s trio recordings from the mid-1960s onward, when he collaborated with sidemen like Eddie Gómez, Marty Morell, Eliot Zigmund, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette, Joe LaBarbera, and Marc Johnson.

Evans’s many solo recordings were also an important aspect of his career, garnering him two of his seven Grammys (for 1963’s Conversations with Myself and 1968’s Alone). Disc 3 spotlights many of those epochal performances.

Disc 4, meanwhile, focuses on Evans’s many other collaborations: duets with singer Tony Bennett, and with guitarist Jim Hall, as well as small-group work with musicians like Cannonball Adderley, Stan Getz, Freddie Hubbard, Toots Thielemans, Zoot Sims, and Lee Konitz.

The previously unreleased concert at Oil Can Harry’s took place on June 20, 1975, and featured Gómez on bass and Zigmund on drums. The show was recorded for broadcast on Vancouver’s CHQM-FM, and the recording is presented on disc 5.

Bill Evans

Considering Evans’s love of subtle forms of expression and the dominance of solo, duo, and trio performances on the box set, I set out to pair it with an audio component that would suit lower volumes and a close listening experience. I thought it would be a bonus if I could find something that reflected the time period under consideration.

Meeting these demands perfectly was a pair of KLH Audio’s Albany II bookshelf speakers ($299.99/pair, all prices in USD). Just 13″H × 6.5″W × 9.5″D and weighing only a shade over 11 pounds, the Albany II is a two-way bass-reflex speaker, with a 5.25″ woven-Kevlar midrange-woofer, a “custom-designed” crossover and a 1″-diameter, anodized-aluminum dome tweeter with a “linear response faceplate.” The 3/4″-thick MDF cabinet is finished with a vinyl veneer. My pair came in the European Walnut finish, and it was only on very close inspection that I could see that the veneer was not real wood. The speaker also comes in Black Oak.

KLH Audio

I hooked up the Albany IIs to my NAD D 3045 integrated amplifier with a pair of AudioQuest Type 5 speaker cables, loaded disc 1 into my NAD C 538 CD player, and set the time machine for September 1956—less than three months before Edgar Villchur received the patent for the acoustic-suspension loudspeaker system that he and Henry Kloss had developed. Kloss formed KLH Research and Development Corporation with Malcolm Low and J. Anton Hofmann the following year to manufacture speakers according to their design. During his decade at the helm of KLH, Kloss sealed his reputation as someone who could combine visionary ideas for speakers and radios with an eye on what consumers could afford. Kloss’s reputation was so powerful that Dave Kelley continued to invoke the founder’s name after Kelley bought the KLH brand in 2017.

Using a design studio in Indiana and a manufacturing facility in China, Kelley says he’s applying his knowledge of vertical integration and corporate efficiencies to stay true to Kloss’s original concept, and at about $200/pair cheaper than the KLH Albany it replaced, the Albany II certainly scored as a budget-friendly offering. But how would it sound?

It only took a few choruses of the opening track on disc 1, Evans’s original composition “Five,” produced by Orrin Keepnews at New York City’s Reeves Sound Studios in September 1956, with Motian on drums and Teddy Kotick on bass, to reach a couple of conclusions: the Albany IIs sounded exceptionally crisp and clear, and Evans had already set himself apart from the dominant piano stylists of the day. While he hadn’t yet settled on his signature voice—which would center on eschewing the root note from his chords, thus setting up a more cohesive, compelling dialogue with the bassist—Evans was clearly not as linear in his approach as contemporaries like Bud Powell, Horace Silver, and Ahmad Jamal. In the three early trio recordings in this collection you can already hear Evans listening to himself as he plays, which on “Young and Foolish”—recorded in 1958—made him sound somewhat indecisive. It was an issue he’d soon resolve, during a respite he took at his brother’s home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Within a few years, Evans recorded two albums that would solidify his reputation. The first was Kind of Blue, although by the time it was released he had already quit after less than a year as Davis’s pianist, and the second, 1960’s Portrait in Jazz, introduced the world to the piano trio that would change the way we think about that combination of instruments.

From their earlier collaboration, Evans was already aware that Motian was as much a listener as he was, but encountering LaFaro changed everything.

A 23-year-old New Jersey native, LaFaro had already turned heads as a bass player with trumpeter Chet Baker and pianist Victor Feldman when he joined Evans in the spring of 1959. Possessed of an exceptional work ethic, LaFaro had only started playing bass at the age of 18, but within a couple of years he had developed an advanced technique and was being cited by peers and critics alike for his ear for melodic phrasing and his ability to play broken-time accompaniment.

With their version of Joseph Kosma’s jazz standard, “Autumn Leaves,” the nascent trio signaled its intention to upend the notion of how a piano trio could interact. Until then, the piano had clearly dominated in a trio setting, with bass and drums assuming the rhythmic function, give or take a solo or two. And, while not every pianist who led a trio was as virtuosic as Powell or Oscar Peterson, most felt the need to combine aggressive left and right hands, sometimes to the extent that it seemed like they were soloing with rhythmic accompaniment. For Evans, it was always about musical conversation, with his bandmates free to make their voices heard, and not in strictly subservient roles. Whether he was responding to Evans’s instructions or to what he heard in rehearsals, engineer Jack Higgins adjusted the way he miked the instruments at Reeves Sound for this track. While the first three trio recordings on disc 1—from September 1956, December 1958, and January 1959—sounded somewhat harsh, “Autumn Leaves,” recorded in December 1959, had a fuller, more unified sound.

James with CD

Recorded on February 2, 1961, by Bill Stoddard at Bell Sound, “How Deep Is the Ocean” and “Sweet and Lovely” sounded even better, with LaFaro’s gorgeous tone and Motian’s cymbal-dominant playing clearly delineated.

I stepped back and re-routed those two pivotal performances—both from the Riverside album, Explorations—through my reference Q Acoustics 3050i floorstanding speakers and immediately noticed even more detail in Stoddard’s production. While the Albany IIs sounded remarkably present, their small size and bargain-basement price were reflected in their lack of bass depth.

With the Albany IIs back in place, I moved on to what is viewed as one of the most important live recordings in jazz history: the Evans trio’s June 1961 stand at the Village Vanguard. The trio played this compact basement venue for two weeks, and engineer Dave Jones recorded the sets on the final Sunday of the run.

If ever a performance deserved the adjective “timeless,” this is it. The lovely interplay between Evans, LaFaro, and Motian is only part of the reason; it’s also exemplary because you can hear echoes of this band in Keith Jarrett’s so-called standards trio, in Brad Mehldau’s trio, and in the way the original Bad Plus gave equal space to all three members. Of course, fate also played a part in locking the Evans trio in amber. Just ten days after accompanying Evans at the Vanguard, the 25-year-old LaFaro was dead, burned to death in a car accident in rural New York State.

Those close to Evans said the pianist never recovered from the loss. “After LaFaro’s death,” said Lees, “Bill was like a man with a lost love.”

Following a six-month break, Evans returned to performing with Israels on bass, and the box set picks up with more live work, from 1963, with Bunker having replaced Motian on drums. Evans’s trio format remained the same for the next 17 years, with occasional personnel shifts, and each new member brought their own musical personality into the mix. Personally, I prefer the combination of Gómez and DeJohnette for the energy the drummer brought, but a close second to the Evans-LaFaro-Motian lineup is the one featuring Motian and LaFaro acolyte Gary Peacock. Even though they play the banal “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” in this collection, it’s a rollicking, open-ended performance that points the way to what Peacock would eventually bring to Jarrett’s trio.

While cleaving to the approach of sequencing the discs according to the number of musicians playing on the tracks, disc 2 renders the remaining three discs anticlimactic as a career retrospective since it concludes at the very end of Evans’s life. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t a good end.

Always emotionally fragile, Evans sought to erase the pain of losing LaFaro by increasing his heroin use in the 1960s, and after kicking that drug in the early 1970s following a drug bust, he replaced it with cocaine. Fragile though he was, the pianist usually managed to remain active, largely thanks to the efforts of his manager, Helen Keane. But even the loyal Keane couldn’t save Evans following the suicide of his brother, Harry, in 1979. That year, Evans began a relationship with a 23-year-old waitress he met while on tour in Canada, voluntarily quit his treatment for chronic hepatitis, and increased his cocaine intake.

James Hale

You can hear the result on his final recordings. Not that he played poorly, but his edginess and manic energy were evident in his phrasing. Even ballads took on added urgency, and his final bassist, Marc Johnson, brought in some 1970s-era funk that seemed at odds with Evans’s style.

The antithesis of Evans’s playing during his final months can be found on disc 3, particularly on tunes like the modal “Peace Piece,” recorded by Higgins in December 1958. In these solo recordings, Evans’s approach to piano voicing—which lives somewhere between the impressionism of Maurice Ravel and the spatial dynamics of Ahmad Jamal—is on high-contrast display. While much has been written about Evans’s treatment of chords as colors, what stands out for me after all these years of listening is the way he combines his hands to create light-yet-complex harmony. When I visualize what I hear, I picture his left hand creating chords that seem to hover over the melodic inventions played by his right hand—almost as if he is sheltering the melody with a more substantial superstructure. The glittering nave protected by the towering cathedral buttresses.

Also of note is the fact that Evans seems to have been the ideal solo pianist for the time; he feasted on popular compositions, with his style very well suited to the sentimental optimism of the early 1960s.

His crisp, well-articulated solo playing is also a good match for the clear, tight top end of the Albany IIs, but the brightness of the speakers became a liability when the program progressed to the overdubbed sessions Evans recorded in the 1960s. These recordings, which were released on Conversations with Myself (1963) and Further Conversations with Myself (1967), were exceptionally popular, but I’ve always found them to be a bit claustrophobic. Indeed, the density of two or three pianos played in harmony seemed to overload the KLHs; the result was a bright clutter of competing movement.

I encountered the same type of problem when exploring Evans’s small-group performances, in settings as large as a quintet for “Peri’s Scope,” from 1979, but the true sweet spot for these bookshelf speakers were the duets the pianist recorded with guitarist Jim Hall in 1962 and with Tony Bennett in 1975. The Albany IIs really shone when one instrument became louder than the other, and no bass was involved. When Bennett sings the phrase “my heart forgets to beat” on Ray Noble’s “The Touch of Your Lips” it seemed like his voice was created to sing through these speakers. If Bennett has ever sung better, I haven’t heard it. Bennett and Evans recorded two full albums together, and one small quibble with this box set is that Phillips only included one song by the pair.

Just one week after the first Bennett session, Evans took his trio into Danny Baceda’s three-venue nightclub Oil Can Harry’s, just off Robson Street in downtown Vancouver. By then, drummer Eliot Zigmund was four months into his tenure with Evans and bassist Eddie Gómez was a nine-year veteran. The full set they played is presented as disc 5 of the box set.

With Zigmund swinging with a light touch, the set presents a diverse group of tunes, with only the closing “Nardis”—which some people believe Miles Davis composed with Evans in mind—being a song that could be considered an Evans “standard.” Although Evans was closely associated with a number of songs by 1975, the beauty of seeing him live was not knowing exactly what he would play, and anticipating that he would find a way to magically reharmonize a great composition. From today’s perspective, it’s interesting that Evans included Denny Zeitlin’s “Quiet Now” in the set, since the Bay Area pianist is one of the obvious successors to Evans’s place in the jazz canon. There is also “Sareen Jurer,” a typically intriguing song by Earl Zindars, one of Evans’s oldest friends and favorite composers.

While the Vancouver set didn’t have the clarity and separation of Evans’s other live recordings, Phillips said the material was in relatively good shape:

Fortunately, it was recorded in stereo. The original tapes were in good condition, and the sound quality was quite good for a live recording that wasn’t originally intended for commercial release. That being said, the proprietary tape transfers and audio restoration work of Jamie Howarth and John Chester at Plangent Processes—which removed the wow and flutter on the original analog tape—made a dramatic improvement in the sound quality. Paul Blakemore’s additional audio restoration wizardry, which, among other things, fixed the issue of the recording engineer’s on-the-fly changes to the stereo panning and stabilized the stereo image, along with his nuanced and musical mastering work, took the sound quality from good to excellent.

Overall, Phillips hopes that the legal work and sound restoration will reveal Evans’s genius to a new audience:

It was a bold move by Riverside Records producer Orrin Keepnews to title an early album by a fledgling jazz pianist Everybody Digs Bill Evans. It’s my hope that after hearing the lyrical, heartfelt, and influential recordings from throughout Evans’s career that are presented in this collection, listeners will agree that Everybody Still Digs Bill Evans is a modest understatement.

Despite the agita of Evans’s final trio recordings and the fulsome lineups of some of the small-group settings, I felt like I hadn’t taken full measure of the Albany IIs. I needed to pump some electricity through them and crank up the volume a bit, but there was nothing in the Evans catalog that fit the bill; even after he grew out his hair and shed his Ivy League clothes, the pianist didn’t follow the lead of some of his peers and venture into jazz rock in the 1970s. But he does have a namesake who will likely confuse future musicologists due to his tenure in Miles Davis’s band, albeit in 1981.

Saxophonist Bill Evans was one of several young firebrands that Davis tapped to join him when he planned his comeback from a five-year hiatus. Along with guitarist Mike Stern and Marcus Miller on bass, saxophonist Evans supplied high-octane funk to the trumpeter’s new band on studio albums like The Man with the Horn and Star People, and on tour. Their first two gigs in the summer of 1981—at the Boston nightclub Kix and New York City’s Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center—are preserved on the album We Want Miles (LP, Columbia Records C2 38005), so I put my original copy of the album on my Fluance RT83 turntable.

Through miraculous happenstance, I was in attendance at Davis’s Manhattan comeback show, and still recall the shock the audience registered when the trumpeter unveiled the new band and a repertoire that was filled with loud, emphatic musical gestures that were antithetical to the supple rhythms typical of Davis’s earlier bands. As Stern told me, years after Davis’s death in 1991, the trumpeter felt he needed maximum volume to win over a younger audience, so he asked the guitarist to play as loud as possible. On reeds, Evans had no choice but to compete. It seemed like perfect fodder to push the KLHs.

Davis, and his label, Columbia—which had continued to bankroll him during his hiatus—considered the comeback critical for his future, so they wanted to make the sound at these shows as good as possible. Veteran producer Teo Macero, who had been responsible for producing many of Davis’s biggest successes, was even brought back to oversee the production.

The Avery Fisher shows opened with a Davis composition called “Back Seat Betty,” which Stern says was partially inspired by the huge chords guitarist Pete Townshend frequently employed on songs he wrote for The Who. I cued up the recording, on track 2 of We Want Miles, and sat back to listen. Miller snaps at his bass strings, Stern hits those power chords, and drummer Al Foster slams his closely-miked kit. At high volume, the speakers handled it all with extreme clarity. Everything sounded clear—particularly Miller’s percussive bass playing and Davis’s pinched, tart-sounding, amplified trumpet—but there was a noticeable absence of presence. Resonance was evident, but I couldn’t feel it, and when I moved away from my prime listening position into the recesses of my attic listening room there was an obvious drop in detail.

KLH Audio

Still, envisioning their use in a smaller room and reflecting on their price point, the Albany IIs are tremendous value for speakers that perform well at lower volumes with primarily acoustic music. And, thinking of how well they projected Tony Bennett’s voice, they may well be ideal budget speakers for those who like hearing unadorned singing in intimate spaces.

. . . James Hale
jamesh@soundstagenetwork.com

Note: for the full suite of measurements on the KLH Albany II loudspeakers performed in the anechoic chamber at Canada’s National Research Council, click this link.