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Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins LPs Reinforce the Record Store Day/Resonance Jazz Connection, as Producer Zev Feldman Collects a Grammy Nod

Chris Willman
·15-min read

It hasn’t yet come to pass, but there may come a year when Record Store Day gets the official dual title of National Bill Evans Day. While there are plenty of rock artists whose archives have been regularly mined for exclusive vinyl releases tied to the semiannual event, like David Bowie and the Grateful Dead, in jazz, it’s been Bill Evans whose fans have most benefitted from a serious of previously unissued double-albums digging into the vaults. And the late piano legend even seems to be picking up a new audience among rock fans who’ve studied forums dedicated to RSD releases and come to realize that, with every release selling out its run virtually instantaneously, Evans-mania must exist for a reason.

For 2020’s Black Friday edition of Record Store Day, Resonance Records put out its fifth Evans release, “Live at Ronnie Scott’s,” a 20-song recording from the pianist’s 1968 trio prime. But that’s far from the only offering that Resonance and/or the nonprofit label’s co-president, Zev Feldman, aka “the Jazz Detective,” put into the public sphere Friday. Resonance put out a total of three highly annotated vinyl deluxe editions for RSD, the others being “Sonny Rollins in Holland” and Monty Alexander’s “Love You Madly: Live at Bubba’s,” both marking the first time the company has celebrated those artists.

At Resonance, Feldman is allowed to also ply his detective work for some other labels, like Blue Note, on the side. And so he actually has a hand as producer or co-producer on four RSD titles this particular time around, the last of them being the George Coleman Quintet’s “In Baltimore,” released on the Real to Reel label, surely making him this year’s undesignated RSD king of product that’s often actually sourced from reel-to-reel.

It’s a heady week for Feldman not just because he put out four highly involved and elaborate albums in a single day, but because three days earlier, he picked up his first Grammy nomination. It came in the best historical recording category for Nat King Cole’s “Hittin’ the Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943),” which Resonance released last year as a non-limited-edition 10-LP or 7-CD set boxed set.

Of the Record Store Day titles, he says, “I’m always just trying to elevate the art of record making, when we can. And I feel like these four releases really sum that up. There’s just a lot of thoughtful curation. But there’s a team,” including founder and co-president George Klabin and a staff of “seven or eight” at Resonance. “I still can’t believe we’re able to do this. All of these are going to ship sold out. They’re gonna be gone— one and done. But that’s the beauty of Record Store Day.”

Feldman told Variety about this weekend’s LP releases — which will be followed by CD issues in just a week, in the cases of the Evans, Rollins and Alexander titles— starting with, but hardly limited to, Resonance’s unofficial flagship artist.

“My sales guy, who comes from the rock catalog world, said to me, ‘You know, Bill Evans is kind of like the Grateful Dead of jazz. He does a lot of the same repertoire, and people just keep digging it and eating it all up.’ But Bill Evans was really such an amazing enigma, and such an inspiring figure in his music. Yeah, he played a lot of his repertoire over and over, but there was something really special about how he reached from inside himself and every time it’s such an inspiring performance. When you listen to, for instance, a track like ‘Nardis’ — oh my God, there have been guys that have written articles and studied about all the different introductions. I just find him fascinating. I’ve been listening to him since my teens. George Klabin loves him. There’s a special connection with us.

And as long as we can keep finding great Bill Evans, man, I could just keep doing that forever. man, I could just be happy doing that forever. Because he really matters. His son Evan has talked to me about that quite a few times, about we’ve ended up doing something for the Bill Evans brand.”

As usual with any Resonance archival release, the huge booklet provides practically an actual book’s worth of reading material, mostly in the form of Q&As with survivors or other musicians. The Evans release includes a recent conversation between his drummer on the recordings, Jack DeJohnette, and the band leader he went on to play with after leaving Evans’ employ, Chick Corea.

And speaking of CC’s, there’s a length Q&A Feldman conducted with Chevy Chase, which is not as incongruous an inclusion as it might sound. Chase is a major jazzhead (and former drummer) who, in his pre-“SNL” days, used to spend his time in clubs seeing the greats like Coltrane, Davis and Mingus — and actually befriended Evans. the drive Evans to and from gigs and ply him for wisdom. “I went up to Chevy’s house, and 90 minutes he spent talking with me about Evans, no bathroom break,” Feldman laughs. “He used to drive Bill home after his gigs. Bill gave Chevy two kittens that he had their entire lives. They kept in touch over the years. And there’s just a really such a warmth of Chevy that comes through when you listen of him talking about Bill, and how he used to ask, ‘How do you do that? How do you play and make these chords?’ ‘Eight hours a day, Chev,’ he said. ‘Eight hours a day.’”

Feldman had long wanted to do a Sonny Rollins release, and went large with it when he got the chance, doing a triple album that starts with one side captured in the studio and five more taken from a couple of gigs in the same 1967/Netherlands time frame.

Rollins “is the saxophone colossus,” Feldman says. “I mean, he’s really the greatest living legend in jazz music that’s still with us. He’s not playing now. And he’s a reluctant guy to just go back to an old tape and say, ‘Sure, put that out.’ Not with him. But he was really taken with this music, which is special to us. And with the writings and a lot of photographs that we had” — there’s an unusual wealth of beautiful black-and-white portraiture throughout the packaging — “I really wanted to build an incredible experience. I told Sonny going into this, ‘Listen, if I can, we’ll spare no expense to at least try to build something that tells this narrative of what you guys were doing.’ It’s music that’s just really, as he says, ‘wham, bam, thank you, ma’am’ and ‘take no prisoners.’ It’s let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!’ The energy is just really inspiring.”

Monty Alexander, Feldman says, “is really one of the great pianists in jazz. He was a disciple I would say was directly influenced by the likes of Nat King Cole, Erroll Garner, Earl Hines.” Originally from Jamaica, Alexander moved to Miami and was doing gigs there when he was discovered by Frank Sinatra and the owner of Jilly’s, who were so taken with him he became the house pianist at that legendary restaurant in New York. “Throw him into that school with Ray Brown and Milt Jackson and some of the greats. He’s played Montreux probably 30 times, maybe more,” Feldman points out.

Alexander cut his debut album in 1965, and became “one of the top five modern jazz pianists ever to play the instrument,” Klabin contends in his liner notes contribution. Yet, as Feldman says he told Klabin, “George, I’m not sure if there’s ever been a super-deluxe, over-the-top, ‘Monty, we love you’ kind of package.” The opportunity arose when Alexander told them he had played a club in Ft. Lauderdale in the early ‘80s that was professionally recorded by Mack Emerman, the fellow who ran the famous Criteria Studios, home of the Bee Gees, Eric Clapton and others. As Alexander recalls in the liner notes, the studio maestro said, “’Hey, can I come and record you? I’ll bring the remote truck.’ … Son of a gun, he gave me the tape as a gift.” A gift Alexander held onto for 38 years — and the rare buried treasure Resonance gets to work with that involves a 24-track, audiophile recording that they can take into L.A.’s Village Recorders for a completely fresh mix.

Finally, the George Coleman single-LP Feldman helped put together for the Real to Reel label came via that imprint’s association with the Left Bank Jazz Archives in Baltimore, where Coleman’s gig went down in 1971.

Coleman counts as an undersung hero, with the liner notes pointing out that the Encyclopedia of Jazz editorialized a bit in calling him “a tenor saxophone master who, in relation to his high degree of accomplishment, is undervalued by the public.” Says Feldman, “This is the guy that was in Miles Davis’ second quintet, after Coltrane, before Wayne Shorter. But George Coleman didn’t start making records until the late 1970s; before that, he was this sideman,” playing not just with Davis but Chet Baker, among others. But he did do headlining gigs, even if he wasn’t recording his own albums yet, and so this live album captures him when he was 36, six years before he made an album under his own name. “He’s one of the greats,” Feldman says, “and we basically just rewrote the discography on George Coleman with this this release,” at least on the front end.

There is as much in the pipeline as you’d expect from a producer who just put out four albums at once. Not everything can be talked about, since rights are often in dispute and require a great deal of discussion and negotiation. “It’s a whole journey, and there’s so many pitfalls along the way” with releases that often take years to come together, especially when estates are involved, or gigs were recorded by outsiders whose rights may be nebulous. “Sometimes there are disappointments that occur. If someone doesn’t agree with something, something can easily turn off the car real fast. But we have a track record of being above board with people: Let people know your intentions, and be transparent… It’s really important to know that we’re doing things the official way.

“We’re paying the musicians; we’re negotiating with the rights holders to make that happen. And that’s something that sadly doesn’t always get followed by a lot of folks, especially in parts of Europe and Asia. to me, it’s disrespectful. But you know, I’m not raising my nose. I’m just doing my part on my side of the street to keep it clean and do things the right way and give people a great experience, and then we can kind of wave the good guy flag over here. At least I’m trying.”

Yes, there will be more Evans. “Next year I have these tapes of Bill Evans from Argentina, which were concerts in ‘73 and ‘79. It only took me four years to negotiate the rights to put that out.” There’s also a 12-LP live boxed set in the works for one of the labels he does side work for on an artist he can’t reveal yet. Also, “I can’t announce all the details yet, but Resonance is going to be issuing previously unissued recordings featuring the late, great Roy Hargrove, who this month has now been gone sadly for two years. Next April, for the next record store day event, we’re going to have a release, hopefully, with this music.” (He’s also at work on a coffee table book that will collect the classic jazz artwork of illustrator David Stone Martin, whose previously unseen drawing of Evans adorns the cover of the new “Ronnie Scott’s” release.)

Resonance doesn’t strictly release on Record Store Days, but it’s long since become a valuable association that works both for the label (and Feldman’s outside projects) and RSD itself, whose participating stores know a certain cult of customers will be drawn with the initial intent of buying whatever the imprint is putting out, on spec.

Feldman used to hold off on the CD release (and the digital release, when Resonance finally gave in to a non-physical format) for a month or two after the vinyl RSD release. Now, the gap is narrowed to the label putting out Evans, Rollins and Alexander on compact disc just a week later.

“There’s kind of a balance,” Feldman says of juggling different mediums, “and when you’re doing publicity and marketing, I want to have things within a shorter window” than in the past. “I would like people to, if they read a review (of the vinyl), be able to go out and find it if they want to (on CD). Sometimes, things can be out of sight, out of mind .if you put things off too much. So the closer the better now. But I respect the Record Store Day organization and want to make sure it works for them, too. Because without them. what we’re shipping on these projects, it would take a period of time to achieve that threshold, instead of being able to do it through one time with an event.”

He points out that, as a rare nonprofit in the label world, “we’re not greedy. But I wish sometimes that we could do a pre-order sort of exercise and forecast (what kind of pressings to do); it’s really hard sometimes until the actual orders are solicited for us to know what exactly what it’s gonna be. But every year, (demand) keeps going up. I’m just like, let’s just keep doing what we’re doing, nose to the grindstone, and not change the formula. And let’s just keep making the records exciting as much as we can.”

Quantities on the RSD titles vary significantly by renown of the artist. The new Evans album was announced as a pressing of 7,000 hand-numbered units for the world, and most likely could sell well beyond that, given that fans were already complaining it was tough to find on Friday. (Demand has been so great for some of the Evans titles on the secondary market that Resonance did do a second edition of one earlier album, changing the mastering and slightly updating the cover to keep the original collectible — the sort of move that gets heavily debated among record geeks.) The Rollins album, representing another one of jazz’s major stars, also became scarce Friday, even with 6,000 out in the world. Monty Alexander and George Coleman were represented with a more modest 2,000 and 1,500, respectively.

Basking in the glow of the past week’s Grammy nod, Feldman emphasizes that all these releases are “such a team effort. it’s not one person. But for me personally now, after doing this for a greater part of 10 years, to be recognized by your peers within that form really is a very moving thing for me. I’m thrilled to be a part of it, and grateful for my life and what I get the chance to do. I’ve had other jobs. I used to work overnights at a gas station before I went into the music business. I’ve worked fast food. It smells like roses over here! I want to stay. I’m just having a wonderful time.”

Feldman is tickled by reports that Record Store Day regulars who know little to nothing about jazz artists have started buying Resonance releases as part of their semi-annual diet of exclusives just because of the label’s reputation and word of mouth about the titles.

As crossover interest goes, “I kind of relate to that very closely,” Feldman says. “Because, yeah, mom and dad played Wes Montgomery and Nancy Wilson and Michel Legrand and all sorts of stuff at home, but I was listening to the Beatles and the Stones and the Who and Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. And it was really a lot of that stuff that, believe it or not,” led him to jazz. (Vintage rock posters sit alongside jazz prints in his L.A. living room.) “My brain was just primed by listening to the way that the solos would be constructed and the way that there would be ideas articulated in the way that Pete Townshend bends the strings, or Clapton. It may not be really be all that different in some ways, in the way that something grabs onto something neurological in your brain that makes you hear something that connects with you. And I feel like this music does that.”

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