While it's true that this eight-CD box set was issued in Japan and in Europe briefly, none of its performances have been heard in any form in the United States. This is the companion piece to Milestone's previously issued eight-CD The Last Waltz. Like the previous collection, these live dates with Evans' final trio -- Marc Johnson on bass and Joe LaBarbera on drums -- were recorded at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco between August 31 and September 7, 1980, about a week before Evans' death (September 15, 1980). What separates the two is that this set is comprised primarily of first sets. If one assembles these two collections with the Warner Bros.-released final Village Vanguard concerts, Turn Out the Stars, there is undeniable evidence that not only was Evans in a state of creative rebirth at the end of his life, but was perhaps at his zenith as a composer, arranger, and -- above all -- as an improviser. The excellent and technically revelatory liner notes to this collection by Bob Doerschuk go a long way toward explaining exactly what it was that Evans was up to on that stand with his piano and his band. They offer lucid, accessible, and picturesque descriptions of the mechanics of the music here, so there is no reason to discuss them in this review. What is most important is the intensity and emotional honesty of the performances, and, of course, the nearly spiritual communication between the members of the trio.
Over eight CDs, listeners are treated to 68 performances of 28 tunes, the vast majority of which are foundation planks of American pop song composers from Rodgers & Hart to Jimmy Van Heusen to Henry Mancini to Paul Simon to Bobbie Gentry. Many are Evans staples, with "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," "My Romance," "My Foolish Heart," "But Beautiful," "Like Someone in Love," "Someday My Prince Will Come," "Days of Wine and Roses," "I Do It for Your Love," etc., among them. There are nine Evans originals (and one that should be): "Re: Person I Knew," "The Two Lonely People," "Your Story," "Laurie," "Turn Out the Stars," "Knit for Mary F.," "Bill's Hit Tune," "Tiffany," and "Letter to Evan." The one that should be is "Song From M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless)." No one should harbor the illusion that the music on Consecration is in any way inferior to that found on The Last Waltz. First and second sets are, more often than not, articulated in different languages. The proof here is in the grooves: The Evans trio comes out of the box on disc one from August 31 steaming. This version of "Re: Person I Knew" sounds like it's an encore after a full evening spent in deep concentration with the band. The fluidity of whirlwind improvisational ideas around the tune's changes and its rhythm is startling for a first track. There is no hesitation anywhere in the heart of the music, with Evans swirling around his rhythm section and Johnson and LaBarbera turning all of those ideas into a shifting, swirling mass of harmonic elegance that turns not back on itself, but toward the heart of musical communication and blows it wide open for the common listener to take in. Elsewhere, such as on the three versions of "Song From M*A*S*H," Evans and Johnson take the introspective melody, clip its ends, and create a dynamic and shimmering tension that LaBarbera then moves into scintillating overdrive. The contrapuntal middles of the versions by Evans, as he runs through and around the basslines with trills and dropping fat open chords in the syncopation, are exhilarating almost beyond measure. On "Two Lonely People," Evans tosses a changeup into the mix that turns around the balladic nature of the tune and instead puts forth its swinging harmonic shifts and chromatic shapes. The interplay between Evans and Johnson halfway through is a nearly symbiotic communication, one that Evans hadn't enjoyed since he played with Scott LaFaro in his second trio. Evans goes on mostly alone after this exchange, incorporating every harmonic and intervallic shift into the base of the melody until the pair comes back in to turn up the heat on the finish.
As the CDs play on, the renditions of these tunes, played night after night, become more exotic and more adventurous, but no less focused or disciplined. It's as if there is more order, not less -- more control of how the music speaks through the trio and more dynamic tension put forth in the music. It is as if there were so much more at stake later in the band's stand than at its commencement. In all, there isn't a letdown in any of these sets. The repetition becomes necessary when one hears the entire narrative expanded. In fact, it now behooves fans to hear each evening as it was played out, first and second sets played out in sequence. Like the aforementioned collections, the sound on this box is top-notch, even crystalline. No doubt many collectors have this material already -- they paid a lot more for it, too. However, for any Evans fan looking to investigate his late period, this is as fine as any a place to start. But be forewarned: This is the beginning of a very addictive -- and extremely moving -- listening experience.