BILL EVANS – A PERSON I KNEW by Brian Hennessey (Part two, Jazz Journal International, Oct 1985)
Part two of Brian Hennessey’s appraisal of the influential pianist covers the last 10 years of his life — 1970 to 1980. In June 1970, the trio returned again to Montreux, this time with Marty Morrell on drums. They produced two very fine sets of music that evening, as the enthusiastic audience testifies on the Bill Evans Montreux II album.
His more ardent followers also noticed that his more aggressive approach in performance reflected some changes in his own personality. His hair was longer, he had grown a moustache. He was wearing less formal clothes. He looked more robust and could be found smiling and talking to people he was meeting for the first time.
‘We had a good reception on our first visit to Montreux in 1968 but this evening surpassed it. Enthusiasm is infectious although the artist never really believes that the one specific performance to which an audience responds is really that much better than a hundred others. When we are playing the same repertoire night after night, there are many times when I think we’re just being professional rather than inspired. All you can do is to try and be as creative as possible. You have to keep pressing yourself against the wall otherwise there is no inner development.
‘We have noticed that our audiences seem to be getting younger and this gives me new impetus. If we were just getting half a dozen drunks every night, I would have to think seriously about continuing in this business. But at the moment, I am heartened by the audience interest. Jazz will never be a mass appeal music but there is nothing more that I can give an audience than I give myself. I’m not trying to be abstract or esoterical. I’m just trying to play my conception of music and I have to direct myself to that rather than the audience because I’m the only one who can tell if I’m achieving the objective. When an audience responds with applause, it can give real impetus, but if I had a choice, I’d prefer no expression of enthusiasm as, to me, it can be a distraction’.
Prior to his visit to Europe in 1970, Evans had recorded for MGM with a small orchestra assembled by Michael Leonard. Evans utilised, for the first time, a Fender Rhodes electric piano. Harold Rhodes con¬sidered this to be the ultimate vindication of a lifetime’s work in the development of the instrument. Evans, however, was reluctant to use the instrument in live performance but employed it again with more effect in June 1971 when recording an album of his own compositions for Columbia titled The Bill Evans Album.
‘I’ve been happy to use the Fender Rhodes to add a little colour to certain performances but only as an adjunct. No electric instrument can begin to compare with the quality and resources of a good acoustic piano. Of course, many clubs pay more attention to their trash cans than the house piano but I’ve been lucky in this respect and most of the instruments I use are acceptable though not always in tune.
‘It also takes a couple of nights to adjust to a different instrument. You can reduce the risks I suppose by carrying your own keyboard with you but that’s not for me. What I really like is to follow Oscar into a club. They ship in a new Bosendorfer for him and sometimes they forget to collect it until I have been through. That’s a thrill for me and those nine extra bass notes under the flap on the big Bosendorfer are just out of this world’.
It was in 1968 that I first met Tony Oxley. We had both dived for the same gap in the bar at Ronnie Scott’s on completion of a Bill Evans Trio set. We combined forces to attract the attention of one of Ronnie’s leaden barmaids. She was totally absorbed with her oscillating emery board. If anyone could get a response it would by Tony Oxley. He is well known as an uncompromising, awkward and argumentative Yorkshireman. He is also respected as a brilliant percussionist.
I remember expressing surprise to Tony that he should be listening intently to a Bill Evans Trio set. It just didn’t seem to have any relation to the style of music that Tony promoted. I was very wrong for I soon discovered that it was the early Village Vanguard albums that had awakened Tony to jazz and prompted him to swap the heat and sweat of a Sheffield steel works for a basic education in music with The Black Watch Regimental Band. It wasn’t too long before Tony was earning a justifiable reputation, although not much money, as the resident drummer at the Scott club.
Whenever the Evans trio was in town, you would find Tony there and frequently playing the last set of the evening with Evans and Gomez. Bill welcomed his contribution:
‘Tony is an exceptional creative talent and I was always pleased when he agreed to sit in. The musical interplay in the trio is mainly between piano and bass – at least on a theoretical level. But when Tony played, his approach was so different that things we had been doing for some time suddenly became transformed. Tony leaves much more space and his concept of time is very different from that of Marty Morrell who prefers the straight ahead approach. But the fundamental con¬ception of the music remains the same. We still try to get into the material on a deeper level although there may be shifts of emphasis depending upon the players involved at the time.’
In January 1972, the Evans trio were again back at the Scott club, this time for a four week engagement. He had added both weight and even longer hair and seemed happy with an arduous tour of Europe which embraced France, Germany, Holland and Italy. In May he returned to New York to record an album for CBS and George Russell called Living Time. In June, he accepted a further short tour of Europe including the Ljubliana Festi¬val but Marty Morrell was unable to make the trip. Evans called upon Tony Oxley to complete the group and was later to offer Tony a permanent place in the trio.
In January 1973, the trio made its first appearance in Japan and a live concert performance was issued by CBS as The Tokyo Concert. Evans was again back in Europe later that year but as a duo with Eddie Gomez. The tour embraced Denmark, Sweden, Holland and Belgium and Evans had added a beard and even more casual attire to his revitalised image.
Marty Morrell rejoined the group to record an album for Fantasy called Since We Met which was a live performance at the Village Vanguard and which to Evans represented a 20 year anniversary of his performances at the club. One track on this album was a Cy Coleman composition called See Saw. The trio had not played it before and were never to play it again, but this performance should finally convince anyone who doubts Evans’ ability to swing.
In early 1974, the trio again recorded with an orchestra under the direction of Claus Ogerman called Symbiosis with Evans again using a Fender Rhodes piano.
‘As I grow older, I’m increasingly tempted to direct the listener to the pure aural experience of music and decreasingly interested in verbiage about the same. Therefore, with Symbiosis, I only wish to say that this recording is one of those events which happen rather infrequently but in which I’m most proud to have participated’.
Marty Morrell finally left the group in late 1974 to return to his native Canada and Evans and Gomez continued with duo performances until Eliot Zigmund joined them for another European tour in 1975.
In June that year, Evans recorded the first of two albums with Tony Bennett. ‘We had been friendly for many years and Tony was a big fan of mine. I must confess that I didn’t like his voice when I first heard him. I thought his vibrato was too fast for my taste. However, we kept saying that we would make an album together one day and finally, we met up in London and agreed the date and the outline of the music. Now, I like Tony’s singing. To me, he is one of those guys that keep developing – digging deeper into their resources. I wasn’t too happy with my contribution on this album. I should have spent a little more time and taken more care’.
Evans and Gomez returned to Europe for yet another appearance at the Montreux festival and this was released by Fantasy as Montreux III. In December, Evans recorded a solo album for Fantasy titled Alone Again. Evans ventured out of the trio format once more for another Fantasy album – Quin¬tessence. This featured Harold Land, Kenny Burrell, Ray Brown and Philly Joe Jones.
‘When I do an album with a couple of horns, or any front line, I try to put out of my head how we approach the music in the trio. I tell myself that we are doing a straightahead date which has to be more physical and outgoing. Things take on a different character and different disciplines are involved. There are times when I would sorely like to play more straightahead music but that’s not what people come to hear from me’.
In September 1976, Evans recorded a second album with Tony Bennett called Together Again and in February 1977 he made a further quintet album, this time with two old friends, Wame Marsh and Lee Konitz. This was released by Fantasy as Crosscurrents.
Since 1973, Evans had suffered some traumatic events in his domestic life. His first wife, Elaine, committed suicide and he married again in 1974; in the same year, his son Evan was bom. He had frequently expressed and displayed an affection for children – he had baby sat for mine on several occasions although they were more impressed with his story telling than his music.
He was certainly convinced that a more normal family life in a new home would bring more contentment and happiness. Yet further tragedy occurred when his brother Harry committed suicide. His health also deteriorated with additional problems from a long established stomach ulcer. Yet while his life was full of personal disaster and his health draining away, the music seemed to be getting stronger and better.
He recorded an album with the trio for Fantasy in May 1977 called I Will Say Goodbye and the first album under his new contract with Warner Brothers was recorded in August that year and called You Must Believe In Spring. This album contained a dedication to his first wife Elaine.
In January 1978, he attempted his third solo overdubbing album. Called New Conversations, it con¬tains solo, duo and trio tracks of acoustic and electric piano and original compositions as dedications to his second wife, his step daughter and his manager, Helen Keane. At last, he pronounced himself very satisfied with the result and only complained that Warner Brothers did a bad job in promoting the album.
His problems were further compounded by the departure of Eddie Gomez after 11 years. ‘When Eddie left, I was bombarded with calls, letters, demo tapes from aspiring bass players. I suppose sometimes this can work but the truth is, you pay your dues and you earn the respect of your peers. When something like this turns up, they think of you. You cannot force opportunities. When Eddie left, I decided not to make a hasty decision. I must have used six different bass players.
Some were very good, others were committed elsewhere or didn’t want to travel. But a friend recommended Marc Johnson, who was on the road with Woody Herman. We were able to get together one evening and Marc sat in. We only played one number but I felt he showed more potential than anybody else. I’m sure there are 10 other bass players who could do the job but that’s just the way it goes’.
A European tour was planned for July that year and although Evans had found a bass player, he had not found a drummer. He called on his favourite percussionist Philly Joe Jones to fill the role. In addition to Montreux where Kenny Burrell joined the trio, there were concerts in France, Italy, London and Middlesbrough. In October, on his return to the United States, Evans recorded his third album for Warner Bros. This time with a quintet featuring Tools Thielemans, Larry Schneider, Marc Johnson and Eliot Zigmund called Affinity.
‘Toots and I talked several times about doing this album, but Toots is always so busy and does not have to rely on jazz for a living. He is the only harmonica player in jazz and I just love his whole feeling for music and melody. How he does it on harmonica, nobody will ever know. I have stopped trying to figure it out. On the tag of I Do It For Your Love for example, he’s playing a fluttering figure while I play a fast scale and half way through that scale, he just picks it up. We did a few takes and every tag was different but excellent from him.
As for Larry, I had heard him with the Thad Jones Band and was very impressed. I made a mental note that I’d like to do an album with him and fortunately, when the time came, he agreed. Marc was improving all the time. He’s a very creative talent, really involved in the music and has developed at a great rate. Naturally, he is influenced by Eddie and Scott but not intimidated. I liken him to Scott more than Eddie. There is a greater spiritual similarity and articulation’.
In November 1979, Joe La Barbera joined the group, replacing Eliot Zigmund. ‘I knew Joe was good but I hadn’t really heard him. But he is tremendous and the chemistry between the three of us is exceptional. This trio has the greatest potential of all and I’m also feeling happier about my own playing. I don’t want to belittle any of the earlier trios but sometimes I don’t think I was as ready to lead the trio into better music. But now it’s moving in the same way as the original trio. For example, in the first trio, we experimented with changes of pace – making a new tempo out of a sub-division of the previous tempo. Now, in My Romance, Joe is in charge of things and after his break, he can take it up or down in pace as he desires. It’s his choice and we just listen and try to pick it up.’
Bill Evans was genuinely enthusiastic about his last trio and found renewed energy to lift performances and explore new avenues. He also knew that his health was deteriorating fast with doctors expressing surprise that his liver was still functioning at all. He was still deeply distressed by his brother’s death, the last and much loved remaining member of his immediate family. The album We Will Meet Again contained an original composition of the same title and was dedicated to his brother Harry.
In November, the trio flew to Paris for a memorable concert at Espace Pierre Cardin. Fortunately, these performances were recorded by RTF and issued later as The Paris Concert 1 and 2 by Elektra Musician. The trio gave similar superlative performances in Stuttgart, Lyon, Laren and Madrid before returning to New York in December.
Prior to their final visit to Europe in July 1980, the trio completed four nights recording at the Village Vanguard. These performances included a number of new Evans compositions which were all dedications to close friends. Regrettably, Warner Brothers have not yet decided to release any of this material but those fortunate enough to have visited Ronnie Scott’s Club in July 1980 will recall exceptional performances from a trio that rarely gave less than its best.
Bill Evans’ final public appearance was at Fat Tuesdays in New York on September 10th 1980. He was too ill to complete the week’s engagement and both Marc Johnson and Joe La Barbera were with him until an ambulance transferred him to Mount Sinai Hospital where he died on September 15th 1980.
In an interview in Paris in 1979, Bill Evans said: ‘Throughout my career, I have strived for development through the linguistics of music. I think and hope that the best moments of my music today will be truly saying something different and meaningful sometime in the future’.
His music has said something to me for 20 years, and in my view nobody could seduce that wonderful instrument, the piano, quite as well as Bill Evans. But as my musical appreciation extends only to my ears, I asked Tony Oxley why he thought Evans to be such an influential master of his craft. Tony kindly wrote the following:
‘The language of Bill Evans, to me, found its strength in its intensity. The balance between harmonic and rhythmic complexity — the sound. Although these elements were working at an incredible depth, it did not stop the adventure – quite the opposite. The roots of his conception were so strong that he could move in any direction without falling over. This point is missed by the majority of his imitators, which shows that learning is closer to the study of the philosophy of the music rather than the style.
‘Historically, Bill Evans is one of the few people in the western world who revolutionised music both harmonically and rhythmically. A revolution on all fronts. He conceived his harmonic movements and introduced new rhythmic possibilities. The demand of playing 2 and 4 had disappeared. This was not for fashion or decoration, it was a fundamental development and 100 per cent part of the music.
‘Away from the piano, Bill was articulate, witty, highly intelligent and sensitive. He was certainly one of the most important experiences of my musical life and what he gave me both directly and indirectly is incalculable.’