Monday, March 26, 2018

Natural Flow - The Bill Evans Trio by John A. Tynan

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

In the early 1960s, not too long after it first opened, pianist Bill Evans was a frequent visitor to drummer Shelly Manne’s - The Manne Hole, which was located on Cahuenga Blvd. just down the street from the original Catalina’s Jazz Club, in Hollywood, CA

After the tragic death of his close musical colleague, bassist Scott LaFaro, in July, 1961, Bill couldn’t bring himself to sit at the piano.

He just stopped playing, some say, for almost a year.

Shelly, who was one of the most sensitive guys on the planet and who was also a great fan of Bill’s music, thought perhaps a change of venue would be good for Bill and brought him out to “The Coast,” as it was then referred to by the cognoscenti, for a solo piano stint at his club.

At the time, Bill Evans was not as well-known to the wider Jazz public as he would become later in his career.  As a result, the audience for his last set at Shelly’s was often a musicians-only affair.

Due to reasons of proximity, preference and pleasure, Shelly’s was my hangout as a young, aspiring Jazz musician.

And thanks to Shelly’s generosity in allowing us in the back door sans cover charge, it was a place that I and my cohorts could visit often to fill-up on Coca Cola and plenty of great Jazz.

Bill occasionally joined us at our table, shared information about how he constructed or “voiced” chords, which was very unique at the time, and graciously answered what seems in retrospect to have been an unending stream of questions about “what he heard in the music.”

In time, Bill “healed” and began performing with a trio again, one that included Monty Budwig on bass and Shelly on drums. Later, Paul Motian, the drummer in Bill’s original trio came out from New York and a new trio was formed when bassist Chuck Israels came on board.

For a variety of reasons, some personal and some professional, Paul returned to NYC and Bill and Chuck played as a duo for awhile. In asking around about drummers, Chuck, at pianist Clare Fischer’s urging, suggested Larry Bunker and after that version of the Bill Evans trio had been in place for a few months is when the following interviews that formed this article in the June 17, 1965 edition of Downbeat took place.

“GOOD JAZZ, LIKE GOOD DRAMA, communicates through the inner force of
its conflicts. Art is composed of elements in conflict; good art results when these elements are synthesized by the individual artist or by a group into a creative unity.

Oscar Wilde observed that there is no art where there is no style and that there is no style where there is no unity— and unity is of the individual. Pianist Bill Evans, bassist Chuck Israels, and drummer Larry Bunker are currently demonstrating this truth with stunning consistency as the Bill Evans Trio.

Recently at Shelly's Manne-Hole in Hollywood the three musicians discussed their work and its execution.

Evans, at 35, is grave of mien and sober of dress. Introverted at the keyboard, he plays with head bent to his inventions, seemingly oblivious to all but the secret messages running among piano, bass, and drums that emerge in musical translation as some of the most memorable jazz in our time.

What gives the trio its character, Evans said, is "probably a common aim and some sort of feeling of potential. The music develops as we perform. What you hear in a set has become that way through performance." The approach is pragmatic; something works out in the execution of a certain number, and it stays in the performance because it works.

The Evans philosophy is to the point: never impose any verbal conception of the music before the performance. Let everything happen through the playing.

"We've never rehearsed," the pianist said of the current trio. "We have discussed music collectively but never the specifics of a performance. I want the other guys to feel as I do — that the object is to achieve what we want in a responsible way. Naturally, as the lead voice in the group I might shape the performance, but to attempt to dictate . . . never. If the music doesn't coax a response, then I don't want a response. And this is the most natural course for a performance to develop."

Evans has been quoted elsewhere and at length on the subject of freedom in the playing of many considered avant-gardists in today's jazz. "Freedom is not license," he emphasized. "The idea is not to say, 'I feel frustrated tonight so I'm going to play frustrated,' but to feel that the thing is to be responsible to the music itself."

Of his own playing he averred, "I couldn't be more simple. In fact, if I could be, I'd like to do it." The simplicity, he explained, lies in "the conceptions of the felt forms and felt basics."

Reminded of Bunker's skill as a vibraharpist (he was one of Hollywood's top studio men on that instrument prior to joining Evans last year), the pianist described Bunker's playing as wonderful. But, he remarked, adding vibes to the trio also would add problems. "For the same reason," he said, "this is why I haven't added a horn. You see, in this trio format the fundamental musical principles are happening. There is a bass function, a melody function, and a rhythm function. So fundamentally the trio can develop in this direction."

Israels, he said, lends a feeling of a complete trio. "Three things are happening with each other all the time," Evans said. "Yet there's no imbalance."

Following the trio's current tour, Evans said, he wants to do some "serious work at home" and seek new material for the trio. The problem of playing and replaying a familiar repertoire he added is “to find freshness in it and to progress. Hence the constant desire on the part of all three musicians to find different vehicles for expression. As examples he cited Time Remembered and a number from his Conversations with Myself album, NYC's No Lark.

Finally, he noted the need for such new material is simply "out of consideration to the people who listen to us."

ISRAELS, 29, AND AS CONSERVATIVE of dress and demeanor as Evans if not as withdrawn a personality, has that great technical ability that has come to mark so many young bassists during the last decade and a half.
As articulate as the pianist, Israels described his role in the trio as "not a rhythm function."

"My voice is left open," he said, "because Bill doesn't play the bass in his left hand. So I mold the contour of my bass line to fit the character of the piece." Therefore, because Israels knows the harmonic nature of the piece, Evans knows he can leave out the bass voice on piano; Israels will fill it in.

"There are only a few other groups functioning like this," Israels declared, "Gary Burton's [on records], Gerry Mulligan's, and Stan Getz'. It's a way of leaving the bass player free and giving him a part in the ensemble."

How does this role fit Israels? How, in practice, does it satisfy him musically?

"When things are going well," he said, "say, one night in 10, Bill and I have a dialog going. When things are going really well, ideally — say one night in 30 — it's just perfect."

Expanding on the bassist's role in the Evans trio, Israels generalized for a moment. "There is an attitude prevalent," he said, "among a large group of naive musicians that self-expression is equivalent to following every trivial impulse when in fact these trivial impulses are not the essential characteristics of a person's artistic thought and feeling. I'm concerned with expressing myself, of course, but within my general artistic philosophy, which is governed by a musical language and vocabulary that I feel will communicate my deepest and most important feelings. That means you have to educate your impulses in terms of the musical language within which you choose to express yourself.”

"In relation to the group, there are moments when my role is secondary to Bill's. During this time there may be a breath or space or hole in the music that cries out to be filled in with two or three bass notes to complement Bill's thought."

In this context, the bassist explained, he thinks as an accompanist. "It doesn't detract from my feelings of artistic expression in a secondary role," he said. "Bill does what seems complementary to what I do and I to him. We try to complement each other."
"This, of course," he quickly added with a rueful smile, "is on an ideal plane. This is aside from the burden of personal problems, feelings, considerations, and so on."

On strictly a personal level he illustrated the point by confessing that that particular evening he felt his morale was sandbagged.

THE TRIMLEY BEARDED BUNKER is a 36-year-old Californian, the newest member of the trio, who approached the assignment uncommonly well prepared.

"Before I ever played with Bill," he said, noting his first job with Evans was a brief spell in 1963, "I'd spent about four years listening to everything he recorded. It got to the point where if I really wanted to listen seriously — not just background for conversation or at dinner — to music at home, it'd be to him. So when I first worked with him at Shelly's, it was like playing with an old friend. It was almost as if I'd been waiting for him to come along."

Working with Evans, Bunker said, has resulted in some remarkable empathy at times. They reached a point in their musical relationship then in which the drummer would develop a percussive pattern or response to fit something Evans might be playing, and each time the pianist hit that certain phase, Bunker would follow suit.

"After a while," Bunker said, "Bill refused to respond. We talked about it, and Bill explained why." The pianist felt such interplay impeded progress and genuine creativity by falling into a pattern, however seemingly fitting. Now, the drummer said with a shrug, if something is "happy" between him and Evans, so be it, let it happen.

Bunker's personal reaction to Evans' playing is unadulterated, unqualified enthusiasm.

"When he's really on," according to the drummer, "he's staggering. He probably makes fewer mistakes than any person I've ever heard on the instrument. I hear just about everything I want to hear in his playing. He's got everything — time, emotion, chops. He's like a computer."
Bunker confessed, however, that "in many areas I'm dissatisfied with my playing. I probably restrict myself more than Paul Motian [a former Evans drummer] did."

"Bill loves to sit down and cook," Bunker added, "and just have the time go for him. He's not interested in just being far out for its own sake. For myself, I keep trying to weed out a lot of the extraneous things from my playing. Bill can do that to you."

Bunker enjoys "generally very good" relations with Israels. "Chuck probably has certain weaknesses of his own, things that he's working on," Bunker said. "But we get along."

On the stand it's music time again. Autumn Leaves is whirled into a rapid interplay and fusing of sound, and the intensity of creation is almost painful.
Visually, Bill Evans is a hunched mass of back and shoulders to the audience, his face barely a foot above the keys, his concentration mentally and almost physically bearing down on his listeners.

Sometimes they don't understand. A sweet young thing, visibly bemused by it all but eager to please her date, was heard to remark after a particularly trying set: "Y'know, it makes you want to rub his back."”

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