Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Bill Evans - "The Interplay Sessions"

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

Written from the perspective of 1983, about 20 years after the original Bill Evans “Interplay Sessions” were recorded for Riverside Records and three years after Bill’s death in 1980, the following reminiscences are contained in Orrin Keepnews’ The View from Within, Jazz Writings 1948-1987 [Oxford].

Although the Jazz world would subsequently read a great deal about Bill from the pen of Gene Lees, the late author, critic and former editor of Down Beat, and a very close friend of Bill’s, no one knew Bill better during the formative years of his career, beginning in 1956, than Orrin who produced a number of definitive recordings by Evansl during this period on his Riverside label.

From an overall career perspective, Orrin is more associated with record producing for a series of labels he owned over the years [in addition to Riverside, Orrin also issued records on his Milestone and Landmark labels and produced recordings for the Fantasy Group], but after graduating from Columbia University in 1943 with a degree in English, Orrin’s first involvement with Jazz was as a writer on the subject for newspapers and magazines.

As is the case with so many of the works that have become part of the Oxford University Press treasure trove of books on Jazz, Sheldon Meyer convinced Orrin to put the The View from Within, Jazz Writings 1948-1987 compendium together and also served as its editor.

With the involvement of Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Zoot Sims on tenor and Jim Hall on guitar, The Interplay Sessions under the leadership of pianist Bill Evans were somewhat of an anomaly as Bill usually recorded for Riverside in a trio format.

Here’s Orrin’s explanation for how this all came about.

Bill Evans—"The Interplay Sessions"

“The late Bill Evans was one of the most innovative and influential piano stylists of his day. Since that "day" ended only a relatively short time ago, with his death in September 1980, it remains impossible to judge how far-reaching and long-lasting his influence will be. But if the depth and the extent of his impact on jazz performers of the past two decades is a reliable clue, we will be hearing partial and complete would-be Bill Evans clones for quite some time to come.

In one way, this is certainly not to be regretted: provided that enough future followers display much the same degree of taste and talent as has been shown by such artists as (just to pick two random examples) Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, jazz listeners and the future libraries of recorded music can only gain. But looking at it another way, to be such a thorough influence both on your contemporaries and on succeeding generations poses certain dangers to the artistic status of the innovator. After a while, the original works may no longer seem as fresh and adventurous when we return to them—simply because we have heard so much music in approximately the same vein. Even worse, listening to various self-appointed disciples who actually only grasp (and consequently exaggerate) one aspect of the master's style almost inevitably tends to leave a lopsided and diluted memory of what the original artist was really trying to say.

Louis Armstrong, who was the first to do so many things in jazz, may well have been the first to suffer from this. Certainly the legends and legacies of pioneers like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane have at times been at least momentarily tarnished by the work of decidedly lesser performers who claimed to be following in the path of the master. Evans, even during his lifetime, was similarly somewhat victimized by more than a few pallid pianists capable of playing old pop ballads at slow tempos with a few modal quirks thrown in, presumably sounding "just like Bill Evans" but actually very much missing the point.

One way of appreciating how far off the mark such players are— and of recognizing as well the shortsightedness of listeners and critics who stereotype Bill as a Debussy-ridden specialist in languid mood music—is to pay attention to the several examples of other aspects of his playing, to the non-introspective and occasionally even non-trio Evans.

It is of course true that ever since December 1958, when he ended an eight-month stay with the Miles Davis Sextet, Bill appeared in public almost exclusively as the leader of his own trio. There's certainly no question about that being his preferred and most comfortable setting, and there's also no doubt that if a running statistical count had been kept for two decades it would have shown many more down tunes than up.

But there were times when those trio sets swung like mad—and that more often than not corresponded to the several different periods when Philly Joe Jones was his drummer. Their association had begun when Bill joined Miles in the spring of '58, and even though it was very shortly thereafter that Joe left the band (or was fired, or both—his relationship with Davis having always been a rather temperamental one), their influence on each other remained substantial.

A Miles Davis album that prominently includes Evans, the ground-breaking Kind of Blue, is an excellent place to begin paying particular attention to the more forceful and aggressive elements in his playing. The swinging involved doesn't really have too much to do with tempo, because what I'm referring to is much more a matter of what gets called playing "hard" or (even on a slow ballad) "with fire" than of playing fast. The drummer on Kind of Blues is not Jones, but his successor. Jimmy Cobb. So what is heard are two of the three elements that I feel fueled Bill's performances of that period: the fact of working with three horns and the added confidence and adrenalin that came from being thoroughly accepted as belonging in such company.

For recorded examples of the third element—being propelled by Philly Joe—you have to look elsewhere, but not very far. The Milestone Records reissue package called "Peace Piece" and Other Pieces happens to be titled in honor of a most celebrated example of "normal" Evans—a moody, even Debussy-ish solo improvisation. But it is largely devoted to trio sides recorded immediately after Bill had quite amicably departed from Miles's band to permanently become his own leader. Several numbers include the longtime Davis bassist, Paul Chambers, and the drummer throughout is Philly.

The Davis and Evans sessions noted would seem to represent the culmination of Bill's early period. They take the shy and self-deprecating young bebop pianist I had first met and recorded for Riverside in 1956 to a point some two years later where he briefly admitted liking his own work, had contributed very substantially to the new modal music of Miles and Trane, and had gained the praise and respect of major black jazz artists (a rare accomplishment in those years for a fledgling white musician).

The very next phase in his career took him in quite another direction. Not only did he choose to lock himself exclusively into a trio format, but he concentrated heavily on the possibilities opened up by a remarkable young bassist he had hired after a brief amount of on-the-job auditioning. Scott LaFaro's unique approach to his instrument, plus the always adventurous work of drummer Paul Motian, led to a two-and-a-half-year period in which there was much emphasis on collective improvisation and a constantly growing rapport that, at its most successful, simply reached levels of performance interaction that no other trio has ever equaled. They were often close to their best on what turned out to be their final day's work together. By fortunate coincidence, it was fully taped; two albums (Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby) resulted from their matinee and evening sets of June 21, 1961.

The unique achievements of that trio were primarily a matter of the tremendous musical empathy between Evans and LaFaro. So, when Scott was killed in an auto accident ten days later, there could be no direct successor and no valid follow-ups. What had been created were some marvelous moments, and a suggested path (which no one as yet has really retraced and extended), but unfortunately not a tradition. Actually, for quite some time there was room for doubt as to whether Bill Evans as a creative force would entirely survive. He took the loss very hard; for a while he declined to work at all, and then only accepted a couple of brief solo engagements. In all, it took the better part of a year before he found a bassist he felt he could relate to on a regular basis. That was Chuck Israels, who then remained with the trio from the spring of '62 until replaced by Eddie Gomez a full four years later.

Bill had already begun to get back into the studio: he appears on a mostly big-band Tadd Dameron LP recorded early in the spring, and in April had started on a never-completed solo piano project. The latter was abandoned largely because of a quite uncharacteristic spurt of recording activity that began when Evans surprised me by announcing that he was ready to record with his new trio. Eventually it meant that he was in three different studios on a total of eight separate occasions between April and August 1962, creating four and a half albums’ worth of solo, trio, and quintet selections.

I don't know how impressive that sounds to anyone else; to me, who was on hand for all of it, it is still overwhelming. It must be understood that I had for years been frustrated by Bill's overly cautious approach to recording: more than two years had elapsed between his first and second albums (mostly because he felt he didn't have anything new to say!); and although there were four albums by the trio with LaFaro, two of these resulted from that one-day, last-chance taping at the Vanguard. Only rarely had he mixed with other players on the active New York recording scene: in the mid-'50s he had participated in some memorable experimental George Russell dates, but since then his only important non-trio moments had been on Kind of Blue, on Cannonball's 1958 Riverside debut album, and on a duet recording with Jim Hall made for another label in, I believe, 1959.

By early June of '62 we had two completed trio albums, only one of which was scheduled for quick release. So it was more than a little startling when Evans—that chronic under-recorder—came to me very shortly thereafter with the idea for a quintet album with trumpet and guitar. But it was a valid concept, and it was the sort of interplay with other major musicians that I had been hoping for. (Yes, the blues called "Interplay," which provided the album with its original title, was named by me.) In addition, it was an unfortunately practical idea. I am revealing nothing new when I note that Bill at this time and for some years before had been burdened with what often is described in public as "personal problems" and in real life as a severe dependence on narcotics.

I do not propose to discuss the physical, emotional, or sociological aspects of junk, or to make moral value judgments, l am specifically revealing some conflicting drives that I know to have been at work then, because I feel some awareness of the facts is helpful in appreciating the music and its setting. Evans, like certain others, was usually able to adjust externally to the problem; and I do not feel that his internal emotional reactions (whatever they might have been) detracted from his music. In other words, he could play. But this dependency uses up a lot of cash; the most feasible way for a musician who had not been working much in the past year to get money was from his record company. Bill's record company at that time was Riverside; I signed checks at Riverside. It was not easy in those days to be his friend and producer and record company all at the same time. Other jazz labels of that period stockpiled albums quite regularly; I have never liked the idea of recording a man's music with no intention of issuing it until two or three years later—when he might by then have drastically altered his musical concepts. Nevertheless, recording ahead—so that advances could legitimately be paid to Bill—seemed the only way to deal with both the artist's and the company's cash-flow problems in this situation. Rather ironically, it turned out that I was to delay the initial release of his second quintet album for not two or three but a full twenty years.

I have no reason to believe these two albums would have been recorded when they were if not for Evans's problem at that time. Actually, knowing his personality and recording attitudes, I'm not at all sure they would ever have been proposed under other circumstances. However, I also consider them to be fascinating and valuable pieces of work: quite different from each other, but both well conceived and well thought-out, and diligently (sometimes brilliantly) executed. Bill made some demands on me that summer; we struck a bargain; and he totally delivered as promised—as he always did.

The first album was quickly assembled: Philly Joe was an obvious choice, and Percy Heath (deeply involved in the Modern Jazz Quartet but still accepting occasional outside record dates) was a strong favorite with both of us. Evans decided that a guitar would give more lightness and flexibility »han a second horn; besides, he welcomed a chance to work with Jm Hall. On trumpet, his first  thought had been Art Farmer, who was unavailable; choosing young Freddie Hubbard, then only beginning to attract attention as an Art Blakey sideman. was a bit of a gamble, but it worked out just fine.

Bill's repertoire choices were mainly standards from the '30s, and Freddie was somewhat too young to know them. Instead of presenting a problem, that turned out to be an asset: it was easy enough for him to learn the tunes, and he didn't have any previous concepts to unlearn. In most cases here the Evans approach runs against the grain of the usual interpretation of the song. (Lyrics are good clues to how a pop tune is normally treated, but even if you don't happen to know the words, it's soon clear that these versions are not trying to retain the emotions that led to titles like "I'll Never Smile Again" or "You and the Night and the Music.") Tempos and spirits are mostly bright.

The story of the previously unreleased August 1962 quintet sessions is rather more complex. First of all, I wasn't even asked to do this one until after the July dates, making me feel a bit overloaded. Second, Bill informed me that he intended to record no less than seven original compositions. My suspicion was that the publisher he was dealing with was willing to give him advances on new tunes only when they were scheduled to be recorded. This did not mean that he was shoving any substandard compositions at me. Quite the contrary, they were almost all strong, and some were possibly too tough for the usual circumstances of early-'60s jazz recording— which meant little or no rehearsal and very limited studio time, because that was all the label could afford. (Long after the fact, I was able to figure out that a couple more originals in July and a couple of standards this time would have lightened the load on everyone, but hindsight has never been of much value.)

Such factors contributed to making me feel pretty edgy going into the studio, which surely didn't help. There were two personnel changes: the shift to tenor saxophone was deliberate and based on Bill's feelings about how the music should be handled; Ron Carter was the bassist because Percy Heath was on the road. It was one of Ron's earlier record dates, but he was already highly regarded and was no less than second choice; certainly he doesn't seem to have had much difficulty fitting in. Both Sims and Hall appear to have jumped on some of the material and to have had trouble with other numbers. In my mental reconstruction of the long-ago scene, no one was entirely comfortable, but it is also true that on working with the tapes in 1982 I learned that my recollection of Zoot's having had a hard time throughout was vastly exaggerated. However, there clearly were a lot of physical and emotional ups and downs over the two days. We spent a well-over-average total of four three-hour sessions and came away with Bill and I agreeing that we probably had an album, but would have to do a lot of editing work to finalize things.

Over the next year, we were never able to get at it, obviously somewhat influenced by the knowledge that this material had to wait in line for release behind two or three other albums. By the middle of 1963, various pressures—including the fact that Creed Taylor was very anxious to have him come to Verve—led to a mutual decision to end Evans's Riverside period. Another year later, a whole lot of other, unrelated pressures had led to the bankruptcy of Riverside, and all of its master tapes passed out of my hands.

More than eight years after that, late in 1972, myself and the Riverside tapes, traveling separate and circuitous routes, both ended up in the Fantasy/Prestige/Milestone jazz record complex. But, although almost all sorts of recorded material appeared to have survived the travels, I could not find the unissued August 1962 Bill Evans reels. We did turn up an edited version of "Loose Bloose," which I remembered had been worked on by Riverside's staff engineer, Ray Fowler. It was included in the previously mentioned Peace Piece twofer, under the impression that it was the only surviving relic of the two days' work. Eventually, after a massive re-filing project had taken place in the Fantasy tape vaults, I did succeed in locating all the original reels from these sessions. Stored in poorly marked tape boxes (which looked a lot like some totally unrelated boxes and were therefore quite thoroughly misplaced), they had indeed been on hand but unrecognized all along.

Finally putting the material into shape, with the valuable assistance of Ed Michel (now a noted jazz producer, but once upon a time my assistant at Riverside), turned out to be a fascinating and instructive job. In the intervening years, we observed with interest, Evans had recorded only three of the tunes: "Time Remembered" (which became one of his most enduring ballads), "Funkallero," and "My Bells." And the last-named, whose maddeningly shifting tempo changes had made it the unquestioned primary strangler on our date, had been put into much simplified one-tempo form for its inclusion on a Verve "with Symphony Orchestra" album!

It was decided to program the material almost entirely in sequence as recorded, with only "Fudgesicle Built for Four" placed out of order to balance the length of the two sides. (The tricky title of that tricky tune surely calls for explanation. First of all, Bill dearly loved puns: the reference here, of course, is to "A Bicycle Built for Two." Secondly, if fudgesicles aren't still around, be reminded that they were rather quick-melting ice-cream-on-a-stick concoctions; eating one that was specially constructed for four people would have been about as easy as recording this number.)

Three of the selections ("Time Remembered," "Funkallero," and "Fun Ride") had actually been recorded in relatively few takes. It was easy enough to decide on the preference in each case, and no editing was needed. The others did call for work, ranging from not much on up to the exasperating challenges of "My Bells," which had originally gone as far as Take 25 (although very few had been played to completion).

I learned that Philly Joe, even though way back then his problems had been similar to Bill's, had managed to remain an unerring timekeeper—otherwise, the four necessary major splices we have made in that piece would not have been possible. I learned also that Zoot and Jim and Ron, who might at times have seemed a bit unhappy on those afternoons, had actually been models of patience. (I wasn't too bad at remaining cool myself, except perhaps for the moment late on the second day when a still-functioning journalist—who, therefore, I will not name—tried to continue an interview with Philly when I really wanted to get back to work. Some of my comments were preserved on the original tape; I decline to share them with you.)

But there was one lesson I didn't have to learn, or even relearn, because it has always been very easy for me to keep in mind: the vast talent, dedication to his art, and human warmth of my friend Bill Evans.”

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