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Interview Three: The Bill Evans Trio Pt. 2
The American pianist and composer talks to Les Tomkins between 1965-1976. Two interviews conducted with his Trio (1966 and 1968).
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This trio is virtually a new one. Jack did three TV spots in New York with us, then three weeks at the Top Of The Gate. Right after that. we went to the Montreux Jazz Festival, where we recorded live our appearance there.
I think we were very fortunate to get Jack. Plus we were also fortunate to have that three weeks in New York, in a rather relaxed club atmosphere to break in the new group before we had to record. It took about a week–and–ahalf or so before we started to feel that things were going to really get together in a brand new way. And by the end of the job I felt completely confident about the group and our appearances here in Europe.
Jack has brought something to the group that we’ve never had: a sort of creativity on the drums that is different from any of the other drummers. They were creative, too, but Jack seems to find his own things to put in the same places. Consequently, because of his fresh conception, you might say, I think that our general repertoire and possibly the style of the group will go through not, maybe major changes . . . but it’ll be noticeable.
Oh, yes, he has had a little bit of an effect on my ,playing. He’s stimulating; you can always feel his creative energy. Therefore he moves me to find things, perhaps, that I wouldn’t find otherwise. Just the last few nights I’ve felt that his influence has been getting to me. In other words, I feel myself being disturbed from my, let’s say, solid role, the way that I would think if he weren’t there. I haven’t gotten to what I would get to yet; maybe I won’t. Maybe we’ll settle in a different way, or something. But yes, I do feel that he’s a very healthy kind of influence in that way.
I think it’s true that I’m playing harder now, compared to my appearance at Ronnie’s old club three years ago.
But it didn’t happen in conjunction with Jack’s joining the group so much. It’s been a gradual thing. In fact, I don’t know–1 feel I’ve always played about the same. Maybe it’s because of the fact that Jack might play a little harder, and Eddie is a very vigorous bass player, that this gives the dimension to my playing that, though it might not be different, it makes the listener feel that I’m playing stronger.
I know that Philly Joe Jones was with the trio in America last year for about four months and during that time I did play physically much stronger, because the strong things that we played were that much more robust. And Philly certainly fitted into the group; the ballads and all were gorgeous. He’s just a tremendously strong drummer, and it wasn’t that it was too loud or anything like that. It’s just that it got going, and I acquired the habit of playing that way then. So it may be somewhat of a carryover from that.
As I’ve mentioned before, the Trio has never rehearsed. Before the Montreux Festival, we had to do some new material that night that we’d never done; so that afternoon we played over each selection while the engineers were getting their sound balance and so on.
That’s the closest we’ve ever, come to a rehearsal.
Other than that, everything has happened in performance. As I said, the break–in period for Jack was at the Top Of The Gate. When Eddie joined the group, it was at the same time as Joe Hunt; we broke in at the London House in Chicago. It usually takes at least a couple of weeks before the new people feel a bit comfortable, and aren’t just going through terrible panics. Because it’s an awful lot to try to start grabbing all at once. Then the thing starts to get into a real group sound.
Of course, it’s presentable, but it doesn’t have the polish that it has later, or the togetherness, or the possibility for creative peaks. We have to get a basic repertoire together that we can use in clubs and concerts.
It seems as if personalities are this way in music–probably the same way in life–if you don’t get together emotionally and sympathetically in a very short time, chances are you’re never going to get together. And once you are together on that level, from then on it’s a matter of refinement. We might develop a deeper ability to grasp intuitively what the other person is going to do, and so on, beyond that first stage. Then it gets to how we each stimulate each other, and in what directions we push each other, in order to end up with a new product, in a way.
Even though we do the same things fundamentally the same way, there’s a lot of difference. Someone said last night : “Gee, I’ve heard you play so–and–so and so–and–so with three different groups, and each time it’s been entirely different.” Well, that’s the way he felt; I don’t feel it’s entirely different, but there’s an essential change which is the result of the personalities involved.
As for developing a set style–I don’t believe I ever have, really. It seems to me that I’ve always more or less played myself, although I’ve gone through a lot of different influences. I think probably when I had the trio with Scott and Paul, that was the first time that I was striving for something with a group. The reason being that it was only the first time I had a group, and the chance to do it.
What we were striving for was that each member of the group would have more independence, more freedom, and there would be more interplay between the instruments. That was all, and from then on we just played. I suppose it was more a result of just the experience of working with a trio that maybe I consolidated a sort of a style, I guess.
JACK de JOHNETTE
I’m really having a ball with the trio; it’s almost two months now, and it feels great. I had left Charles Lloyd and was freelancing around New York. Eddie Gomez and the man who manages Miles recommended me to Bill. He had never heard me play before, although he knew me by reputation. I came right in, and things just started happening; I seemed to fit in right away. I’d been familiar with Bill’s music for a long time, anyway; he was already one of my favourites. The fact that I play piano myself really gives me an appreciation of what he’s doing. It’s worked out well—as you can hear for yourself. I think it’s one of the best trios Bill’s had.
Of course, Eddie is a powerful bass player; so it’s a good combination. Bill’s playing is certainly changing. We’ve got an album coming out that we recorded at Montreux: it’ll be like a milestone for everybody. I consider it’s the first record where I come into my own as an original player.
I just love to play music, and when I do, I like for it to happen. That’s just something that’s naturally in me. When I’m with people who can play, whatever is in them comes out.
Keeping it subdued some of the time is no problem. Well, I’ve worked with singers, such as Betty Carter. Working with Charles was very good for dynamics, because the music was up and down; you had to listen very closely.
So the trio is helping me to develop a sound and touch. Which is one of the things I’m striving for. Like Roy Haynes; he has a very, very special sound he gets with the drums, that no one else gets. I don’t want it to sound like his, but I want a sound of my own that’s as special as that.
I try to be as musical, as rhythmic as I can. It’s an accumulation of my experiences in life–on the bandstand and off. You give up a part of yourself in order to obtain a group affinity. It’s three people doing individual things, but coming off as one. That requires some discipline, but not too much, if you enjoy making it come out right, knowing that it does so because of you being with it.
Certainly, it’s a great change for me. A lot of people marvel at it, after my having worked with Charles, with Miles, with Joe Henderson and other horns, where drums are used more forcefully. But I really welcome the change, because it means I can play in any kind of context. It’s good to be able to do all types of playing–with the trio, with horns, with a big band or whatever. The thing is, I like to be happy, even though the world could be in a much better state of happiness than it is.
Happiness is something that an individual has to create. It’s easy to moan about the world’s problems. As I see it, we’re all in this life together, all the same. Some of us realise that; some of us don’t. I just live my philosophy, practising what I preach. I try to do good in all possible ways, with no negative vibrations set up.
This trio is an extension, more or less, of the Scott La Fare/Paul Motian type of interplay. Bill grows logically. He doesn’t jump into anything blind: he looks at it. When he plays, he doesn’t waste any notes. And that’s important.
The art is to make use of everything. There are guys who can play fantastic like, ‘Trane could play anything fast or he could play a simple melody. That’s what makes Miles and Sonny Rollins so great.
I’m from Chicago. At the age of four I started studying classical piano with a graduate teacher from the American Conservatory of Music. I continued my studies on up to my teens. When I got into high school, I played bass before switching to drums. We had high school combos; I had a little rock ‘n’ roll group, and the drummer used to leave his drums down in my basement. Having them there in my house got me interested in them. I used to practise rudiments while watching television.
As with other young drummers, I was influenced by Max Roach, Philly Joe, Roy Haynes. Roy has been so ahead; what the young guys are playing now, he was playing 20 years ago. It’s just that they’re doing it a different way, but it’s basically the same thing. Every time I hear him, it’s like a lesson. And as a person, too, he’s beautiful; no attitudes or anything, very happy, he loves life. He’s created a very good image for me; if I were to mould myself after someone, it would be him.
I’ve learned from watching and being inspired by Roy and other drummers. I never studied with anyone. For me, I think it’s the best way. It’s helped me to develop an original style. The grip you use depends on what you’re going to play. It’s a personal thing, really. Different drummers hold the sticks tight or loose, but what matters is the sound you get when you play.
The beautiful thing about the drums is that, unlike piano, saxophone, trumpet, no one person dominates the field. Because you can express yourself so many ways. And every era somebody has contributed to the growth of it. No one can ever be crowned the greatest ever on drums; every drummer has something great to say.
Especially the drummers today. I like Rashied Ali, particularly; he and I worked together with John Coltrane, and we really dig each other. He’s taken the drums another way. He knows what he’s doing; he plays flute, understands melody and harmony, and can read very well.
People have knocked him because he didn’t swing. But he’s an innovator; the way he plays, the soloist can swing or he can play free. Rashied has what you can call a drone: it’s like African drums. The Western style is okay, but the drums–polyrhythms and things like thai—actually come from Africa. Elvin plays that sort of African–type: it’s not technical, it’s more spiritual. This is what Rashied has going on.
The guys that are really doing some creative things on drums don’t get the exposure they should. There’s Beaver Harris, Milford Graves—right now he and Don Pullen have a co–operative duo; they have their own record label. More people should listen to Milford; he plays African rhythms only. There’s so much music happening today; you have to keep years ears open.
As for what Buddy Rich once said—that drummers nowadays tend to specialise too much: Buddy is a drum freak: he plays incredible things, but he specialises in something himself, whether he knows it or not. He specialises in being a great technician and a big–band drummer. He can really push a big band, and I prefer him in that context than with a small group. Whereas, I would sound better in a small group context, I think. When you play in a big band, you can’t play as free: the drummer has the responsibility of holding the band together.
Musicians as a whole are too critical of each other. You have to be, I guess, but you can get something from everybody, if you listen. That’s how I feel. Buddy’s knocked me a couple of times. Drummers seem to think that because you’re not playing a strict time, you don’t know what you’re doing. But, I mean, time only exists on a relative level. Time is something that man creates, as a means to get from one place to another. On the other hand, there is no time—only space. You deal with rhythm, sound, harmony, melody—that’s my conception.
You have to specialise in something, to make a living. You must have something special—a sound, a technique, or whatever—that makes you Buddy Rich, or Eddie Gomez, or Bill Evans. People want to hear that: that’s what makes an artist. Buddy’s got his thing; he has to accept the fact that everyone else has their special thing.
Even though you might not dig it for yourself, there are going to be people who believe it and will accept it. You’re bound to get to somebody: there’s people all over the world vibrating different things. There are so many ways that you can make people vibrate.
Sure, playing piano and bass as well as drums has been a fantastic asset. It’s opened my head wide. It’s helped me as a percussionist, because I don’t sit down and practise drums. I like to be purely spontaneous, so that whatever I play, it’s always different. Everyone should know a little bit, at least, about the piano. You should learn as much as you ,can about music—and about life. Because if you don’t experience life, you won’t put out any music.
I’ve been using the melodica about four or five years. I always wanted to play the saxophone, but I never got around to getting one. I do have one now, which I plan to take up eventually and study seriously; I’ll get to that in my own time. But I started on the melodica to be free of having to put down chords in the left hand, so. I really investigate playing harmonically and melodically. It’s a cold–sounding instrument which can turn you off, and at certain times I’ve felt like putting it down. Now I seem to be finding more things on it; so I think 1’;; continue with it. There’s something about it which I like. This is the soprano, I guess.
They’re all great players that I’ve been doing the first set with every night—Dave Holland, John Marshal, Pat Smythe. And especially the guitarist, John McLaughlin—he’s fantastic.
I hope I get the chance to work with Miles again some time. I was more or less filling in for Tony Williams; it was quite an experience. Miles gives you lots of freedom. He makes suggestions and things to you that really don’t sound great at the time he mentions them.
The future of jazz lies with the younger players, and there’s going to be a lot of good groups now. It won’t be just the Miles Davis Quintet or the Charles Lloyd Quartet. A lot of fine players are coming up; the music horizon is going to be full and varied.
The ultimate thing is to be able to weave in and out of all types of playing—freedom and all of it. Like these first sets I’ve been participating in here. It all happens naturally; it’s not intentional. We don’t say: “Let’s play freedom.” I mean, what is freedom? It’s being able to do whatever you can get to.
It’s been over two years now that I’ve played the bass with the Bill Evans Trio. A very rewarding experience. The rapport between Bill and me has gotten more intense, on a much broader level in the last year, I’d say. It’s just a growth development, especially for me. There’s a sort of a development that goes along with the whole trio, and it can vary, depending on the members of the band.
Since Jack joined us, it’s been an added boost. The growth has really been very clear. Jack has brought in more fire in general. The way he provides a rhythmic counter–balance–I guess he conceives the cracks to fill, against what we’re playing. Bill and I play certain things, and Jack kind of plays off those. He’s very musical; he’s able to go up and down with the music, just what is demanded of the percussion section. There are so many facets of Bill’s playing, but I guess it all comes down to the way he goes about making music. It’s a very clear, straight, honest way of going at it; there’s nothing that’s contrived. He can play very sensuously: everything is directly concerned with music. He’s a great lesson in himself.
My relationship with the bass began when I was eleven years old. I was born in Puerto Rico 23 years ago; as a baby I came to New York with my parents. We lived among mainly Spanish–speaking people on the edge of Harlem. Which is a very good mixed–up sort of environment to grow up in—all kinds of different influences.
Actually, I didn’t single that instrument out. It was given to me. Before that, I didn’t know one from the other really. Most kids have an idea they want to play saxophone, flute or something. Perhaps I wouldn’t have minded playing the violin. I liked singing, and I used to sing in the assembly sometimes. I love the guitar, but it’s not an instrument that I can really play. I’ve fooled around on the ‘cello. and I love that, too. But, anyway, I got the bass, and I was glad I did. Once I got familiar with it, I fell in love with it.
It was when I got into junior high school that there were some kids listening to blues and some jazz. I started getting some jazz records, and I really dug it. Especially the bass, and the function it played. What bothered me was that it seemed to be just snubbed and looked down upon by everybody.
Then I was in the Newport Youth Band at about 14 years old while at high school. I was very lucky. So I surrounded myself with music, and kind of threw myself towards my particular goals. I started doing a lot of playing around New York.
I just wanted to try and think of the bass a little differently. What people like Paul Chambers, Ray Brown and Mingus were doing always excited me. But there weren’t enough great bass players contributing. In a solo way, I felt that all the good, interesting things were coming from the horn players. That’s all changed now. A lot of bass players are making a musical contribution, and kind of challenging the other instruments.
When I say I’ve been influenced a lot by horns, I refer to the freedom with which they seem to express themselves. That’s all I want to do. I really don’t want to sound like a saxophone, a guitar or any instrument othe than .the bass. It would be taking away from the bass to try and imitate a horn. The bass just has to be free to play anything that music will suggest.
Scott La Faro, more than anybody, freed the bass role and function, so that you didn’t have to be so strict. Especially in the relationship he had with Bill. Mingus was doing that before; so was Richard Davis a little bit, I guess. But with Bill, it was very clear thinking by Scott as to what he wanted to do on the bass. He was a great, great player. His death was a tremendous loss, because imagine what he would be playing like now! He played quite incredibly then.
To my mind, no one after him has come near that kind of playing. Including myself—very definitely.
It’s a monster of an instrument, one that you really have to love and dedicate yourself to. Otherwise, there’s no sense in playing it. I’m still nowhere near where I want to play. There’s so much more you can challenge yourself to do.
It has nothing to do with technique, necessarily, or virtuosity. It isn’t just scales, being able to play certain studies, or anything like that. A whole musical growth takes place, with the scope widening and widening. Ideally, it’s a growth that should never stop. Although it does—with most humans.
Whatever I play—if it’s just one note—my intention is to make a nice, pretty sound, that has a good feeling about it. I never thought so much about whisking about; up and down the bass.
Of course, I had to work somewhat, and be aware of the kind of sound that I wanted. I think a teacher has something to do with that. Fortunately, I had a very great teacher, the late Fred Zimmerman. He had a beautiful sound, particularly with the bow.
But it doesn’t always have to be beautiful. Sometimes there is a need for making a sort of a contrary sound to that. Not really ugly: just another way of playing, expressing a different emotion. I like using the bow, but I don’t with Bill, because that would just add another entire dimension to it, that I would have to explore fully. I’d have to try and use that to the fullest. And that I’m not ready for; I just don’t want to do that, since I’m trying to develop the pizzicato.
I practise with the bow, but not a lot. I really practise playing tunes more than with the bow now. No special practice routine; only when I feel like playing. Which is a lot, but very unroutined. I have a lot of books that I practise from, but there’s nothing in particular that I set myself to do every day.
Sure, I’ve heard the Francois Rabbath record (“The Sound Of A Bass”). He’s a very, good bass player. He wasn’t entirely in the jazz thing, but that has nothing to do with it. The performance was great. I’ve tried some of that bowing under the bridge in my own kind of fooling around, and maybe in other music with other people. But with Bill I kind of play a certain way because he requires it. That record was very inspiring, though.
The occasional feature spots that Bill lets me do, like “Embraceable You,” constitute an experiment. I pretty much do everything: they accompany me, and let the bass make as much happen as ,possible. The bass certainly can command attention. And it’ll continue doing it.
Like anything else, certain nights are tough with the trio. A club has more of a loose atmosphere than a concert. You can stretch it out, and you have two or three sets to play. In a concert there’s an air of this is what’s going to be, and after it’s over, it’s done. So it’s very quick and I guess more tension is involved. I prefer a club, because it gives more opportunity for all of us to just try and relax and not be thinking about being on top of it. Bill’s tunes all afford the same sort of big challenge. But they’re so great, so demanding, that they’re certainly enough to occupy me.
Composing is part of what I want to do, but there’s nothing of mine in the trio’s book. I’m kind of very select, and if I ever do it, it’ll have to be very special. My general aim is basically just to keep playing. To try different music, too. Ultimately I want to do a couple of my own albums, trying out the things in my mind.
Recent albums I’ve been on include one I did with Mike Mantler and one with Lee Konitz which is coming out, where he played duets with different people. Then the Montreux concert album that I did with Bill is going to be released in September. We were happy when we heard it; it’ll be a nice album.
Advice to bass players? It depends on what it is they want. The only thing I’d say is: just familiarise yourself with the instrument, the best that your musical direction implies you have to. Get a good teacher, if that’s how you want to express it on the bass. It’s very challenging to somebody who is really willing to face it truthfully. A monster.
Copyright © 1968, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved