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Marty Morell on Bill Evans (PT. 1)

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Marty Morell For seven years—between 1968 and 1975—Marty Morell played drums in the Bill Evans Trio alongside bassist Eddie Gomez. This was a crucial period of growth for Evans. The pianist matured rapidly musically and emotionally, and you can see the physical change on his album covers—transitioning from business-suited Mad Man to bearded Mountain Man. [Pictured above, from left: Bill Evans, Eddie Gomez and Marty Morell in Helsinki, Finland, in 1970]

This period remains among the most fascinating and enigmatic for Evans fans. During these years, Evans' playing style shifted dramatically from poetic and lyrical to pained and energetic. Did Evans' drug use play a role in this change? Was he happy with all of the albums the trio recorded? And why were some albums more together than others? And what about that live recording with Stan Getz in Holland in 1974?

In Part 1 of my conversation with Marty, 68, the drummer talks about taking up the drums, landing the job with the Bill Evans Trio, and how he felt early on playing with the dynamic pianist...

JazzWax: Where did you grow up?

Marty Morell: I was born in Manhattan, but I grew up in the Astoria section of Queens. When I was 15 years old, my family moved to Queens Village, which is further away from the city toward Long Island. [Pictured above: Astoria, Queens, 1955]

JW: What is your background?

MM: I'm Puerto Rican and Cuban.

JW: How did you wind up a drummer?

MM: I just fell into it. I started out playing the piano and then moved to clarinet. In 7th grade I played clarinet in Junior High School 126's orchestra. But when I wanted to join the school dance band, all the other instruments were taken. So I chose the drums.

JW: Did you actually want to play the drums?

MM: Oh, yes. In January 1958, when I was 14 years old, I went to a big rock and roll concert at the Paramount Theater on 43rd St. in Manhattan. It was one of those Alan Freed shows. I was mesmerized by one of the drummers. Little by little, though, my friends got me into jazz. That summer I landed a gig in the Catskill Mountains a few hours north of New York. That's where I learned to read music and drum charts. I also had been taking drum lessons and reading every drum book I could find.

JW: How did you wind up playing jazz professionally?

MM: I could play virtually anything, but the guys I played with were always telling me that I had nice time and feel. I'd just use my ears for jazz. After graduating from high school, I studied at the Manhattan School of Music. In 1964, when I was 20, I landed a gig with singer Robert Goulet and toured with him. A few months later I found myself in a Los Angeles studio with arranger Don Costa conducting. It was a Robert Goulet session for Columbia. [Photo above of Robert Goulet by Don Hunstein]

JW: How did you come to the attention of Bill Evans?

MM: In the early 1960s I was living in Manhattan and was on the scene. I had recorded with Steve Kuhn, Gary McFarland, Gabor Szabo. Charlie Haden, Pee Wee Russell and Henry Red Allen. I already had some notoriety. The first time Bill heard my name was through Chuck Israels.

JW: How so?

MM: Chuck told him about me the first time I was up for the trio gig in 1965. But that didn't work out.

JW: Why not?

MM: Drummer Arnie Wise was playing with Bill then and decided to stay. Then in 1968, Bill's new bassist Eddie Gomez called me for the gig. He said it was between Jack DeJohnette [pictured] and me. At that time, Jack had much more notoriety than I did, so Bill went with Jack. But Jack stayed only six months. He had different ideas about what he wanted to do.

JW: What happened next?

MM: After Jack left, I called Bill and told him I wanted to play in his trio. He was living on Riverside Drive at the time. Later, Bill told me that he didn't dig people calling him that way but said he had heard something in my voice that made him want to check me out.

JW: What did you tell him on the phone?

MM: I told him I had been listening to his trio for years on records and that I thought I had something to offer. At the time I called, he hadn't 100% decided who he would use to replace Jack. He was very nice about it and invited me to come down to the Village Vanguard.

JW: When was your fist gig with Evans?

MM: Toward the end of September, at the Vanguard. When I sat down behind the drums, I felt like I was home. I had lived with Bill's music for so many years. When I heard Bill touch the piano that night, it was electrifying. I was listening to Bill and I was part of it. What an amazing feeling. We exchanged a lot of fours and solos during those first sets.

JW: What did Evans like most about your playing?

MM: After the gig he said he liked that I played with brushes. He also said it sounded as though I had been playing with him and Eddie forever. He said, “You're perfect. My manager will call you in a couple of days to work out the details." But there was a small problem.

JW: What was that?

MM: Bill said, “I have four weeks coming up at the Top of the Gate. I promised two weeks to John Dentz." So I did the first two weeks at the Gate, and Dentz did the second two. Bill said to me, “Don't worry, you've got the gig." That's how Bill was. He had promised Dentz two weeks, and he made good on it.

JW: Did Evans have any critical feedback after your first gig?

MM: No. He said everything was perfect. Bill let you find your own way. He did tell me months later, “You may want to add a third cymbal to offset behind the bass." So I did. I added a bigger one, what's called a China splash cymbal. It has a sizzling sound.

JW: When you were playing behind Evans, what are you hearing?

MM: I was just trying to get with the groove. I was trying to free up and follow my instincts. That's when jazz is at its best. It's control without control.

JW: What was the experience like, playing with Evans?

MM: The way we're talking now. Two people listening hard to each other and communicating. That's different from people at a dinner party spending the time thinking about what they want to say next instead of listening to what the person who is talking is saying. 

JW: What's going on in your head when a set began?

MM: Our eyes would be closed, and I'm trying to put everything out and be in the moment and trust my instincts and trust my ability to hear in relation to what's coming at me from Bill. At that point, your unconscious reacts to the stimulus.

JW: What else are you hearing?

MM: I'm listening for enjoyment. It's a thrill to hear that kind of music coming at you, and you're in the middle of it. That's high on the list—sheer joy and pleasure. We were at our best when we were in touch with each other and enjoying the discourse. 

JW: Were there nights when the trio wasn't in touch?

MM: Oh sure. Everyone has different kinds of days going on, and those moods would come across. Remember, we were playing this music a lot. We were on the road, performing two sets a night, week after week. It's difficult to maintain the same level of performance every night. But even on nights when we weren't in complete sync, it was still a good night for us and excellent for the audience.

JW: Why was the Top of the Gate recording so lively and special?

MM: That gig was the birth of a new era for the Bill Evans Trio. Eddie had been with Bill but I was new, so the trio was new. What you hear on the recording is our excitement about this new period and that we were working quite well together.

JW: When people ask, “What was Bill Evans like?," what do you say?

MM: Bill was his music. All you needed to know about Bill you could hear in his playing. By listening, you knew everything about him. If you're hip to Bill and love his music, then you already know him. That's who he was. Whatever you hear—sadness, intelligence, beauty, humor and inventiveness. All kinds of things. That's Bill.

JW: Would you find out insights about Bill after a set?

MM: After a set, we'd make small talk, but our heaviest and most revealing conversations were with our instruments on stage. Music was our primary language.

JW: Did Evans plan out sets?

MM: Yes, very carefully. Bill never went up on stage and winged it. He would never sit down and play something we weren't already aware he was going to play. We'd work out who was going to solo first and so on. He would let us know the format.

JazzWax tracks: Bill Evans: Live at Art D'Lugoff's Top of the Gate—with Evans, Marty and Eddie Gomez—is available starting today. The two-CD set features 90 minutes of the trio at its lyrical best, captured in sonic splendor.

Interestingly, the first two tracks have Marty and Gomez playing a little louder than on the rest of the album. That's because George Klabin, who recorded the trio in 1968, wasn't able to get a mike test. “They just came out and began to play, and I had to start recording. At first, Marty and Eddie were too bright in my headphones, but I couldn't drop the level too fast. So I did it slowly and found the right spot over the first two tracks."

JazzWax clip: If you don't own Bill Evans: Montreux II (1970), toss it into the cart. The recording is probably the second-best live album this trio recorded after Top of the Gate. Here's Peri's Scope (Dig Evans and Marty trading fours toward the end)...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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