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Marty Morell on Bill Evans (PT. 2)

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Marty Morell The first Bill Evans Trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian liberated the rhythm section. Up until the first Bill Evans Trio's formation in 1959, a rhythm section was largely a supportive unit that played behind horn players. Or in cases where a trio stood alone, the bass and drums were there to keep time while the piano entertained. But with the first Bill Evans Trio, the rhythm section became something much more—a group of independent conversationalists who exchanged ideas advanced by the pianist. [Pictured at top: Marty Morell in 1972]

When LaFaro died in an auto accident in the summer of 1961, he was replaced by Chuck Israels. Then drummer Larry Bunker replaced Motian in 1963. There were some temporary personnel changes, but Evans, Israels and Bunker were together until late 1965, when Evans toured Europe without them. Upon his return, Evans worked with Bunker and a series of bassists until he hired Eddie Gomez late in 1966. In 1968, Marty Morell was hired, and this trio remained intact until 1975, producing enormously exciting and heartfelt music. [Pictured above: Marty Morell in 1970]

In Part 2 of my three-part conversation with Marty, the drummer addresses many fans' misconceptions about changes in Evans' playing style, and the pianist's musical and personal maturation over this period:

JazzWax: The Bill Evans Trio's sound dramatically between 1968 and 1975 yes?

Marty Morell: Oh sure, we evolved. We became a lot tighter. I think we got to the point where we began thinking together, as thought there was some kind of ESP going on.

JW: Evans' playing also became more agitated and edgier, if you will, yes?

MM: Let's say his playing became more energetic. Bill was always searching. He didn't want to be complacent. He was always trying to find new ways to play the same tune. He wanted to introduce new harmonic concepts. Bill was about harmonic movement.

JW: Didn't playing some of those songs repeatedly get on your nerves?

MM: How so?

JW: Evans seemed to play the same cycle of songs over and over again during this period.

MM: The beauty of Bill was that he was always trying to find new places in the same song structures. They were all such beautiful songs, and yet there's always something a little different about the results. He also was really coming out of himself during our time together.

JW: To the listener, Evans could at times feel a little heavy in the '70s and in a hurry.

MM: Bill did have a tendency to rush. But on nights when Eddie and I could harness that energy, and we were tight and could pull on the reigns and keep that horse from rushing forward, we would burn.

JW: When you say rush, what do you mean?

MM: Bill, like all piano players, could wind up far on top of the beat, and he always wanted the energy of his sound to be there. But Eddie and I were tired, or we weren't on our game, Bill's tempo could get away from us. 

JW: But what about playing so many of the same songs repeatedly?

MM: You have to understand that we played live often, and a lot of our fans wanted to hear certain songs. I just recently finished five years with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Our opening tune was Take the A Train, followed by Rockin' in Rhythm, Don't Get Around Much Anymore, In a Sentimental Mood and so on. The audience wants to hear those.

JW: For example, did you enjoy playing extended versions of Nardis so often? MM: [Laughs] Yeah, I did. It's a great tune. There's a lot of texture and drama in there as well as varied rhythms.

JW: Did you have a least-favorite song?

MM: There really wasn't anything I didn't enjoy. I loved playing My Foolish Heart and Gloria's Step. I loved the waltzes, and Elsa, Haunted Heart and Some Other Time. These tunes enraptured me.

JW: This is a sensitive question: Some fans divide Evans into two periods—the years in the '60s when he was addicted to heroin and the '70s when he was using cocaine to kick his heroin habit. Is this description of his two artistic periods fair?

MM: That's a crock of crap. What do they mean by it?

JW: These people say that during the '60s, when he was using heroin, there's a more patient and introverted quality to his playing, and in the '70s, under the influence of cocaine, his playing was more agitated and restless.

MM: People who say these things don't know anything about Bill. At that point in time, in the '70s, Bill was on the methadone program. He was trying to clean up. The change in his sound had nothing to do with drugs. In his early trio—with Scott [LaFaro] and Paul [Motian]—Bill was young and introspective. He didn't mature as a person until later, in the '70s.

JW: How do you mean?

MM: Bill was very shy and introverted in the '60s. But as time progressed, he became more of an adult. When I read articles or books on Bill, I'm often shocked that what I'm reading is such a bunch of garbage. These people do not know what they're talking about. It didn't matter if Bill was on drugs or not. Too much is made of that. You have to take the music at face value, out of respect for the art, and leave his personal life and demons out of it. I can tell you that whatever he was on, it never affected the music. I was there for seven years. Bill was the most consistent musician I've ever played with. Everyone has mood swings, and that's what you're hearing.

JW: But those moods swings were caused by something, yes?

MM: Look, here's my take on the whole thing: Bill's life was filled with a lot of tragedy and that's built in. The first blow was the car crash that killed Scott in 1961. Bill told me that after that happened, he lost it.

JW: But his troubles with drugs began earlier.

MM: They did. He had been playing with the Miles [Davis] Sextet in 1958. Those cats were heavy, and there was peer pressure. He was a skinny white kid from New Jersey, and he was hanging out with Miles and those guys. Bill wanted to be one of the cats, and he went along for the ride. He was a little curious, too. But it was mostly peer pressure.

JW: Why was LaFaro's death such a big blow?

MM: Bill told me he fell apart emotionally. When he listened to recordings the trio made in 1959 and 1960, he said he had had a revelation. He told me he had said to himself, “Wow, that's unique and different." Bill was so proud of what they had done. It was a heavy breakthrough.

JW: What exactly did they do?

MM: They brought something to the jazz world that was different and completely new. Six months later it was over—and the result of Scott's [pictured] loss was devastating for him. Bill didn't play for a year after that.

JW: Tell me what LaFaro contributed to that trio?

MM: Scott brought interplay, beauty, lines and rhythmic configurations. He also wrote some great tunes. Before that, Bill had played with [bassist] Paul Chambers, who was four to the floor. Scott introduced interplay between the bass and piano, and Bill understood how rare that was in jazz. Scott's playing changed Bill's approach and what he wanted to do with a trio. And then Scott was gone.

JW: So LaFaro transformed the bass into conversational participant rather than just the piano's metronome?

MM: That's a good way to put it. Those guys invented the whole concept of the rhythm section engaging in interplay. Before that first Bill Evans Trio, the rhythm section was a whole different concept. Scott [pictured] was a big part of that invention—the fluidity of the soloing lines, the notes he used, the notes behind the piano in broken time but that still made sense.

JW: He was a complete voice in the trio, as were Motian's drums.

MM: Yes, that's right. They were the inventors of that. So it's understandable that Bill would be devastated by Scott's death. How do you replace Scott? He told me he blotted the whole thing out. He was so distraught. It boils down to originality. Scott was the beginning. With Scott's death, it was like losing a key part of an invention just as it begins to work. That kind of loss can shatter you, especially if you're highly introspective and experience life deeply the way Bill did.

JazzWax tracks: Marty Morell's most recent CD, Enamorada, was recorded with his wife, vocalist Michiko Ohta. It's a Latin album, and Michiko sings in Spanish. 

JazzWax clip: This film of the Bill Evans Trio in Helsinki, Finland, in 1970 remains the finest example of what made this group so tight and special. At the start of the film, Evans offers one of the most cogent definitions of jazz as well as explanations of his own vision. And dig what Marty does on the brushes to frame Evans as they play Alfie...


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