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Eddie Gomez: The Call of the Wild

Robin Arends By

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When artists don't know what to do, they try to do more than the others. They make more paintings, use more notes, more words, more dance moves. It becomes busier and denser.
How to survive in jazz music? One of the people who can answer this question is bassist Eddie Gomez. With his 11 year cooperation he was the longest serving sideman of pianist Bill Evans. After interviewing Evans-bassist Chuck Israels in Holland, I called Gomez a few weeks later in his hometown. Twice there was a connection to his voicemail saying: "Here is Eddie. Please leave your message when you hear the call of the wild" (subsequently a cry of a bird). The third time I spoke to Gomez in person. In two phone calls we spoke about jazz in the fifties and sixties, pollution, overcrowding, Eddie's collaboration with Bill Evans and his rich career afterwards.

All About Jazz: Mr. Gomez, you have been a professional active in music for more than five decades. Which differences do you notice in jazz music since you started performing?

Eddie Gomez: The whole performing thing has changed considerably. When I started there used to be a lot more clubs and situations to play and perform. Now there are less. There are concert halls, but the concerts are only afforded to a few. Just the big names.

AAJ: Is it the opportunity that changed or the audience?

EG: It works both ways. The world has changed and the audience has changed as well. I think fewer younger people are active in jazz music. The new laboratory is the schools. When I came up jazz as an academic pursuit was not available. There were few places where you could study jazz. Of course there was the Julliard Classical School, but to me classical music is a different language. I always played jazz and used a different part of my brain, an artificial kind of language of what I was doing.

AAJ: Jazz is more institutionalized now compared to when you started?

EG: The music evolved and developed that way. You can also say that of classical music. In the 14th, 15th century it was very specialized music and it was not available for the average people. For the average person there was folk music. It took a time before it was not only available for the privileged people. You can say the same about jazz, in a shorter timescale. By now there are more people who listen to jazz music like it is classical music, but the experience is so different. The world now is not in for steady bands. It is hard to sell records. There are many good bands, but there is not enough work, there is not enough touring. In my time there were many bands: Art Blakey, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, there were lots of good bands and they stayed together. This is a treasure for the music, for the art form. They recorded three, four albums.

AAJ: And nowadays?

EG: Nowadays the accessibility of jazz music is enormous. There is the Internet, there is YouTube, Spotify. People can access a lot of information, but jazz music is becoming academic music more and more. You can still hear the great jazz performers, but you can't hear them in person. You can compare them with Beethoven, Debussy, Faure or Stravinsky. You can't hear them perform their own music. Jazz has become museum music. I hear a lot of very talented young musicians wherever I go, but the question is: what are they going to do?

AAJ: Are they going to earn their money with it? Are they going to perform on stage?

EG: Many students chose to go into education as well. They do performances and they do education. That is a smart thing. There is lot of opportunity. This happens in all the arts. There are more people and fewer jobs. This is attributable to the fact that the world is becoming more dense, more populated, there are fewer jobs and that makes people more competitive.

AAJ: What does this mean for the music?

EG It is making it more commercial, but it also makes very talented people search in a very creative way. It is a good and a bad thing. We all try to survive, as well as the arts. The art is trying to survive with all this competition, with all this pollution. When artists don't know what to do, they try to do more than the others. They make more paintings, use more notes, more words, more dance moves. It becomes busier and denser.

AAJ: More is less?

EG: And less is more. Survival is what it is all about. I wish I had a crystal ball. But I do not fear jazz is dying, because there are some very talented people around and there will always be someone to hear it.

AAJ: So you don't think jazz is limited to a certain period like classical music, Romantic music or Baroque?

EG: That is a good question. I certainly think we passed Romantic. Nowadays is such a fusion— and I don't use that word lightly—of so many different cultures and styles because everyone is looking for something new. That is the nature of the beast. It is good to search. It is like the modern classical music in the 1930s and 1940s when people were looking for something new and in the 1950s like Stockhousen. Nowadays we have John Adams and people who work with micro tonality and different forms and some people are going back to neoclassical, as has always been the case. It is happening again, there is neo bebop, neo this or neo-that. It is good, because that is how the music survives. The question is how is it going to survive and in which context? Is it going to survive in the schools the way classical music survives or many of the arts survive in museums? Art is created, no matter why. The question is where can you see it? Where are you exposed to it? Where can you hear the performances? Is it healthy or is it on life support?

AAJ: Your colleague Chuck Israels compared jazz music with classical music, like Baroque and Romantic music. Do you agree with him?

EG: I think classical music evolved differently because it was very specialized and exclusive, where jazz was not, but now it is heading in the same direction. On the other hand it is open to so many young people in the schools. People are aware. The influence in popular music and in film is so large. So you can't say jazz is dying, because jazz is there and bleeds over in so many different areas. But for the purists of jazz, which we shouldn't be, it is difficult to categorize. I think jazz is healthy because it is a hybrid all the time.

AAJ: You started to play the bass at the age of 11. Why did you choose this instrument?

EG: I went to public school, and the public school had two classes: strings and winds. I went to the strings class. The teacher looked at me and said: "Eddie you can be a bass player." It was sort of a decision. I wanted to play many instruments, but the bass was fine for me.

AAJ And the bass is still fine for you?

EG: Nowadays I am not so inspired by bass players, I am inspired more by singers and composers I hear. I am not listening to bass for inspiration, I am listening for singers and grooves, expressions, it could be a different genre, it could be pop music too.

AAJ: How do you look back at your own professional development?

EG: I have worked with really good musicians. So I was always learning. A deep profound, artistic learning happened when I spent continuous time with Bill Evans. I played with other people during that time, like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, but still eleven years with Bill is an immense amount of time. I learned a lot about the art of it, not only to do things well, but also the artistic element of it. I learned about sound, development of music and structure, nuance. I learned how to begin a solo, how to end a solo, how to accompany, the different timbres of the instrument, how to be expressive. Since I left Bill in my thirties I still try to refine my art.

AAJ: Tell me more about your time with Evans. You were 21 when you met and started to play with Bill Evans in his trio.

EG: There were three stages. In the beginning, I was scared and intimidated. Not by Bill, but within myself. I couldn't feel comfortable as a student of art. No one told me I should be there, but I thought there was so much to learn. In this sense I was always careful, too careful in a way. I wanted to learn, but there was so much to learn, I was always a bit nervous.

AAJ: Did this nervousness restrict you in your playing?

EG: Well, maybe it did, but I don't know if it did. If there was time to play I did it the best I could. It didn't restrict myself too much, but it certainly didn't make me feel totally free. In the next phase, after three years I started relaxing and felt comfortable about expression. When I look back to the early records there are some good things in the early records too, but I felt more comfortable after three or four years and in the last three years I felt free and comfortable with Bill and Bill felt comfortable with me and I think we made some nice music. It is so personal. Some people say to me they like the early records very much. They like the raw, natural things that were going on in the early records. Other people like different records. I tend to like the part of my career that is later with Bill. I felt more sure.

AAJ: Scott LaFaro was part of the Bill Evans trio till he died in 1961. How do you rate his impact on bass playing and jazz music?

EG Scott was an incredible musician. What he contributed to the innovative way of playing also came from the fact that the environment was provided by Bill and Paul Motian and Scott was also part of it. They created a world, a communicative, interactive, contra punctual, innovative world, where the bass was a vital part. It was a new approach, in a certain way comparable with Dixieland music. In Dixieland you hear different instruments playing together, playing lines together. It is the same kind of idea too, that the bassist, being a soloist equal to the piano and the drums, is an interactive part of the trio. It is comparable with the way of looking to and listening to music that was changing in classical music around 1900. Bills' trio, and Miles Davis' quintet in the mid-sixties with Herbie [Hancock], Tony [Williams] and Ron [Carter], reflected a different viewpoint, a different perspective, a more contemporary approach of making jazz. I think also the drums took on a whole new approach. Scott was important as an innovator on the bass, like Tony Williams was on the drums.

AAJ: And did LaFaro influence you? Did you learn from LaFaro's playing?

EG: It did change me, in fact it changed so many bass players. I liked it very much. The thing is: you have to find an environment where it works, you can't do it by yourself. When you play it in a group that doesn't want to play that way, that wants you to play more basic and more functional, you have to pick your spot. I did different kinds of playing when I was eighteen, nineteen and in my twenties. I did free playing, classical playing, earlier music, Dixieland and I learned a lot from all these different styles and so for me it was natural for the bass to be always involved and being always functional. I loved that too. I liked it as an actor, all these different roles. One day you can do Shakespeare, one day you can do comedy, one day you do slapstick and one day you do very serious.

AAJ: After your time with the Bill Evans Trio you played a lot in piano trios. Is that your preferred format?

EG: Well I certainly like that, it is a simple, direct way to communicate for me, especially with musicians I like to play with. Sometimes I like the quartet, which is a kind of trio with a horn player, which brings out another side of me which allows me to be a supportive bassist, but still keeps the trio feeling too. I like trio, quartet, even duos sometimes and quintet too can be lots of fun. I think you can have music in any shape or form. I like participating. For me the smaller, the more direct is the expression.

AAJ:You recorded a lot with Italian jazz musicians. Do you think jazz in Europe develops a different direction than jazz overseas?

EG: I think there is a different approach. Sometimes I think the European and the music outside the US—because it is not of the US—has a different look, feel and a different sound. I also think it is more serious. I think musicians, after all these years of playing jazz in Europe and all over the world, they understand the music. They have their own traditions and they have their own culture of it. Of course they have their own artistic culture anyway, the western European culture. So I think there is a special kind of development of jazz music in Europe, in Asia—Japan, China, Korea. In different parts of the world, each region brings its own dialogue, its own sound, its own flavor. I think it is great. They are seriously devoted, extremely talented. From all over the world I notice the deep understanding of jazz music, without to copy styles from before. I think that is so healthy for the infusion of this music. There is a development that happens in each culture in a way that is healthy. Maybe the best way to keep jazz alive is the fact that it is happening in other parts of the world. All these different flavors! Experimenting, trying to create new avenues, ways to make things grow in itself, like all the arts. Sometimes it doesn't work, but I prefer something not working, than not trying, not experimenting, not looking for something new.

AAJ: Your album Per Sempre (BFM Jazz, 2012) [forever], was recorded in Bologna, Italy, while on tour in the winter of 2009.

EG: It was a special moment. We were on tour and I liked the band very much. I felt it was a good time to capture this music, not just as a live performance, but to go in a studio. I think it was a good idea, we had a good feeling together, and the material I liked too, it was a different approach to what we did before. To me it was good and the result was good, so I was happy about the whole project.

AAJ: What projects do you have in store for us?

EG:I'm looking forward to doing something with strings, trying to get some arrangements happening, either for big bands, smaller groups or for strings. Also I have a classical piece that was written for me. I am trying to open it up. I am trying to change the texture of my voice a little bit, or not exactly my voice but the frame of it. To me the essence is the trio and also it has to have swing. It has to have melody. I think there are so many ways to present a frame and I am really excited to try different orchestration.

Photo Credit: Angelo Maggio

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