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Joe La Barbera: Experiencing Bill Evans


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In his own unassuming way, Bill Evans changed the face of jazz piano trio forever. He made the piano a lyrical, expressive voice for the most subtle and deep emotions, and he transformed the rhythm section from a time-beating, swing-maintaining outfit into an intimate, conversational musical unit. He loved tradition. It was just his grasp of the music and the special way that he composed, arranged, and played that influenced his contemporaries and the generations that came after him. He emphasized self-expression. Tony Bennett summed it up when he said, "Nobody played with more feeling than Bill Evans. You can actually hear the honesty in his music..."

In addition to personal recollections and tributes, two excellent books (Peter Pettinger's Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings (Yale University Press, 1998) and Keith Shadwick's Bill Evans—Everything Happens to Me: A Musical Biography (Backbeat Books, 2002)) and a recent film documentary (Director Bruce Spiegel's Bill Evans: Time Remembered (The Life and Music of Bill Evans) (Independent release, 2016), document Evans' life, music, and impact in depth and detail. Despite his tragic problems with addiction, he was throughout his life a gentleman, well read and knowledgeable, and without doubt a musical genius.

Drummer Joe La Barbera served in Bill Evans' final trio from 1978 to 1980, when Evans died too soon at the age of 51. Together with bassist Marc Johnson, they brought Evans' explorations of the trio format to a peak, thrilling audiences around the world. In this heartfelt interview, La Barbera reflects about his experience with Bill Evans in a way that is both deeply personal and musically perceptive. He discusses what Evans sought from his trio, reveals Evans' personality in great depth, takes us through the last days, and recalls the strong bonds that formed between them.

All About Jazz: What makes Bill Evans so special?

Joe La Barbera: The reason Bill Evans' music resonates so much with people and why he has such a strong following is because it communicates on a very emotional level. Feeling is primary in his music. A lot of musicians like to point out the technical aspects of his playing and I'll just touch on that briefly. Technically speaking, what he was doing with his trios was more of an interaction among all three musicians. There was a constant kind of conversation that was taking place. With that in mind, in that first brilliant trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, Scott and Paul were also re-defining their roles as opposed to the accepted straight ahead format with the bassist walking at the bottom, the drummer keeping time, and the pianist being featured on top of that. Instead, they became equal partners conversationally in the music.

Another innovation was that Bill was using rootless voicings in his chords, which means that he took the root or tonic out of his left hand, leaving that to the bassist to decide which note to use. These are some purely technical aspects of his approach. But overall, it was the feeling that he was communicating with audiences that was unique.

There were other things he was doing like rhythmic displacement that made the sound and the feel of his solos unique. There were devices that he was using like no comping in his left hand, just playing single lines in his right hand, or two hands in octaves and block chording. But these were all just devices at his disposal that he would use to shape the music. These were tools he would use to create the feeling in his music that was always his primary goal.

AAJ: Would you say that the removal of the root helped him to be more lyrical and expressive in his playing?

JLB: No. I think he was always lyrical. I have heard recordings of Bill as early as 1944 when he was still in high school, and that lyricism was always there. He always was a melody-driven improviser. That was the music he grew up with, the music that he really loved. He loved the romantic feeling in music.

AAJ: Even in classical music, he loved the romantic composers.

JLB: Absolutely. And that romantic feeling wouldn't limit itself to ballads. It would also include the up-tempo burners. The lyricism was always there.

AAJ: A propos of that, in my view he was able to change the approach to the piano from that of a percussion instrument (strong attack; pads hitting the strings) into a singing instrument (gentler touch, emphasizing the tones and linking them together into a whole). I think there was something in the way he touched the piano that was new at the time. That seems to have opened the door into whole new territories.

JLB: That is absolutely true. He is one of a handful of artists—you could also point to Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, who were so strong that once they came on the scene, they changed the way the next generation of young players approached their instrument.

AAJ: Furthermore, he kept playing in his own way during his entire career. He never made radical changes the way that, say, Miles Davis did. Some writers have been critical of him for being so conservative, but I think it took a lot of courage for him to do that despite appearing outdated to some. He took a single ongoing approach to infinite possibilities.

JLB: I totally agree; Bill always played the music he wanted to play.

The LaBarbera-Evans Nexus

AAJ: Regarding your own connection to Evans, I'm wondering what drew you to perform with him after he had already had several other trios. I'm also interested in what you learned as a drummer and musician from working with him.

JLB: What drew me to him was the same thing that drew everybody to his music: communication. When I was twelve years old, my brother brought home an album called Jazz Track: Miles Davis (Columbia, 1958). Evans was then a part of Miles' band with Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. I was mesmerized by that album, just as I was with the big one after that, Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). I couldn't put my finger on what was grabbing me so hard, but in retrospect it was really the way Evans and Coltrane and the others were communicating. I didn't really understand it. I knew I was hearing a different kind of piano playing from the hard bop and post bop players I was used to hearing on records, like Wynton Kelly, Barry Harris, and some others. I knew there was something different about Bill. So that was what attracted me to him. I became a lifelong fan, but in all honesty, I stopped paying attention to his trios somewhere in the late 1960s. I just started focusing on another part of the jazz world. But later, when I was in New York, and Evans gave me the opportunity to audition with him, that feeling returned to me immediately on the bandstand when I sat in with the trio.

AAJ: Had you ever heard the Evans-LaFaro-Motian trio live?

JLB: No, I was still in elementary school when Scott LaFaro died in the car accident. But I did listen to their recordings because that trio's work found its way into our record collection. I have two brothers (John and Pat) who are musicians as well, so the three of us were buying LPs all the time. There's something so compelling about just the first two notes of "My Foolish Heart" which leads off the album Waltz for Debbie (Riverside, 1962). You can't really explain it, but there it is.

AAJ: So you related to his music on recordings early in your life and then went in another direction as your career developed. And then one day, he called you on the phone?

JLB: Not quite that way. What happened was a series of events that were unique. Bill and a guitarist named Joe Puma were racetrack buddies. They knew each other from the time Bill moved to New York. They both loved the ponies, and they would go to Yonkers Raceway once in a while. I just happened to be working with Joe and Bernie Leighton in a steady Monday night gig at Jimmy Weston's in New York. Bill mentioned to Joe that he was looking for a drummer, and Joe said he should check me out. At the same time, I was working at another club with Toots Thielemans, with whom Bill had been involved in a recording date at the time, so Toots also recommended me. Bill and his manager, Helen Keane, showed up at Hoppers where I was working with Toots. They stayed for a whole set, and the next day Helen called me and asked me to come down to the Vanguard the next night where Bill was opening a one or two week gig. Toots, bless his heart, timed our sets so that I could go over to the Vanguard in time to sit in, and that's how it happened.

AAJ: What was it about your playing that led Evans to pick you?

JLB: All I can say is that I think going in I fully understood what he was after from the other musicians. It was not to be a re-creation of the previous trios but to somehow pick up the spirit of what they were into and see what we could come up with on our own. I really do feel that that's something that Bill, Marc Johnson, and I were able to achieve. I just tried to get on board with the spirit of the first group with Motian and LaFaro but do it our own way.

AAJ: When you auditioned at the Vanguard was Marc Johnson on bass?

JLB: Yes, he was. Marc had been working with Bill for about four months before I came on board.

AAJ: And had you worked with Marc previously?

JLB: No, that was all brand new. But Marc and I just fit like a glove. He was such a great young player and open to everything that was going on. He was all ears.

AAJ: Before that, what music were you playing that helped you really get in synch with Bill and Marc ?

JLB: It was just about being open on the bandstand. I was playing a wide variety of music around New York: standards and straight ahead with Joe Puma. I was working with Toots from time to time, John Scofield and his first band, Gary Burton's Quartet, Joe Farrell's band, the Brecker Brothers both together and individually, and Hal Galper's Quintet. I was all over the map, everything in the world of jazz in New York at that time, which was 1976-78, up until the point where I met Bill Evans. I was doing a lot of different things.

AAJ: Before you went with Evans, did you have a sense of a musical dialogue with others you worked with?

JLB: Yes, absolutely. Gary Burton's band was definitely a dialogue. Galper's band, Michael Brecker and Randy Brecker, were all like that. I'd say that I was shying away from any bands where I was just playing drums and keeping time for people, because that has never been satisfying for me.

AAJ: So the ideas of dialogue, conversation, and counterpoint were already familiar to you, and you preferred to work that way to begin with.

JLB: I guess that's true, yes.

Working with the Trio

AAJ: So then, with this background, what was it like playing with Bill?

JLB: First of all, Bill was just a very likeable guy. You could not dislike him. By the end, I loved him like a brother. He was very intelligent, funny, loved to talk about different things. We were both in the army, we were both Boy Scouts, we had listened to a lot of the same music growing up. Riding in the car, he'd listen to talk radio. He was very well read and just fun to be around. That was his personality, and actually that was all coming out in his music. But really at the heart of it, he was so devoted to the music. He was dedicating his life to the music, and he had gotten so deeply into it. There were no half measures with Bill Evans when it came to music. He really thought about it. He always put enough energy into his art that he could really be liberated by it. You can find several of his interviews on the internet. In one of them he said that you must let your intuition guide your knowledge. In that way you're being creative with the information you've stored up, as opposed to running out of gas because your intuition is only going to take you so far. You have to have something to back it up.

AAJ: His music appeared inventive, intuitive and spontaneous just the way you describe. But I understand he practiced a lot, so the intuition was hard earned. And though he practiced a lot, he rarely rehearsed with the band. Is that correct?

JLB: We never rehearsed. He did most of his practicing in his formative years. In his maturity, it wasn't like he would get up every day and sit down at the piano. He was well past that when I met him. His technique was fully formed. He knew what he had. It never let him down. He had done his time, and then he was pretty much letting it take care of itself. Of course we were working all the time too.

AAJ: How would you say his music changed over the twenty years from the time you heard his first recordings to the time you worked with him?

JLB: I would say it was simply that he allowed the music to evolve based upon who he had in the band. His trios were all great. He was such a great pianist. The rest of us just went along for the ride. This guy was what was happening, and we were all elevated by playing with him. Basically, he just allowed the music to go wherever it was going to go provided it was consistent with his concept He picked musicians who had the ability to play without him having to critique their playing. He would never do that. He would show you by example what it was he wanted from the music.

AAJ: But I would say you're too humble about this. There so much that you guys contributed to him musically and personally speaking. And I believe he said that he felt that way. And you can hear that in the recordings: each musician feeding the others. But to his everlasting credit, he gave his cohorts more room to flow than almost any other small group leader.

JLB: Absolutely. For one thing, after his solo, he would just drop out and let me accompany Marc for quite a while, and then he would gradually ease himself back into it. He was very aware of what it took to create a varied landscape. In a lot of other trios, everybody's playing all the time. You never get this sense of one voice disappearing for a while. That was a lesson that I learned from him. And it made me willing to drop out with the drums from time to time. That's why on "Letter to Evan" on the last recording from the Vanguard (Turn Out the Stars: The Final Village Vanguard Recordings, Nonesuch, 1996), I stayed out completely, because the recording really needed a space where it was just him and Marc playing.

AAJ: He seemed to allow for maximum creativity and interaction between the three of you.

JLB: I think that was because he really had his ego in check. It wasn't as if he was the star. He placed the music above himself, so all three of us were looking up to the sky above us, if you will, at the music being the goal. And so we were all aiming for that as opposed to pleasing the band leader. And the space he gave to Marc and me came with the repertoire. Bill loved to trade solos with Marc and me, eights, and fours, and twos. And sometimes I'd take an extended solo, though I was careful about doing too many of those in an evening.

The Last Days

AAJ: I wonder now if we can talk about Evans' personal life. As we know, he suffered from addiction to heroin, alcohol, and other drugs throughout his career, with periods of remission. What really moves me is my impression that even though his addictions progressed, he was always a good person, always responsible. It was as if he never got corrupted emotionally or morally by the addiction. To my knowledge, that is very rare. Do you have a similar sense?

JLB: First of all, Bill never drank alcohol. Somehow that problem got inserted in the dialogue recently but it's untrue. I totally agree with the rest of what you say. With many hard core addicts, the addiction becomes so all-consuming that it affects every aspect of their lives. Not so with Bill Evans. He was very responsible. I don't think we ever missed a gig because of his drug use. Marc and I always got paid, although towards the end there were a few problems. Addiction is so hard for me to comprehend. I tried to be a junior psychologist with him, but as you know anyone with an addiction is very clever and has all the arguments. But he didn't play that game. He simply said to me, "This is the way I'm living my life. Don't try to figure it out or help me deal with it." So that was it. I couldn't go against his wishes. That's the choice he made. That's the way he was. He was consistent across the board. If you check out his various interviews, you'll see that he never varied from his convictions on any point. Whether it was music or his life, he was always very up front, very clear. He considered his drug addiction as a personal problem.

AAJ: He seemed, despite his addiction, to continue to dedicate his life to his creativity. He also seemed to be a very dedicated father.

JLB: Unfortunately, being a father had its challenges for Bill, and that was probably the biggest disappointment in his life. I can't really speak about that in any detail because when I joined him he and his wife Nenette were already separated. He had his own apartment, would go and have visits, and things would be up and down. I'm sure it was a big letdown for him because he did want to have a family very badly. I know he loved his son, but I can't imagine that Evan had the kind of relationship with Bill that either of them really wanted.

AAJ: There's very touching home movie footage with Evan riding on the back of Bill's bicycle. Bill seems happy, but it appears from Evan's facial expression that he's unaccustomed to having his dad around him, like he's a bit of a stranger. That often happens with a father who is working and traveling a lot.

JLB: That's the life of a jazz musician. It comes with the territory.

AAJ: How did you experience going overseas with the trio?

JLB: We went overseas twice. We did two extensive European tours. We went to France, Italy, and some touring in Germany. We went to Brazil and Argentina on a South American tour. We were all set to go to Japan when Bill passed away. He was much in demand then. We were supposed to go to Russia in 1980, but Bill cancelled that trip because he was opposed to Russia's invasion of Afghanistan, which he expressed in a lengthy letter to Downbeat, saying that although he would disappoint his fans there, he felt that as an artist he needed to protest that occurrence. He was definitely a man of strong conviction.

AAJ: There's a recording of one of the Argentina performances (Bill Evans Trio—Live In Buenos Aires 1979 (Yellow Note Records)) where he seemed to stretch the limits of rhythm and harmony beyond anything he did before. Does that ring a bell with you?

JLB: Yes, it's two LPs that I have in my collection. As you said before, he really loved the trio and was really stretching his own playing. He had one tune, "Nardis" by Miles Davis that he nicknamed the "rubber room" song [Laughter] where we could just go bananas and go all out. At the other extreme on ballads like "Minha" or "Gary's Waltz," it couldn't get any more delicate. Very poignant, sparse, and very moving.

AAJ: Did he play differently in different countries?

JLB: No. Not at all. I think that once he got on the bandstand, he could have been anywhere. Of course the fans in South America were extremely responsive. They'd been waiting for him to come for so long, and now suddenly he's here. So they were more demonstrative. But honestly, wherever we went, the crowds were very enthusiastic.

AAJ: Sometimes the musicians respond differently to different audiences in the way they play. But you said Bill played basically for himself.

JLB: I think he felt that if he was pleasing himself, that it would also please his audience. He wasn't deliberately trying to shut them out.

Bill Evans' Demise

AAJ: I was very moved reading about when he died that you took him to the hospital, going from New Jersey over the George Washington Bridge and taking him to the hospital in Manhattan where he later passed on.

JLB: Laurie, his girlfriend at the time, was staying with Bill, and we had been trying for a while to convince him to go to the doctor, but he kept refusing. Then, all of a sudden, on a Sunday night after we had just finished a week at Fat Tuesday, he said, "All right—I'll go to the doctor." And I said, "OK. I'm staying and Laurie and I will take you to the doctor." Unfortunately, when we were driving in Manhattan, he became seriously ill, so we had to take him right to the emergency room. We drove by Helen Keane's office to pick up something there, and when Laurie came back to the car, Bill started getting really violently ill. Even though he was dying, he's backseat driving, telling me which blocks to turn off on. It was crazy, but we did what he said.

AAJ: Where were you staying when he called you?

JLB: Whenever I would work in New York, if I had to, he'd let me sleep on his sofa. I'd often hang at his house. He wasn't sick that morning. It got bad when we were already driving to Manhattan to see his doctor.

AAJ: So it started out as a routine doctor's visit?

JLB: Yes. We were going to see the doctor who was in charge of the methadone program he was in. Then suddenly, he got severely ill, and we took him to the ER.

AAJ: I imagine that the months before that were very painful for you, to see him going down from his addiction.

JLB: I ran the gamut emotionally. I was mad, I wanted to kick him in the pants. I wanted to reason with him! But obviously, it was way past that. Marc Johnson and I came to realize in the last two or three months that the end might be near. Bill was saying goodbye to his friends in the various cities we played in. But in a way, I didn't really see what was happening. When you're with someone every day, you almost don't see their gradual decline. But if you look at a photograph of Bill when I joined the group as opposed to a photo of him towards the end, it's startling! But honestly, that last night, when he sat down at the piano at Fat Tuesday, it was like he was 25 again. He was playing his heart out!

AAJ: What an incredible story on so many levels! And how close you became with him in friendship—like a brother.

JLB: The three of us were very close. He regarded Marc almost like a son, because he was much younger than us. And Marc and I still remain very close.

Joe LaBarbera Today

AAJ: Have you found ways to replace Bill in your life?

JLB: For me, it's not really about replacing him. His legacy lives on. I try to carry on the lessons I learned from him with musicians that I work with. I don't make comparisons. Working with Bill was a once in a lifetime deal. But I've enjoyed playing music every day in my life since then. It's just different.

AAJ: It's not as if you found a particular group to replace the Evans trio.

JLB: I carry it forward in lots of groups. I tour with Eddie Daniels in a quartet, I tour with Joe Locke sometimes, with singer Eliane Elias and Marc Johnson on occasion. I tour with Eddie Gomez and an Italian pianist named Dado Moroni. I'm in a wonderful quartet led by bassist Martin Wind. It's all great. It really doesn't matter the kind of music we're playing. I just like to get on the bandstand with musicians who are there for the right reason.

AAJ: Do you have your own steady working group these days?

JLB: Since I moved out here to Los Angeles, I've had a quintet that I've worked with for over twenty years. But we don't play too frequently anymore on account of everyone's busy schedules. I hope we can get a gig for August so we can reunite. It's Bob Sheppard on saxophones, Clay Jenkins on trumpet, Bill Cunliffe on piano, and Tom Warrington on bass. Tom recently retired from his teaching job at UNLV and has moved to New Zealand, so he's not practically available, but will always remain a charter member of the band. More recently I've been hiring a very talented young bassist named Jonathan Richards.

Bill Evans will always have a place in my heart, and the music goes on despite his loss. He would have wanted it that way.



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