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Joe La Barbera: Experiencing Bill Evans

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

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