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Joe La Barbera: Experiencing Bill Evans

Victor L. Schermer By

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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critical of him for being so conservative, but I think it took a lot of courage for him to do that despite appearing outdated to some.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, Julian "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.

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