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Joe La Barbera: Experiencing Bill Evans

Victor L. Schermer By

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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

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