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My Early Years With Bill Evans, Part 3

Chuck Israels By

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A lot of people asked me then how it felt to replace Scotty. It didn’t feel like anything; I never replaced him. And I was too busy responding to the joy of making music with Bill to be thinking what Scotty might have done... But Scotty’s presence seemed to linger with the trio, nevertheless. —Chuck Israels
Bassist and composer, Chuck Israels was raised in a musical family. Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and The Weavers were visitors to his home and the appearance of Louis Armstrong's All Stars in a concert series produced by his parents in 1948 gave Chuck his first opportunity to meet and hear jazz musicians. Chuck studied the cello and played guitar in junior high school. Later musical training took place at Indian Hill, a summer workshop in the arts directed by his parents, and at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. A year at Massachusetts Institute of Technology provided access to the considerable jazz activity in Boston where Herb Pomeroy, Charlie Mariano, Joe Gordon, Serge Chaloff and bassist John Neves were among the many musicians who lived and performed regularly in the area. Chuck took up the bass in order to fill out the M.I.T. orchestra and soon found a demand for his abilities in the Boston jazz scene. While at Brandeis, Chuck played in a trio with pianist Steve Kuhn, who was then at Harvard, and Arnold Wise, a drummer studying at the Massachusetts School of Art. A concert at Brandeis which involved the participation of jazz musicians Art Farmer, Jimmy Knepper, Barry Galbraith, Bill Evans, Joe Benjamin and composers Gunther Schuller, George Russell and Charles Mingus, presented Chuck with the opportunity to meet and perform with musicians who later provided entré into the New York jazz scene.

Chuck is currently writing a memoir of his life in jazz, and this is the last of three excerpts from it.

Peter Rubie


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

The Hickory House gig was our New York debut, and lots of people showed up. The bandstand was in the middle of a large oval bar, in the center of a high-ceilinged room with tables and wooden booths around the perimeter. But it wasn't really a listening room like the Five Spot or Village Vanguard. Since there was no cover charge, people felt free to pay attention or not as the spirit moved them. In this atmosphere it was possible to play long tunes, stringing out more choruses than usual without attracting much attention to the practice. So we worked out the music—practicing on the bandstand. I paid particular attention to improving my intonation as I moved through chorus after chorus of repetitive bass lines.

There are many romantic misconceptions about the way jazz is created. Since not much is written down and so much is made of its improvisatory nature, many think each performance is new. The fact that this defies logic does not deter some people from holding on to the idea. In fact, harmonically functional bass lines are fairly well restricted. Each piece has a particular set of low register pitches that form the basis for its harmonic progression. Because of the power in these low notes, a peculiarity of their relationship to the sensitivities of human hearing, changing their sequence can wreak havoc on the integrity of a song's harmony. This restriction is not nearly so true of melodic solo voices, usually appearing in higher registers, so those voices have more freedom to explore different note choices. As the surface melody notes change, they occupy most of the listener's attention, drawing it away from noticing the bass line for this chorus is just about identical to the last one. You can change rhythms, nudge things this way or that, approach a target note from above or below, arpeggiate chords, or string notes in scale fragments. But you've got to hit the right ones at the right time or you obscure the form and confuse the other players.

It's not a boring job if the other musicians relate creatively to the bass line, but the bassist is uniquely dependent on the rest of the band for satisfaction in fulfilling that role. A player who misuses the bass part—ignoring it, or worse, leaning on it to extract a rhythmic propulsion that isn't there in his or her own playing—can ruin your night. Amplifiers that allow the bass players to play loud enough to overpower the opposition do not solve the problem. The bass part is still the bass part, and bloating it accomplishes nothing.

Of course, Bill and Paul (Motian) were not only not a burden, they built superstructures on the foundation of my part that made it continually rewarding to play. So I practiced playing the bass lines as beautifully as I could and made my solo contributions as they were called for. I'm sure there were plenty of bass solos—there always were in Bill's trios. I even remember the legendary bassist, Milt Hinton, dropping in to hear us and complimenting me meaningfully on my playing. But what I remember most from the Hickory House job was concentrating on the accompanying parts.

A lot of people asked me then how it felt to replace Scotty (Lafaro). It didn't feel like anything; I never replaced him. And I was too busy responding to the joy of making music with Bill to be thinking what Scotty might have done. Many didn't understand that response, but from my perspective there were significant differences in our abilities and the way we approached integrating the way we played into Bill's music. I never confused what I was doing with what Scotty did. He was much faster technically and had a more developed mastery of harmonic vocabulary. He played more accurately in the high register and had command of practiced melodic patterns that went well beyond what I could do. I couldn't compete with that.

But Scotty's presence seemed to linger with the trio, nevertheless. I insinuated myself into the atmosphere of Bill's playing. Scotty's solos burst into the available musical space in marked contrast to Bill's; I tried to continue Bill's musical thoughts and feelings. Scotty was a stronger individual presence; I tried to cement a more strongly bonded trio. It was what I could do.

In May and June 1962 we were in the studio with Orrin Keepnews and engineer Ray Fowler. We made two recordings during those sessions: a ballad album called "Moonbeams," and another named for the included Earl Zindars piece "How My Heart Sings." Orrin wanted to release a recording of the trio playing ballads, and he scheduled enough time to produce music for two LPs. The ballads were interspersed with more up tempo material to avoid monotony, with most of them on the Moonbeams LP.

There was also a session for Atlantic Records under Herbie Mann's leadership. It was a respectable effort but not as good as the trio dates. Herbie had the good fortune to catch the public's fancy as the first commercially viable jazz flutist but the misfortune not to be as good a player as some others—like his contemporary Sam Most or Joe Farrell, Hubert Laws, and Lew Tabackin who came later. But Herbie played well enough and maintained a successful career as a leader. He was also an astute judge of musical trends as well as being among the nicest people to work for.

Making music with Bill was becoming second nature—my nature being to make the most of my native abilities and to use every wile possible to avoid confronting areas that gave me trouble. I wasn't aware this was what I was doing, I was just surviving and making as much of my musical opportunities as I knew how. Yet some things that would later prove to be challenges I had to confront, were choreographed into a dance of avoidance.

You get used to your disabilities. They are subjectively unremarkable, but you do notice them when you compare yourself to others who exhibit strength in areas where you're not so strong. Mostly you try not to look in that direction, preferring to show yourself a flattering picture. Mirror, mirror . . .

A small part of you knows what's going on, but a bigger part concentrates on what's serving you well: the rhythm, timing, breathing, phrasing, dynamic nuance, touch, timbre, articulation, intuitive sense of proportion and direction—the things that work without conscious thought. They just work, without fail. So you build your system of aesthetic beliefs on them. These are all good things, and they provide rich veins of artistic resources. But there were less developed areas too, and I knew that. It's just that Bill was such a complete musician; he easily carried the weight of my shortcomings. He did it exquisitely and without complaint, and I let him.

Bill's relationship with Scotty had been complicated by competition and some aesthetic disagreements. Ours seemed more smoothly symbiotic. I was content to blend accompaniments to his playing, to become a lower left hand to his piano, functioning with just enough independence to keep the music interesting but rarely to provoke a substantial change in what he was up to. I wanted my solos to flow seamlessly in and out of his, and I accomplished that to the extent I was able, enough to satisfy Bill. Bill was happy to provide all the harmonic direction. And Bill's harmonies sounded better than anything I'd heard, at least in terms of blending bass and piano.

This is how it worked: Bill would study a piece. He'd spend whatever time it took to find the harmonic nooks and crannies that let him express his personal way of hearing the tune. He had his own set of rules for doing this, and though they provided a degree of flexibility, there was a solid set of guiding principles:
  • Leave the main cadence points of the tune intact
  • Don't do anything bizarre at those parts of the tune
  • Approach those main cadence points from interesting, usually chromatic, directions
  • Use suspensions and resolutions to delay the final dominant seventh chord sound as long as possible
  • Harmonize available passing notes in the bass lines with passing chords where appropriate (thicken the bass line)
  • Look for complementary motion, often contrary motion, in the bass lines first then, if those possibilities are limited, put the motion in an inner voice
  • Move the harmony most when the melody is static
  • Find opportunities to include harmonically based cross rhythms, putting three chords where there'd been two, five or six where four had been
  • Most important—make the harmony accommodate the melody.
  • It's cheating to change the melody to rationalize a clever harmony. Bill sometimes cheated, but it usually improved the melody when he did.
This was all accomplished in private. I never observed the process or participated in it, but the results made the principles increasingly clear, and I began to absorb them. Bill wrote down the results of his introspection in chord symbols with occasional indications of bass notes where that would clarify the rhythm or direction of the line. It was nonverbal—discussion unnecessary. I looked at these little sheets of paper (often from a 3" x 5" music notebook), memorized them quickly—organizing the music by recognizable bass line patterns and successive key centers rather than chord by chord—and interpreted them as best I could on the bandstand during the next set. As long as I could digest the material quickly enough, the method worked.

There were reasons I loved to play those bass lines. They were designed to be the most perfect counterpoint possible to the melodies of tunes I knew and cherished. Once they were in my part, Bill left them entirely out of his, molding everything he played around them, making them necessary and integral but leaving me free to realize that element with my own expressive nuances. Then those would affect Bill's playing, and I in turn would be affected by his reaction. It was the same intimacy of communication through special code that I had experienced among the players and the audience as I was first learning the music, but it was especially subtle, detailed, and personal.

Paul Motian's time was perfect. His interpretations of Bill's rhythmic subdivisions and his own contributions to the rhythmic textures always meshed. There were no count-offs, ever. We simply started pieces, with or without musical introductions, and never a verbal one to either the trio or the audience. Establishing tempo was as easy as crossing a street to join a friend and falling into step, just as natural and instinctive. Geometry: two points establish a line. Music: two beats establish a tempo. No counting, no discussion. Talking on the bandstand seemed as if it might break musical concentration, so we just didn't do it.

And the sound! What came out of Bill's hands at the keyboard was ecstatic. I've never heard anyone get more superb shading from a piano. Classical pianists spend years honing their touch, refining their sensitivities to the responses of the piano's mechanism. Considering the convoluted design of levers, weights, and hammers, the piano is an amazingly sensitive instrument. Subtle nuances can be transmitted through this mechanism and translated into expressive variations in dynamics, articulation, and timbre. In some ways, the piano action amplifies the minute gradations of the player's touch and helps them reach the strings. Bill had a natural affinity for taking advantage of these characteristics. He had to study it too, but he got more out of his experience than many classical piano specialists. He practiced Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, and Scriabin, with passionate concentration. It astonishes me when some jazz pianists who want to lay claim to Bill's heritage seem to imagine they can effectively do so without following the path he took to achieve this control. Bill loved the piano and its literature, and he played it for all it was worth.

It was worth a lot to me. It spoke to musical qualities that attracted me and I could control some of them in my own playing. Subtleties in the bass part's touch, dynamics, and articulation emerged as integral to the trio's music, and I could do one thing Bill couldn't: I could shade pitches. It wasn't a calculated effort, but I found more of this particular expressive characteristic coming out in my music.

The plucked bass violin is essentially a left-handed instrument. The right hand mostly starts and stops the sounds, and controls the notes' relative loudness, but the left hand controls more of the expressive range. Pitches can be shaded or bent, notes sounded with or without vibrato, hammered on or plucked with left-hand fingers, and carried by glissandi from one spot on the fingerboard all or part of the way to another spot. I had learned characteristic bebop melodic shapes, and a good part of the way I expressed the pulse of the music from Oscar Pettiford and Paul Chambers. Some came from the beauty and power of Ray Brown's playing too. But the way of making the bass sing . . . that was from Red Mitchell—and Jim Hall, who did the same thing on guitar.

All of these musicians were older than I, although Paul not by much—just enough to distinguish a difference in generational style. No one could fail to be impressed by Scotty, but I was not so much influenced by him as I was part of the same shift in viewpoint. Scotty, Charlie Haden, Steve Swallow, and Albert Stinson were all in it. We listened to our immediate predecessors and loved their music. We just didn't restrict ourselves to traditional half notes and quarter notes to the same extent they did. Attentive listening to recordings of Scotty, or Steve, or any of us, will reveal that we play plenty of half notes and quarter notes, and with as much enthusiasm and joy as we can muster, just as we heard Oscar, Ray, Paul, Leroy Vinnegar and Percy Heath do. But we also let our ears respond to the rhythmic density of the music we're playing and use other note values as well when they contribute to contrapuntal variety. We hadn't stopped playing time as some believed, we just expressed it with a wider variety of note values. Many drummers did similar things, adding a great deal to the rhythmic palette.

There was another unusual thing about the musical relationship with Bill. Once the repertoire had been established, the sequence of pieces acquired a fluidity that occupied a space between us. At any point, either of us could start whatever tune we wanted in whatever way we wanted. Some pieces had firm introductions, and those didn't change, but a piece we had played 30 times one way could start another way. Most of the time Bill started the first tune. Between tunes we'd feel for a shift in mood, looking for variety to come in a natural way, and I began to be able to anticipate what might come next. There were always choices, but they tended to fall into patterns of succession that would create an emotional arch to each set. After a while, I might play the melody of a tune that Bill had always played before, starting it while the applause was dying down, and Bill was thinking of what to play next. With never a moment's hesitation, or the slightest suggestion of friction, it became a new arrangement for that moment.

I didn't do that all the time, but often enough that it became a modus operandi; I had the impression Bill was relieved to have help in set design. I don't think he resented it or thought of it as encroachment on his territory. It was easy, fluid, nonverbal communication.

In the six years I played with Bill it was always that way, and we hardly ever talked. We were musically intimate.

That was enough.

Photo credit: Chuck Israels' personal collection

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