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Marty Morell on Bill Evans (PT. 3)


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If you think listening to Bill Evans' albums is an emotional ride, imagine what it was like to play drums in his trio. Marty Morell [pictured] had that honor as a member of the pianist's trio for seven years—longer than any other drummer. From 1968 to 1975, Marty toured, recorded albums and grew close to the artist who today has become something of a cult figure among jazz fans.

Admittedly, I'm one of those fans. Having spent my teens playing Bill Evans transcriptions of Who Can I Turn To and Turn Out the Stars (as best I could, that is), collecting his albums and seeing him live in New York and Boston while in college, Evans for me is a personal matter. So it was especially gratifying to talk with Marty on Monday.

In Part 3 of my three-part interview, Marty talks about Bill's personality, his sense of humor, his competitiveness and that day in Holland when Stan Getz nearly wound up playing alone:

JazzWax: When you were playing with Bill Evans, did you ever sense he was under the influence of drugs?

Marty Morell: No. You'd never know he was using. Bill had such a wig on him. Whatever he was on, it brought him down to ground zero so he could function like the rest of us. It sometimes seemed that he needed whatever he was taking just to be normal—the way we would take aspirin to lower our blood pressure.

JW: What was he like personally?

MM: Like a quiet businessman. He was always in a sports jacket or suit, and always friendly. He wasn't outgoing, but he was a wonderful conversationalist. If you struck up a conversation with him, he was open to talk to anyone, provided you weren't fawning all over him. He was opinionated and funny—but not in a boisterous way. He was subtle and witty. He did a thing when we were flying to Omaha, Neb., to play a concert. He doctored an ad, and the result was so funny—but understated and clever. [Pictured above: An ad with type shaded in by Bill Evans during a flight to Omaha and given to Marty Morell]

JW: You mentioned that Evans' life was filled with tragedy. What else besides Scott LaFaro's sudden death in 1961?

MM: Ellaine, Bill's partner at the time, was possessive. There was no life without Bill. She was so much about him and everything he did. That kind of attention made him a little crazy. He was feeling penned-in, and it was all too much.

JW: What happened to Ellaine?

MM: After we came back from Japan in 1973, Bill met Nenette. So Bill broke it off with Ellaine. She was devastated. She killed herself soon after by throwing herself in front of a subway train. Then Bill's mother died. In 1979, his brother Harry committed suicide. It was one traumatic personal event after the next. Through it all, think about what he did musically and the contribution he made.

JW: What do you think of your first studio album with Evans—What's New—with flutist Jeremy Steig?

MM: What do you think of it?

JW: It sounds fractured and a bit of a rough fit for Evans and the trio.

MM: I agree. That was another one of [producer-manger] Helen Keane's brainstorms. Jeremy was kind of out of it on that date. We were up to take 26 on some of those tracks.

JW: What happened?

MM: Jeremy couldn't get himself together. He seemed out of it.

JW: It's hard to imagine Evans sitting through 26 takes of anything.

MM: Bill was definitely pissed. But he was always good about whatever Helen wanted him to do. He didn't want to bother with that end of things.

JW: What about From Left to Right?

MM: What do you think of it?

JW: I like it. It's an unusual date for Evans, with the moody orchestration, but it has a heavy, pensive mood.

MM: That's true. I know that fans strongly feel one way or the other about that album. That also was a Helen brainstorm, and Bill was open to it—shifting from piano to Fender Rhodes with strings. I think Bill was happy with it. If he had personal reservations about the setting, he put them on the back burner.

JW: What I don't understand is how Evans was able to maintain his habit in Europe.

MM: Air travel wasn't the way it is now. You could take whatever you wanted right onto the plane. Bill was on methadone at the time to come off of his heroin addiction and had a doctor's prescription with him.

JW: To me, Montreux II in 1970 is one of the trio's finest albums. What do you think?

MM: I also like it very much. The audience was so excited that Bill was there. We were the closing act after a week-long jazz festival. We had the audience on our side, Bill's playing was wonderful and everything was set up just right.

JW: Were there any problems?

MM: Only that when we started to play, there were photographers all over the place. And they started to infiltrate the stage like ants going through the trash. And they kept coming, snapping away. The audience was yelling at them in French to get down. You can hear that on the first track, Very Early.

JW: What happened finally?

MM: The announcer came on and ordered them off. At the end of the tune, Bill was looking at me, like, “What the hell was that?"

JW: The three of you sound so together and lyrical.

MM: It was early in the life of the trio. Bill was excited and the energy was just right. We flew in a week early, and we had beautiful rooms in the hotel.

JW: Were you nervous?

MM: A little. It was my first European tour, and the Europeans dug Bill on a deep level. But once I closed my eyes, the music just took over.

JW: Most people don't think of jazz musicians as nervous.

MM: [Laughs] We are. Whenever I was on edge back then, I would think about the feeling and desire to play, and those emotions swept me away. Those were positive things that prevented me from freaking out. Everyone had something like that going on. You just couldn't see it on our faces.

JW: What about The Tokyo Concert in January 1973?

MM: Do you like it?

JW: It always felt a little rushed to me and not completely in sync.

MM: It's very special to me. It was my first time in Japan. Bill's too. I had always loved the Japanese culture, so being there was a revelation. That was a wonderful tour and a great concert.

JW: How did Evans feel being there?

MM: He was very comfortable. Everyone on the management side took care of business—the promoter and the people backstage. When we arrived, there was a red carpet and a press conference at the airport. We felt like stars. And on that tour, each piano was better than the last. It was a terrific tour, and Bill was very pleased with the way everything was set up and run. Give the album another listen and you'll see what I mean.

JW: Did you take your drums with you?

MM: I did, the whole set. It wasn't a big deal to check them then. Eddie bought a ticket for his bass and took it on the plane [laughs].

JW: What is your favorite trio album?

MM: Probably Re: Person I Knew, which we recorded at the Village Vanguard in January 1974. The tracks were the outtakes from Since We Met, from the same gig. At the Vanguard, we recorded many new tunes, with familiar tunes in between.

JW: You left the trio in 1975, yes?

MM: I told Bill when we were up in Canada in August 1974 that I had intended to leave.

JW: What did you tell him?

MM: I told him I thought it was time to move on.

JW: How did Evans take the news?

MM: He was a little upset. He said, “Oh, man, Marty, I don't want to have to think about that now." In the trio, Bill never had to worry. Eddie and I were always on time for gigs and we took care of business. We had all grown together musically, and Bill was really happy.

JW: What was the reason you gave Evans for your decision?

MM: That I wanted to explore other things. I had other abilities, and I had been in the trio for seven years. From a financial perspective, I was only going to earn so much staying. I wanted to do studio work and get off the road.

JW: Between Canada and after Europe in early 1975, did Evans try to get you to change your mind?

MM: He did. He called me a few times and asked me to stay. He offered me more money. But even the raise wasn't enough. I had just gotten married, and we wanted to start a family. Bill wasn't able to come up with enough.

JW: What were you paid when you started out?

MM: I was paid $175 a week, which today doesn't sound like much. But my rent was $135 a month, so I was actually comfortable [laughs].

JW: Were you ever in a situation where Evans was very unhappy?

MM: Yes, when we were playing with Stan Getz in Holland in August 1974. The album from that concert series was called But Beautiful. Bill and Stan were big-time clashing egos.

JW: What happened?

MM: Stan and Bill were feuding. Bill was highly organized and well prepared and rehearsed. For the Laren Jazz Festival, he prepared a song list, and the concert was billed as “Bill Evans with Special Guest Stan Getz." We did the trio portion first. Then Stan came out.

JW: What did he do?

MM: He said, “Let's play the blues." That wasn't on the program that Bill had put together. The blues? Bill didn't like to play the blues. And he definitely didn't want to be the “house pianist" for Stan. He was very conscious about what he wanted to do. Stan didn't give Bill a chance to react. He just started counting off. But when it came time for the piano to solo, Bill just sat there. He didn't play. We just closed it out.

JW: How did the group feel after?

MM: I was pissed, Bill was pissed and Eddie was pissed. But once Stan settled down on the tour, we fell into a groove. On August 16th, in Belgium, Stan played Happy Birthday on Bill's birthday. He tried to make amends for what he had done. But there was always some tension going on between the two of them. Bill was being a bit of a stick in the mud. I mean, so what—go on and play the blues. But Bill was a little uptight like that.

JW: Looking back, are you sorry you left the trio when you did?

MM: No, not at all. The timing was good for me, and I was cool with that.

JW: How did you feel immediately after leaving?

MM: I was a little depressed for a few months. I had been Bill Evans' drummer. That was my identity in the world of music. When I moved to Toronto soon after, I was just another local drummer. So I had an identity crisis until I realized I could do this and that. After a year I was playing on a lot of sessions and started to feel good about who I was.

JW: Did you play with Evans again after you left the trio?

MM: A couple of times, and it was awesome. I'd say to myself, “Now I remember—this is what a jazz trio sounds like." Bill was great. We had him over for dinner, and he'd always leave me notes when I was playing somewhere and he was in town. Bill was like my father in many ways and my mentor. He had this kind of father instinct with me. He always wanted to make sure I was cool, which was sweet.

JW: Do you miss him?

MM: Hell yeah. I think about Bill every day. Listening to those albums brings tears to my eyes. I listen to him all the time—the CDs are my car right now. Some of my favorite music is on those albums. It just so happens I'm on them.

JazzWax tracks: Marty Morell's most recent CD, Enamorada,was recorded with his wife, vocalist Michiko Ohta. It's a Latin album, and Michiko sings in Spanish.

And a few words about Marty's pre-Bill Evans albums. My favorites include his first three: October Suite (1966) with Steve Kuhn and Gary McFarland, The College Concert with Pee Wee Russell and Henry “Red" Allen (1966) and The Sorcerer with Gabor Szabo (1967). As for his post-Bill Evans recordings, I recommend Sammy Nestico's Night Flight (1985) and Don Sebesky's I Remember Bill (1997).

As for The Tokyo Concert, Marty was right. Upon a relisten, I realize now how stuck I was at the time on the 1960s Evans I enjoyed so much. Dig Gene Lee's Yesterday I Heard the Rain. Wow.

JazzWax clip: Here's the Bill Evans Trio with Marty Morell and Eddie Gomez in 1971 on PBS-TV's Jazz Set, hosted by Chris Albertson, playing My Romance. Listen a few times to how Evans builds that intro. Genius! And catch how Marty frames Bill's surges perfectly with his brushes, not to mention Marty's gorgeous solo...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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