Waltz for Bill Evans
by John Diliberto
down beat, December 1993
He's led the Mahavishnu Orchestra and composed for symphony orchestra,
but Time Remembered: John McLaughlin Plays Bill Evans may be his most
classical recording yet. If your image of Bill Evans is set in dusky
nightclubs bathed in a halo of cigarette smoke, then you may be in for a
surprise with John McLaughlin's interpretations of the pianist's work, which
sound more comfortable with the rustling of concert programs than the
clinking of glasses.
"It's a more classical, maybe more European view of Bill's music,"
admits guitarist McLaughlin from a hotel in Cologne, Germany. But for the
seemingly ageless musician, who nevertheless turns 52 in January, that was
an essential element of Evan's art. "I think we should remember that in this
period of the late '50s with Miles, Bill and Gil Evans both brought this
very strong color of the French impressionists, Ravel, Debussy, and Satie,
especially from Bill," says McLaughlin, who, having played with Miles Davis,
can lay claim to the same lineage. "This was a predominant color and
influence he brought into jazz music. Of my own favorite colors, Ravel is my
favorite composer; so ti's true, it doesn't have this night-clubby
atmosphere. But it has this atmosphere of a studio in Milan, and we're
playing his music, and it's beautiful music."
It's been 13 years since the death of Bill Evans, the pianist who didn't
so much burst on the scene as insinuate himself among its firmament right
roots. His reputation was cemented in 1959 on Miles Davis' seminal Kind
Of Blue. Evans' breath-like chords and moody edges suffused Davis' music
and his own albums for the next two decades. He was particularly influential
for his highly emphatic trio recordings along with, among others, his
introspective duets with guitarist Jim Hall.
McLaughlin saw Evans in concert many times in the 1970s, although they
never played together. It was Kind Of Blue that seduced a young,
17-year-old British guitarist in much the same way many lovers may have been
seduced by Evans' own music. "If you listen to Bill's music, he's
essentially a romantic," agrees McLaughlin. "And for me, the guitar is a
romantic instrument. And I felt that if I transcribed it for a number of
guitars, I could get this essential character, translated from the piano and
the way he played, to the acoustic guitars."
Which explains McLaughlin's unusual orchestration of Evan's music, using
the European Aighetta Quartet, a classical guitar ensemble, aided by Yan
Maresz (a student of McLaughlin's and a composition graduate from Julliard)
playing an acoustic bass guitar. It's a surprising choice for interpreting
Evans. After all, McLaughlin spent the last several years working in a trio
with percussionist Trilok Gurtu and various bassists, roughly the same
format that Evans made his own.
"I played piano before guitar," says McLaughlin, although not claiming
the proficiency of an Evans, "so I could have done that: taken the classic
rhythm section, played the melody, used substitution chords, and played
Bill's tunes and improvised. But I always look for the hard way out. I've
loved his music for so many years, and I just wanted to do it with the
McLaughlin could have taken the route Evans did on
Conversations with Myself, where he overdubbed his own piano. "In the
beginning, I thought I'd do all the parts," reveals McLaughlin. "But when I
really started to analyze it, I felt it would be too much me and not enough
of the playing and feeling of the playing. I like the fact that you hear
different sounds and different tones on the guitar. And we played together.
That's the really important thing, that we played together; I think it's
much more beautiful this way." In fact, McLaughlin wrote the music for the
five other musicians over which he improvised.
Of course, these are classical musicians, not jazz improvisers. And
while Evans was influenced by classical music, and even composed works in a
third-stream vein such as Symbiosis, his music was always about
improvisation and interaction on the most intuitive and intimate level.
"Let's not kid ourselves, you're not going to get classical guys to
swing," admits McLaughlin. He was under no illusions since he'd composed
The Mediterranean for orchestra and guitar a few years ago. And yet,
the Quartet devoted literally hundreds of hours mastering their parts, (He
hopes to record his second concerto, "Europa," next year with Michael Tilson
Thomas and the New World Symphony.) He also has an earlier template for a
classical approach to Bill Evans' music. In 1986, the Kronos Quartet
departed from their usual 20th-century classical fare to record Music Of
Bill Evans. Despite the presence of longtime Evans associates, Jim Hall
and bassist Eddie Gomez, McLaughlin felt the performances never captured
"I've written for orchestra, and you ask them to do things they don't
know how to, and the end result is a little corny," he says sadly. "That's
the problem I had with the Kronos Quartet; and I dig that quartet. But to
try to emulate something that's not from your roots, that's really hard."
One of McLaughlin's solutions was to select Bill
Evans' slower ballads rather than time-twisting excursions like "Periscope"
or "T.T.T. (Twelve Tone Tune)," although he did give the former a shot.
The other was to write changes for the guitar quartet, almost as if they
were taking improvisational leads from Evans' tunes. "It's a little
pretentious, I know," laughs McLaughlin, especially with Bill. But since I
wrote the music that they're playing, there's a kind of counterpoint which
allows me to respect implicitly the harmonies that Bill had and develop them
in a new way with the accompaniment of the other guitarists. It allowed me
to be spontaneous, but at the same time I was able to interact with the
music they were playing and phrase in a way that would work well with the
counterpoint they were doing. So, that forced me to be more restrained and
lyrical, because Bill was supremely lyrical, and maybe a little more
austere, which is a quality I found in those pieces."
Which doesn't mean you can expect a slow-motion John McLaughlin here. On
tunes like the stately "Waltz For Debby", the guitarist seems to literally
levitate out of the piece, his improvisation soaring in rapture before
descending back into the melancholy theme.
In fact, a sense of melancholy and loss pervades the album. Evans took
some hard roads in his life, including addiction to heroin and alcohol.
McLaughlin, who had experienced his own radical life changes from the '60s
scene into his '70s spiritualism, knows those changes well, and he hears
them in the music of Bill Evans.
"As a musician, the story you tell is your own life story," he reflects.
"We know he had drug problems, yet he was able to continue to be creative;
but he paid a heavy price and died young. But I think that essentially Bill
was a poet, and a lot of poets die young. He was a poet and a heartbreaker,
and he broke my heart in '59. But he had trouble with booze, and you can
hear it in the records where he gets angular and slightly aggressive. But,
for me, he was really sublime when he would play a ballad. It'd bring tears
to your eyes."
Nowhere is that more evident than on "Turn Out The Stars". "The title is
so evocative and provocative at the same time," says McLaughlin, "because
it's really kind of 'turn out the universe'." McLaughlin's rendition is at
once haunting and awe-inspiring.
McLaughlin has no plans to continue his Evans tribute with a tour or
follow-up recording. The Aighetta Quartet has its own career, and the
rehearsal time for another group of musicians would be formidable. Instead,
he's already off on another project that will put him in touch with the
electric guitar for the first time in years. He's performing in an organ
trio with ex-Miles Davis sideman Joey DeFrancesco and drummer Dennis
Chambers that will take him toward a decidedly different dynamic than the
Evans project. "The acoustic guitar, forget it with Hammond organ and
Dennis, who is so strong," laughs McLaughlin. "Coming out of the album for
Bill, this is like night and day."
Working with DeFrancesco also continues his ongoing relationship with
the spirit of Miles Davis. It was Davis who introduced the pair with this
recommendation: "He's a motherf**ker!" says McLaughlin, invoking Davis'
Miles Davis may be an obvious subject of a McLaughlin tribute, and he
has covered a few Davis tunes in the past. But it's John Coltrane who first
leaps to mind. "I'd like to play with Elvin [Jones] at some point, because I
have such a love for Elvin and do an homage to Coltrane at some point,
because I owe such a debt to this man and have such a love of his music."
Don't expect it anytime soon, however, since the Evans project was 11
years in gestation. But John McLaughlin, who doesn't often do covers, needs
no special reason to pay tribute. When I suggest that the Mahavishnu
Orchestra was an electric testament to the music of Coltrane, he agrees.
"It's true," he says humbly. "Every time I play, I make an homage to the
people I love who had an effect on me."
John McLaughlin is between worlds with his equipment setup, adapting to
the many different projects he's engaged in. For Time Remembered, he
simply used an Abraham Wechter acoustic guitar. "He's a luthier based in
Michigan who's been making my guitars since Shakti days (the mid-'70s),"
says McLaughlin. For the Evans project, McLaughlin transcribed the scores
into Coda's Finale.He is also working with an electric setup for the first time in years.
He's pulled out a Gibson 175-D and runs it with no processes or effects
except for the Sony M-7: "It's really powerful with digital EQ, and it gives
you a stereo signal out of a mono input."
McLaughlin's contemplating dusting off the MIDI setup he employed with
his most recent trio. He runs his acoustic "through a Photon MIDI conventer,
triggering a Yamaha TG-77 synthesizer. It's really powerful," exudes the
guitarist, "because you've got advanced DX technology with the wave-form
sampling, and you can mix them all around. For the creation of sounds it's
really tremendous." He rounds it off with a Lexicon LXP-15 reverb unit.