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 guitar."

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 Evans' spirit.

"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' hoarse snarl.

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.