Bill and Me May 1,2017
by Dick Fregulia
I met Bill Evans one night when I was playing my solo piano gig at Washington Square Bar and Grill in North Beach. He came in with local singer Linda Goldstein and they sat at the bar. I was used to playing for the occasional famous person, but not used to playing for the most influential jazz pianist of the modern era.
I managed to get through a couple of tunes but ultimately decided I'd rather go over and chat a bit. Linda was a friend and, in fact, had sung with me at the Square. She introduced me and we exchanged a few comments. Bill offered up that he and Linda had, in fact, been talking about the plight of the background pianist, concluding that if he were playing the Yamaha piano against the wall people in the restaurant would be just as loud and seemingliy indifferent to the music as they were being for me. So we traded places: Bill went to the piano, I stayed at the bar with Linda, and it didn't make any difference.
So we suddenly had this new overlap of experience to go along with the similarities of both having grown up white, 1950's middle class pianists drawn to the exotic world of jazz. Because it was the 1970's and jazz had by now been almost totally beaten down by Rock and Roll and related pop styles, we also shared the indifference of the mainstream to our music. But that only made Bill more heroic, the fact that he had sucesfully imposed himself as a jazz star.
The Time Remembered documentary opens with a segment from an interview Bill did with his brother Harry, a music professor at Southeastern Louisiana College. Bill explains how the search for truth and beauty are the core values to his musical philosophy, so his brother asks how he managed to evolve into professional success as a pianist. Bill replies that by nature he is very shy, that he does not seek out attention, but that he was dedicated to serious and honest work at his craft. "Ultimately I came to the conclusion that all I must do is take care of the music, even if I do it in a closet. And if I really do that, somebody's going to come and open the closet and say,'Hey, we're lookin' for you.'"
The film traces Bill's evolution through his college years and early years in New York, leading to the first trios, his time with Miles and the Kind of Blue album, the change of his trios after the death of Scott La Faro, and the wide variety of musical contexts in which he played up to his untimely death in 1980 at the age of 51. The cornerstone , however, was always his jazz trio, a musical format he transformed from essentially a piano lead with bass and drums support to a conversational 3-way creative process that both followed his lead and encouraged new directions and dynamics dictated by the bassist and or drummer. The film traces the evolution through three great trio periods: the Scott La Faro/Paul Motian trio, the middle trios with mostly but not exclusively anchored by Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morrell on drums, and his concluding trio with Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera.
It also traces Bill's "domestic" relationships with Peri, Ellaine, Nenette, and Laurie, and how intimately his personal life interweaved with his tragic and extensive addiction to drugs, particularly heroin. The description of his death is poignant and inevitably connected to everything. In a way it is a beautiful film about a wonderful jazz pianist, but it is also a painful film and sometimes difficult to watch.
This is where Bill and I differed. I became addicted to distance running for highs, maintained a full-time job as a high school teacher, played gigs as much as the market would allow, raised a family, made recordings from time to time, and so far outlived him by 25 years. But at best I remain a Triple-A minor league jazz pianist.
I did realize something interesting about 7 years ago, though. It suddenly came to me that Bill Evans had been dead for 30 years. My god, how did that happen? Many people - friends, fans, and musicians - had commented over the years how similar my style was to Bill's....not so much as a pure technical transposition but largely for my touch, my sense of lyrical phrasing, my adoption of a number of Bill's phrases, and for my attitude. It became clear that I should put together a Bill EvansTribute Trio, an idea underlined by a recent gig I had played with a Scott La Faro inspired bassist named Piro Patton, who loved my use of "Bill Evans triplets." I contacted Bill Moody, the jazz drummer who also writes jazz mystery novels featuring a lead jazz pianist character suspiciously named Evan Horne. The three of us started putting together set lists of Bill Evans material and got several gigs at Osteria Divino in Sausalito. That led to a chance to play at Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, a fine concert gig that was fortuitiously recorded by Adrian Wong. That led to a CD entitled "Re: Person I Knew."
We managed to get a few more gigs over the succeeding years, but the reality was that we were destined to stay mostly in the closet. Just recently, though, opportunity knocked. A piano friend of mine, Neil Adler, got wind of a new Bill Evans documentary that was being screened at a small college in Vancouver, hostessed by Bill Evans' last girlfriend , Laurie Verchomin. He flew up to the event, made the contacts, loved the movie, and came back to the Bay Area encouraging the local community to stage a screening. I opened the door, recognizing the opportunity to help renew Bill's legacy, publicize my favorite piano store, and create a gig for my trio.
So come on over to JB Piano in San Rafael Saturday evening, May 13, and celebrate Bill Evans. Doors will open at 6:30 and my trio will start the evening with a set featuring the repertoire and style of the Bill EvansTrio. This will be informal and clubby, with plenty of opportunity to move about and socialize. If you don't listen to everything it really won't make any difference, as long as you enjoy the ambiance. At 8 p.m. we will all sit down and watch the feature length documentary projected on to a professional-quality, rented 10-foot movie screen. The evening will end with a half hour to unwind, converse, and perhaps touch a few more keys.