Times Remembered: The Final Years of the Bill Evans Trio
In the late 1970s legendary pianist Bill Evans was at the peak of his career. He revolutionized the jazz trio (bass, piano, drums) by giving each part equal emphasis in what jazz historian Ted Gioia called a “telepathic level” of interplay. It was an ideal opportunity for a sideman, and after auditioning in 1978, Joe La Barbera was ecstatic when he was offered the drum chair, completing the trio with Evans and bassist Marc Johnson.
In “Times Remembered,” La Barbera and co-author Charles Levin provide an intimate fly-on-the-wall peek into Evans’s life, critical recording sessions, and behind-the-scenes anecdotes of life on the road. Joe regales the trio’s magical connection, a group that quickly gelled to play music on the deepest and purest level imaginable. He also watches his dream gig disappear, a casualty of Evans’s historical drug abuse when the pianist dies in a New York hospital emergency room in 1980. But La Barbera tells this story with love and respect, free of judgment, showing Evans’s humanity and uncanny ability to transcend physical weakness and deliver first-rate performances at nearly every show.
Photo: Bill Evans during soundcheck, L'Espace Cardin, Paris, November 26, 1979. Courtesy of François Lacharme.
Joe La Barbera performing in Italy on stage with pianist Dado Maroni and bassist Eddie Gomez. Photo by Roberto Cifarelli. Courtesy of Joe La Barbera.
Charles Levin performs at his MFA Graduation Recital in CalArts, May 2012. Photo by Madeline Lopez. Courtesy of Charles Levin.
Joe La Barbera is highly regarded in the world of jazz and has been in demand by some of the greatest names in the music for five decades. From his first professional appearance at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas with singer Frankie Randall and the Buddy Rich Big Band in 1968 to his work with jazz great Bill Evans and up to the present, Joe has been sought out by world-class artists and always been regarded by peers as a tasteful, musical drummer and a supportive accompanist. Bill Evans summed it up best when he said, “Joe is very dedicated to playing quality music, and he’s willing to make the concessions of dues toward that end. He’s a top soloist and he does the right thing at the right time.”
Born in Mt. Morris, N.Y. on February 22, 1948, Joe’s first musical experiences began at home as part of the family band with his parents and two older brothers, saxophonist Pat and trumpeter and arranger-composer John. Joe received a solid foundation in drumming as well as lessons on clarinet and saxophone from his father starting at 5 years of age. After high school, he continued his education at the Berklee College of Music in Boston where his teachers included John LaPorta, Charlie Mariano, Herb Pomeroy and the great Alan Dawson.
Following Berklee and two years with the 173rd U.S. Army band at Fort Dix, NJ, Joe began his professional career on the road with Woody Herman and the Thundering Herd. The Chuck Mangione Quartet followed with gigs ranging from jazz clubs with the small group to symphony halls with full orchestra. Then it was on to New York and a fruitful two-year period of freelancing with Jim Hall, Phil Woods, Art Farmer, Gary Burton, Art Pepper, John Scofield, Don Sebesky, Bob Brookmeyer and Toots Thielmans, to name just a few.
In 1978, Joe was asked to join Bill Evans in what was to become a landmark trio. Along with bassist Marc Johnson, the trio grew over a two-year period to become one of Evans’ finest. After Bill’s untimely death in 1980, Joe joined world-renowned singer Tony Bennett, recording some of Tony’s finest albums including “The Art of Excellence.”
In 1987, Joe moved to Los Angeles and immediately became involved in a wide range of music. During this period, he worked and recorded with a Who’s Who of West Coast giants like Conte Candoli, Bud Shank, Bill Perkins, Lanny Morgan, Jack Nimitz, Lou Levy and Teddy Edwards.
On the international scene, Joe recorded and toured with “Bassline” (a group with Hein Van de Geyn and John Abercrombie), Kenny Wheeler, Rosario Giuliani, Eddie Gomez, Enrico Pieranunzi, Phillip Catherine, Jazz Men on the Go (a cooperative group with brother Pat La Barbera) and numerous projects with the WDR Big Band in Cologne. For more than 30 years, Joe regularly toured Europe, Asia and beyond with his own groups as well as being a featured sideman with other jazz luminaries.
From 1993 until 2021, Joe was on the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts where he taught drum set, Jazz History and an occasional class on the Music of Bill Evans. During this same time, he was busy as a clinician and guest artist at many major universities, including residencies at the Centrum Jazz Camp in Port Townsend Washington; Roma Jazz Cool, Capbreton, France; McGill University in Montreal; and Cornish College in Seattle. In 2019, Joe received the 2019 L.A. Jazz Treasure Award.
Joe lives in Los Angeles, Calif., with his wife, Gillian Turner.
More info at Joe's site on allaboutjazz.com.
Charles Levin grew up in Roslyn, NY, where he took up drums in sixth grade and studied with the late Johnny Blowers (Bunny Berrigan, Frank Sinatra), playing in rock 'n' roll groups and school band ensembles for a brief three years.
Born in Manhattan on November 8, 1951, Charles graduated from Roslyn High School in 1969 and attended University of Hartford for three years as a liberal arts student. While there, he reconnected with his passion for music and drums. In 1972, he transferred to California Institute of the Arts, a then-new fine arts college funded by the late Walt Disney’s estate.
At CalArts, Charles focused on classical percussion and 20th-century “new music” and played with the school’s award-winning percussion and African Music ensembles. He performed with the former at the prestigious Monday Evening Concerts, a new music series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and with the latter at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
After earning his BFA in 1975, Charles played percussion for CalArts’ modern dance classes and drum set in several Los Angeles-based Top 40 bands. He also spent a week in Toronto backing up The Doodletown Pipers, a song-and-dance relic of the Ed Sullivan Show era.
In 1978, Charles moved to Santa Cruz where he played in the Santa Cruz County Symphony, the Monterey County Symphony, the Cabrillo Music Festival, David Cope’s Ensemble Nova, restaurant “house “bands, and numerous pop, rock, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and jazz groups. They included Metrobop (original pop-rock fronted by singer-songwriter Jimi Fox); Buck Dancers (Americana featuring singer-songwriter Tony Gilkyson); Rita Lackey and Natural Thang (R&B, funk); and Los Schleppos Tipicos (salsa featuring a then-16-year-old tenor sax prodigy, Donny McCaslin). Charles also played with bassists Stan Poplin and Zev Katz; pianists Smith Dobson, Paul Nagel and Jon Jang; guitarists Baird Miller and Vernon Black; saxophonists Cornelius Bumpus, Paul Contos and Terrel Eaton; and “Wrecking Crew” alumni Steve Douglas (saxophone) and Carol Kaye (bass).
Meanwhile, Charles performed in Bay Area public schools with two educational groups: Percussion Around the Hemisphere, aka PATH (Music from Cuba, Puerto Rico and Brazil), and Computers and Music (a theatrical presentation he created with Jimi Fox that introduced kids to synths, drum machines and sampling technology).
In 1986, Charles moved to Oakland where he played with The Scott Brothers Band (Stax, Motown), Gail Force and the Hurricanes (pop-rock with singer Kathleen Enright), country singer Dan Southerd, and Frank Biner and the Soul Patrol (R&B/Blues featuring a guest walk-in one night by Stephen “Doc” Kupka of Tower of Power). Other venues Charles performed at include the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco and underneath Seattle’s Space Needle at the city’s annual Bumpershoot Festival. During his Bay Area tenure, Charles also played gigs with keyboardist Wayne De La Cruz; guitarists Bob Logan and Brian Pardo; bassists Bob Chandler and Chuck Sher; and singers Madeline Eastman and Kitty Margolis.
Charles left music in 1993 to pursue journalism, covering local government at four newspapers, including the Ventura County Star. During this time, Charles won several awards for writing and reporting from the Associated Press News Executives Council and the California Newspaper Publishers Association. His byline as a jazz writer also appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, DownBeat, Jazziz and the Monterey Jazz Festival Program.
Charles retired from journalism in 2008 and toggled back to music, leading the jazz group Coda. Two years later, he returned to CalArts, studied with Joe La Barbera and earned an MFA in jazz studies in 2012.
In 2013, Charles co-founded Dreamland: A Celebration of Joni Mitchell featuring Kimberly Ford. The band toured extensively, including performances at Yoshi’s Oakland, Kuumbwa Jazz Center and the Lobero Theatre. He also played with the Santa Barbara City College Big Bands (featuring guest artists Bob Mintzer, Karl Hunter and Plas Johnson); Bill Bannister’s Blue Dog Project; and Great American Songbook singers Leigh Demarche Vance and Bernie Meisinger (on whose gig one night he backed up jazz and R&B legend Randy Crawford). Charles retired from drums in March 2019, bowing to health issues.
Charles is a fine art photographer, whose work can be seen at www.charleslevinphoto.com. He lives in Ventura, Calif., and New York City, N.Y., with his wife, Jeni Breen, a longtime professional dancer.