Stories

Meet some of the people who in different ways played witness to Bill Evans — either as participants in our book or just through a moment in their own lives. 

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John di Martino
Seeking The Poetic Element

Q&A by Charles Levin

(Ventura, California) — Some really important moments happen just by chance. For instance, it was just by chance that while playing a jazz cruise, Joe La Barbera learned that pianist John di Martino was in the audience at Joe’s first gig with Bill Evans. Then a Philadelphia teenager, di Martino, already on his way to a career in music, took a girlfriend to hear the jazz piano giant. Joe immediately asked di Martino to contribute his thoughts about that night for “Times Remembered: The Final Years of the Bill Evans Trio.”

 

Today, the 62-year-old di Martino’s resume spans a whole lot of great collaborations: Latin-Jazz with Ray Barretto; Brazilian music with singer Janis Siegel; bluesy bop with Houston Person; and recordings of his own. Much of that career, I learned, was due to an older brother’s influence. But in an interview conducted by email from his New York-based digs, we first talked about that Evans gig at the Bijou Café.

Times Remembered: You heard Bill Evans in Philadelphia as a teenager. It turned out that it was Joe’s first gig with Bill. What drew you to go that night? How much of an influence was Bill up to then?

John di Martino: At that time I was 19 years old, I was studying with Lennie Tristano and obsessed with the music of his school, artists like Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. I was always very intrigued by Bill Evans. I remember hearing him the first time on a TV broadcast and his harmonic concept fascinated me. In high school, I listened a lot to the duo album “Intuition” and then later in my mid-twenties I spent a lot of time listening to what most of us think of as Bill's watershed recording, “Explorations.” Bill's innovations are a great influence on me and all pianists. His influence is felt indirectly as well because it is so pervasive.

 

When I think about the timeline of the development of jazz piano, Bill Evans is the next important artist chronologically after Bud Powell. I hear the energy of Bud Powell in the early playing of Bill Evans, yet Bill always had a unique approach.

 

TR: What impact did that concert have on you going forward, that is, how did it impact your musical growth?

JdM: I was very inspired by the performance at the Bijou Cafe in Philadelphia. I think of jazz improvisation as a meditation guided by the form of the song. I felt the same way listening to Ravi Shankar at that time in my life.

 

TR: Your brother, who’s nine years older, appears to be the catalyst for a lot of your growth and interest in pursuing music seriously. He played a lot of Broadway musical soundtracks that captured your interest. As a social worker, he brought you into the local Latin-American community where you discovered your passion for Afro-Cuban jazz and salsa. But it looks like one of the most critical moments came when he played you Frank Zappa’s “Hot Rats.” Can you talk a bit about what you experienced on hearing that recording and where it ultimately pointed you?

JdM: Frank Zappa's “Hot Rats” inspired me to study either the violin or the saxophone. I still listen to the track “It Must Be A Camel,” and it still fascinates me! I wanted to take up saxophone, but there were none available at my public junior high school, so I chose the violin at 12 years old. Until today these are my favorite instruments, though I play them only vicariously as a composer and arranger.

 

TR: There was a time when musical theater was a primary feeder of tunes for jazz artists, particularly in the Great American Songbook. Did any of the music from the plays you listened to as a kid become part of your repertoire? If so, how did you choose to interpret them?

JdM: When I hear any music from West Side Story, I have a very intense emotional reaction. It brings me back to my childhood. I was a comical 8-year-old kid singing songs of Anthony Newly: “Once In a lifetime, a man knows his moment...” and selections from Marat/Sade! My brother also introduced me to Baroque music, such as Bach and Vivaldi.  

 

My mother was an amateur singer and we would leaf through the fake book of standards. I would accompany her. I learned thousands of songs this way, and I developed my accompaniment skills which have been a blessing throughout my professional life in music. Now I produce recordings and arrange music for singers. I feel a close connection to the Great American Song Book. My relationship with these songs is like my relationship with people: always discovering something new about them!

 

TR: You apparently took to Afro-Cuban music quickly. You became so good at it that you were soon subbing in a Latin band at the Rainbow Room in NY that alternated with a jazz group you played in as well. Tell us about that and where that’s taken you.

JdM: Some friends introduced me to Afro-Cuban music in high school. I fell in love with the music. Many of the greats I listened to, I later played with, like Ray Barretto and Carlos "Patato" Valdes, among others 

 

I was 15 years old when I played with my first Salsa band. The music became a formative influence for me. This early musical influence emerged for me again when I moved to New York. I started playing with the Latin dance band at the Rainbow Room. There were some great players in that band: Mauricio Smith, Victor Venegas and Virgilio Marti. This led to my long association with Bobby Sanabria and later I played with Ray Barretto’s New World Spirit for many years and made four CDs with Ray. I wrote an arrangement of the classic, “Lamento Borincaño,” which features Eddie Gomez and Kenny Burrell for Ray's CD, “Portraits In Jazz And Clave”

 

TR: Standards and jazz classics are often interpreted by Afro-Cuban artists. Mark Levine, a wonderful pianist in San Francisco, recorded albums focused on that. Ever play a Bill Evans tune in that style? Does it work?

JdM: I am currently working on a Bill Evans project with a classical singer. I am arranging some of Bill's lyrical melodies in both Bolero and Bossa Nova styles. The melodies work well in these treatments.

 

TR: You also play a lot of Brazilian music, particularly with singer Janis Siegel of Manhattan Transfer. How did you get interested in that genre?

JdM: My passion for Brazilian music starts early. I was a teenager when introduced to Elis Regina, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joao Gilberto, and the great arranger Claus Ogerman! The esthetic of Brazilian music is a great influence on my composing and on my playing. I am always seeking what I call the “poetic element” in music. Poetry, unlike conversation, is the distilled essence of the idea and the feeling you want to express. It's done with a minimum of words. I like to approach music with a poetic sense of space and brevity!

 

TR: In one of the interviews with you that I read, you mention your one-time interest in Baháʼí Faith. Please talk a bit about your involvement there and what, if any, spiritual paths you’ve gone down and how any of them have influenced you as a musician and human being?

JdM: I strive to live my life according to the most fundamental Baha'i principles: The oneness of mankind and the importance of the unity of mankind, and also the equality of men and women. The focus on individuals not only as they are now, but seeing the potential of what they can become. This enables their growth. The idea of realizing your own God-given uniqueness, not following the footsteps of our “for-fathers and sires.”

 

I have also practiced SGI Buddhism (Soka Gakkai International), which in essence is the “law of attraction.” I think about this phenomenon: for example, I did have the opportunity to work with many of the artists I listened to so intensely as a youngster, including singers Jon Hendricks and Janis Siegel.

 

TR: Who excites you right now in music? Who are you listening to and what do you like about their work?

JdM: I love the pathos in the voices of Gregory Porter, Karyn Allison, Kurt Elling, Raul Midon and Samara Joy. I enjoy listening to the musical imaginations of Joe Locke, Geoff Keezer, Gerald Clayton, Benny Green and Bill Charlap. I love all music genres. As a composer, it's great to have many colors on your palette! 

 

TR: Your playing credits are vast, covering multiple genres and spanning instrumentalists and vocalists. Anyone out there you haven’t played with that you want to work with?

JdM: I would love to play with Wayne Shorter who is one of my idols along with Herbie Hancock.

 

TR: What personal project are you most excited about right now?

JdM: I am composing music now for a project with a double quartet: a jazz quartet with a string quartet. 

 

TR: Do you have a video of a performance you’d like to share with our newsletter readers?

Check out John with his Quartet of the Americas, playing "East of the Sun." John di Martino, piano; Leo Traversa, bass; Vince Cherico, drums; and Peter Brainin, saxophone. For more info, go to www.johndimartino.com

 

 

By John Livingston 

Guest columnist

 

(Santa Cruz, California) — In 1974, I worked as a volunteer DJ at KUSP Santa Cruz. My show was 1950’s and 60’s jazz. At that time, there were several really good jazz venues in San Francisco, and I liked to take full advantage of those, traveling there frequently to hear and interview my favorite artists. When I heard that Bill Evans would be playing the Great American Music Hall, I called them immediately to request a press pass and an opportunity to interview one of the great jazz masters.

 

I arrived at the Music Hall with great anticipation, and sat through Bill’s first set. Eddie Gomez was playing bass, Eliot Zigmund, drums. It was classic Bill Evans with no words or acknowledgment for the audience or his fellow musicians other than subtle musical cues indicating which tune would be next. 

 

After the set, I headed backstage for my prospective interview. I was met at the green room door by a very daunting woman, who, after I introduced myself, stated in very blunt terms that “Bill doesn’t do interviews.” Something told me that going head to head with her was not the best move, so I said “I understand. It is not that important,” and I started to walk away. The next thing I heard was “wait,” and she indicated I should follow her.

 

The woman, whom I later discovered was Helen Keane, known as one of the toughest managers in the business, led me to a seated Bill Evans whose first comment was, “Do we really have to do this?” Again, I said “No. It is no big deal, but could I ask you one question?” I proceeded to ask him a musical question and hit the button on my recorder.

 

What followed was one of the most fascinating discussions I can remember. Bill would listen carefully to the questions, and then disappear deep in to the far reaches of his mind for quite some time. He would then eventually come out with an extremely thoughtful answer to each one. I asked him if he thought about specific chords while he was improvising, and he said, no. His only interest revolved around creating moods. His knowledge of the instrument was so complete that there was nothing between him and the sounds he sought. I also asked him about what he was focused on in his career as a musician, and he said that at this point in his life, he was not trying to innovate, and again he referenced expressing his moods and trying to convey them.

 

When I went back to my seat in the audience for the second set, I was acutely aware of how the audience perceived Bill’s music. The mood he conveyed was very much the twilight space between consciousness and the unconscious. A good number of audience members seemed to be dozing off, as they had slipped over to the edge.

 

Bill Evans was a unique enigma, who altered the course of music in his youth and set a standard that influenced pianists and all jazz musicians since his time.

John Livingston owned and operated Logos Books & Records in Santa Cruz for 48 years. Livingston is an avid jazz guitarist and a former board member of the Kummbwa Jazz Center.

Creating The Mood
Bill Evans Transports Listeners To A Twilight Zone

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Andy LaVerne
Pianist, Composer, Bandleader, Educator
Subbing for Bill Evans, Playing duos with Chick, Backing up Sinatra. He's done it all.

Q&A By Charles Levin
November 1, 2021

Photo by Chris Sulit. Courtesy of Andy LaVerne.

(Ventura, California) — As a teenager, Andy LaVerne lucked out big time and wound up taking a few lessons with Bill Evans. Fast forward to September 1980 and LaVerne got the call of a lifetime: subbing for Bill, who by then was too ill to finish his last-ever shows at Fat Tuesday’s in New York. In the course of a lengthy career, LaVerne, who lives in Westchester County, NY, has worked with a smorgasbord of jazz megastars, including personal heroes —from Dizzy Gillespie to Elvin Jones — as well as pop legend Neil Sedaka, who hired LaVerne for his sparkling accompaniment and inspired soloing.

 

LaVerne took up piano at 5 and almost immediately began composing. By junior high school, he played in Top 40 bands while studying classical music at the Juilliard School's preparatory division. He attended NYC's famed High School of Music and Art (now Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School). Then he rapidly progressed through Ithaca College and Berklee School of Music, finishing his formal education under the tutelage of Jaki Byard at New England Conservatory and turning full-time pro.

In an interview conducted by email, LaVerne proved to be a detailed and articulate subject. We started with Bill Evans … of course.

 

Times Remembered: Your musical life vis a vis Bill Evans feels like a pair of bookends: Lessons with Bill while you were still in high school and studying at Juilliard’s preparatory division. And then years later, you famously subbed for Bill on his last gigs at Fat Tuesday’s when he was too sick and no longer able to perform. In our book, you detail the events that led to these two different opportunities. What impact do you think these had on you when you step back and look for a bigger picture? The impact on your playing? How you teach? Maybe something else?

 

Andy LaVerne: There’s no doubt that Bill Evans had a profound impact on my musical life. I was enthralled with his playing even before I met him at the Village Vanguard in the 1960s. Meeting him and the subsequent lessons were life altering. I didn’t realize until several years later how those lessons would chart my musical development. I think Bill’s approach of explaining and demonstrating concepts rather than showing me specifics was quite effective. Bill was adamant about not imposing style. He felt that evolving one’s own voice was at the essence of playing jazz. It wasn’t until I wrote “Handbook of Chord Substitutions” that I realized that many of the concepts in that book were the result of what Bill conveyed to me. So many of the magazine articles I’ve written, the instructional videos and the numerous reharmonizations of tunes I’ve done owe a big debt to those lessons with Bill. I incorporate his concepts into my teaching, along with the specific details of jazz theory.

 

Subbing for Bill in September of 1980 at Fat Tuesday’s in NYC was one of the highlights of my career. Although I was at first reluctant to play the gig, with some cajoling from Brian Bromberg, I decided to do it. I was expecting the club to be empty by the time I got there, but it was packed. The audience was supportive and enthusiastic, and it was a complete delight playing with Marc and Joe. I ended up doing the last four nights of the six-night gig for Bill. It was the day after the gig ended that Bill passed away. The entire NYC jazz community was in a state of shock. I went from elation to despair in an instant. It took years for me to comprehend the impact of Bill’s lessons, so it was with subbing for him on his last gig. At the time I wasn’t aware of the importance of being in that position. It proved a turning point in my playing, so instead of suppressing Bill’s huge influence I acknowledged it and let it come through. I never considered myself a Bill Evans clone. The cumulative effect of those lessons, the time I spent with him listening to and discussing music, and the countless hours spent listening to him play in person and on recordings, resulted in my absorption of some of his musical sensibilities into my own playing.

TR: You have devoted much of your career to education: writing columns for trade magazines like Keyboard, recording videos for mymusicmasterclass.com, authoring textbooks and holding prestigious faculty positions at The Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz in The Hartt College of Music, and now at SUNY Purchase. You also teach at the Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshops. You are clearly a committed educator. What led you to this avenue? And what do get out of it?

 

AL: I started teaching very early on as soon as I gained a modicum of skill and knowledge about playing jazz. As long as I knew a little more than the students, I was eager to share that information with them and help them improve. It’s very gratifying seeing students progress and be inspired to hone and develop their skills. Of course there’s also the pragmatic aspect of providing another income stream, which is helpful in the challenging world of making a living as a creative artist. I never planned to teach, write books or make instructional videos. All those activities evolved over time, one leading to the next. The benefit to me, aside from the monetary, is that all these endeavors keep me thinking, growing and exploring musically. In order to teach effectively in whatever medium, one has to understand what it is they do and how they do it. The intangible is the intuitive part of playing. Much of that is inborn but can also develop from experience playing music with others. Stan Getz used to say, when playing music the ultimate goal is to attain the “Alpha State.” Knowledge, skill, practice and intuition can help get you there.

 

TR: You’ve been at this for a long time and watched students study, graduate and attempt to forge a path in professional music. How has that world changed? Are you optimistic about their opportunities in today’s environment?

 

AL: Many of my students have gone on to very successful careers in music, not all exclusively jazz. Musicians of my generation had opportunities to play with the creators of this music. Those days of apprenticeship are coming to a close, which leaves today’s students on their own. But as things have evolved, musicians my age and younger have helped create the jazz education industry, itself a form of apprenticeship. This has yielded a crop of highly skilled jazz musicians. The competitive nature of the music business along with limited opportunities has pushed many musicians into tangentially related areas. The advent of technology has also opened up new avenues to play and create music that had heretofore not existed. While it might not be feasible to create a career in jazz similar to what Bill Evans had, it’s possible to find fulfillment and success in new musical horizons. I’m optimistic about aspiring musician’s opportunities in today’s environment and in the music’s continuing evolution and development. And then there are the exceptional exceptions who achieve jazz nirvana.

 

TR: While you are clearly a jazz musician, you have ventured along a wide latitude within that label and straddled a few other areas as well. Your resume is nothing short of a Who’s Who of luminaries: Chris Potter, Jerry Bergonzi, John Abercrombie, Dizzy Gillespie, Branford Marsalis, Frank Sinatra (while you were on the Woody Herman band). You also recorded duets with Chick Corea after meeting him on a Stan Getz gig. But you’ve also worked with pop singer Neil Sedaka and won a prize from the John Lennon Songwriting Contest (JLSC). What connects all these different experiences?

 

AL: As I entered my teen years, my focus gradually shifted from classical music to jazz. During my pre-teen years from the late 1950s through the mid 1960s, I also listened to the pop music of the day, including Neil Sedaka. Neil was also a Juilliard trained pianist, and early on he considered a career as a concert pianist. His singing and songwriting talents took him in another direction. He became aware of my playing through a CD I recorded with his daughter Dara, who was singing standards. Hank Jones was working with her in Japan and was not available to do the recording, so I got the call. I hired George Mraz and Danny Gottlieb to complete the group. Dara played the recording for Neil, he really liked it and decided to do his own CD of standards. Neil called and asked me to do that project, but he preferred electric bass, so I got Will Lee. Months later, I got another call from Neil asking me to go to England for a tour. About halfway through his show, he inserted standards into the program. He’d call me out from backstage, introduce me to the audience, and I accompanied him and played short solos. After a while I tired of waiting backstage and asked the guys in his band if I could join them in the rest of the show. They agreed, so I played parts on electric keyboards until Neil brought me forward to play the standards on piano with him. Tours in the US, England and Japan followed. I did select gigs for six years. It was a fun gig.

 

Regarding the other musicians you mentioned, some are very close friends whom I’ve played with for many years, and some called me to be a sideman. All are great jazz musicians I’ve been lucky to play with.

 

Although the JLSC sounds like a rock competition, they actually have several categories of music, jazz being one, which I won.

 

So, the short answer to the question of what connects all these people and experiences is jazz!

 

TR: Out of all those gigs, can you talk about a few that stood out over the others and why?

 

AL: So many gigs over so many years. A dozen standouts in chronological order:

 

• Frank Sinatra “The Main Event,” live TV broadcast from Madison Square Garden, with Woody’s Thundering Herd plus orchestra. This was the culmination of a six-week tour we did with Sinatra. Twenty-thousand adoring fans, beautiful music and arrangements with Sinatra in top form. After the first rehearsal I went to Sinatra’s dressing room and asked if there was anything in particular he wanted from my playing. He said, “Just play the way you play.”  Most exciting gig I’ve done. You can see it on DVD or just listen to it on CD.

 

• Stan Getz tour of Israel. One of my first gigs with Stan’s quartet with Mike Richmond and Billy Hart. We were all unexpectedly moved to be in Israel. Three Jews and one honorary Jew, who knew? You can witness some of the festivities in the 1978 documentary “Stan Getz: A Musical Odyssey.”

 

• Stan Getz with the Buffalo Philharmonic. I’d been playing with Stan for a few years when one day he asked me if I write for orchestra. I responded, “Sure Stan.” Then he asked me to write a piece for him to perform with the Buffalo Philharmonic. Needless to say I hadn’t written any orchestral music, so I contacted my friend and great arranger Dave Berger to help with the orchestration. I ended up composing a three-movement piece entitled “Designed Desires.” The orchestra, under the direction of Julius Rudel, was all encompassing. Stan sounded great and was thrilled. I was in a state of disbelief and wanted to give up piano and just compose orchestral music. Reality eventually took over.

 

• Stan Getz at L'espace Cardin, Paris, France. Stan’s quintet and Bill’s trio were on tour in Europe, crossing paths several times. Bill played the same hall and piano with Marc and Joe the previous evening, which was recorded and released as the wonderful LP’s "The Paris Concert Edition One and Two.” It was thrilling to be playing that beautiful Hamburg Steinway Concert Grand that Bill’s hands had graced the night before.

 

• Subbing for Bill Evans with Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera at Fat Tuesdays Sept. 11-14, 1980. Bill was right about this trio: a joy to play with and a very exhilarating experience. The three of us clicked so well that we recorded three projects on the IPI label: a trio, a quartet with Tom Harrell, and a quartet with Jerry Bergonzi.

 

• “A Simple Matter of Conviction.” My concert at Carnegie Recital Hall in fulfillment of my first NEA jazz performance grant, which was a tribute to Bill Evans. Musicians were John Abercrombie, Eddie Gomez, Peter Erskine (Shelly Manne was going to play, but sadly passed away a couple of weeks before the concert), and The Essex String Quartet. My mother, sister, and aunt came up from Florida to attend. Helen Keane was the moderator. If you’d like to know more about it and hear the music, it’s all on my CD “Liquid Silver.”

 

• Chick Corea duo piano recording at Mad Hatter Studios. While not exactly a gig, an excerpt from the recording was released on my CD “Andy LaVerne Plays The Music of Chick Corea.” Imagine the thrill of sitting across from one of your all-time heroes and playing intently for two-plus hours; that’s what it felt like. So inspiring!

 

• Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, Moscow, Idaho. Trio with Brian Bromberg and Elvin Jones. Playing with Elvin, another incredible experience and dream come true. He called me “the architect of music," which I took as a huge complement and also thought it was very insightful for two reasons. One, I think architecturally when constructing my solos. Two, when I was younger, I wanted to be an architect. I continue to have great interest in that field. Brian is a virtuoso bassist who I first met when he auditioned in my NYC apartment at the age of 19 for the Stan Getz group. Of course he blew us all away and was hired on the spot. And it was thanks to Brian’s encouragement in that very same NYC apartment that I accepted the gig to sub for Bill at Fat Tuesdays!

 

• So many great gigs with John Abercrombie, but for a multitude of reasons I have to pick our first tour in Russia with Igor Butman (who I met at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival), Steve LaSpina, and Danny Gottlieb. Music was great. We traveled the length and breadth of Russia, an enormous area. This is a country of extreme dichotomies, experienced in hotels, food, travel, pianos and venues. A memorable visual was the stunning bright red concert grand piano. The beautiful concert hall had no heat, and we had to rehearse wearing our winter coats. The people were all fantastic. I met Putin at one of the gigs. He was an up and coming politician at the time. He and Igor used to play hockey together. A couple of clips are on YouTube.

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John Abercrombie playing the “Red Piano.” Photo courtesy of Andy LaVerne.

• Royal Albert Hall, London, with Neil Sedaka. My first gig with Neil. I was backstage waiting to be called to the stage. Neil and the band had already played several numbers. When I got the call, I walked out onto the stage in virtual darkness. Then a spotlight on me when Neil introduced “The Great Andy LaVerne.” As I sat down at the piano, I glanced out at the audience. It was a huge hall, filled to capacity. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that. Took me by complete surprise.

 

• Tour of Italy with “Andy LaVerne’s One of a Kind," my piano-organ trio. One of my best ideas was to form this groundbreaking instrumental combination, with Gary Versace and Danny Gottlieb, two great friends — a band of brothers! Our first CD was “Epiphany," which referred to how I felt when the idea for this group occurred to me. Gary and I went on to record five more CD’s with various drummers due to Danny’s busy schedule. Have to mention another great friend and drummer Jeff Brillinger, as he was the trio’s first drummer, and also played with me in Woody’s band and Stan’s band.

 

• “Shangri-La”— not the mythical location, but my CD of the same name. Once again, not a gig as such, but a most memorable musical event. I brought together two phenomenal horn players, Alex Sipiagin and longtime friend Jerry Bergonzi, along with another longtime friend, virtuoso bassist and constant musical companion Mike Richmond. Propelling the group is the extraordinary drummer Jason Tiemann. I thought it was a major accomplishment getting Alex and Jerry together, akin to Woody Shaw and Joe Henderson on Larry Young’s “Unity.” I think the music proves me correct.

TR: You also won an award for the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. An award named for the late Beatle suggests that there’s an interesting story there. Please tell us about how that came about and a bit about the song.

 

AL: The song is “Shania," named for Shania Twain. I happened on a live concert of hers on TV one day and was captivated by Shania and her music. I had never heard of her prior to that. The music was clever, melodic, well constructed, sophisticatedly arranged and produced. I quickly got to a point where Shania was all I was listening to. When I put on Trane, Wayne or Bill, they sounded jarring and dissonant. That presented me with a conundrum. How could I continue to play jazz if all I wanted to hear was Shania? After much consternation, I came up with an escape route. I wrote a tune that was influenced by Shania’s music, and named it “Shania.” While it had pop elements, it still had a jazz sensibility with touches of jazz harmony. That tune was my bridge back to jazz.

 

Shortly after, I was teaching at the Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshop. I brought the tune to a faculty concert rehearsal, and it sounded really nice. The band enjoyed playing it. At the concert, the tune got a very positive response from the audience, and after the concert, many people told me how much they were moved by the tune, some even brought to tears. I’ve written scores of tunes over the years, this one stood out in terms of response. While playing “Shania” at a Neil Sedaka soundcheck, it caught the ear of Emily Bindiger, Neil’s backup singer at the time. We talked about it, and Emily agreed to write lyrics for it. The lyrics fit the music well with a good narrative. I submitted “Shania” to the JLSC, and it was declared a winner in the jazz category. Subsequently, I recorded it with Kevin Mahogany on my CD “Process of Illumination.” I also wrote an in-depth article on the song for Piano Today Magazine titled “Shania - Behind The Music.” If you’d like to play or sing “Shania,” it’s in the Aebersold play-along “Secret of the Andes” Vol. 101, a collection of some of my originals. A few years later, I wrote a tune with lyrics called “Peace of Mind” and entered it in another songwriting competition, the International Songwriting Competition aka ISC, and it was a winner in their jazz category. I recorded that tune with Chiara Civello on vocals for my CD “Peace of Mind,” and followed that up with another Piano Today article.

 

TR: As a composer, you contributed 60 tunes to Stan Getz’s repertoire. In a DownBeat profile shortly after leaving Stan’s band, you mentioned that you liked composing even more than playing (you were 32 at the time). Are you still turning out that much material? And do you still feel the same way?

 

AL: To quote Jamil Nasser, “I am primarily a composer.” Of course all jazz musicians are composers; they compose each time they solo. I think of composition as improvisation in slow motion. I started composing music when I first took piano lessons at the age of 5. Unlike Mozart at that age, I had no idea what I was doing. Perhaps it was my desire to compose music that lead me to jazz. I was in the composition class at the High School of Music and Art. That class focused on classical composition and was taught by the composer Mark Lawner, who was an excellent instructor. One of my assignments was to compose a fugue. I was awarded the composition award for that piece, and it was published in the 1965 yearbook, my senior year. I continued my composition studies with renowned composer Karel Husa from Ithaca College and Cornell University.

 

When I transitioned to jazz, I retained my interest in composing, and started writing tunes. Writing music is part of my musical DNA. I usually come up with a tune every few days. Some key influences who have informed and inspired my writing are: Bill Evans whose tunes have very solid construction and feature melodic patterns and harmonic formulas largely set in standard song forms. John Abercrombie and I used to get together to play through our new tunes. John’s tunes are characteristically short, odd-measure forms, sparse, lyrical melodies, creative mixes of functional and non-functional harmonies, and deceptive cadences. After a while, my tunes started to sound like his, and his started to sound like mine. We recorded many of our tunes on our CD’s and videos. Other influences include Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson, John Coltrane, and the French Impressionists.

 

When I joined Stan’s band, I came to my first rehearsal with a handful of originals. One of the first things Stan asked me was if I write. The first tune we played together was my original “Sabra," a blues with a bridge. I could sense that he really liked it by the lengthy solo he played. That first night at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. we played “Sabra," which led to Stan adding more of my tunes to his repertoire. I’m very appreciative that Stan gave me the opportunity to write for him. That catapulted the development of my writing skills and confidence. Of the 60 tunes I wrote during the four years I was in the band, Stan recorded several, including “Sabra.”

 

Since then, I’ve written scores more, aided and accelerated by the Yamaha Disklavier and music notation software, first Encore, then Sibelius. I haven’t kept count but on my computer I have 593 Encore files, and 1,508 Sibelius files. Those totals don’t include any of the tunes I composed and hand notated prior to using that technology. I’ve been fortunate to have recorded many of my tunes, and look forward to writing and recording more. As Rick Laird used to tell me, write on!

 

Short answer to your questions, yes and yes.

 

TR: If you could pick one video of your playing you’d like us to include on the website, which one? And why? 

 

AL: That’s a very difficult decision. Given the context it’s asked, I choose the performance of my composition “Crystal Night” with my longtime friend and musical comrade John Abercrombie. John and I met in Boston decades ago, and became fast friends when we discovered our mutual love of the Bill Evans and Jim Hall duo recordings. We were lucky to have Bill and Jim as role models for our own decades-long duo. As a duo we recorded several CD’s, videos, and played many concerts and clubs. This video is from our DVD “The Art of the Duo.” John came up with that name. I really miss him.

 

Listen to "Crystal Night" here.

I’d like to add this link to a tune from my most recent CD “Rhapsody.” “Waltz for Debby” is IMO Bill’s signature composition. Out of all the reharmonizations I’ve done, this was the most challenging. It was like trying to re-harmonize Mozart, but thanks to those lessons with Bill, I was able to break through harmonically, bringing all I’ve learned from him full circle. If you’d like to play simpler arrangements of “Waltz For Debby,” “Very Early,” “Time Remembered,” and others with his original harmonies, they’re all in my book “Bill Evans 19 Arrangements for Solo Piano.” I’ll close with the voice prompt that turns off the lights in my home: “Alexa, Turn Out The Stars.”

 

Listen to "Waltz for Debby" here. Zach Brock, violin; Mike Richmond, bass; Jason Tiemann, drums.

 

Thanks for your thoughtful and thought-provoking questions.

 

TR: It’s our pleasure. Thanks!

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Laurie Verchomin: 

On Dancing “The Twist” to Bill Evans

Q&A by Charles Levin

October 1, 2021

Photo by Brad Montchar. Courtesy of Laurie Verchomin.

(Ventura, Calif.) — Every die-hard Bill Evans fan knows the story. How Evans met Laurie Verchomin, then 22, waitressing at his gig for the Edmonton Jazz Society in 1979. Evans invited her up to his hotel room after the show. “I’d love to,” she replied. “Can I bring my boyfriend? He’s a big fan of yours.” Evans chuckled. “That’s not what I had in mind,” he said.

 

They repaired to Laurie’s apartment with a host of fans where she served him tea. Bill left her his phone number on the back of his manager’s card. Soon after, Verchomin moved to New York and stayed, becoming Evans’ romantic partner until his untimely passing on September 15, 1980.

 

Every month in our Newsletter, we introduce you to someone in the orbit of Bill’s (and Joe’s) life. On the stage for Bill, it was Joe and bassist Marc Johnson. But at home and often on the road, it was Verchomin.

 

Verchomin, who lives in British Columbia just north of Vancouver, is a writer of prose and poetry. Her book, “The Big Love: Life & Death with Bill Evans,” has been translated into four languages. In researching my interview (conducted by email), I noticed that Verchomin has a musical background. It occurred to me that most folks — even ardent Evans fans — might not have known that or much else about her formative years. I started there.

 

Times Remembered: What is your first musical memory? And how did it make you feel?

Laurie Verchomin: My first memory of music is dancing to “The Twist” (by Chubby Checker) in 1962. I was 5 years old, and I was at a family gathering at my paternal grandmother’s house. These gatherings usually had live music in the form of piano and violin. Everyone in my father’s family could play an instrument, mostly classical and some Ukrainian folk music, but on this one occasion my uncle had put on a record of “The Twist” and I went crazy dancing to it. I felt the power of the music then and there.

 

TR: Sounds like you played an instrument as a kid?

LV: At my mother’s urging, I started piano in 1963 and studied the Royal Conservatory Curriculum for six years with Mrs. Nichols. Around that time, I made a deal with my mom that I could quit piano if I took up some other music activity. So, in 1972 I began voice lessons and joined a couple of choirs, one which my mother was the accompanist for. From this time forward my Mom was my accompanist when I had to rehearse or perform.

TR: What was your home life like in the way of music and culture in general?

LV: My mom was a professional musician. She had been classically trained on piano and had studied voice as a young woman. In her early thirties she began offering lessons and accompaniment on piano from our home, joined the Edmonton Opera Chorus, accompanied the Columbian Girls Choir (which I was a member of) and raised four children. She enjoyed a wide range of music, but was very moved by opera and musical theatre. She introduced me to West Side Story, Madam Butterfly and Phantom of the Opera.

 

My dad had been a semi-professional musician, playing violin with the Edmonton Junior Symphony, but he gave up playing music when he got out of high school. His musical tastes were jazz and classical. He introduced me to Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto.

 

My older brother John refused to play an instrument but had a deep love for soul music. He introduced me to Motown, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. My own taste at the time was purely Joni Mitchell. I collected all her albums, learned all the lyrics by heart and bought a guitar just to learn some of her tunes.

 

TR: When did you start listening to jazz?

LV: I really got into jazz in 1977, when I began the dance program at Grant McKuen University in Edmonton. It was the very first year of the jazz program, and I was encouraged by the musicians I met there to audit the jazz theory classes, use the practice rooms and collaborated with several on music for my dance choreography. I learned to read charts and recognize the standards. A formative and fertile year.

 

TR: When you met Bill, you were waitressing at a concert for the local jazz society that presented Bill’s trio. Were you familiar with Bill’s music when you met him that night?

LV: I was introduced to Bill’s playing on (Miles Davis’ album) Kind of Blue just a few weeks before I met him while I was tripping on an acid with a friend. I remember how primal the sounds were, so spacious and free. When I heard Bill play live that bitterly cold night in Edmonton, I fell into a trance like everyone else in the room. It was impossible to do otherwise!

 

TR: Did getting involved with Bill and immersed in his music change how or what you listened to over the years?

LV: Once you discover Bill Evans it is impossible to separate his influence from your life. I hear this from every Bill Evans fan I meet. His influence is so universal. He is the widest channel I know of.

 

But for me his influence is also so very personal. I have been blessed with so many ordinary moments with Bill, epic memories that became the touchstones of my existence. Funny things like how he liked to dry himself after a shower, his system of starting with his extremities and working back toward the heart. I still do that! And profound things, too!

 

Bill demonstrated to me the Oneness of the Universe though his sense of compassion and extraordinary quest for truth and beauty.  And then there is the music. Bill introduced me to Stravinsky, Scriabin and Lili Boulanger. He had a stack of Bartok children’s music I could read through when he wasn’t around on his beloved Chickering piano!

 

On September 15th, 1980, after Bill ascended, I felt stranded here on earth. My life became extremely difficult. I was homeless, penniless (Bill died with a mountain of debt and $10 cash in his wallet, all his credit cards were pulled, hadn’t paid his rent in months, etc.) and pointless.

 

I had no one to process my experience with — except Bill and his music. One of his first gifts to me was for me to meet my first husband, John Ramsay, a jazz drummer who was traveling with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. We met on Bill’s birthday August 16, 1981, in Vancouver, Canada. I left Vancouver to return to the East Coast with John, settling in Boston, where John was teaching percussion at Berklee College. Once again, I was surrounded by great musicians and got a first-hand education at the school of post bebop.

 

I listened to Bud (Powell) and (Thelonious) Monk and Dexter (Gordon) and (John) Coltrane and Dizzy and Charlie Parker as well as the entire school of the Jazz Messengers. I spent 12 years in Boston before returning to Vancouver to begin again …

 

TR: Do you still play?

LV: I recently purchased a guitar and have been studying primarily on YouTube! Back to my folk roots. I have a couple of friends I can play with here who are so encouraging! We are having a ball.

 

Over the years I have cohabitated with various acoustic pianos.  Recently I had an art gallery with an old Heinzman that my sons and I all enjoyed. My son Niko was teaching me the Bill Evans voicings he learned from Charlie Banacos.

 

Some tunes I like to play on piano:

 “B Minor Waltz”

“Peace Piece”

“Blue in Green”

“Laurie”

“Naima”

 

TR: In 2009, when journalist Marc Myers asked whether it was frustrating not being able to get Bill to quit drugs, you said you weren’t “trying to influence or control his life … I knew that the only thing I could do for him was to be there emotionally, to observe and help if something was beyond his control. I was there to cover for him … Look, when you meet someone who has terminal cancer and is dying, your energies aren’t spent trying to save them. You spend your time doing what you can to help comfort that person.”

 

There’s a real logic to your answer here, especially for a person who’s only 23 at the time. It’s compassionate and mature. Looking back now all these years later, do you feel in any way differently about this?

LV: No. Only now I have the wisdom to understand what it means to be a witness. To stand beside someone. In fact, how to stand beside yourself and witness your own process, without judgement. I do this meditation every day. It’s called Awakening the Witness. It’s a meditation that was developed by Oscar Ichazo, the founder of the Arica School. Once I had this understanding of true responsibility it was very easy to write my book and release myself from the underlying pain I was carrying.

 

TR: Another comment you made in Myers’ Jazz Wax was, “My life became that ascending song after his death. Everything evolved from that experience, from the trauma of his death.” That’s a beautiful observation. Please talk about that evolution. What are some examples?

LV: I think the evolution is toward a Oneness of humanity. How we are in relation to one another. A kindness revolution.

 

TR:We just passed the 41st anniversary of Bill’s death. How did you spend that day?

LV: I played “Peace Piece” on my guitar (or at least two chords of it – reharmonized ).

 

TR: Anything you want to share about Bill that I haven’t thought to ask?

LV: I have a new translation (of “The Big Love”) coming out in Japan with DU in Tokyo. I’m working on a second book of free writes from my writing group. Mostly prose. Beat poet that I am.

 

TR: Laurie also responded to this last question by asking if we could include an excerpt from her book, “The Big Love” …. I particularly like this one:

 

Ascension

Bill floats effortlessly above his body on the emergency room table. Fluorescent lights no longer compete with the diminishing breath of his physical body.

 

We are in union now. Bill watches over me sitting in the waiting room clutching his blood soaked jacket. He follows me to the bathroom and helps me to empty the last of his cocaine stash — barely a gram — into the trash.

 

He encourages me to record my impressions of this moment — which stretches out into eternity. He stands beside me between lives — making an opening for me. Never abandoning me — continuing his gentle encouragement.

 

I see the void he has entered and desire with all my heart to join him in his entry into bliss. This I am denied by my youthful body and unfinished work.

 

I remain behind to reabsorb our perfect love into the extra chamber I have created in my heart (5/4). The extra beat to carry me over the bar.

 

No one knows about this special internal rhythm I now carry.

 

It is our secret.

 

Our perfect love — no one can touch it.

 

It is ours for eternity.

 

We are locked together, in this embrace of love and death and blood.

 

Bill is remembering his life, stories flood into his evolving consciousness seamlessly flowing toward an understanding. Beliefs disintegrate and the stories become colors and then music and finally the insight he has been reaching for makes him laugh.

 

The perfection, the beauty, the radiance.

 

He begins again.

 

TR: Thanks for speaking with us, Laurie …

Excerpt from “The Big Love — Life & Death With Bill Evans” is reprinted with the permission of the author.

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When did I play that gig? 

Tonino Vantaggiato: The Italian Bassist Documenting Bill Evans' Itinerary

By Charles Levin
September 1, 2021

(New York City, N.Y.) — Ever try to remember where you were 40 years ago? Better still, if you could vaguely recall the actual episode, could you really nail the date it happened? That was the conundrum facing Joe La Barbera when he worked on his new memoir, “Times Remembered: The Final Years of the Bill Evans Trio.”

 

When exactly did I play that show with Bill in — was It Madrid? —  in 1979? Or was that 1980? Good luck, when you’re asking that question in 2014!

 

How Joe and I solved this problem was an act of serendipity. Enter Tonino Vantaggiato, a 28-year-old bassist in Italy and a big Bill Evans fan.

 

In writing a book that’s largely a chronological narrative, dates are critical — even if it’s only the month and year. In researching dates of concerts, itineraries proved scarce. Joe had a few (and some concert posters), but efforts to find others over the trio’s life span fizzled. A search online through the Bill Evans Archive at Southeastern Louisiana University (Bill’s alma mater) came up dry.

 

When we got stuck on dates, sometimes we’d reach out to Laurie Verchomin, Bill’s romantic partner in his final years. Frequently, she knew the answer; she lived many of those moments. On one occasion, she couldn’t but suggested contacting Vantaggiato, who was compiling an itinerary of Bill’s gigs. I emailed him and he responded quickly.

 

Turned out,. in 2012 (about the same time Joe asked me to collaborate on his book), Vantaggiato began researching a tome on Evans, whom the bassist cites as a critical influence. Unbeknownst to me, Vantaggiato had exchanged some emails with Joe prior to my query. And while discussing Bill in cyberspace, they also talked concert dates, a moment he now believes was destiny. Vantaggiato finally met Joe in 2016, when he performed with Italian pianist Dado Moroni and bassist Eddie Gomez at a jazz festival in Matera, Italy.

 

In an email interview, Vantaggiato recalled peppering Joe with questions about Evans. But he soon noticed that Joe asked most of the questions. “It did surprise me that Joe would understand my own true, sincere and deep interest regarding Bill,” Vantaggiato said by email. It took on more importance when the subject of itineraries came up.

 

Vantaggiato described his research on Evans as “exhaustive.” He contacted concert promoters, fans who attended concerts, journalists around the globe, librarians  — the latter, he said, who granted access to rarely seen, hard-to-find newspaper articles. In addition, he combed the Internet for old magazine calendar listings. Friends like French videographer Léon Terjanian loaned a helping hand; so did Verchomin. A few times, he said, our research informed his — “priceless help!” The result is a list of roughly 200 concerts — from small clubs to large theaters — in the appendix of “Times Remembered” by the trio featuring Joe and bassist Marc Johnson.

 

Vantaggiato came to music early, taking up saxophone at age 3, followed by drums, guitar, piano and finally, in 2004, bass (he still plays some piano and drums). His earliest musical memories also date to that tender age when he watched a 1996 broadcast of the Sanremo Blues Festival. American R&B artists, like Eddie Floyd, Rockin’ Dopsie and Leon Ware riveted his attention.

 

By 2006, however, he stumbled on Evans’ solo album, “Alone.” Not too long after, he discovered a re-issue of “Sunday at the Village Vanguard,” Evans’ groundbreaking album with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. With that recording, “I started to fully understand the musical and emotional language of Bill and of the ‘Original Trio,’ ” Vantaggiato said. “Unique. Incredible. Extraordinary. Then I studied with Mr. Eddie Gomez, and that changed my life completely.

 

“I understood that what moved me about (Evans’) playing beyond all the things was his ability to feel the full deepness of the human soul, investigating it at the deepest and highest possible level, humanly and musically, and returning it to the listeners, by his unique great inimitable musical universe and way to play,” Vantaggiato said, something he considers “unequaled” by any other musician.

 

Eventually Vantaggiato pursued formal studies. He’s earned diplomas in classical bass (Conservatorio “Tito Schipa,” 2017 ) and jazz bass (Conservatorio “Nino Rota,” 2020). In a profession marked by a perpetual supply and demand issue (lots of musicians; too few gigs), he has always worked as a freelance bassist, playing duos, trios, quartets, quintets and more. Among his favorites were trio dates with the late pianist Gianni Lenoci, a group that leaned hard on tunes by Carla Bley and Ornette Coleman.

 

Meanwhile, Vantaggiato’s research on Evans continues. He still plans to write a book on Evans with his friend Terjanian. And he hopes to document all of Evans’ gigs.

 

Normally quite private about his research, Vantaggiato said he was eager to contribute to Joe’s memoir. “I did it for Bill, who deserves that his history is much better known, for Joe, a friend who, with care, love, respect, has been preserving his own memories of those wonderful times that he lived and finally bringing together in this marvelous book and last, but not least, for me. For me, this is a reason for great pride and satisfaction.”

 

To Tonino Vantaggiato, Joe and I offer a resounding Grazie! for his help and invaluable research. Check out this video of Tonino with Gianni Lenoci’s trio at the Freedom Jazz Festival, Mesagne, Italy, July 4, 2016.