Resits: “E” is for Bill Evans and why I loved, then hated, then grew to accept his music.

It’s a long story.

First of all, can anyone not like Bill Evans? He was a genius.

Well, here’s the quick answer: spend every waking minute of your life listening to his music, watching his every move, notating bowel movements, sleep patterns. Do what I did, transcribe thirty recordings for money, to be later published in four volumes. Welcome him, like Jesus, into your life, into your heart and into your central nervous system, let him be the food that enters your body and the excrement that comes out.

It wasn’t out of choice, they asked me to do it. There were a ton of notes, too many to count. Luckily I wriggled out of doing the drums, but bass and piano still seemed an insurmountable and unpredictable task. How much do you want? they asked. How long will it take? I had no idea in either case. I came up with a random figure for payment (it wasn’t enough) and away I went. For four months I did nothing else.

I used some great software called “Transcribe” to isolate short sections, take down the notes, then move on. The early stuff was fun to decipher, not too dense, beautiful all over again. “Alice In Wonderland”, from “Sunday At The Village Vanguard”, had this low, ghostly moan every time I looped a particular section of it. I take the loop off, play the track as normal. It’s gone. I loop it again: there it is, too slow and deep to be human. Can music be haunted? Glasses clattered and clinked in the background.

Then I started to think: I’m going to be an authority on this guy. I will be the expert, nothing, not one pub conversation, not one casual dismissal of his swing feel and especially, not one publication, will happen without going through me. His name will not so much as get a mention without my opinion being thoughtfully noted. My name in lights, with letters after it. Liam Noble, MaBiL, something like that, something that would fit on a blue plaque.

More on that later.

So, I plough on. I get to the early seventies and the notes increase, the glacial beauty of the heroin period becomes the frantic lyricism of the coke era. It’s still him, even he couldn’t escape the brilliance and flexibility of his system. But, to my ears, he starts to coast a bit here and there.

And it’s not just the ears that sense it. Writing every note on paper, erasing it, correcting it, you are aware on a molecular level of every decision he makes. As I wrote, the other end of the pencil bobbed up and down with monotonous regularity, getting the notes down almost as quickly as Bill could push them out….(Bill…we were on first name terms by then). The pencil seemed to know. It was becoming too much like hard work. And for what? Why transcribe this music? That was becoming, for me, the burning question, the question that burned and then burned the charred remains of itself, petering out in a powdery puff of indifference. The deadline and the pay check loomed.

But then I reached the later Village Vanguard recordings, a supercharged swan song and a revelation, he’s almost Cecil Taylor-like in the way he tries to catch everything that occurs to him. Maybe he knew he was running out of time. It’s pretty breathtaking. It is, thank God, a rewarding end to this exhaustively peculiar journey. It was over and all I could do was wait for the complimentary copies to arrive.

And eventually they did. I must admit I was excited at the thought of seeing my name on something. I opened the Jiffy bag like a rabid toddler. There was a nice big photo of my mate Bill, that’s good, it’s his music after all. Nice big logo of the publisher (I won’t mention them here, feel free to Google the “world’s largest print music publisher”). That’s good, they paid for it.

But there’s something missing. My name. There’s no mention of me anywhere. This music, to all intents and purposes, transcribed itself. How could I be an expert if there was no evidence, or proof even, of that expertise?

The weird thing was, in two of the four volumes, my name (and that of Chris Baron, the person who transcribed all the drums) was included. In a small Times New Roman font, dwarfed by empty paper space around it, as if somebody forgot to erase it. An incredible level of incompetence from a company that size. I really should have sued them, for loss of, er, something. Loss of….PRESTIGE……so….no fame for me. No lecture tours. I might have, at one point, known as much about Bill Evans as anyone. And that knowledge (which, we are told, is its own reward) must have at least helped me as a player, right?

In actual fact, it pretty much destroyed me as a player for months afterwards. Every time I laid my hands on the piano, it was his music that came out, his patterns, his colours. But my brain knew it wasn’t me, so it rejected the transplant and tried to fight it, this alien consciousness that had got into me. I played games with myself, play like Monk, play like Monk. But games are no good for improvisation, you’re not really supposed to be thinking of anything. It was like reading instructions on how to fly whilst falling, wingless, off a cliff. The flow was gone.

Cold turkey was the only way. I stopped playing standards and I stopped listening. I got, eventually, the poison out. The information faded away. My revenge on the whole process was the complete expulsion of all the so-called knowledge I had accumulated, an unprecedented data dump of forgetting. Eventually, after a couple of years, I could stand to hear it again. I rediscovered the Bill Evans I knew before I knew too much. Now when I listen to the way he slides in and out of keys and tempos on “What Kind Of Fool Am I?” on “The Solo Sessions Vol 1″, or marvel at the explosions of “Nardis” on “The Paris Concert”, I don’t think about how he does it, or what it is. It’s just air vibrating, circulating, refreshing and replacing itself. It’s a moving picture made of noises.

Let’s have a book of those!

Who Do I Listen To?

“Nature then, is just nature. I admit I am very impressed with it. The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can do for is to put some order in ourselves.”

Willem de Kooning


The cloud comes down, but too fast and too heavy, more like a blanket, or like jelly just before it sets. It always happens like this. I’m in a room with someone, and I’m teaching them. And they say something, and the room fills slowly up with an imaginary, cloying, sticky liquid. This person is aged between 18 and 21. They say :

“Who should I be listening to?”

I have been trying to think of what to say in reply to this for as many years as I’ve been teaching. It’s the key to everything. When a person says this, and eagerly awaits an answer, they are unwittingly telling you that they think they will never be a jazz musician, pure and simple. They have made this choice. Obviously I can’t tell them that. They want answers. Their parents have just forked out twenty seven grand in used notes in exchange for little nuggets of information such as the one I am about to impart. The great spirit of rebellion that spawned this music, the anger and joy coexisting in Bud Powell’s recordings, the machismo and feminine battling it out in the mind of Miles Davis, the sheer don’t-give-a-fuck fire running through Sonny Rollins’s titanic improvisations, Geri Allen’s fragile spider-like lines underpinned with the swagger of a New Orleans marching band, has it all ended up here in this room? I am starting to feel a bit claustrophobic.

Look, I’m no writer. The opening paragraph of this blog has, compared to my others, a lot of short sentences. This is because I’ve just finished James Ellroy’s brilliantly nasty, disparaging and fictionalised account of the years leading up to Kennedy’s assassination, “American Tabloid”. The anger and disgust of the unseen narrator jumps off the page at every turn. And it has lots of short sentences in it. My ear started to like the sound of them. And how they look. And that reminded me of the anger in Bud Powell’s music, anger that in his case was transformed into a kind of ecstatic energy. I imagine a lot of jazz musicians had this experience; there was plenty to be angry about, and in some kind of chicken and egg coincidence the way music was made was undergoing an explosive revolution.

With this in mind, I get on the tube; Jesus everyone looks fucking angry. Bill Evans comes on my headphones, even he sounds angry today, a taunted bull rampaging through a room full of rose petals. Ellroy, Powell, Evans, their energy is being let out in order that they can get up in the morning, write a new book, make a new record, they are making things ok.

Then something else happens; I go and see some very close friends of mine for a couple of days. The anger, the idea of anger, drifts away. The energy of friendship, of common ground both musical and personal, the way time passes and we are still here years later, the same and different. Bill Evans sounds different today, like he’s reading me a bedtime story. Monk’s angles are child-like, sincere, playful, but not quite as belligerent.

At a band reunion, a band in which I played an instrument I no longer even have, there are faces from even further back, the same but different. I remember sitting in the third clarinets playing Vaughan Williams’s “Folk Song Suite”, medleys of Broadway shows, newly commissioned overtures, “The Rockford Files”. From my vantage point, along with five other clarinets playing the same line, I could feel the air move, we were all somehow engulfed in it, embraced by the sound, so different to sitting at a piano, where one somehow hovers above it. (Watching Bill Evans play is, to me, watching someone trying to actually “climb inside” the chords, ear cocked to the keyboard with bird-like attentiveness, anxious to catch anything that passes.)

I remember the impossibility of looking demure whilst playing the bassoon, the irresistible urge to show off that frequently befell the lead trumpet or the percussionists, the way the conductor would lean inexplicably back in his seat for the “jazzy” numbers and then tense up like a cat eying its prey for the Gordon Jacob suite. I remember how, when we played “What I Did For Love” in the Marvin Hamlisch medley, I would feel waves of emotion that were almost physical and in the room, coupled with a teenage, slightly manufactured distaste for such sentimentality (anyone who’s ever listened to Keith Jarrett will know what I’m talking about). In particular, I learnt how to play with other people, and from that how to be with other people. I discovered that I wasn’t the only freak in Bromley in the 1980s. This is all valuable information that I still think about; well, maybe not the bassoon bit.

Look, I’m no psychologist. But when someone who wants to be a jazz musician asks me what to listen to, I imagine them asking me how to choose their friends. They are almost asking me how and what to feel. And it’s not entirely their fault. They are the customers now, and like all customers they are always right. Time is money, they don’t have a limitless apprenticeship to figure this out at their leisure, there’s no time for accidents, wrong turnings, red herrings. And the amount of energy needed to resist the increasingly conformist, consensual nature of modern culture is enormous. Jazz musicians are not, on the whole, still being beaten up by the police and given electric shock therapy in hospitals. But we are in a bit of a state over this whole role of music in contemporary life thing. Maybe this could, in some way, be our source of anger, our disgust, the unseen enemy that we kick against whilst all the time only putting “some order in ourselves”?