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!