August 1st, 2018 |
“Nardis” and the Curious History of a Jazz Obsession
Reeves Sound Studios, A Musical Vacuum, The Mind That Thinks Jazz,
Collective Sympathy, Polite Addiction, The Colors in the Scene, The Music between the Notes,
A Constant Companion, Mount Sinai Hospital, Crucifixion, Resurrection
It was supposed to be the best day of Richard “Blue” Mitchell’s life, but June 30, 1958, turned out to be one of the worst. The trumpeter had been summoned to New York City from Miami for a recording session with Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, an old friend who was being hailed as the hottest alto sax player since Charlie Parker.
But things started going wrong even before Mitchell arrived at Reeves Sound Studios on East Forty-Fourth Street. First, his luggage went astray en route from Florida. Then there was a surprise waiting for him in the control room: Miles Davis, one of his musical heroes, who had taken the extraordinary step of composing a new melody as a gift to Cannonball. Mitchell was supposed to play Miles’s part.
That wasn’t going to be easy, because the tune, called “Nardis,” was anything but a standard workout on blues-based changes. The melody had a haunting, angular, exotic quality, like the “Gypsy jazz” that guitarist Django Reinhardt played with the Hot Club de France in the 1930s. And it didn’t exactly swing, but unfurled at its own pace, like liturgical music for some arcane ritual. For three takes, the band diligently tried to make it work, but Mitchell couldn’t wrap his head around it, particularly under Miles’s intimidating gaze. The producer of the session, legendary Riverside Records founder Orrin Keepnews, ended up scrapping the night’s performances entirely.
The next night was more productive. After capturing tight renditions of “Blue Funk” and “Minority,” the quintet took two more passes through “Nardis,” yielding a master take for release, plus a credible alternate. But the arrangement still sounded stiff, and the horns had a pinched, sour tone.
Only one man on the session, Miles would say later, played the tune “the way it was meant to be played.” It was the shy, unassuming piano player, who was just shy of twenty-eight years old. His name was Bill Evans.
And that might have been the end of “Nardis.” Miles never recorded the tune himself—the fate suffered by another of his originals, “Mimosa,” recorded once by Herbie Hancock and never heard from again. In this case, however, the lack of a definitive performance by the composer created a kind of musical vacuum that other players have hastened to fill. Despite its inauspicious debut, the tune has become one of the most frequently recorded modern jazz standards, played in an impressive variety of settings ranging from piano trios, to Latin jazz combos, to ska-jazz ensembles, to a full orchestra featuring players from the US Air Force. For some musicians, “Nardis” becomes an object of fascination—an earworm that can be expelled only by playing it.
Though superb versions of “Nardis” have been recorded by everyone from tenor sax titan Joe Henderson to bluegrass guitar virtuoso Tony Rice, no one embodied its melodic potential more than Bill Evans. For him, Miles’s serpentine melody was a terrain he never tired of exploring. For more than twenty years, Evans played it nearly every night with his trios, often as the show-stopping climax of the second set. Indeed, he became so closely associated with the tune that some of his fans dispute that Miles actually wrote it, insisting that Evans deserves the credit. It’s certainly true that “Nardis” radically evolved over the course of Evans’s career, morphing into new forms, reinventing itself, and achieving new levels of poignancy as it became inextricably entwined with the arc of Evans’s turbulent life.
For this listener, “Nardis” has become a full-on musical obsession. I have more than ninety official and bootleg recordings of the tune stored in the cloud, ranked in a fluid and continually updated order of preference, so they follow me wherever I go. In my travels as a writer, I use “Nardis” as a litmus test of musical competence: if I see a jazz band in a bar or a busker taking requests, I inevitably suggest it. (If they’ve never heard of it, I understand that they must be new at this game.) By now I’ve heard so many different interpretations, in such a far-flung variety of settings, that a Platonic ideal of the melody resides in my mind untethered to any actual performance. It’s as if “Nardis” were always going on somewhere, with players dropping in and out of a musical conversation beyond space and time.
Evans once told a friend that a musician should be able to maintain focus on a single tone in his mind for at least five minutes—and in playing like this, he achieved a nearly mystical immersion in the music: a state of pure, undistracted concentration. Even before writers like Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder made Buddhism a subject of popular fascination in America, Evans saw parallels between meditative practice and the keen, alert state that jazz improvisation demands, when years of work on perfecting tone and technique suddenly drop away and a direct channel opens up between the musician’s brain and his or her fingers. He listened to other pianists closely, but rather than imitate a player like Bud Powell, he would try to extract the essence of Powell’s approach and apply it to different types of material. “It’s more the mind ‘that thinks jazz’ than the instrument ‘that plays jazz’ which interests me,” Evans told an interviewer.
By maintaining a singularly intense focus on “Nardis” over the course of his career, Evans managed to turn the melody that had frustrated “Blue” Mitchell that night in 1958 into a vehicle for dependably accessing “the mind that thinks jazz,” like a homegrown form of meditation that could be performed on a piano bench before rapt audiences in clubs night after night. By bringing the story of Evans’s quest for a kind of jazz samadhi to light, I hope to understand the enduring hold that “Nardis” has on the ever-widening circle of musicians who play it, while reckoning with my own personal fixation.
Pale, bespectacled, and soft-spoken, Bill Evans looked more like a graduate student of theology than a hard-swinging jazzman. He was already working for Miles full-time on the night he recorded “Nardis” for Cannonball. He had been recommended for the job by George Russell, an avant-garde composer whose book of music theory, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, was a decisive influence on Miles’s modal conceptions of jazz in the late 1950s.
When Russell first mentioned Evans’s name, Miles asked, “Is he white?”
“Yeah,” Russell replied.
“Does he wear glasses?”
“I know that motherfucker,” Miles said. “I heard him at Birdland—he can play his ass off.” Indeed, the first time Evans played a beginner’s intermission set at the Village Vanguard—Max Gordon’s basement club, the Parnassus of jazz—the pianist was astonished to look up and see the legendary trumpeter standing there, listening intently.
After being invited to sit in with Miles’s sextet at a bar called the Colony Club in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Evans got the gig, though he was in for several more rounds of hazing before being allowed to play alongside Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, and Miles himself, all at the peak of their powers. At one point, Miles, in his inimitably raspy voice, told the wan young pianist that to prove his devotion to the music, he would have to “fuck” his bandmates, “because we all brothers and shit.” Evans wandered off for fifteen minutes to entertain the possibility, before telling Miles that while he wanted to make everyone happy, he just couldn’t do it. The sly trumpeter grinned and said, “My man!”
Still, the ribbing continued. Miles would counter Evans’s musical suggestions by saying, “Man, cool it. We don’t want no white opinions.” At the same time, the trumpeter became the young pianist’s staunchest advocate, saying that he “played the piano the way it should be played,” and comparing his supremely expressive touch on the keys to “sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.” He would sometimes call Evans and ask him to just set the handset down and leave the line open while Evans played piano at home.
But Miles’s hard-core fans continued to shun Evans. They saw a white nerd evicting the beloved Red Garland from the prestigious keyboard chair at a time when black pride and appreciation of jazz as a distinctively black cultural form were ascendant. For months, while his bandmates got thunderous ovations after solos, Evans got the silent treatment, which reinforced his self-doubt. In his eagerness to be regarded as an equal, he accepted a first fix of heroin from Philly Joe, whom Evans respected more than any drummer on earth. He also began dating a chic young black woman, Peri Cousins, for whom he wrote one of his sprightly early originals, “Peri’s Scope.” Cousins observed how quickly the drug filled a crucial role in Evans’s existence, providing a buffer between his acute sensitivity and the realities of life on the road. “When he came down, when he kicked it, which he did on numerous occasions, the world was—I don’t know how to say it—too beautiful,” she said. “It was too sharp for him. It’s almost as if he had to blur the world for himself by being strung out.”
On Kind of Blue, widely regarded as the greatest jazz recording ever made, Evans became a conduit of that unbearable beauty, mapping a middle path between Russell’s Lydian concepts, Miles’s unerring sense of swing, and the luminous romanticism of Ravel and Debussy. His leads on “So What” and “Flamenco Sketches” seem geological, like majestic cliff faces carved outside of time.
By the time he recorded the tracks on Kind of Blue, however, Evans had already decided to leave Miles’s band. After his baptism of fire on the road, he was physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted, but he also felt more confident about pursuing his own vision. He had a specific goal in mind: achieving a level of communication in a piano trio that would enable all three players to make creative statements and respond to one another conversationally, without any of them being obliged to explicitly state the beat. This approach came to be known as “broken time,” because no player was locked into a traditional time-keeping role; instead the one was left to float, in an implied pulse shared by all the players. Evans compared broken time to the kind of typography in which the raised letters are visible only in the shadows they cast.
That kind of collective sympathy, akin to three-way telepathy, demanded major commitment from the trio, and required high levels of personal chemistry. Evans met the perfect fellow travelers in two young musicians named Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian.
Ironically, the two men came into Evans’s band on the wings of the worst gig the pianist had ever played, a three-week stand at Basin Street East, on East Forty-Ninth Street, working opposite Benny Goodman. The “King of Swing” was enjoying a revival of interest, and his band was getting the red-carpet treatment, with VIPs arriving in limousines and lavish champagne dinners on the house, while the members of Evans’s trio bought their own Cokes at the bar. Occasionally they’d play a set only to discover that their mikes had been turned off. Evans ran through a series of illustrious accompanists that month as each man decided he could no longer take the abuse. (Philly Joe split when the club owner told Evans to stop letting him take solos.) But when LaFaro and Motian sat in, Evans felt things start to click, and he would look back on the three-week ordeal as a karmic process of eliminating the wrong players from the trio.
Boyishly handsome, six years younger than the pianist, and confident to the point of arrogance, LaFaro was the brazen yang to Evans’s ascetic yin. He spent hours every day commandeering attic rooms and hotel basements to practice, and restrung his instrument with nylon-wrapped strings years before they became standard, which enabled him to get a guitar-like tone and articulation in the upper register. “He was freer than free jazz,” Ornette Coleman said. “Scotty was just a natural, played so naturally, had a love of creation. I’m not only talking about music, but being human. I would say he was closer to a mystic.” Like Evans, who pored over volumes by Plato, Thomas Merton, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Jiddu Krishnamurti at home, LaFaro was intuitively attracted to Zen. The two men spent hours discussing philosophy on the road.
Motian came of age providing a solid four-four foundation for classic horn men like Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge, but had also proved his versatility and ability to handle advanced musical concepts by supporting avant-garde players like George Russell, Thelonious Monk, and Lennie Tristano. He could swing harder with a pair of brushes than most guys could with a whole kit, and he instantly gravitated toward the concept of broken time, which gave an unprecedented amount of expressive freedom to him and his bandmates. This style proved so influential that it has become nearly ubiquitous in jazz even outside of the piano-trio context, though it requires an intense level of dedication.
The enduring effect of Miles’s endorsement ensured Evans a steady stream of gigs, and the three men made a pact: no matter what opportunities came up, their primary commitment for the next phase of their lives would be to the trio.
A warbly-sounding bootleg reel recorded at Birdland in 1960 shows the Bill Evans Trio distilling “Nardis” down to its essence and making it swing. After Evans authoritatively states the theme, he plays rollicking variations on it with LaFaro and Motian close behind. Then LaFaro takes an astonishing lead, climbing the neck of his instrument to make those nylon strings ring. As each member of the trio explores the implications of the melody, the other players lay out or step in as appropriate, so that the whole trio becomes a unified organism, “thinking” jazz as naturally as breathing.
When Evans first met LaFaro, he said, “There was so much music in him, he had a problem controlling it… Ideas were rolling out on top of each other; he could barely handle it. It was like a bucking horse.” On the road with the trio, LaFaro would learn to handle that bucking horse without taming it, expanding the range of possibility for every bass player who followed. He attained such a level of rapport with Evans that tears would come to Motian’s eyes on the bandstand.
As word spread that something special was happening in Evans’s trio, their days of having to buy their own Cokes ended. They began appearing on bills with top-ranked groups, including Miles’s bands, and other musicians flocked to see them on off nights. Keepnews wrote of “a definite feeling in the air… the almost mystical aura that marks the arrival of an artist.”
The constant touring, however, was tough on the pianist, who developed chronic hepatitis in tandem with his raging addiction. The cover photographs on Evans’s LPs became a time lapse of his physical degeneration. On the back of Undercurrent, Evans is depicted urbanely perusing a score with guitarist Jim Hall, a Band-Aid on his right wrist marking the spot where his needle went awry.
Evans was a polite junkie. For decades, he kept tabs on how much money he owed various friends, and he always endeavored to pay them back, even if his benefactor had long forgotten the debt. But among the people disturbed by his accelerating decline was the fearlessly outspoken LaFaro, who had no problem confronting the pianist in the bluntest terms. “You’re fucking up the music,” he would say. “Look in the mirror!”
It was in this combative atmosphere that Evans made his second attempt to commit “Nardis” to vinyl, at Bell Sound Studios, on February 2, 1961, under Keepnews’s watchful eye. Though Keepnews gamely tried to keep everyone’s spirits up, the whole session seemed jinxed, with Evans and LaFaro openly arguing about the pianist’s drug use and Evans suffering a splitting headache. By the time the ordeal was over, both the players and the producer assumed that the tapes would be quietly filed away and never released. “We had a very, very bad feeling,” Evans recalled. “We felt there was nothing happening.”
Listening back, however, everyone was shocked to discover how well the trio had played. Upon the album’s release, Explorations was hailed by critics for its bold, unsentimental reinvention of well-worn standards like “Sweet and Lovely” and “How Deep Is the Ocean,” the dynamism of the group’s interactions, and the sublime sensitivity of Evans’s phrasing and voicings. Humbled by the inadequacy of his own ability to judge how well the session had gone, Evans began to think of “the mind that thinks jazz” as something larger than the consciousness of any individual musician, as if the music organized itself at a higher order of awareness that wasn’t always discernible to the players. The rendition of “Nardis” that appears on the album, a refinement of the arrangement that the trio had been playing on the road, became the default canonical version in the absence of a Miles original—the basis for twenty years of Evans’s performances, and for hundreds of interpretations by others.
Ben Sidran once suggested, somewhat implausibly, that Miles told him that the name of the tune had something to do with nuclear energy. Others have suggested that it’s just a sound, like Charlie Parker’s “Klactoveedsedstene.” Perhaps the most amusing explanation (though it’s almost certainly apocryphal) was offered by bassist Bill Crow in Ted Gioia’s compendium The Jazz Standards. One night when Evans was playing with Miles, Crow reported, a fan requested a tune that the pianist felt was beneath him. “I don’t play that crap,” Evans replied. “I’m an artist”—with Evans’s nasal New Jersey drawl doing the work of eliding the phrase into the song’s cryptic title.
I was introduced to Evans’s music by another extraordinary player, the classically trained multiinstrumentalist Ralph Towner, who has made a point of covering poignant Evans originals like “Time Remembered” and “Re: Person I Knew” (an anagram for Orrin Keepnews) alongside his own haunting tunes with his acclaimed band Oregon. On his 1979 album Solo Concert, Towner reimagines “Nardis” for acoustic guitar, complete with contrapuntal bass lines and sparkling harmonics. He has performed the tune in solo, duo, and trio settings over the years, using it as a springboard for wide-ranging improvisations. While the number one and number two versions of “Nardis” on my inner playlist rightly belong to Evans, Towner’s Solo Concert version has long held the number three spot.
Even as a five-year-old boy, Towner was drawn to darkly shaded, emotionally nuanced melodies like “Nardis,” hearing in the compositions of George Gershwin “an inherent melancholy that seemed to be a part of my psyche,” he told me recently. Upon borrowing a copy of Explorations from a friend, he was struck by the quality of mystery in “Nardis,” he says, abashedly admitting that he never returned the album to his friend. “I have always wanted to experience that elevated space the trio occupied when they played,” Towner said. “That was the record that made me say, ‘I have to be able to learn to play like this.’”
Another musician for whom interpreting “Nardis” has became a lifelong project is the pianist Richard Beirach, who accompanied musicians like Chet Baker and Stan Getz before releasing a series of brilliant recordings of his own. Beirach’s first album as a leader, Eon, opens with a version of “Nardis” that holds the number four spot in my internal pantheon, rivaling the best of Evans’s versions for emotional impact and the intimate interplay between the musicians.
Like Evans, Beirach was classically trained, but when he heard Red Garland play “Billy Boy” on Miles Davis’s Milestones, he knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, he told me. In Evans’s work, he found a meeting place between both approaches. “Bill was the first jazz pianist that had the real classical sensibility—a beautiful tone, great pedaling, and unbelievable voicings,” he said. “And ‘Nardis’ is a perfect little masterpiece. It’s in a weird key—people don’t usually write in E minor—and it has a clear motivic idea that’s developed throughout the tune. The changes are unusual, yet they’re comfortable and make sense.” When Beirach formed a quartet with guitarist John Abercrombie in the late 1970s, they often opened their sets with “Nardis” because it could be taken in nearly any direction. Beirach has now released more than half a dozen renditions in solo, duo, trio, and quartet settings, varying widely in tempo and feeling, and Abercrombie recorded several excellent versions of his own before his death, in 2017, including one on his final recording, Up and Coming.
The cult of “Nardis” also includes the luminous pianist LeeAnn Ledgerwood, who has recorded fine versions of her own on her albums Now and Zen and Simple Truth, as well as playing it live. “Why do certain tunes become special to us?” she mused when I asked her what she found so compelling about “Nardis.” “For some reason I can always start to hear something new in it—some different way of handling the harmonic progression.” She compared this process to an exhibit of Monet paintings she visited in Boston that included several versions of Morning on the Seine near Giverny, each highlighting a different aspect of the light falling on the water and the colors in the scene. “When I saw them, I thought, That’s the way it is for me, working on a tune like ‘Nardis,’” she observed, “and I think that’s the way it was for Bill.”
A few days after talking to Beirach for this piece, I woke up to an email sent from his home in Hessheim, Germany, that read simply, “Call me.” I did, and he set the phone down next to the piano, as Evans had done for Miles, and played a monumental, twenty-minute version of “Nardis” that brooded like thunderheads over the mountains before roaring down and unleashing its full force, finally dissipating in a series of increasingly dissonant chords. I thanked Beirach and told him that I wished I could have recorded this new version for posterity, but he had a Zen lesson for me of his own.
“That was just for you, bro,” he said. “Let it go.”
When I asked Towner to name his favorite version of “Nardis,” he made an interesting error. “The one on The Village Vanguard Sessions,” he said, referring to the live set by the Evans Trio that is universally considered to be the definitive document of their broken-time approach. Curiously, however, the trio didn’t play “Nardis” on June 25, 1961, the day that album was recorded. But considering what was about to happen, it’s a blessing that the performances were captured at all.
Unlike most of the acts in Keepnews’s stable at Riverside, the young Evans often resisted his producer’s promptings to make a new record, feeling that he had nothing new to say. (That would change later in his career when loan sharks threatened to break his fingers.) But perhaps sensing that the trio had attained an extraordinary level of empathy, the pianist agreed to allow an engineer to record the output of the whole last day of a two-week run, five sets in total, running the gamut from Evans’s unbearably poignant exploration of classic ballads like “I Loves You, Porgy” and “My Man’s Gone Now” to cooking modal workouts on angular modern tunes like “Solar” and “Milestones.” LaFaro’s vibrant declarations danced around Evans’s richly harmonized lines as Motian kept the whole thing swinging with subtle shadings and accents.
In one sense, Towner had made the perfect choice: the best version of “Nardis” that the Evans Trio was ever likely to play was the one that they neglected to play that night in 1961. That run of shows at the Vanguard established a public image that stuck with Evans for the rest of his life: his back bent over the keys at such an acute angle that his head was level with his hands, the spectral, rail-thin pianist communing with a higher order of intelligence that he called “the Universal Mind.” As a young man honing his craft in a home studio lined with egg cartons at his parents’ house in New Jersey, he had experienced a six-week period of immersion in the Universal Mind that he compared to the Zen experience of satori.
For Evans, wrote jazz critic Whitney Balliett, improvisation was “a contest between his intense wish to practice a wholly private, inner-ear music and an equally intense wish to express his jubilation at having found such a music within himself.” In the trio with LaFaro and Motian, Evans finally found the support he needed to take that music as deep as he felt it to be, and by doing so deepened the subjective possibilities of jazz itself.
Ten nights later, after a few beers, LaFaro and a friend decided it was worth driving eighty miles to Geneva, New York, where another friend had a good stereo. For the next several hours they drank coffee and listened to records, including Bartók’s “The Miraculous Mandarin” and the trio’s Explorations, which LaFaro was proud to show off.
After hearing Chet Baker sing his mournful “Grey December,” LaFaro remarked that Baker had it all—talent, movie-star looks, recording contracts—but because of his addiction, he had ended up another jazz casualty, his teeth knocked out while attempting to buy drugs in Sausalito, ruining his embouchure. LaFaro called Baker “an American tragedy.” The young bass player and his friend were invited to spend the night, but they turned down the invitation, having chores at home.
Driving east on Route 5-20, LaFaro fell asleep at the wheel. The car careened onto the shoulder, struck a tree, and burst into flames. The twenty-five-year-old bassist and his friend died instantly.
Evans and Motian were devastated, knowing what they’d lost. The pianist stopped playing altogether for months; even his piano at home stayed silent. In the little notebook that Evans carried in his pocket, he wrote, “A door closed somewhere… We had done something, Scotty, Paul, and I.” When his older brother, Harry, visited him in New York, he found Evans sitting disconsolately in his apartment, strung out and dressed in LaFaro’s clothes.
Riverside was going through tough times, and in an attempt to recoup some of the money that the label had advanced to the pianist over the years to feed his habit, Keepnews offered Evans a solo session. One of the tracks recorded that day was the “Love Theme” from Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, which Evans and LaFaro had seen together. Though the producer specifically requested that, for tracking purposes, the pianist not segue from tune to tune, Evans turned the plaintive last note of the “Love Theme” into the first note of “Nardis,” as if the tune were a fate that couldn’t be avoided, a black hole that sucked other melodies into it.
Evans eventually formed another trio with Motian and bassist Chuck Israels, woodshedding at a club in Syracuse while sleeping at a hotel next to the Greyhound station. Room service and television—life on the road, which would become Evans’s existence for the next two decades. Meanwhile, back at home, he fell into a daily routine. Because the telephone in the apartment he shared with his common-law wife, Ellaine, was often disconnected for nonpayment (they ran extension cords out to the hall for electricity), Evans would head out to a pay phone in the morning with his address book and work his way through the alphabet until he found a friend who wouldn’t lose his temper when he asked for another loan. The pianist once compared his addiction to a daily ritual of crucifixion and resurrection.
Once, his friend Gene Lees snapped at the inevitable request, “Goddamn it, Bill, I don’t even have enough money to eat tonight!” An hour later, the pianist meekly called back and said, “I got enough money for both of us. Let’s go eat.”
Over the decades, as illustrious sidemen like Eddie Gomez valiantly tried to fill the hole that LaFaro had left, Evans settled into a set of mannerisms and personal clichés that still dazzled his audiences but ultimately stultified his creative growth. He kicked heroin with the help of methadone, but then switched to cocaine, and his tempos became rushed, nearly frantic. While his playing was still technically flawless, his flurries of notes came to feel brittle and mechanical, as if they’d been hollowed out from the inside. “Nardis” became a glittering shell of itself—a series of hectic performances often dominated by clattering drum solos, as if allowing those fateful notes to linger in the air would bring on a sadness Evans could no longer endure.
At the same time, a series of personal tragedies tested his ability to simply hang on. Ellaine, his longtime partner in addiction, jumped in front of a subway train after he told her he was having an affair. Then his brother Harry, whom he adored, shot himself after his wife threatened to leave him. Years of crucifixions and resurrections had turned Evans’s emaciated body into a desolate moonscape of track marks, collapsed veins, and suppurating abscesses. Gene Lees once called Evans’s life “the longest suicide in history.”
But the Universal Mind wasn’t done with him yet.
In 1979, the pianist formed a new trio with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera. The presence of Johnson in particular—who was, in the words of former trio drummer Eliot Zigmund, “very young and open, and very, very respectful of Bill”—seemed to revitalize the pianist, and for the first time in years, he sounded like he was searching again. After buying a cassette recorder, he began taping and listening to his own performances, going all the way back to unreleased music he’d made with LaFaro and Motian. He was also paying close attention to the work of the young pianists he had generously mentored over the years. After listening to a solo recording by Warren Bernhardt called Floating, he told his girlfriend, Laurie Verchomin, that he had entered a state of bliss, hearing “the music between the notes.”
For months, Evans had been working up a new arrangement of “Nardis,” featuring an extended solo intro. Though his early playing with George Russell had been considered the cutting edge of the ’50s avant-garde, Evans never fully embraced the free-jazz movement that followed, and by the ’70s (his skinny tie and brow-line glasses replaced by leisure suits and aviators), he feared he was being forgotten by hip audiences. His improvised preludes to “Nardis” became a fertile field of self-reinvention, enabling the pianist to experiment with unusual harmonies, dissonant lines, spontaneous themes, and generally more “out” playing than audiences expected of him. He fantasized about putting out a four-album set of versions of “Nardis” alone.
While he had previously expressed the belief that he had said everything he had to say in music, Evans started hinting to his friends that he was on the verge of a major breakthrough. In one of his ever-present notebooks, he wrote, “Lately, I’ve been discovering something wonderfully basic… right in the middle of modern harmony.”
It’s impossible to know precisely what he meant by this, but when the trio opened for Ralph Towner’s band Oregon one night at the Berklee College of Music, Towner was doing his sound check when Evans rushed over to the piano in a state of great excitement. “He sat down beside me and said, ‘Ralph, Ralph, listen to this!’” Towner recalls. “Then Bill proceeded to play the most amazing and adventurous music I’d ever heard him play. But then I had to do what, to this day, is one of the strangest things I ever did in my career: I had to say, ‘Sorry, Bill, we have to finish our sound check.’ If you had told me ten years before that I would be kicking Bill Evans off the piano while he was showing me something of that magnitude, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Evans began talking about taking months off from the grueling round of perpetual touring to compose a major work on a new, more ambitious scale. But in the end, he felt compelled to stay on the road to finance his habit and keep himself out there in front of younger listeners. “Nardis” became his way of projecting himself into the future—of conjuring another resurrection out of the sheer force of his craft. But he was running out of time.
After a particularly intense performance of the tune at his last run at the Village Vanguard in June of 1980, Verchomin wrote in her journal, “Finally exploring his suffering in public, no longer able to contain his passion, freely expressing the distortion he is directly experiencing… Bill describes this distortion with such fury and a great sadness. He knows the score; he knows he is checking out. He is integrating all that he has witnessed, concocting some kind of rocket fuel for his zenith.”
By the time Evans arrived in San Francisco for a weeklong run at the Keystone Korner on the last night of August 1980, he was skeletal, surviving on candy and Coca-Cola and scrounging around for a score from the moment he arrived. Before the show, he sat down with an old friend, Bay Area jazz educator Herb Wong, and told him with unusually explicit affection, “I want to thank you for all the conversations we’ve had all these years.”
At the end of his last set, Evans began to probe the melody that had been his constant companion since the abortive session in 1958. For the next several minutes, he stripped “Nardis” down to the darkness at its core, with none of the comforting embellishments and ornaments he had come to rely on in the years since LaFaro’s death. Working the full length of the keyboard, Evans called forth primordial forces from his instrument, the rumbling in his left hand threatening to swallow up the birdlike flights in his right. He played like a man determined to escape a lifetime of confinement, using every ounce of technique and discipline to painstakingly unlock a sequence of iron doors that might lead him to daylight.
There was no bass or drum solo after Evans’s intro that night, just a quick unison statement of the melody by the trio at the end. There was nothing left to be said.
Two weeks later, on September 15, Evans set off for an appointment at a new methadone clinic in Manhattan, with Verchomin keeping him company and LaBarbera at the wheel. As always, he was out of money. Earlier that week, after nodding out at the wheel and nearly killing himself and his girlfriend, the pianist had asked one of his young disciples to fill in for him at a gig—something he always tried to avoid doing, no matter what kind of shape he was in. As they navigated through traffic, Verchomin said brightly, “Hey, Bill, what do you think about having a memorial concert to raise money for you?”
“You mean a tribute, my dear, as I am still alive,” he replied. All three of them laughed and then Evans began coughing up blood. Soon blood was streaming from his mouth in a torrent, soaking through his corduroy jacket. “Lay on the horn, Joe—tell them it’s an emergency. I think I’m going to drown,” Evans sputtered. Verchomin saw the fear in his eyes.
Arriving at Mount Sinai hospital, Verchomin and LaBarbera carried the pianist into the emergency room, leaving a crimson trail on the floor behind them. Verchomin clutched his damp jacket in her lap until a young doctor came out to tell her that he couldn’t be saved. A custodian began mopping up Evans’s blood and wringing it into a pail.
In his short story “The Zahir,” Jorge Luis Borges describes a mythical shape-shifter that can appear as a tiger, a mosque, a vein glistening in marble, or any other object you can imagine. Even if you glimpsed it only briefly (say, as a coin passed from hand to hand in a market), the Zahir would inexorably come to dominate your awareness, until you eventually succumbed to the irresistible urge to visualize it from every possible angle.
“Nardis” is my Zahir: an inexhaustible fountain of novelty against a reassuring background of sameness. The thrill of hearing each new version is that of recognizing the familiar behind an unfamiliar mask, like a lover who becomes even more beguiling and seductive by passing through a series of reincarnations.
For Bill Evans, however, Miles’s enigmatic melody was even more than that. It was a chance, each night, to escape the prison of his own body, with its endless cycle of crucifixions and resurrections, to abide briefly in the music between the notes—in the refuge that he and his bandmates built together in broken time.
Steve Silberman is the author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (Avery, 2015), which became a best seller in the United States and the United Kingdom, and won the 2015 Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction. He lives with his husband, Keith, in San Francisco.
More by Steve Silberman