124: Bill Evans, ‘Nardis’

“Some people just want to be hit over the head, and then if they’re hit hard enough maybe they feel something. But some people want to get inside of something and discover maybe more richness.” – Bill Evans

(c) Chuck Stewart

I’ve been looking forward to writing about Bill Evans’ ‘Nardis’ for years. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it the raison d’etre for this blog. It’s a song he played from its very first recording in 1959 through virtually his very last breath in September, 1980. You might well not know this music, so I’m both proud and humbled to be the vessel of this musical offering, because it’s among the most sublime and moving artistic creations I’ve encountered.

This posting is longer and more detailed than usual. It describes the arc of Bill Evans’ career and the remarkable creative outpouring during the final year of his life, focusing on a piece which accompanied him during those twenty years and then exploded into his signature confrontation with his impending death. If you have limited time or patience or interest, I urge you to skip down to the last section, The Nardis Legacy, where I describe ‘Nardis’ as played during the final months of his life by ‘The Last Trio’.

Career Overview

The career of Bill Evans (1929-1980) had an unusual curve. He hit NYC in 1956 and immediately became a sought-after sideman, most memorably in his key contribution to Miles Davis’ 1959 “Kind of Blue” (SoTW 079).  Not long after this, he became addicted to heroin. In 1959, he formed his “first trio,” which reinvented the piano trio and played a key role in determining the sound of modern jazz. They recorded two studio albums. Their “Live at the Village Vanguard” session (SoTW 060), recorded ten days before the death of bassist Scott LaFaro, constitutes some of the most beautiful music I know.

Evans withdrew from the world. His manager forced him into the studio for the little-known, harrowing 1962 “Solo Sessions” (SoTW 096). He came out of the self-imposed exile due to the need to support his habit. After about half a year, he recruited young bassist Chuck Israels for the “second trio,” which operated for three years. Their output was uniformly excellent, but a cut below that of the first trio.

From 1966 till 1978 Evans partnered with bassist Eddie Gomez and a series of drummers. The musical output was that of a genius coasting, feeding his drug habit, struggling to stay afloat, gradually destroying his body. The music is always graceful, intelligent, refined, but rarely as memorable as the second trio, never as breathtaking as the first.

In mid-1978, Evans (now subsisting on cocaine) found two young partners, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera, and founded his last trio. Over the next year and a half he developed a more intense, expansive style, culminating in a creative explosion in the several months leading up to his death on September 15, 1980. According to all accounts, he sensed that his death was imminent. He played in those last months with a frenzy born of the very profoundest awareness of his own tenuous mortality. The vehicle for that expression became the set-closer, ‘Nardis’, especially the incredible solo piano introduction which Bill Evans created anew, night after night.

Early Nardis

From early 1958, alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley was a member of Miles Davis’ group together with John Coltrane. When Cannonball went into the studio to record his album “Portrait of Cannonball”, producer Orin Keepnews brought a young white boy named Bill Evans to play piano on the session. Cannonball’s boss, Miles, wrote a song for the session called ‘Nardis’.

It was a strange piece, modal (rather than chord-based), a concept Miles was just beginning to dabble in. This means that the music remains within a scale, rather than being based on shifting chords. Think ‘Fever’. Think ‘You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover’. Think ‘Kind of Blue’ (SoTW 079).

No one has succeeded in guessing what the name ‘Nardis’ meant. Bill Evans was a fan of anagrams. His song ‘Re: Person I Knew’ was derived from ‘Orrin Keepnews’. ‘NYC’s No Lark’ comes from the name of fellow pianist and junkie Sonny Clark. Dinars? Drains? Nadirs? Ranids? What’s a ranid?

No one even understood it musically. (“Eastern-sounding” was the best anyone could do.) Cannonball’s version is pretty embarrassing – awkward, stiff, thoroughly a flop. Evans: “You could see that the other guys were struggling with it. After the date, Miles said I was the only one to play it the way he wanted.”

By the way, Davis’ authorship has often been disputed, probably due to the fact that he never played the song and that it was so strongly absorbed by Evans. But Evans himself stated on numerous occasions that it was Miles who wrote ‘Nardis’.

Half a year later, Miles brought Bill into his group in order to further explore modal jazz, at which Evans was considered an expert. This direction would reach fruition in April, 1959, in the masterpiece “Kind of Blue” (with Adderley on alto sax)  (SoTW 079).

L to R: LaFaro, Evans, Motian

In December 1959, Evans’ first trio recorded their first album (“Portrait in Jazz”) in which they discovered that they could levitate. In February 1961 they recorded their second studio album, “Explorations”, in which they refined the magical, gravity-defying interplay, discovering that they could dance together while suspended in the air. Alongside half a dozen tired standards which they revitalized and a couple of originals was ‘Nardis’. Listen to Adderley’s group’s arthritic stiffness. Listen to Bill Evans’ transcendent, weightless reading of what can hardly be called the same composition. It already here includes an extended bass solo, a feature that would reappear in the song over the next decades—but never again in the hands of Scott LaFaro.

In June, 1961, at the Village Vanguard, the trio would create a floating pas de trois. (SoTW 060). Ten days later LaFaro died in a car wreck.

His death sent Bill into a deep depression. Bill’s brother remembers him wandering around NYC wearing some of LaFaro’s coat. It was a bleak time. In April 1962, short of cash and in debt to his record company, Evans went unwillingly into the studio to noodle for an hour by himself in a darkened room. I discussed the resulting recordings in SoTW 096. Among the pieces Evans played is ‘Nardis’, in an interpretation as profoundly different from that by the first trio half a year earlier as is white from black, life from death.  A shimmering waft becomes an open wound, transformed by naked pain. These five minutes of profound, unguarded introspection come from the place Evans would revisit 17 years later. Here he is experiencing the first tragedy of his life. There he would be facing the final one.

If the music of the second trio never reached those heights (or depths), it was infallibly impeccable. Here they are playing ‘Nardis’ in a live performance from 1964.

The Middle Years

L to R: Gomez, Evans (c) Phil Bray

Then came the long, relatively uneventful Gomez era, by far Evans’ longest collaboration (1966-78), the least exceptional years of Evans’ exceptional career, years where he was rarely doing anything but coasting. One can’t blame Gomez. He’s not an inferior bassist, certainly no less competent than Marc Johnson. Perhaps one should credit him with propping Evans up for all those years (a compliment that has been given to his long-time manager Helen Keane; but then Evans needed a lot of propping). Simultaneously with Gomez’ departure, Evans’ career soared. He found two young collaborators whom he credited with inspiring him to an entirely new approach. But the fact remains that all those Gomez years were Evans’ least interesting ones. Here’s a recording from the “Portraiture” album (1969) with a long, meaningless bass solo. This rendition includes a piano introduction. I’d fly to Mongolia to see Evans play like this today, but let’s face it: compared to what came before, and to what came after, he’s on auto-pilot. There are a dozen more recordings like this scattered through the Gomez years, but from what I’ve been able to find, Evans never recorded ‘Nardis’ from 1972-1979.

Here is a remarkable clip from Finnish TV, 1970, Evans and Gomez (and drummer Marty Morrell) performing it in a private home in Helsinki. Note Evans’ deteriorated state of dental affairs (a dentist fan would soon give him a new set of teeth). Note the tie and shirt. One can only assume the shirt (and its wearer) hadn’t been washed in several weeks. Note his articulateness, the precise formation of his perceptive thoughts. Note the spot-on musicianship. And this is a shadow of what he was capable of.

The Last Trio

During the short-lived tenure of the last trio, from the summer of 1979 till September 1980, ‘Nardis’ became the vessel through which he expressed a last remarkable outpouring of creative energy, growing in intensity month after month, week after week, night after night.

(c)Henry Kahanek

The song begins with a piano solo about five minutes long, followed by an extended bass solo, followed by an extended drum solo, followed by the group. Here’s an example of a complete version of the song, which usually last between 15 and 20 minutes. It was always the closer of the evening’s program.  To be honest, I find the bass solos invariably bland and the drum solos annoying.

But the solo piano introductions achieve an artistic expression of a rare – if not unique – intensity.

Here’s an early version from July 19, 1978, with newly-discovered bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Philly ‘Joe’ Jones, Evans’ long-time drug buddy and musical partner from back in the 1950s. Evans often said that Philly was his favorite drummer, ever. Note how paltry Philly’s drum kit is here. Rumor is the rest was in a hock shop, pawned to feed his habit. Note also how much better his drumming is than anyone else Evans played with.  This is the earliest version I know of the final format of ‘Nardis’.  The gravitas is yet to arrive.

In January 1979, Joe Labarbera joined the group permanently. Here they are in Iowa in one of their first performances, at the Maintenance Shop. As Bill says in the introduction, “It’s still evolving.”

Here’s the trio in Buenos Aires in September, 1979. They’re finding the groove. It’s serious, but not yet harrowing.

Here they are on November 26 in Paris, darker by far.

Here is December, 1979, at the Balboa club in Madrid, in an energetic, forceful version.

Listening to this series of performances I think of the nature shows where a vegetable-growth slow process is compressed to a few seconds. This is a compressed view of the growth of the soul. From version to version, we bear witness to Evans’ interpretation of ‘Nardis’ deepening exponentially.

In June, 1980, a hundred days before his death, Evans returned to his favorite club for a week’s stand at the Village Vanguard in New York, the site of the great recording with the first trio twenty years earlier. Four evenings were recorded, June 4, 5, 6 and 8. They’re documented in a 6-CD boxed set called “Turn Out the Stars”. The performances of ‘Nardis’ closed each evening. They are extemporaneously improvised, each one a unique expedition into the nether limits of the human soul. The technical virtuosity Evans employs is jaw-dropping. Together, they constitute a sublime, harrowing vision.

In early August the trio appeared at the Molde Jazz Festival in Norway. Here’s a video of ‘Nardis’ from that performance.

From August 31 to September 8, 1980, the trio appeared at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco. This stay is documented in the 8-CD boxed set “The Last Waltz”. Here are the six performances of ‘Nardis’ included there:

The “Last Waltz” performances are perhaps less finely polished than those in “Turn Out the Stars”, but no less intense. Evans’ strength was failing. He died a week later, on September 15.

The ‘Nardis’ Legacy

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Bill Evans was many things – wise, and good, and wild, and grave; but he never came near old age, doomed to an early death from twenty years of self-destruction, first by heroin, in these last years by cocaine.

These piano solos are a unique expression of a man staring unflinchingly into the abyss. But what does he see? And what does he say? I’ve been puzzling over this for weeks now, and feel no closer to The Answer. I’ll tell you what they’re not—they’re not morbid or self-pitying. They’re not ‘raging’, but they certainly are crying out against the dying of the light. How will I deport myself when I face my death? Will I look for some broad, expansive, comprehensive overview of the meaning of my life, of human existence? Or, like Bill Evans in these performances. will I drive myself in a fury to dig, and dig, and dig, to get to the bottom of all this? I don’t know. I hope I’ll be old and doddering, and that I never see the truck coming up behind me, that the light goes out unexpectedly and suddenly.

Because I certainly would not have the courage, the drive, the gravity that this great artist displays as the Angel of Death embraces him closer and closer to her bosom, night after night.

What does it ‘mean’, this music? What does it ‘mean’, this life? I don’t know. I don’t know what the Grand Canyon ‘means’. But I know the utmost depth of the naked, mortal soul when I see it. Here it is. Bill Evans’ ‘Nardis’.

‘Nardis’ complete, June 8, 1980, from “Turn Out the Stars”: