Review: “The Big Love”
In the decades since his death, the character of Evans has, if nothing else, become harder to grasp. As his musical legacy continues its ascent to eternity, the creator responsible for this luminescent ladder somehow remains in the background. Whereas information on many jazz icon’s personal lives has become readily available to anyone interested through numerous biographies and documentaries, practically everything published (and there is a fair amount) concerning Evans remains rooted in his music, as it well should. But the flaw in this matter is that, to his ever-expanding legion of devotees, Bill’s influence stretches beyond that of music. From the moment he penned the Zen-tinged liner notes to Kind of Blue, Evans’ public persona has taken on a spiritual air. The luxurious work created by his early trios only served to heighten this semblance. Though not lifted to any sort of leadership role, Evans was viewed by many as a sort of companion on a path to something extending beyond the general Western understanding of existence.
Throughout his entire professional career, Evans was also hopelessly addicted to drugs, a fact that was no secret while he was alive, but one that remains difficult to absorb even today. Obviously drugs are not foreign objects in the jazz ambient, but it is too easy to simply throw Evans onto jazz’s steep junkie pile. He was too intelligent, too administrative over his physical and emotional capacities to allow himself to succumb to an addiction which he did not really want. Why then was the man whose shimmering touch and blush-hued harmonies were responsible for transforming the piano into a jazz instrument as expressive and beautiful as any sighing horn such an afflicted soul? For those who have truly fallen under his spell, this lingering question weighs on his entire legacy.
Perhaps the closest one will come to answering this and other questions concerning the pianist’s personal life will be through Laurie Verchomin’s memoir The Big Love- Life and Death with Bill Evans. For the final sixteen months of Evans’ life, he and Ms. Verchomin were lovers. It was an incredibly intense period for Evans, both creatively and emotionally. After close to a decade of professional, but not particularly inspired work, he was helming a brand new trio that invigorated both his playing and his spirit. Bill himself likened this incarnation of the trio to the group he had led from 1959 to 1961 with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums- a group now universally regarded as the most influential piano trio in the history of jazz. It was also just prior to this period that Evans had become a cocaine user, this new development arriving not long after overcoming his addiction to methadone, which had in fact been prescribed to help him kick the heroin habit that had haunted him since the late 1950s.
At the time of their meeting, Laurie was only 22 and firmly entrenched in the post-Woodstock youth’s quest for any and all forms of experience. Her recounting of this bohemian lifestyle and the resultant drug experimentation, sexual promiscuity, and aimless drifting are simultaneously touching and absurd, eliciting a response ranging from apathy to deep compassion. Glimpsing her while waitressing at one of his Canadian gigs, Bill’s attraction was immediate and his advances direct, asking her to visit his hotel room that evening. Though she declined the offer, she did invite him back to her apartment where a small group of friends served the fifty-year-old jazz dignitary a cup of tea, along with cocaine. On his way out the door, Bill planted a gracious kiss on his hostess’s cheek, while slipping her a business card with his home address and telephone number. Within a month, following the exchange of several expressive letters, Laurie was on a plane to New York, uncertain of what to expect, save for the chance to add to her Kerouac-esque adventures.
A romance took flight immediately, and The Big Love chronicles this entire development, with Laurie’s spontaneous beat-like reflections on this period warmly conveying the perpetually bizarre joy of a couple’s sweet descent into love. There was also an underlying degree of strangeness to their situation, and Laurie does not avoid it. More than their discrepancy in ages separated them. By the time of their meeting, Bill had already created his life’s work; his habits were fully formed. Every evening this seemingly mundane Jersey guy would leave behind his Pepsi and hotdogs, A&P’s, and racetracks, cross the George Washington Bridge, and go to work as a jazz visionary. Laurie on the other hand, hadn’t yet discovered something tangible to latch onto, and it was not until her union with Bill that she seemed to uncover a sense of purposefulness. Despite this world of differences, together they basked in a shared glow. But both were aware that it was not a bliss that could last for long, given the disastrous state of Bill’s health.
Soon after their written correspondence began, Bill informed Laurie that his older brother, Harry, had recently taken his own life, following a long struggle with schizophrenia. Harry, himself a musician and the father of one Debby whom a certain jazz waltz was composed for, was Bill’s only sibling and he cared for and respected him deeply. Though Evans was certainly familiar with tragedy by this point in his life, many speculate that it was the grief caused by this event that pushed his cocaine addiction to its insurmountable peak. In fact, Laurie cannot recall an occasion during their time together in which Evans was not on drugs.
The candid accounts of Bill’s day-to-day junkie existence are disheartening, to say the least. In his 9th floor Fort Lee, New Jersey apartment that was kept impeccably clean, Evans was a physical wreck. Going without food or sleep, infinite globs of time dripped away with him holed up in his bathroom (or “office,” as he referred to it) cooking up the potion to extend his endless high. By this point, Bill had become an intravenous user, after interpreting a dream of a Dali-like landscape of noses as a sign that his nose was ready to fall off from overuse. This presented its own challenges, as his skin was already rotten and decaying from years of shooting up heroin, making the actual injection tricky. But once the needle found its target, the musical luminary would sink into his cigarette- burned bed sheets and slosh in his transient ecstasy.
With this knowledge, it is extraordinary to think how Evans was able to survive for as long as he did, let alone produce such wondrous music. And in the months leading up to his death, Evans’ playing took on a heightened fervor, producing some of the most creative, penetrating work of his entire career. During this time, the trio performed what are now viewed as landmark gigs in Paris, San Francisco, and New York. The recordings from their weeklong residency at the Village Vanguard in June of 1980 vividly display the depth of Bill and the group’s development. Spurred on by the young, energetic accompaniment of Marc Johnson on bass and Joe LaBarbera on drums (as well as the cocaine speeding through his veins) Evans’ playing reached a new plateau. Though all of his trademarks remained intact- the incomparable, buoyant harmonies and soaring right-hand lines- Bill sounds as if he has found the portal that he had always been looking for. And instead of peeking timidly through a side window, he reveled in kicking the front door in.
Gone are the lulling tempos and sprinkled stardust melodies that this same man had given wings to in the same basement club two decades earlier, replaced by a harder, more driving sound. In this group, there was no question about who was leading who, with Evans’ rhapsodic explorations of familiar standards and a slew of new compositions (including the lovely ballad, “Laurie”) filling every space with sound, pushing the band and the tempos so far, one wondered if they could ever find their way back home. It turns out that Evans never did come back, but his playing at the end was ascending upward, in pursuit of where his spirit had been waiting for so long.
Laurie’s account of her brief, but transforming period with this musical giant may not answer the questions that everyone yearns to have answered concerning Evans’ divided and tortured soul. But at the end of it, one somehow admires Bill all the more, as a musician and as a human being.
Used by permission
of the author. All rights reserved. .John Varrallo is a long-standing
Bill Evans fan and a student at the State University of New York at New
Paltz studying music and English literature.
statements and opinions in any articles on this website are strictly those
of their respective authors, and not neccesarily those of The Bill Evans
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