Marty Morell Interview, Part 1
One of the most empathetic and musical of modern jazz drummers, Marty Morell is also a studied percussionist and plays vibes and piano as well. He was an integral part of the Bill Evans Trio from late 1968 through 1974. Along with bassist Eddie Gomez, Marty's rhythmic precision and cool ambience egged the pianist on in new and creative ways, always stretching and growing during his time with the trio. Evans biographer Peter Pettinger, calling Morell "an unsung stalwart of piano trio history" wrote: "...he had been responsible for an exceedingly tight unit that could swing and drive relentlessly. His control of the twelve-bar sections in a number like "Twelve Tone Tune", for instance, was as snappy and precise as coulld be. At the same time,on ballads, he never failed to provide a listening cushion of the utmost delicacy, seeming to imbue his drums with the ability to breathe of their own volition, and always in expressive union with his leader." ("Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings",p. 226)
Marty contacted me to talk about his work with Bill Evans, his own CD and other current projects, and the web site we formerly had with him. In between several lengthy and very enjoyable phone calls, the interview was conducted primarily in email, over the course of several weeks. We are proud to present Part One here, as an exclusive feature of the Bill Evans Webpages. See link at the end of this piece for PART 2
-- Jan Stevens
Photograph ©Marty Morell 2005. All rights reserved.
Marty, tell us a little about your early years; where you grew up, and went to school, etc.
Well, I was born on February 25th, 1944 in Manhattan. Actually it was
96th Street and Fifth Avenue, to be exact. Guess that makes me a hard
core New Yorker! I began my journey into the world of music at age six,
on the piano. I did a short stint on clarinet at age 10 and began playing
drums in the school band at age 12. Once I got to the drums, I knew that
So, there's the obvious connection of having played some piano there, once you started working with Bill Evans. Many writers pointed out that you were so strong a "listening drummer" for the trio, comparatively, and the records do bear that out. How would you say your own piano skills and harmonic knowledge facilitated your approach with the trio?
MM: Well, It just seems to help me to know what the piano player and the other musicians on the bandstand need in the way of support. As a drummer I have a specific roll to play. One of the things that is essential for playing in any kind of band is really listening to one another. It should always be a group effort. You have to sort of lose yourself in the music, so that you can react spontaneously to what is happening around you --but if you’re not listening hard to others, then perhaps you are listening too much to yourself -- and this does not make for good music. Bill was one of the most “listening” musicians that I've ever had the pleasure to work with. Of course he heard things that no other human on earth could.
So, Marty, it was Eddie Gomez who told Bill he knew you, and he recommended you for the trio in 1968, right? And when did you meet Eddie, and had you worked with him before?
MM: Actually, Bill heard my name originally from [bassist] Chuck Israels back in 1965. I had done a few gigs with Chuck around New York back then. He liked my playing and mentioned me to Bill. I never did a lot of playing with Eddie until I joined the trio, but we did play together once on a commercial gig in ‘64. I had a quartet gig playing opposite Duke Ellington¹s band at a club called Basin Street East. It was a gig playing behind a singer. Kind of a "relief” band, you might say. I called Eddie for it and he accepted the gig. We were just young cats gigging around NYC then, but a few years later, Eddie got the primo gig! I guess he mentioned my name to Bill as well -- but when I heard that Jack DeJohnette was leaving the trio, [to work with Miles Davis] I called Bill myself and told him that I would love a chance to play and that I felt I had something to offer the trio. I was petrified calling him, but I thought that it was my only shot. So I gathered up some courage and dialed Bill’s number. He was so nice, really, and he asked me to come down and play one night at the Vanguard. I had been listening to Bill¹s records like non- stop for at least four years so I knew his entire book. One of Bill¹s comments to me at the end of this magical night was that I sounded like I had been playing with the trio forever -- and in my heart I was. So, it was a thrill for me to get the gig. I was floating on air after that gig and walked around the village [Greenwich Village, an area of NYC] for hours. I was so out of it, man, I couldn¹t even remember where I had parked my car!
Ha! What a great story! So it was the gig you really wanted. What was it like at the beginning of your tenure with Bill? How did he approach you musically or personally as a new trio member?
MM: Bill was the best. You could not ask for a more patient and a kinder man than Bill. He was just very supportive. He was like a father to me. Bill was a Leo [the astrological sign] and Eddie and I were like his “cubs”. He had such a nurturing quality. I'm so lucky to have known Bill from this perspective. To get to the point of working with Bill, you had to have something going on your ax first. I guess Bill heard my passion for his music, and felt that I would eventually settle down and mature into the gig. He never said anything in the way of how or what to play. He just let the music evolve naturally. I guess he was hearing what he wanted to hear. From the beginning of the gig to the time I left was just shear joy. I was depressed for six months after leaving the trio, but leaving was something that I knew I had to do.
OK, we'll come back to that later. So, Marty, at this point in time, you just got the Bill Evans Trio gig. What happened next? We know Bill was not into rehearsing, as a process – preferring the music to be shaped on the job, but was there any rehearsal or talkover of any kind at all, or did Bill send you a list, or say what he wanted after the first few gigs, or anything like that? Can you sort of take us through the next few days and weeks?
MM: Well, basically nothing much happened in the way of rehearsing. Bill just let me find my way. Guess that he heard something in my playing that he liked and allowed me to develop it. He knew that I had listened to his records extensively and that I knew most of his material. About a week after scoring the gig, I got a call from Helen Keane [Evans manager] telling me that we would be going to Europe in a few days for an eight- week concert tour. Fortunately, my passport was up to date so I started packing. What a blast! This was such a wonderful time in my life. It was an incredibly gratifying feeling to know that I had the gig that I had wanted for so long.
Marty, once you were in the trio, how did you approach putting your own stylistic imprint on the music? Once you joined, there started to be a nice, new flow going in the trio’s sound, at that time. In other words, Bill had been playing many of those tunes for some years -- most with essentially the same basic head arrangements -- with other drummers, like Paul Motian, Larry Bunker, Arnie Wise, etc. But how did you go about making the drum chair your own, so to speak insofar as working to make the repertoire “fresh”, and contributing stylistically – while still keeping in mind Bill’s way of working, if you will?
MM: Hmm, this is an easy one. Essentially, I’d say we are all individuals, and no two drummers are alike. Paul Motian set the style of drumming with Bill's early trio records, but all the drummers that followed had their own thing happening. In fact, Bill's early trio records created a completely new approach in rhythm section playing -- and many rhythm sections today are influenced by Bill's trios, but none can ever sound totally like Bill’s trios -- because we can never be someone else. If you are true to your own heart and you are yourself when you play music, you’ll automatically make any chair in any band your own. Because we are all unique. As musicians, we all have been influenced by other players, but this is the beauty of it all. To be able to hear and to be influenced by other musicians is what keeps music evolving. Hopefully we all have something of our own to contribute.
You guys had done some club work at the Top of the Gate in NYC too and what not, for a few months, so you already had some trio experience with Bill some time before the first recording you did with him. That was the "What's New" album with flautist Jeremy Steig in late January of 1969, right?
MM: Yes, that's right. Jeremy and Eddie were best friends and he would play the last set with us just about all the time when we worked at the Top of the Gate.
And what do you recall of your first studio dates with Bill?
I'll say this, the record with Jeremy was challenging. We got to like,
I guess it was, take 28 on some tunes. It was difficult to put together
that record. I'm always surprised when people say they like it. But I
did my best and it was great experience.
MM: Well, let’s say, Bill was having a problem with Jeremy. He [Jeremy] was pretty “out of it” for some of those sessions. Remember, it was the sixties!
According to Pettinger's bio, shortly little after this, the trio went to Europe and did a recording with the MetropoleSymphony Orchestra performing, among other things, some of Claus Ogerman's charts from the 1965 album he did with Bill. This must have been heady stuff, too. What was that experience like?
MM: Yes, I remember that. It was really great to be able to play those charts. I basically knew them because I had listened to that album a ton. That gig was in Hillversom, which is a little town outside of Amsterdam. It was for a radio show. We never performed those charts in a live concert situation.
Then came the "From Left to Right" album which you guys recorded between October 1969 and May of 1970. From our prior conversations, I know you have some things you wanted to comment on about that record. Even though Bill's pianistic integrity remains intact, there's the issue of the somewhat saccharine nature of the Mickey Leonard arrangements; was Bill's role in this kind of project what we might call "jazz lite", or whatever?
MM: Well, without expounding too much on this, Bill's manager Helen Keane was always trying to come up with a project that would giv Bill some commercial appeal. In my opinion, I don't think that the "From Left to Right" album was the right way to go, and I don't think that Mickey Leonard was a good choice [as an arranger] for the project. I think that there were maybe a few other "agendas" in the air for this project. It was always my view that Bill should have done more trio albums, and maybe adding a horn or two occasionally.
And once the project was completed, did you or Eddie have any reservations about it? If so, were they ever expressed?
MM: Well, I can't really speak for Eddie but I think that the feeling about this date was mutual. We had reservations about this date before and after. I still have reservations about it. [Ed. note: this album is discussed here in our piece on Evans and the Fender-Rhodes piano]
OK. Tell us about the first tour to Europe that year (1969). Though released many years later, the first live recordings with you in the trio (besides the Vanguard dates from "Secret Sessions") are the "Jazzhouse" and "You're Gonna Hear From Me" albums. And you got to write the notes for the “Jazzhouse" album release, too. Both were from a live date in Copenhagen, November 24th of 1969. What were some of your experiences from that first tour with Bill?
MM: It's difficult to remember too many specifics about my first European tour with Bill. That was 36 years ago. Only that it was a blast. I don’t quite remember where we went first. But those Copenhagen dates were incredible! The club was jammed packed with Bill Evans fans.
And was that your first time in Europe?
Prior to working with Bill I had spent three months in Sweden with [pianist]
MM: Well, for one, European audiences are far more responsive than American ones. They make you feel like you are something really special.
Also, when was the first time you really got to talk to Bill at any length? Was it before or after a job, or on a plane or what? What was that like?
MM: Well, It was cool hanging with Bill, but it took me quite a while to relax with him on a personal level. I was so much in awe of him that it took a year or two to relax with him and just be myself.
Marty, can you talk about the first album the trio did for Columbia Records, "The Bill Evans Album"? We know how excited Bill and manager Helen Keane were at the outset, getting the contract with, what was then, the largest and most prestigious record company out there. Tell us about that project -- the preparation an all, being that it was all Bill Evans originals and all.
MM: I was really happy for Bill that he had landed a recording contract with Columbia Records. Unfortunately, it was short lived. Even after winning the Grammy awards for "The Bill Evans Album". Even now, I'm always surprised when people say how much they like that album, because it's definitely not one of my favorites. But then again maybe I don't know what I'm talking about because it did win two Grammies! I know that Bill and Eddie got together and rehearsed before hand --you can get the “Piano Player” release for some of these recorded rehearsals --and I just came in to play like any normal session, or so I thought, at the time.
And the sessions themselves, how did you guys go about the recording process, being that Columbia was quite profitable at the time; Clive Davis, head of the company, was signing many jazz artists, and the budgets were supposedly there for recording and promotion. What did you feel about the finished album and all that...?
MM: I just remember that the recording experience was not too much fun, for me, anyway. The sessions were done at Columbia's famous 30th Street Studio. Many great records were done at that studio, including Miles' "Kind of Blue" [which Evans is on]. So, one would think that it would be the perfect setting for a great recording. For me it was far from that. It was the era of sound separation back then--- more separation and then some baffling for drums. In addition, they used more mikes on the drums than I have ever seen in any other studio! My guess is, they had gotten in some new state- of- the- art microphones and they just had to use them....all! I kind of felt like I was on a life support system or something, what with all these wires all over the place. During the dates, I wasn't able to see Bill or Eddie at all – since I was partitioned off with all kinds of blankets hanging around me. It was a drag -- I felt like I was playing in a padded room --- and I was. Also, the engineer had asked me to tape up my tom toms to muffle the sound. I was also asked to take off the head of my 18" bass drum, so they could put a pillow in it. I really balked at that. So, thankfully they gave in and let me just put a bunch of tape on the toms and bass drum. I said “but it's going to choke off my sound" and they answered by saying "don't worry, we'll fix it in the mix". My opinion at the time meant nothing as I was only a sideman, and Helen Keane, the producer, was in charge of it all. It didn't matter that I was uncomfortable with all this, because I was just the drummer. So, what did I know? Basically, I was told to “shut up and play, kid”. So that's what I did. And to the best of my ability. So, this is how the sessions began for me.
So what do think of the album now, in retrospect all these years later?
To my ears, the recording itself still sounds to me like we're all playing in separate rooms. It doesn't sound like we are playing at the same time, and to be honest about it, that's exactly how it felt during the recording process. Of course, Bill and Eddie always played great and I too had my moments-- but why did it have to be so difficult to get to the good stuff? Well, I guess everything was cool, because Helen was very happy with the way that I played and said so. So, I guess I did my gig. Everyone was happy. To this day I don't understand why it had to be such a trying experience when we could have set up like a concert with perhaps one or two baffles for the drums, a few mikes, a great piano, and just go!
I see what you mean now. And by the way, what’s the deal with that album cover, anyway?
MM: Oh man, the cover of that album! Maybe Helen Keane could have made a better choice, if it was even hers, maybe it was Columbia's, who knows? You know what, that album is an embarrassment to me. Don't get me wrong. Bill and Eddie played great on it, but now that I think about it, I would rather it had been a duo album. Then again, it won those two Grammies. So, what do I know, I'm just a drummer. So,"Shut up and play kid!"
Visit Marty Morell at myspace.com