Shelved: Bill Evans’ Loose Blues

An album that took five months to record sat in the vault for 20 years before finally getting pressed to vinyl.

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | October 2018 | 11 minutes (2,248 words)

 

“Loose Bloose” has a beguiling head riff. Such motifs are played at the beginning, or “head,” of a jazz or rock song. They’re typically repetitive and simple enough for musicians to remember — an arrangement kept in one’s head, not written down. Pianist Bill Evans changed that. The head riff on “Loose Bloose” is too complex to not have been notated. Played in unison and in octave harmonies on piano and tenor saxophone, it is somehow both intimate and imperious. It moves with the strange grace of a mantis. It is a part of Evans’s legacy that is without either parent or descendant.

That is partly because “Loose Bloose,” and the album with which it nearly shares a name, was shelved. Thought lost, Loose Blues remained in vaults for 20 years. It was created during a time of grief and addiction, formed from necessity and ambition, and frustrated by financial limitations. It was conceived by a man in the middle of an intensely creative period, only to be released after his death; recorded by a group of ad hoc players not fully prepared for its compositional intricacies; and produced by a man who didn’t fully believe in the project.

Recorded in two days in August 1962, Loose Blues was the product of extraordinary recording activity for a normally reticent artist, one who took almost two years to record a second solo album. “The burst really began,” remembered producer Orrin Keepnews, “when Evans surprised me by announcing that he was ready to record with his new trio; eventually it meant that he was in three different studios on a total of eight separate occasions between April and August 1962, creating four and a half albums’ worth of solo, trio, and quintet selections.”

“I don’t know how impressive that sounds to anyone else;” Keepnews wrote in the Loose Blues liner notes, “to me, who was on hand for all of it, it is still overwhelming.”

Born in New Jersey and educated in music at Southeastern Louisiana University, Bill Evans moved to New York City in 1955 at age 25, where he learned modal music from theorist George Russell. Evans took this concept of improvising over a certain scale (as opposed to playing through chord changes) with him when he joined the Miles Davis sextet in 1958. The next year, Davis’s seminal group, which included saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, released Kind of Blue, the bestselling jazz album of all time.

“Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano,” Miles Davis once wrote. “The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall. I had to change the way the band sounded again for Bill’s style by playing different tunes, softer ones at first.”

After eight months, Bill Evans quit the band. “One of the reasons I left Miles,” he remembered in 1975, “was because my father was ill. I spent some time visiting my folks and went through a rather reflective period. While I was staying with my brother in Baton Rouge — he had a piano — I remember finding that somehow I had reached a new inner level of expression in my playing. It had come almost automatically, and I was very anxious about it, afraid I might lose it — I thought maybe I’d wake up tomorrow and it wouldn’t be there.”

Soon Evans formed his own trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. The three developed almost telepathic musical communication, with each, particularly LaFaro, proving both an innovative soloist and effective ensemble player. For the next two years,  Evans’s musical identity became cemented as a leader of a trio known for collective and individual improvisation.

Ten days after the Bill Evans Trio recorded the landmark Sunday at the Village Vanguard in 1961, Scott LaFaro died in a car accident. “What had been created,” wrote Keepnews, “were some marvelous moments, and a suggested path (which no one as yet has really retraced and extended), but unfortunately not a tradition.”

Shocked with grief, Evans retreated into himself, turning down performance and session work. He returned, nearly a year later, partly out of necessity.

Having become addicted to heroin during his tenure with Miles Davis, Evans’s drug use increased after LaFaro’s death. “You don’t understand,” he once said about his addiction. “It’s like death and transfiguration. Every day you wake in pain like death and then you go out and score, and that is transfiguration. Each day becomes all of life in microcosm.”


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In early 1962, Evans approached Keepnews with the idea of recording. “Bill’s record company at that time was Riverside,” Keepnews later wrote. “I signed the checks at Riverside. It was not easy in those day to be his friend and producer and record company all at the same time. Other jazz labels of that period stockpiled albums quite regularly. … Nevertheless, recording ahead so that advances could legitimately be paid to Bill seemed the only way to deal with both the artist’s and the company’s cash-flow problems in this situation.”

By June, Evans and Keepnews had recorded two albums’ worth of material with a new trio. “So it was more than a little startling when Evans that chronic under-recorder — came to me very shortly thereafter with the idea for the quintet sessions with trumpet and guitar,” Keepnews said.

“The quintet session was important to Evans, regardless of any financial spur that may have come from his chemical requirements,” writes Evans’s biographer Kevin Shadwick in Bill Evans: Everything Happens to Me, A Musical Biography.

For a start, he brought to the date no less than seven previously unrecorded originals; secondly, with the exception of the late replacement of bassist Percy Heath by a young Ron Carter (whose playing on the date is exemplary), Evans had long admired all the musicians involved — in addition to [guitarist Jim] Hall and Carter, there was tenorist Zoot Sims and drummer Philly Joe Jones. He trusted them under studio conditions to deliver on a set of tricky tunes that were not the sort to be knocked off routinely in a couple of hours.

The group had never performed together, or rehearsed the material when they entered Nola Penthouse Sound Studios in New York. They had two days to record. The whole idea threw Keepnews.

“First of all,” Keepnews wrote in the album’s liner notes, “I wasn’t even asked to do this one until after the July dates, making me feel a bit overloaded. Secondly, Bill informed me that he intended to record no less than seven original compositions. My suspicion was that the publisher he was dealing with was willing to give him advances on new tunes only when they were scheduled to be recorded. This did not mean that he was shoving any substandard compositions at me. Quite the contrary, they were almost all strong, and some were possibly too tough for the usual circumstances of early Sixties jazz recording which meant little or no rehearsal and very limited studio time, because that was all the label could afford. … Such factors contributed to making me feel pretty edgy going into the studio, which surely didn’t help.”

The session began on August 21, 1962. In addition to several takes of “Loose Bloose,” the group recorded three other originals: Fudgesicle Built for Four,” “Time Remembered,” and “Funkallero.” None of these are particularly simple: The first has some intricate orchestration before resolving into improvisations over chord changes, and the second has an unusual structure, keeping each soloist on his toes. It didn’t help that balance issues and other technical problems disrupted the session.

In the early ’60s, before overdubbing became widely available later in the decade, bands still cut live in the studio. Popular jazz groups from the 1930s like Fats Waller and His Rhythm would routinely record a half dozen songs in a day. Engineers only used a few microphones, each capturing several instruments at once, so “balance” was vital: the drums couldn’t be louder than the piano, for example. In essence, each song was mixed before it was recorded; once the performance was committed to tape, the only editing that could be done was splicing parts of different takes together.

The quintet’s second day proved more difficult. The band got three songs on tape: “My Bells,” “There Came You,” and “Fun Ride.” The first took 25 takes. In Keepnews’s words, its “maddeningly shifting tempo changes had made it the unquestioned primary strangler on our date.” Jim Hall’s guitar went noticeably flat, possibly due to the summer heat. Keepnews felt Zoot Sims was struggling with some of the arrangements. “In my mental reconstruction of the long-ago scene,” Keepnews wrote later, “no one was entirely comfortable.”

After four three-hour sessions, well above average for the time, Evans and Keepnews agreed there was an album’s worth of material, to be stitched together with extensive tape editing. A version of “Loose Bloose” was created from takes 2 and 4, and that was it.

There were two or three other albums culled from previous sessions slated for release; solo and trio records more in line with Evans’s brand. By 1963, Keepnews let Evans out of his recording contract to sign with Verve Records. A year later, Keepnews’s own label, Riverside, went bankrupt.

“More than eight years after that, late in 1972,” Keepnews wrote ten years later, “myself and the Riverside tapes, travelling separate and circuitous routes, both ended up in the Fantasy/Prestige/Milestone jazz record complex. But, although almost all sorts of recorded material appeared to have survived the travels, I could not find the unissued August 1962 Bill Evans reels.” The only surviving remnant was the edited version of “Loose Bloose.”

Evans went on with his stellar career. His improvisations were unparalleled; his reharmonizations of jazz classics became standard. Even as the studio versions languished in the vault, three of the songs recorded for Loose Blues “Funkallero,” “Time Remembered,” and a simplified version of “My Bells” became part of his live repertoire. He became addicted to cocaine during the 1970s and was so affected by his brother’s suicide in 1979 that his sister-in-law bought three cemetery plots in anticipation of his imminent death. Evans died of a combination of peptic ulcer, bronchial pneumonia, cirrhosis, and untreated chronic hepatitis on September 15, 1980.

”Eventually, after a massive refiling project had taken place in the Fantasy tape vaults,” Keepnews wrote, “I did succeed in locating all the original reels from these sessions. Stored in poorly marked tape boxes … they had indeed been on hand but unrecognized all along.” With the help of former label assistants, he began the editing work he had promised to do 20 years before. “My Bells” was spliced together from four different takes a testament to the timekeeping prowess of drummer Philly Joe Jones, who played each of the 25 takes at a consistent tempo, without metronome or click track. Milestone Records released Loose Blues in 1982.       

In hindsight, it’s clear that the pianist — sick from addiction, still in mourning, and short on funds — asked too much from his friend and producer. Keepnews knew Evans as an extraordinary soloist and exclusive leader of a trio. The artist’s sudden demand to record two album’s worth of material with a quintet — much of it original, and complicated, on the heels of three other albums’ worth of sessions — was overwhelming. Even without doubting his friend’s extraordinary ability, Keepnews understood the underlying motivation.

“I have no reason to believe these two [quintet] albums would have been recorded when they were if not for Evans’s problem at that time,” Keepnews wrote. “Actually, knowing his personality and recording attitudes, I’m not at all sure they would ever have been proposed under other circumstances.”

In addition to being organized sound, music is a manipulation of time. Loose Blues played so much with time from adding to the exhausting compression of five months of almost continuous sessions to the maddening tempo changes of “My Bells” to its author dying and being reborn each day from murderous withdrawal and the revivifying fix. Perceived by its producer as an uneven session, a departure from the norm, and a bit of a cash grab, it was shelved.

We can’t know how the album would have been received in 1963. The combination of intricate orchestration and flowing improvisation would have impressed, as would the spider-web tightness of tenor saxophone and piano over a heavily swinging rhythm section something one reviewer described as “a pillow fort built on cinder blocks.” For his part, Evans realized an ambitious project and largely avoided his own performative clichés.

The fact is that Loose Blues is as alive for us now as it was during those two days in August when it was committed to tape over a half century ago.

There’s a point in “Loose Bloose” — after the floating solos conclude, when the string bass and guitar revert to their half note descent, and the drums settle back into an open-and-shut high-hat swing — that the head riff returns. Though composed of the same notes, it’s different to the listener now because of what has intervened. Dancing around the anchoring rhythm section with precise and occult timing, it is an incantation, calling forth something intuited but never expressed. As Keepnews said, it’s a suggested path, which no one as yet has really retraced and extended. You stand before it, wondering where it will lead.

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Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel