Writings about Music
How High the Moon: Eliot Zigmund and Bill Evans
Bill Evans (right), Eliot Zigmund (center) and Eddie Gomez (left) recorded the You Must Believe In Spring album at Capital Studios in Los Angeles from August 23-25, 1977.
My favorite trio and quartet recordings of Bill Evans are the You Must Believe In Spring and Affinity albums with the common denominator of drummer Eliot Zigmund. Thank you, Bob Longhi, wherever you are, for introducing these to me at your Lahaina abode, a perfect setting for musical magic. These two recordings share a searingly personal and transcendental spell recalling Bill's playing on the famed Kind of Blue album. What's the reason for this? One key element is the presence of Zigmund, who shares a marked sensitivity and focus with the poetry of cymbals and brushes that recalls Jimmy Cobb, the drummer on Kind of Blue. While Zigmund often cites Philly Jo Jones as his primary influence, I hear more of the influence of Cobb in his playing. Asked about this, Eliot confirmed that Jimmy Cobb is also a primary favorite of his who exerted considerable influence. With piano trios being such a ubiquitous presence in jazz, it’s easy to fall into pre-existing patterns. In fact, while I have been unable to shake the belief that Bill Evans is the finest jazz pianist of all, one criticism I have is his tendency to revisit the same tunes too often. This certainly was not the case with Kind of Blue, with each track recorded for the first time. And the same holds true with You Must Believe In Spring and Affinity, whereby previously unrecorded tunes are featured. One notable exception is Blue and Green featured originally on Kind of Blue, and revised on Affinity with what I feel is Bill's most notable recorded interpretation of his tune (wrongly attributed to Miles Davis) following the original version.
Bassists Eddie Gomez and Marc Johnson are equally responsible for the elevated music found on You Must Believe In Spring (Gomez) and Affinity (Johnson). It’s simply beyond the scope of this particular writing to focus on their historically exquisite playing.
Among my favorite Evans recordings are his Conversations With Myself, featuring Bill on three overdubbed pianos; his duet recordings with vocalist Tony Bennett; and his Alone solo piano album. And there are many great trio recordings, too, of course, but, again, my feeling is that the You Must Believe In Spring and Affinity albums are the only ones that rise to the level of Bill's especially reverent playing on the Kind of Blue album. Affinity is mostly a quartet album, of course, featuring Toots Thielemans on harmonica, and also Larry Schneider on tenor and soprano saxophone (and flute) for a few tracks, sometimes forming a quintet. There are also tracks of just piano and bass, not to mention Evans using an electric piano at times.
You Must Believe In Spring and Affinity share exquisitely perfect track sequence that enhances one's listening experience if the entire albums are heard at once. For both albums, particular moods are introduced with the opening tracks followed by development of those expressive flavors including naturally flowing contrasts.
Another essential element I discovered upon examination is that both recordings benefited from legendary recording engineers - Al Schmitt with the former and Frank Laico for the latter. This is an important detail because without proper balance and mixing the music may well be compromised and even interfere with performance at the time of recording if the musicians are not entirely comfortable. Indeed, there are other Bill Evans recordings where the piano is much too loud in relation to the drums - truly unfortunate. The idea that drums are secondary and must be relegated to the distant background is missing the entire point of the innovations originally brought about by Kenny Clarke, Max Roach and Stan Levey, followed by luminaries such as Elvin Jones, Joe Morello, Mel Lewis, Alan Dawson, Tony Williams, and myriad others too numerous to mention. Eliot Zigmund is notable among these drummers for playing on what I feel is the greatest piano trio recording of all - the You Must Believe In Spring album. My conclusion comes from the simple belief that Evans is the leading jazz pianist and that album is his finest trio recording. Sure, many will commonly cite the recordings Bill did with Paul Motian and Scott LaFaro, and those are superb, too, but, again, You Must Believe In Spring reaches the rarified regions previously visited on Kind of Blue.
One reason for Zigmund and Evans connecting so deeply has to do with their shared background of European (Western) classical music. There is a sense of mutual fascination with dynamics and color conjuring musical realms visited by Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Frederick Chopin and Johannes Brahms among other composers. There are different ways that music swings, and Zigmund developed his own unique path up the mountain, so to speak. Eliot uses insinuation and suggestion as much as emphatic phrases and flow. He's so much inside the musical persona of Evans one senses that both Zigmund and Gomez are parts of the aural imagination conjured from Bill's own mind and body manifesting a drummer and bassist simultaneously together with the origination keyboard itself, Eliot and Eddie being part of a triptych as Shiva is said to contain both Vishnu and Brahma, known as the Trimurti.
One wonders how devastated Bill Evans must have been when Eliot Zigmund decided to leave the trio. Surprisingly, Eliot doesn't believe there was any significant problem, Evans passing away within a few years of that event, not that Zigmund is to blame for this, of course, there being other more telling factors involved. Bill and Eliot often sat together on long plane flights engaging in discussions on myriad topics. Just looking at the two, both sharing startling intense beards, they seem like brother explorers venturing not to the top of Sagarmatha, or into space, but rather into human interiors, the process that Allauddhin Khan, the teacher of Ravi Shankar and Nikhil Banerjee, stated, upon hearing of the moon landing, was infinitely more difficult yet rewarding; the fathomless journey inward towards self-realization and discovery illumination.
Much the same is felt with Toots and Bill if with an entirely different setting and coloration. Toots' harmonica seems to melt in-between the piano keys of Evans, again conjuring a magical piano that projects a multi-hued, liquid harmonica tone and style emanating from the pianist's mind and body while playing the keyboard. And the tune selection is so unexpectedly startling, enhancing the spontaneous creation of all the musicians involved. How bold of Larry Schneider to jump into a setting previously occupied by no less than John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. While Schneider may not be a major stylist himself, he plays passionately and skillfully without any inhibition or fear, and one senses in-the-moment admiration from Bill Evans while comping, no small compliment.
Just as there are different forms and styles of swing, the same is true of expression, and Thieleman's feel is uniquely moving, tinged with an extraordinarily probing kaleidoscope of emotions leaving one wondering how a Belgian came to embody jazz essence. The answer, of course, is that a gifted individual has the capability of evaporating superficial boundaries and classifications. Similarly, given that standards are the essential ragas of jazz for the swing through modern jazz eras together with blues forms, French composer Michel Legrand, whose masterpieces include the song, You Must Believe In Spring, made repertoire contributions that place him among the very finest of American song composers and lyricists.
Use of electric piano on Affinity is perfectly contrasted with traditional piano timbres providing exhilarating contrasts of hue and texture. And much the same for You Must Believe In Spring when Eliot Zigmund segues from brushes to sticks like Kandinsky shifting from pastels to oils on his glorious percussive palette.
"I dream of painting and then I paint my dream." - Vincent van Gogh
It's not easy when Bill Evans is playing at his most elevated to match that level of music-making. Nonetheless, this is what Eliot Zigmund achieves with his drumming on the two especially notable albums I've been writing about - the drums sound just as exquisite as the piano; just as endlessly provocative and mysterious offering their charmed harmonies and melodies beyond pitch.
Miles Davis found Bill's recordings with his own quintet to be his favorite playing of Evans, including Kind of Blue, and I'd be curious to know if he agreed with my thoughts stated here regarding the You Must Believe In Spring and Affinity albums. These are revered albums that have long transfixed and dazzled us, of course, and it feels good and right to give them some justice coming from a composer and musician who also enjoys writing about music as a learning process.
What does the future hold for Zigmund? One idea would be for him to follow the solo concept of Bill's Conversations With Myself, recording himself using three separate tracks for a pure percussion album. Another would be to combine for duets with master percussionists from different cultures, including Africa, India, and Latin America. Strictly jazz, in addition to all his other recent and ongoing projects, I'd love to hear him play with Peggy Stern, my favorite jazz pianist to emerge since Chick Corea.
Marty Morrell, Joe LaBarbara, Philly Jo Jones, Larry Bunker, Shelly Manne and Jack DeJohnette are some other drummers who performed and recorded with Bill Evans, also being among the finest jazz drummers of our time. One might easily write about them as well, and perhaps I will at some future time. Actually, I interviewed Jack from which one of my personally favorite articles sprang.
Having mentioned that Jimmy Cobb is the drummer whose influence I mostly detect in Zigmund, I challenged myself to name the rock drummer closest to Eliot's style. That was easy: Ringo Starr - quite a compliment because I regard Ringo as the most profoundly musical of all rock drummers. An easy comparative analogy given their perfectly spare gestures and articulations, their poetic precision balanced by those moments celebrated with charged exuberance never without a hypnotic tone quality one admires on skin, metal and wood.
There is a faraway quality to the music making on You Must Believe In Spring and Affinity approaching the Indian concept of rasa; of touching divine expressions searching for transcendence from our human limitations.
One might easily write paragraphs and paragraphs about each and every track on You Must Believe In Spring and Affinity. But I'm lazy, and, you know, I don't wish to examine this truly sacred music too much. It's there, and hearing it, Bill is back here alive with us again each time. However, my expectation is that I will be adding to this essay over time, so please do check back from time to time.
How High the Moon? It's the level Eliot plays at. Bill knew it. So do I. Hope you get with it, too.
- Michael Robinson, June 2019, Los Angeles
© 2019 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).