Bill Evans plays great piano, he used to play classical piano and give concerts Reachmaninoff and stuff like that when he was 16. People don't know that. He's one of the greatest musicians I've ever come upon. He and Gil Evans. There must be something with those Evanses. Must be a breed. [In Musician 1982] (Miles Davis)
JAZZ: Not having heard the Mahavishnu album, let me aks you this: Is your improvising over McLaughlin's guitar different from your improvising over the guitar of, consecutively, Barry Finnerty, Mike Stern and John Scofield in Miles Davis' electronic band?
B.E.: It's a whole different feel because when you're Miles, it's not like I'm up there with the freedom that I feel I have in John's band. That's not to take away anything from Miles' band, because I had a lot of freedom in that band. But the band was so geared toward Miles because he's so strong. The persona of Miles is so strong. Wherever you are playing people listen to you play, but they're so freaked out about seeing Miles.
In this things [Mahavishnu] I think it's more of a group-type effort, although John is a genius and Billy's a monster. I think there's more being talked about amongst the [Mahavishnu] band. Miles has his definite ideas and they're definitely going to be done, and that's it, period, said and done.
JAZZ: Who has replaced you in Miles' band, and how does that process work? He doesn't, I understand, use an understudy or audition process for selection. It's more referral, is it not?
B.E.: Bob Berg is my replcement. In my case, I got a recommendation from [Dave] Liebman. When I came out here, I went to school at William Paterson College [in Wayne, N.J.] I had met Liebman at a music clinic in Illinois. And I studied with Dave. Miles called Dave, saying he needed a new player, and he recommended me.
JAZZ: And from that recommendation alone you got the gig with Miles?
B.E.: Right - but Miles wanted to hear me play for a couple of days... Basically, he said, "Take your horn out, I want to hear you play." I was scared to death. Then after I played he said, "If I played saxophone, I'd want to play like you." He said all these things to release the pressure, I think, and that made me feel better [laughs] because when he said "play," I almost forgot what instrument I was playing.
JAZZ: Did Bob Berg join Miles, consequently, on your referral?
B.E.: No, I've been so busy, I've been in Europe the past few months, I don't know. I think it's from referrals from [drummer] Al Foster. Bob's a great player. He's on some Horace Silver records ... and he was one of my influences when I was coming up.
JAZZ: After Liebman recommended you to Miles, and before you played for Miles, did you go back and listen to previous Miles albums to refresh your memory and try to devine what his new direction might be? After all, Miles had been inactive for a few years, owing to health problems.
B.E.: It's interesting. I knew it wasn't going to be straightahead [jazz] although we did straightahead that first year and a half. When I talked to Dave, I said, "What's going to be like? You've got to give me a rundown." Dave said, "It's gonna be loud, it's gonna be rock, bring your soprano, burn out, go crazy, you'll love it." I said, "Oh, great." But when we started playing live, for the We Want Miles record, we were playing swing. I had a chance to play every night, on a couple of different tunes. I had a bal. There were a lot of changes, plus the audiences were looking up to the band like it was a reincarnation of something [laughs. So it was a great rush. And Miles was so easy to work with: he made you want to play so much.
You evolve through time. I went right from college to Miles, period. I'd never been on the road with any band.
JAZZ: In your wildest imaginings in college, did you ever dream of being in Miles Davis' band?
B.E.: I never thought about it. I had never seen him live. He had retired. I didn't know anyone who had had anything to do with him other than Liebman, and that was in the early '70s. I was looking for gigs maybe in Art Blakey's band or maybe Horace Silver's band or maybe Elvin [Jones] would be great. I just wanted to keep playing and sit in as much as possible. So when that [Miles] came up, it was totally out of the blue ... I went a whole year [with Miles] when we hung out every day and he didn't play a note.
JAZZ: One of the things that intrigued me about seeing the band live was the stop-start dynamic. You'd be soloing over the rhythm section, including the guitarist and perhaps Miles on keyboards, and then, all of a sudden, everyone would stop playing except you. Your solo would continue unaccompanied and then, on some signal from Miles - a flick of the wrist or a nod of the head - everyone would re-enter.
B.E.: It's an effect he uses. He's into changes and dynamics. In all the time playing with him, you had to be alert every minute on stage. For three years - we went to Europe three times, Japan twice, and the States about six times - every concert I had to keep my eye on him. You didn't know what was going to happen! On certain tunes that I felt like I'd played a thousand times, I'd say [to myself], "I'll probably come in at this moment," and then, bam, the band stops playing and he's looking [at me]. I'm supposed to play. So you have to come in and sound like, oh yeah, this happens every night. The audience is looking at you like, "Wow, those guys really have it together! That's super-rehearsed."
JAZZ: Much has been made over the years about Miles's supposed standoffishness on stage. But from seeing him live, it's obvious that, with his back to the audience, he's orchestrating the band.
B.E.: In a sense. Also, he doesn't know that to do up there, so he'll stand there and look at the drummer or something like that. He used to walk off stage.
JAZZ: It looks sometimes that he's walking over to the players and instructing them.
B.E.: Sometimes, yeah. [In a low voice] Which I wish he hadn't done. We got to know each other so well. He painted pictures for the back cover of my record. Then he called me up a month ago, just after I'd left for the airport, and he left a message on my [phone-answering] machine, "I want to write liner notes for your record, so get back to me." ... I'm thinking, "Why didn't he call two months ago? Then I started thinking, "Why didn't I ask him?" It would've been great, it would've been a classic. But it was too late.
It means he had something to do with the record. Over the years there have incredible rumors about him. He's Mr. Mystique. When someone leaves his band, people think some weird thing had to go down. "Why did he split?"
When I told him last November that I'd be joining John McLaughlin's new band, Miles was, like "John's a great player. The music should be great. You should have a good time. I don't want you to leave the band, but you've got to do what you've got to do." It was that type of scene. We still talk now.
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