By maintaining a singularly intense focus on “Nardis” over the course of his career, Evans managed to turn the melody that had frustrated “Blue” Mitchell that night in 1958 into a vehicle for dependably accessing “the mind that thinks jazz,” like a homegrown form of meditation that could be performed on a piano bench before rapt audiences in clubs night after night.By bringing the story of Evans’s quest for a kind of jazz samadhi to light, I hope to understand the enduring hold that “Nardis” has on the ever-widening circle of musicians who play it, while reckoning with my own personal fixation.For months, while his bandmates got thunderous ovations after solos, Evans got the silent treatment, which reinforced his self-doubt.
But Miles’s hard-core fans continued to shun Evans.
They saw a white nerd evicting the beloved Red Garland from the prestigious keyboard chair at a time when black pride and appreciation of jazz as a distinctively black cultural form were ascendant.
He also began dating a chic young black woman, Peri Cousins, for whom he wrote one of his sprightly early originals, “Peri’s Scope.” Cousins observed how quickly the drug filled a crucial role in Evans’s existence, providing a buffer between his acute sensitivity and the realities of life on the road.
“When he came down, when he kicked it, which he did on numerous occasions, the world was—I don’t know how to say it—too beautiful,” she said. It’s almost as if he had to blur the world for himself by being strung out.” On Kind of Blue, widely regarded as the greatest jazz recording ever made, Evans became a conduit of that unbearable beauty, mapping a middle path between Russell’s Lydian concepts, Miles’s unerring sense of swing, and the luminous romanticism of Ravel and Debussy.
He listened to other pianists closely, but rather than imitate a player like Bud Powell, he would try to extract the essence of Powell’s approach and apply it to different types of material.
“It’s more the mind ‘that thinks jazz’ than the instrument ‘that plays jazz’ which interests me,” Evans told an interviewer.But things started going wrong even before Mitchell arrived at Reeves Sound Studios on East Forty-Fourth Street.First, his luggage went astray en route from Florida.Despite its inauspicious debut, the tune has become one of the most frequently recorded modern jazz standards, played in an impressive variety of settings ranging from piano trios, to Latin jazz combos, to ska-jazz ensembles, to a full orchestra featuring players from the US Air Force.For some musicians, “Nardis” becomes an object of fascination—an earworm that can be expelled only by playing it.vans once told a friend that a musician should be able to maintain focus on a single tone in his mind for at least five minutes—and in playing like this, he achieved a nearly mystical immersion in the music: a state of pure, undistracted concentration.Even before writers like Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder made Buddhism a subject of popular fascination in America, Evans saw parallels between meditative practice and the keen, alert state that jazz improvisation demands, when years of work on perfecting tone and technique suddenly drop away and a direct channel opens up between the musician’s brain and his or her fingers.Only one man on the session, Miles would say later, played the tune “the way it was meant to be played.” It was the shy, unassuming piano player, who was just shy of twenty-eight years old. nd that might have been the end of “Nardis.” Miles never recorded the tune himself—the fate suffered by another of his originals, “Mimosa,” recorded once by Herbie Hancock and never heard from again.In this case, however, the lack of a definitive performance by the composer created a kind of musical vacuum that other players have hastened to fill.Though superb versions of “Nardis” have been recorded by everyone from tenor sax titan Joe Henderson to bluegrass guitar virtuoso Tony Rice, no one embodied its melodic potential more than Bill Evans.For him, Miles’s serpentine melody was a terrain he never tired of exploring.