The Best Thing I Read This Week – “Nardis” and the Curious History of a Jazz Obsession

In an (long-time, ongoing) attempt to shift from consuming less to reflecting more, I’m hoping to start a new weekly routine, which I’m calling (working title) the best thing I read all week.

While I read tens of articles / news stories / blog posts every week, I end up forgetting most of them hours later, let alone retaining them by the end of the week and beyond.

However, every once in a while there’s an article / podcast / “thing” that completely captures my attention and engages me in an intellectual and oftentimes surprising way. Those are the articles that I hope to highlight here, once a week.

Hopefully, by intentionally singling out a single essay / article for attention and reflection, I can more closely hone in on what’s meaningful to me, and simultaneously spend less time trying to stay on top of the endless news/newsletter cycles.

At the very least, I’ll end up sending less of these articles to my family and friends directly via email, which I’m sure they’ll appreciate.

Broken Time: “Nardis” and the Curious History of a Jazz Obsession, by Steve Silberman

The article takes on two separate forms, woven masterfully: a profile of Bill Evans, one of the most enigmatic jazz musicians ever (saying something, as every jazz player seems to have their own idiosyncrasies) and a personal essay on the author’s “full-on musical obsession:” the jazz standard “Nardis,” which was written (though never recorded) by Miles Davis but popularly performed by Evans throughout his career.

Silberman covers Evans’ arrival onto the jazz scene playing with Miles Davis as a white musician in a then-black-dominated jazz world, onto his formation of the Bill Evans Trio, and his descent and ultimate demise from drug addiction. Incredible stories are interspersed throughout, including Miles’ initial recognition of Evans (“I know that motherfucker”), his initiation into Miles’ band, the legendary sessions behind Explorations and the Village Vanguard Recordings, and the last chapters of his life, where he was penniless and strung out, yet still seeking out inspiration and pushing the boundaries of his craft.

The author’s background as a science writer focused on the brain and autism provides a unique lens into the work of Bill Evans, who is considered an especially cerebral player. As the author describes, Evans demonstrated a “nearly mystical immersion in the music: a state of pure, undistracted concentration.” While many of his contemporaries grew more frenetic, skittish, and fast-paced in their explorations of free jazz and fusion, Evans’ playing remained meditative and almost-methodical, seemingly seeking out a ‘zen’-like state through his playing. Per Evans himself: “it’s more the mind ’that thinks jazz’ than the instrument ‘that plays jazz’ which interests me.”

In addition, the piece is a study of the act of interpretation, re-interpretation, study, and homage. The author has become something of a scholar of ‘Nardis’ as a piece of performance art, dutifully cataloging and ranking his favorite versions of the song, which span genres as wide-ranging as Latin Jazz and ska. Silberman’s top two versions of Nardis are two different Evans recordings, followed by a gypsy guitar version by Ralph Towner, and then Richard Beirach’s epic version (which sounds very much in the vein of Kamasi Washington). In his drive to understand the song and its enduring appeal to the musicians who’ve played it, Silberman goes to lengths to speak to some of the more inspired interpreters, asking for their own favorite versions of the tune.

Throughout the magic of music streaming catalogs, over one hundred of these versions are conveniently (mostly) available via Spotify, which I’ve compiled below (yet unranked):

The author masterfully weaves his own personal relationship with Nardis with Bill Evans’ relationship with the song, which remained a standard tune played at Evans’ gigs until his death. Despite its mainstay status, Nardis became a vehicle for Evans’ experimentation, including “unusual harmonies, dissonant lines, [and] spontaneous themes.” Later in Evans’ life, as he openly struggled with heroin followed by cocaine addiction (heartbreakingly dubbed the “longest suicide in history” by jazz critic Gene Lees), Nardis was played night-after-night. Up until his death, Evans’ mental energy focused on continued exploration into the depths of jazz music, even as his body increasingly succumbed to its chemical dependencies. Silberman again: “”Nardis” became [Evans’] way of projecting himself into the future–of conjuring another resurrection out of the sheer force of his craft.”

In many ways, “Nardis” is a story of Jazz’s ongoing struggle of breaking through convention while staying true to its founding principles and roots that continues to alienate, frustrate, and captivate fans of jazz, including myself.

After discovering Blue Trane and Kind of Blue as a eager 14-year-old, I remember my frustration with my inability to find things that resembled these two melodically pleasing masterworks. In my mind, jazz followed a single convention: one or two leading horns playing leads and alternating solos with a backing rhythm section keeping time. Over time, led by a continued exploration into these two masters’ discography and continued exploration, as well as my own journey through the catalogs of Blue Note, Impulse, Black Jazz, Atlantic, Colombia and plenty of others, my tastes, as well as my appetites, expanded.

Beyond merely seeking to enjoy the music, I began to try and understand it: its evolution, the setting and context behind the recordings, and their relative importance to jazz music. Each of these musicians, while mostly uniformly trained, underwent their own personal evolutions and explorations deeper into the music. Throwing on a random song by Cecil Taylor, Roland Kirk, Albert Ayler, or Sun Ra might leave listeners confounded by what they are listening to, but with a bit of historical context and background, one might find themselves inspired, or at the very least provoked into thought.

I continue to marvel at jazz’s refusal to sit still, with each era mixing in new ideas and fusing with other music to expand conceptions of the genre, led by 70s jazz fusion like Bitches Brew and On the Corner, the 80s jazz downturn and its adoption of disco and dance music, the 90s revival, led by the Marsalis family, as well as the funk-laden stylings of Maceo Parker or Roy Hargrove, into the 2000s hip hop-infused work of Robert Glasper. At the same time, each era has its own share of with its own series of radicals and pioneers, requiring the listener to try and engage with what they are listening to (try if you don’t believe me, or some of ECM’s catalog). In short, the spirit of Bill Evans lives on, not only through new interpretations of “Nardis,” but also via the unabated exploration of jazz by its practitioners.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s