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Drumming up the works of Evans

When it comes to jazz drummers, Los Angeles has an embarrassment of riches. Trap drummers, big band swingers, mallet artists, studio generalists, hand drummers and ethnic specialists abound, all to be found in the Local 47 directory. One of the most intimate settings for jazz drummers is the trio, of which Joe LaBarbera is a living master.

He’s always a pleasure to listen to — whether kicking along a big band, sparking an ensemble or supporting a singer — but in a trio setting LaBarbera shows how to administer a flexible pulse with textural shadings and finely-graded dynamics, set off a soloist and add color to the arrangement.

While he’s known for significant tenures playing with the Woody Herman Orchestra, the Chuck Mangione Quartet and Tony Bennett, LaBarbera will forever be known as the last drummer in the trio of pianist Bill Evans (1929-1980).

For four years, the 67-year-old LaBarbera has taught a winter semester course at CalArts (where he’s long been part of the jazz faculty) on Evans — using audio, video, still photographs and his own commentaries. LaBarbera has given his students a privileged glimpse into the mind and methodology of a great musician and the engine room of one of the great jazz trios.

He’ll bring the Evans PowerPoint presentation to Pasadena’s Boston Court on Saturday, but with a twist: LaBarbera will also play with his own estimable trio of pianist John Campbell and bassist Darek Oles.

With an extensive background in classical music, Evans brought the harmonies of the Impressionist composers into jazz. He also elevated the trio format from two supporting players behind a pianist to an ongoing conversation between three musicians who were listening to, and often anticipating, what the others would play. “For his first trio,” LaBarbera points out from his Reseda home, “Bill told drummer Kenny Dennis to play against him — that wasn’t part of the jazz vocabulary. Drummers had always worked with the pianist up to that time.”

For many, the greatest Evans Trio was his early 1960s unit with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. Their exchanges bordered on musical telepathy and even seemed to insinuate a mystical element. “That trio,” states author and Evans scholar Kenneth Kubernik, “showed a virtuosity that wasn’t about showing off so much as communicating at a higher level of subtlety. It was a liberating concept.” The aesthetic echoes in contemporary trios like Keith Jarrett’s.

“Bill’s approach pushed past boundaries,” LaBarbera (whose Evans tenure was 1978-80, with bassist Marc Johnson) maintains, “and all musicians learned from his discoveries. For example, he wanted a high emotional content on ballads but he cautioned against hammering people over the head; he didn’t ever want to overstate something.”

Evans was known for his sensitive explorations of musical themes and pretty harmonies — qualities that sometimes worked against him. When Miles Davis took him on as pianist for the epochal “Kind of Blue” sextet with saxophonists Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane, noses wrinkled at the first white Davis sideman, who supposedly couldn’t play hard. The skeptics conveniently ignored breathtaking Evans solos on the hard-charging recordings of avant-garde jazz composer George Russell.

“My perception of Bill, going into the Trio,” LaBarbera offers, “was as a swinger. There are so many great examples of him playing straight-ahead.”

LaBarbera grows serious as he states, “I’ll take to the grave the fact that Bill liked my playing. He started to compose again with our trio and added about six new originals to the book. I’ve got a letter here somewhere where he said he was going to write something for me, and it was about that time that my daughter was born. He wrote ‘Tiffany’ for her.”

Lightening his mood, he adds, “I’d be happy if my tombstone reads: Bill Dug Me.”

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What: Joe LaBarbera Trio: Marching to the Beat of His Own Drum: The Music and Life of Bill Evans.

Where: Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena.

When: Saturday, Aug. 1, 8 p.m.

More information: (626) 683-6883, bostoncourt.com

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KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.

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