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Nardis: A Critical Analysis of Covers

Ben Gray
Contributing Writer
bengray417@gmail.com

"Nardis" is an oddity-- written by Miles Davis for Cannonball Adderley's Portrait of Cannonball album in 1958, where Blue Mitchell was on the trumpet, Davis himself never recorded the tune.

For the tune's first appearance, in addition to Cannonball Adderley's sax and Blue Mitchell's trumpet, Bill Evans played piano, Sam Jones played bass, and Philly Joe Jones played the drums. The quintet opened the tune with sax and trumpet playing the melody in unison over lightly swinging drums as the bass plays the rhythm, with the harmony filled out by Evans' piano lines and gradually thickening chords. At about 1:10, Adderley takes a sax solo over a walking bassline, brushed snare drum, and piano chords. There's a particularly nice phrase around 1:35 or so, punctuated by a big piano chord. A very good solo from Adderley. At about 2:20, the sax solo comes to a close and Mitchell takes a trumpet solo. The rhythm section keeps the low simmer going throughout here, with Evans adding some nice melodic chords between about 3:00 and 3:10. After those chords, Mitchell runs out of steam a bit toward the end of his solo; Evans' piano solo starts around 3:30 and this trio sounds very comfortable together (fittingly enough - this is the same trio on Everybody Digs Bill Evans) as Evans plays sustained chords under a great piano solo. Check the cool harmony around 4:30 just before the end of the piano solo here… At about 4:45, Evans brings his piano solo to a logical close and the horns re-join to play through the tune's head again. They play through the theme once, then come to the tune's end. Everyone sounds very good on here, though Mitchell's trumpet solo ran out of steam a bit. Beautiful solos from Adderley and Evans on this first appearance of "Nardis" on record.

Bill Evans kept "Nardis" in rotation throughout his career, and brought it to a number of recording sessions, making his version of the tune probably the definitive one. On Explorations, in 1961, Evans was joined by Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. The trio takes "Nardis" at a slightly faster tempo than on the original, with Evans' piano playing the melody and his thick harmony ringing out underneath. The trio's sound is fantastic here, with a big, rich sound from LaFaro's bass, which moves to the front for a solo at about 0:50 over light piano chords and Motian's hi-hat. Ah! That telepathy between Evans and LaFaro just after 1:20! LaFaro's bass solo is an excellent melodic thing - Evans drops out around 1:30 for awhile and generally gives LaFaro lots of space in here, though the melody is always implied by either LaFaro and/or Evans throughout. So nice… around 3:15, Evans starts a piano solo and LaFaro returns to accompanying, holding down the low end. They swing in here something lovely, with Evans leaving himself plenty of space during this solo, landing his right hand phrases in between his left hand's chords. At about 4:50, he returns to the "Nardis" head and they play through this again at the end, ending with some more sustained piano chords. Beautiful, beautiful playing from the trio here - Evans and LaFaro both take some excellent solos and support each other perfectly, and Motian's drums are the perfect backdrop for them.

Joe Henderson's album The Kicker, from 1967, included his version of "Nardis." Henderson's sax is joined by Mike Lawrence's trumpet, Grachan Moncur III's trombone, Kenny Barron's piano, Ron Carter's bass, and Louis Hayes' drums. The horns state the melody in the opening (getting a nice, big tone with the stereo separation of the horns), punctuated by the piano chords, bass hits (check out Ron Carter between about 0:25-0:30), and cymbals. After the opening, Henderson takes a sax solo, panned hard left, backed by Hayes and Barron. Henderson takes a strong solo while Barron's comping keeps the "Nardis" melody front and center. I really like the sustained note from Henderson around 1:20 or so. At about 2:00, Mike Lawrence starts a trumpet solo as the rhythm section chugs along nicely. Moncur's trombone solo starts at about 2:40 after a brief trumpet solo, getting a nice, rich sound out of the horn. Ron Carter's bass toward the end of this solo (starting around 3:00) is pretty cool. This leads to a piano solo starting around 3:10 or so after another brief horn solo. Barron also takes a brief solo, and then the band moves back to the head, with essentially the same arrangement as in the opening. A very fine version of "Nardis", with strong but brief solos from everyone involved.

Hank Jones' piano trio did "Nardis" live at the Village Vanguard, with Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. This is from the 1977 album The Great Jazz Trio at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 2. This version opens with Jones' unaccompanied piano solo. Jones takes a great improvisation here, not really hinting at "Nardis" until Carter's bass joins at about 0:40 and the trio moves into the tune's head. The way that Carter's bass was recorded gives it an electric sound here - interesting to compare with the Herbie Hancock Trio ‘77 album with the same drummer and bassist, recorded the same year. But I digress… They play through the "Nardis" head in the opening, giving the tune a different feel from Bill Evans' trio version above, a bit more upbeat. After playing through the head, Jones begins a piano solo as Williams moves over to the ride cymbal. Personally, I love the sound of Ron Carter's walking bassline here, and of course Carter and Williams are locked together perfectly. Jones' solo is excellent, keeping the melody alive while improvising all around it. Just before 5:00, Jones brings his piano solo to a close and Carter starts his bass solo. He finds a nice groove around 5:45 or so that he comes back to around 6:10, sort of using that as the springboard into his solo. Cool double stop bass around 7:15 or so here, and I'm a real sucker for those slides around 7:40. At about 8:10, Carter wraps up his bass solo and they move into a section at the end here with open drum breaks for Williams. He uses these breaks to good effect, getting in some surprisingly melodic statements on his drums. Just after 10:00, the trio returns to the "Nardis" theme. Great piano trio version from this group - very different from Bill Evans' version, with excellent solos from Jones and Carter. It's impressive how the "Nardis" melody stays so central to what the group is doing throughout this version even when they're not playing the melody in any kind of straightforward way. Great stuff.

Bassist Charlie Haden's 1987 album The Private Collection included his version of "Nardis." Haden is joined by Alan Broadbent on piano, Ernie Watts on sax, and Billy Higgins on drums. Watts' sax takes the melody in the opening, giving it a little bit of a sweetness. The tempo here is a little slower, I think, than on some of the versions above, or at least it feels that way in here. After the head, Watts takes a sax solo, occasionally playing some Coltrane-ish stuff and occasionally playing some smooth jazz-ish stuff (just my ears, maybe). Haden's walking bassline is excellent, but surprisingly (considering that this is a Charlie Haden album) low in the mix, somewhat overpowered by the drums. Watts' sax solo comes to a close around 3:40, leading to a piano solo from Alan Broadbent. Haden's walking bassline and Higgins' drums continue to give good support throughout (the drums are a little loud, but that's presumably just the recording). Nice piano line just before 5:00, and Broadbent continues to dig in from there… Shortly after 6:00, Broadbent returns to the "Nardis" melody, after which there's a breakdown for Haden's unaccompanied bass solo. He starts with a sort of drone-y feel, then builds from there. This solo moves pretty far out from the "Nardis" melody, while Haden sets up some nice melodies himself (around 8:30, for instance, but throughout this entire solo really). Around 10:30, Haden moves toward the upper register of his bass, but then brings it back down from there, coming back to a bit of a drone for a little bit again around 11:00. Around 11:45, the rest of the band returns to play through the "Nardis" melody and take the tune out. This version has a fine piano solo in here, and Haden's unaccompanied bass solo has plenty going for it. Watts' sax tone wasn't really to my liking, but that's not to say it won't work for you. While the versions above all really kept the "Nardis" melody front and center throughout, this is the first version where (to my ears) they moved away from that melody while soloing.

At the Umbria Jazz Fest in 1999, Kenny Barron and Brad Mehldau played a piano duet concert that included a version of "Nardis." They start out with Barron taking the melody in the right side of the headphones while Mehldau adds some accompaniment in the left. Just before 1:00, they open this up a bit for a nice improvisation on the "Nardis" melody, with Mehldau taking the lead in this section. There's a really nice section around 2:00 with Barron's stabbing chords underneath a melody line from Mehldau… Very nice around 3:10, with Mehldau's right hand playing an arpeggio while his left hand sets up a cool line based on the "Nardis" theme. Shortly after this, around 3:30 or 3:40, Mehldau brings his solo to a finish and Barron takes the melodic lead. He moves into an upper register, playing some nice licks around 4:15. Around 5:25, Barron hits on a particularly nice lick that he repeats a few times. At 6:10, Barron's solo comes to a close and the duo starts to move slowly back toward the "Nardis" theme, hinting around it for awhile until around 6:40, Mehldau plays something very close to the "Nardis" melody and then Barron takes the melody to play through the head at the end of the tune. They take this out with Barron moving up to a very high register, then Mehldau adding some tinkling accompaniment - a very pretty ending. As a piano duet, this is a very different take on "Nardis" from the other versions in here, and both Mehldau and Barron get in some pretty fantastic playing on this version. It's nice to hear Barron returning to the tune 32 years after he played on Joe Henderson's The Kicker album and both Mehldau and Barron coming up with some cool melodic interplay..

Jacky Terrasson's 2002 album Smile, featuring Eric Harland on drums and Remi Vignolo on bass, includes his version of "Nardis." Their version has a laid-back, downbeat feel in large part from Harland's backbeat drums and the minimalist bassline, but also from Terrasson's relaxed chords behind the melody. They set this up nicely with a little two-note riff from the bass and piano before Terrasson's chords in the introduction, then move into the "Nardis" melody while keeping the feel established in the introduction. Harland's drums just have minimal changes to keep them fresh - a double snare hit here and there, or slightly altered placement of the kick drum. At about 1:50, Harland double-times his hi-hat as Terrasson moves into a piano solo. Harland and Vignolo are locked together in the pocket, a perfect head-nodder of a bass/drum combination. I'm a sucker for the slight dissonance that Terrasson hits on just before 3:00. At about 3:15, Harland doubles up on the snare, giving his drums the feel of a DJ playing two records of the same drum track. At about 4:20, they move back to the "Nardis" melody briefly and then reprise the introduction at about 4:40 while Harland makes some minor changes to the drums underneath this groove. The tune comes to an abrupt end with someone (Terrasson?) saying "alright, that'll be good enough." The trio here isn't doing Bill Evans' version of "Nardis", they've taken the basic melody and chord changes and given it a hip-hop vibe. Something like what Ahmad Jamal might do with the tune, or what somebody with an MPC might do with an Ahmad Jamal-led version of the tune. Personally, I really like it and could happily listen to this for some time, but it's not going to be a version for any traditionalists.

The Pilc-Moutin-Hoenig trio (Jean-Michel Pilc on piano, François Moutin on bass, and Ari Hoenig on drums) recorded "Nardis" for their 2011 album Threedom. This version starts with Pilc's solo piano, coming in from a fog to introduce the "Nardis" theme, alternating between very high and very low registers. Hoenig's cymbals and Moutin's bass also keep a sort of mysterious feeling going here. At about 1:45, Pilc's loud, deep rumblings pick up the intensity a bit here and Moutin and Hoenig respond. At 2:30, Pilc drops out for a bass solo from Moutin… around 3:00 the trio has moved quite far, it seems, from "Nardis", but a couple of notes around 3:20 or so serve to remind us of where we are before continuing in this improvisation just very loosely based on the "Nardis" melody. Around 4:30, Pilc returns to the "Nardis" melody and Hoenig's cymbals bring the intensity back down to the mysterious feeling from the introduction. They build from a little two-chord vamp starting around 5:45 or so to a bit of a frenzy, then come down from there to finish the tune with the "Nardis" melody again at the end. A very different take on "Nardis", more of an exploratory feel with "Nardis" as an anchor to return to periodically.

The final version of "Nardis" that I'll include here is another quite different take on the tune, this time because of the instrumentation. Matt Brewer's bass solo version of "Nardis" was recorded for a radio session, Live from Blue Lake, in 2004. The low, bent note in the introduction here is great, and Brewer's bass comfortably handles the tune's melody, giving it a faintly Middle Eastern feel in a few places (say, 1:40 and again around 2:00). Virtuosic solo bass playing throughout this version - well worth checking out and a great example of what can be done with the unaccompanied bass.

Nardis from Matt Brewer on Myspace.

"Nardis" has been used as a vehicle for some great piano trio renditions including not just Bill Evans' version, but also a hip-hop-centric version from Jacky Terrasson, a messy/exploratory version from the Pilc-Moutin-Hoenig trio, and a swinging version from Hank Jones. Beyond the well-explored piano trio territory, Kenny Barron and Brad Mehldau's piano duet and Matt Brewer's solo bass versions of the tune are well worth checking out, and the versions from Cannonball Adderley, Joe Henderson, and Charlie Haden with horns all bring something else to the tune. The "Nardis" melody serves as a springboard and a center for so many of the solos on the versions here. There are others, of course - Kronos Quartet, Russell Gunn, Kevin Eubanks, Doug Raney, Mike Stern, and Kenny Werner, to name just a few, have all done their own thing with this tune. In the 56 years since Portrait of Cannonball, "Nardis" has evolved in some amazing ways. Who knows where it will end up? Keep listening.

Ben Gray is a listener with a lot of ideas about this music around in his head.