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Book Reviews

Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings

By Published: March 8, 2004
Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings Peter Pettinger
Yale University Press
New Haven 1998

This is an exhaustive trawl through the work of Bill Evans, with characterizations of virtually every recorded track, whether created for posterity or bootlegged from a concert or broadcast. Evans’ work schedule gets a similar treatment, although the author implies that there are quite a few more performance dates than the many which he does characterize or at least mention. There are also many quotations from Evans, who was that rarity among musicians, someone who was articulate and thoughtful enough to be a good speaker and writer.

Evans (1929 - 1980) was born and raised in Plainfield, New Jersey, the second of two athletic and piano-playing sons. Already a working pianist by the time he graduated high school, he attended and graduated Southeastern College in Louisiana as a music and music education major, making an impression on his teachers by both his excellence as a classical pianist as well as his lax attitude towards technical studies. After a stint in Herbie Fields’ big band, and a couple of years as a US Army musician where he met his later employer Tony Scott, Evans took a year in Florida to study, then moved to New York City. Here his adaptability and skills found him a variety of club gigs and record dates, including the beginning of a long association with the Village Vanguard. Evans describes his work there as an intermission pianist for the Modern Jazz Quartet:

“Nobody knew me, of course, and you could hear a pin drop during their sets, and despite the fact that Milt Jackson gave me a really fine introduction every time, this intimidated the audience into about five and a half seconds of silence, and from then on it was thunderous din... And while I was playing one night, the maitre d’ brought a party of four up while I was playing — I stopped, he said excuse me — and he led them between me and the keyboard to that table [behind the bandstand].”

But other professionals spotted and used this talent, among them Charles Mingus, Art Farmer, George Russell, Tony Scott and most significantly, Miles Davis. Evans also recorded as a leader during this period, showing what he would describe as his major influence: Bud Powell, with his long and energetic lines.

As a sideman with Miles Davis, Evans got significant exposure, not always favorable. Many of Davis’ fans preferred the energetic work of Red Garland to the more subtle Evans. Constant travel and lack of audience appreciation contributed to Evans’ decision to leave Davis, recuperating for some weeks at his parents’ retirement home in Florida. But by this time he was in fairly constant demand for recording, including a call from Davis that led to KIND OF BLUE, which Pettinger treats as a collaboration of equals between Davis and Evans. Davis, knowing that Evans wanted to work as a trio leader, was also instrumental in recommending him to agents, and in finding him collaborators: Jimmy Garrison and Kenny Dennis. Their gig at Basin Street East in New York City turned out to be an extended audition: “I think I went through four drummers and seven bass players... during that gig,” ultimately ending with Scott LeFaro and Paul Motian. Thus was born the unit which made the seminal live recordings SUNDAY AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD and WALTZ FOR DEBBY.

Following immediately upon the group’s breakthrough into a new realm of collaborative performance, LeFaro’s untimely death in a car wreck was devastating for Evans, who was unable to work for some months. Ultimately he picked up again, and the biography becomes increasingly a record of musical relationships formed and developed mostly with bass players and drummers in innumerable club and concert dates, broadcasts, and recording sessions. Among the post-LeFaro bassists, Gary Peacock appears briefly; Chuck Israels grows to be an equal collaborator; Eddie Gomez works in the trio for over a decade, ultimately carrying the burden of improvisational interest as Evans coasts; Marc Johnson helps kick Evans back into gear through the last brilliant dates. Among the drummers, Philly Joe Jones, an Evans soulmate, moves in and out of the group intermittently, both pre- and post-Motian; Larry Bunker, Arnold Wise, Jack DeJohnette, Marty Morrel, Eliot Zigmund, and Joe LaBarbera participate for in turn.

Evans’ sometimes difficult personal relationships get some play as well: his long-time girlfriend whom he abandoned because of her infertility; his wife and mother of his son who left him because of his cocaine use; his beloved older brother whose suicide briefly preceded Evans’ own demise. But the book is largely about Evans’ career, session by session, in some cases phrase by phrase, and seems true to Evans’ own intentions and devotion in this way.

Pettinger, a British concert pianist and academic, and a fan of Evans from his teens, has included not only a formal discography running to forty pages, but what is in effect an annotated discography running virtually the entire length of his book. Here is a sample description of Gomez’ first recording with Evans, A SIMPLE MATTER OF CONVICTION, in October 1966: “... both were on edge. The pianist exhibited an uncharacteristic proportion of slips generally, and the bassist sounded conscious, as he readily admitted, of being in over his head. A lot of the time, the two were so hyped up with nervous energy that Shelly Manne, who made no concessions, had his work cut out to hold them down to his beat... “‘Unless It’s You’ was called ‘Orbit,’ a more descriptive title of its overlapping ellipses... As with many of Evans’s tunes, the interest was mostly harmonic, the top line consisting of a constantly repeated germ cell, the significance of almost every note dependent on its attached harmony.”

Of a performance from the earlier EXPLORATIONS session, February 1961, Pettinger writes: “‘I Wish I Knew’ amply [demonstrates] one of Evans’s characteristic approaches: the large-scale substitution (in an organic way) of new harmonies for the songbook changes. The Gordon-Warren songsheet made do with half a dozen or so basic chords. Evans’s reconstruction, on the other hand, employed nearly three times as many, changing mostly by the half-bar. In this way a simple song could be enriched, strengthened, and transformed. In collusion with the infinite shades of his tone production, the pianist was able to make, instrumentally, an affecting vocal statement. Typical of his ballad performances, it was played with feeling but was never mawkish.”

Pettinger gives a very few transcriptions of a few measures of Evans’ work, which will only have meaning for the musically educated; but most of his more technical descriptions of touch and tone production are so clear and exact that they will communicate to anyone who can recall seeing a pianist in performance. The reader who will find the best use for this sometimes fascinating, sometimes tedious exegesis is the dedicated Bill Evans fan who wants more information about the methods of Evans’ art and about which recordings to pursue. Someone who wants a social-psychological view of the jazz life will find much material here as well, with Evans a contemporary Flying Dutchman, virtually homeless for most of his life, as he tours ceaselessly to maintain his career, to support his drug habits, to make payments on the beautiful new suburban house which he almost never inhabited. Although it occasionally approaches hagiography in the earlier chapters and monotony in the later ones, and misses a few minor details — such as omitting Bud Powell (Evans’ main influence!) from the list of vocalizing instrumentalists, and giving credit to Evans’ performance of “How My Heart Sings,” rather than the earlier Dave Brubeck, for the first instance of consistent time signature variation throughout the performance of a tune — BILL EVANS: HOW MY HEART SINGS provides many insights into the work and life of this influential musician.

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