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Book Reviews

Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings

By Published: March 8, 2004
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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