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Artist Profiles

Bill Evans: 1929-1980

By Published: August 27, 2004
Nonetheless, Evans played on Miles' breakthrough Kind of Blue album (recorded in March-April 1959), even though he had been replaced by Wynton Kelly by then. Miles had planned the session around Evans' playing. According to Miles, Wynton Kelly combined what he liked in Evans with what he had liked in Red Garland, and Kelly actually played on one tune on this album, "Freddy Freeloader." The album grew, as did so many of Miles' projects, out of a musical impression floating in Miles' mind, in this case that Ballet Africaine, mentioned above, combined with some gospel music he had heard as a six year-old in Arkansas.

That feeling had got in my creative blood, my imagination, and I had forgotten it was there....So I wrote about five bars of that and recorded it....But you write something and guys play off it and take it someplace else through their creativity and imagination, and you just miss where you thought you wanted to go. I was trying to do one thing and ended up doing something else. (Davis, 234)

Miles wrote only sketches for the session, in order to tap into his musicians' spontaneity, and with no rehearsals. It worked so well that everything was accepted on the first take. Evans applied his deep musical integrity and imagination to the task, as Miles said, "Bill was the kind of player that when you played with him if he started something, he would end it, but he would take it a little bit farther. You subconsciously knew this, but it always put a little tension up in everyone's playing, and that was good" (Davis, 234).

Yet the collective result did not correspond with Miles' original inspiration. The album was acclaimed as a masterpiece, but Miles told people he had missed getting what he wanted. Perhaps he got more; perhaps he never could have gotten it given the degree of freedom he gave his powerful sidemen. Recognizing his articulateness about music, Miles had Evans write the liner notes for the album. Evans summarizes the spontaneous process in the purest possible light, an ironic contrast to Miles' mix of intentions, realization and frustration:

There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.

The resulting pictures lack the complex compositions and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.

Every procedural and structural element in this description has its analogue in jazz, and this statement could well stand as Evans personal artistic manifesto. "Ordinary painting" could well refer to classical music.

Bill Evans on His Own Development

Evans was extremely aware about every factor in his music and musical development, making him one of the most articulate jazz musicians on the scene. Throughout his career he did numerous interviews, which not only document his views on a variety of musical subjects, but offer us his eloquent thinking voice. One of the clearest messages he gave dealt with his own development, its difficulties and the rewards of those difficulties:

I always like people who have developed long and hard, especially through introspection and a lot of dedication. I think what they arrive at is usually...deeper and more beautiful...than the person who seems to have that ability and fluidity from the beginning. I say this because it's a good message to give to young talents who feel as I used to. You hear musicians playing with great fluidity and complete conception early on, and you don't have that ability. I didn't. I had to know what I was doing. And yes ultimately it turned out that those people weren't able to carry their thing very far. I found myself being more attracted to artists who have developed through the years and become better and deeper musicians. (Williams, n. p.)

Evans once told Gene Lees right out that he didn't think he had much talent, and later that he had to work on his harmonic concept so much because he "didn't have very good ears" (Lees, Meet Me, 151-2).

Evans' Chord Voicings

Although he rarely talked about them, Evans was the main person responsible for reforming jazz voicings on piano. A voicing is the series of notes used to express a chord. Up until that time chords had been expressed either by spelling the chord, with root, 3rd, 5th, 7th and sometimes 9th, or with a selection of these notes. Bud Powell had pioneered the so-called "shell" voicings or alternations between outer and inner notes of a chord, that is root-7th or 3rd-5th or 3rd-7th.


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