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Artist Profiles

Bill Evans: 1929-1980

By Published: August 27, 2004
Evans abandoned roots almost entirely to develop a system in which the chord is expressed as a quality identity and a color, with the root being left to the bassist, or to the left hand on another beat of the measure, of just left implied. The system has become quite widespread, and a student can find it explained in any number of books on jazz piano theory and technique. But Evans had to derive them from composers like Debussy and Ravel and make a standard system out of them so they could be used unconsciously, automatically, and in doing so he transformed jazz piano.

The Piano Trio Concept: Equality of Instrumental Voices

From there Evans launched into a career characterized mostly by trio recordings. His concept of the trio was a much more egalitarian one than the one prevalent at the time. Evans gave the bassist and drummer more active roles than most rhythm section sidemen in trios, with a resulting greater degree of interplay among the musicians. He made a series of live recordings at the Village Vanguard in 1961, embodying this principle. These remain among his best recordings, featuring Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. Evans, who was normally very critical of himself was quite pleased with these recordings. In them he also reveals his prediliction for the waltz, which would be a constant throughout his career.

When bassist Scott LaFaro died tragically later that year in a car accident at age 23, these recordings took on even more significance as his memorial. Evans did not record for almost a year while mourning for LaFaro. During the rest of his career Evans searched for LaFaro's equals on bass. He may have found them later in Eddie Gomez and Marc Johnson.

Awareness of His Stylistic Identity and Its Influence

Evans maintained that he was not aware of the importance of his influence on jazz piano, although he finally believed it, after hearing it so many times. He saw his own style as simply the necessary one to express what he wanted to express. Here's how he explained it:

First of all, I never strive for identity. That's something that just has happened automatically as a result, I think, of just putting things together, tearing things apart and putting it together my own way, and somehow I guess the individual comes through eventually....I want to build my music from the bottom up, piece by piece, and kind of put it together according to my own way of organizing things....I just have a reason that I arived at myself for every note I play (Enstice and Rubin, 139-140).

Evans on One's Personal Sound

As a corollary to a musician's stylistic identity, one eventually develops one's own unique sound. This may be very difficult to define, although easily recognizable by ear. Not everyone has one. "I think having one's own sound in a sense is the most fundamental kind of identity in music," said Evans.

But it's a very touchy thing how one arrives at that. It has to be something that comes form inside, and it's a long-term process. It's a product of a total personality. Why one person is going to have it and another person isn't, I don't know why exactly. I think sometimes the people I seem to like most as musical artists are people who have had to-they're like late arrivers....They've had to work a lot harder...to get facility, to get fluency...Whereas you see a lot of young talents that have a great deal of fluidity and fluency and facility, and they never really carry it any place. Because in a way they're not aware enough of what they're doing. (Enstice & Rubin, 140)

Bill Evans' Mature Style

Evans' mature style has been such a pervasive influence in jazz piano over the past thirty years that in many ways it is almost undetectable. We can speak of his highly nuanced touch, his melodic shapes, and his chord voicings and still be at a distance from the essence of his sound. To clarify this essence it is useful to isolate and describe the elements of his style, which other pianists have picked up with different degrees of fidelity to Evans, and then see what is left to Evans alone.

At the most general level, jazz pianists today tend to sound more like Evans than they do like his two great piano predecessors and influences, Bud Powell, and Lennie Tristano. Like Evans and unlike Powell and Tristano, the contemporary style utilizes a greater proportion of shaped phrases than continuous lines; it utlizes a greater proportion of chromaticism and non-major scale modes than Powell certainly; and it utilizes Evans' chord voicings as a point of departure for its harmonic conception. After this, approaches to touch, harmony, and melodic shape are highly individualized.


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