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Artist Profiles

Bill Evans: 1929-1980

By Published: August 27, 2004
At closer stylistic proximity to Evans are the members of his "school," mentioned above, whose playing makes direct reference to his style. In the work of these pianists you will hear more frequently such typical Evans traits as moving inner voices, fleet block chord melodies, rhythmically truncated melodic lines which leave the listener in mid-air, scalar passages-especially diminished scales-in thirds, and his poignant harmonies, including reharmonizations and original tunes with harmonic structures similar to those Evans used.

Yet when you listen closely to the recordings of Evans himself you hear things not present even in his closest followers, for example, the fine gradation of touch that offers up emotional nuance at a truly surprising level of sensitivity. Any of Evans' external figures can be imitated, even nuances of touch, but that's just the surface structure of his music. The key to the uniqueness of his sound which is immediately identifiable and has never been perfectly duplicated by anyone, lay deep within his aesthetic consciousness. Putting into perspective how he arrived at his sound offers a clue to the nature of this consciousness, this emotional intention expressed musically, which is the deep engine of his music and accounts for its uniqueness.

Evans' Internal Musical Engine

We know Evans disliked exercises, avoided playing them; that he read quickly and accurately an enormous amount of classical (and other) printed music, and performed it perfectly; that he stressed that he played nothing without feeling; and that he felt he had arrived at his mastery and hallmark sound the long way around, not by imitating anything, or by any method other than the assimilation of enormous amounts of music. From this perspective a finger exercise would be an unacceptable short-cut, since it would remove the player from the emotional potential of music by unacceptably isolating technique from feeling. By taking the time to refuse to do this during his entire formation Evans recreated jazz piano for himself, and by extension for the rest of the field.

Personal students of Evans say that he would never spell out anything he did for them: chord voicings, fast passages, whatever-you just had to figure it out if you really wanted it. But Evans wasn't just being difficult: he was insisting on the same standards of authenticity for his student as he claimed for himself. But that leaves us with a paradox. If it is impossible through mere imitation for anyone to recreate Evans' style without his internal engine which invested every musical gesture with his emotional content; then by taking Evans' route, by playing no music without an investiture of emotion, the student would necessarily formulate a unique musical personality different from that of Evans.

Of course, this is what Evans, the teacher, wanted. We didn't need any more Bill Evanses. His teaching approach challenged the student to be as deep and as original as he was.

Effects of Evans' Style

But having said this, what can Bill Evans' music accomplish, given its expansive emotional charge and infinitely fine nuances of touch? In a word: intimacy. His music manages to address an attentive listener's inmost private thoughts, so close to the thinking and feeling organ that you are not sure if you are producing the effects or if the music is. When you emerge from the intense and delicate reverie the music has induced the rest of jazz piano may sound unbearably coarse-even Evans' followers. It may take you a while to reset in order to be able to appreciate the separate musical personality of a different player. But you will have felt the power of Evans' aesthetic purity, and when appreciated under the proper conditions, it is awesome.

Many people have had this experience and become devoted fans, wondering all the while if anyone else knew what they were experiencing. Yet this is the paradox of music that achieves intimacy. It offers the illusion that it is addressing itself solely to you. Lees describes it at the beginning of his article.

Evans Meets His Long-Term Manager

Jazz writer Gene Lees, a personal friend of Evans, was in 1962 leaving an editorial post at Down Beat. He had recently met manager Helen Keane and formed a strong personal relationship with her, insisting that she hear Bill Evans. But Evans already had managerial contracts, in fact, two of them, which constituted an official mistake by the musicians' union. First Lees brought Keane to hear Evans. He was playing at the Village Vanguard. Marlon Brando and Harry Belafonte owed their starts to her, and Lees realized Keane could work wonders on Evans' career. As soon as she heard the first few seconds she said, "Oh, no, not this one! This is the one that could break my heart." But she was willing to do it.

Then Lees set up lunch with the president of the union, a personal friend of his, and presenting the conflict, asked him to cancel both of the existing contracts.

His Drug Habit


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