Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings
Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings
Hardcover; 346 pages
Yale University Press
The late Bill Evans, a cerebral, classically-trained pianist, was the first of many brilliant keyboardists whose careers were launched by Miles Davis. Sometimes described as the Chopin of jazz, Evans, who died in 1980, was ethereal in his approach and esoteric in his appeal. "Bill Evans has no casual fans," wrote Adam Gopnik in a 2001 New Yorker article. Evans' name, added Gopnik, has become "synonymous with a heartbreak quality that is not like anything else in music."
A shy and self-effacing man, Evans once admitted: "It is a peculiarity of mine that despite the fact that I am a professional performer ... I have always preferred playing without an audience." His audience, it has been noted, also seems to prefer a sense of self-imposed exile. The average Bill Evans fan tends to consider him a private treasure, one little regarded by a woefully ill-educated musical public.
The self-anointed true believer gazes with disdain on those who, their tastes shaped by the musical pabulum dished out on smooth jazz radio stations, think of Yanni and Kenny G as the pinnacle of jazz artistry. Evans' music is often dismissed by careless listeners as nothing more than elegant cocktail piano, leaving his devotees cherishing the sensemelancholy yet pridefulthat few (besides themselves, of course) can appreciate the exquisite subtlety and nuance of Evans' rarified talents.
These devotees are always surprised to discover that over the past three decades there have been innumerable other fans around the world equally devoted to his memory. Addressing this enhanced self-recognition, perhaps as much as anything, might be biographer Peter Pettinger's overriding contribution to Evans' legacy, providing a center of gravitywhat T. S. Eliot called an objective correlativefor Evans' diaphanous fan base. Twenty years may well be an appropriate posthumous interval to wait before beginning to judge any single individual's contribution to the rich tradition of American jazz. If so, Pettinger's biography, published eighteen years after Evans' death, was almost right on time.
Some critics have complained that Pettinger, a British concert pianist for over thirty years, seems to care more about the Bill Evans the pianist than Bill Evans the man. Nonetheless, Pettinger was assiduous in his research, and his book, whatever its perceived flaws, does an excellent job of gathering together the facts of his life. Perhaps the best example of the objective correlative provided by the book are the names of numerous individuals alluded to by several of Evans' best known compositions.
An instrumental tune with no lyrics is a blank canvas for the listener, who is free to make his or her own (non-biographical) associations. It certainly isn't necessary to know that "Fran-Dance," for instance, is named after one of Miles Davis' wives in order to appreciate the tune. However, while the same might be said Wayne Shorter's "Ana Maria," also named after a former spouse, it's not altogether superfluous to know that she died (along with their niece Dalila) in a 1996 plane crash.
One reviewer has objected that Pettinger does not tell the reader much about Evans' associates beyond discussing their musical impact, after which they are quickly pushed offstage. Personality sketches and even physical descriptions are generally absent. Nonetheless, long-time aficionados previously unacquainted with Evans' personal life may be piqued to identify all the people commemorated in his song titles only now. "Peri's Scope," "B Minor Waltz (For Ellaine)" and "Nenette" are named after paramours. "Maxine" refers to his stepdaughter (Nenette's daughter), "Waltz For Debby" to a favorite niece, "Letter to Evan" to his son (by Nenette), and "We Will Meet Again (For Harry)" to his beloved older brother (Debbie's father).
"Gary's Theme" is a tribute to Gary McFarland (who wrote the tune), a vibraphonist, composer, arranger and producer who collaborated with Evans. Now largely forgotten, McFarland was one of the more significant contributors to orchestral jazz during the 1960s. McFarland, while with a friend in a New York City bar in late 1971, ingested a drink into which liquid methadone had been poured. He suffered a fatal heart attack and died instantly. Exact details are murky to this day. "Lullaby For Helene" was inspired by the daughter of Earl Zindars, a percussionist and composer at whose wedding Evans had been best man."One For Helen" is a paean to Helen Keane, Evans' manager and producer. Incidentally, Keane, a keen judge of talent, is credited with discovering Harry Belafonteas well as keeping Evans alive during the late 1970s.