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Bill Evans: 1929-1980

AAJ Staff By

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Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall. I had to change the way the band sounded again for Bill's style by playing different tunes, softer ones at first. Bill played underneath the rhythm and I liked that, the way he played scales with the band. Red's [Garland] playing had carried the rhythm but Bill underplayed it and for what I was doing now with the modal thing, I liked what Bill was doing better. (Davis, 226)

Evans made 10 albums with Miles in less than a year they were together, February to November, 1958. But Evans was uncomfortable in the group after seven months. He wanted to form his own-so did Adderley and Coltrane. They would all eventually become leaders in the field, and Miles' group, despite the fact that it was at the top of the jazz field, was hemming them in. In addition, Evans disliked all the travelling, and the harrassment he was getting from black fans about being the only white musician in the group was getting to him-it was disturbing to Miles too. There was also the annoying criticism that he didn't play fast enough or hard enough, that his playing was too delicate.

Evans' Second Album as Leader

Evans had his second outing as a leader, once again for Riverside, in December 1958. He had officially left Miles' group by that time. For this recording he chose Miles' drummer Philly Joe Jones, with whom he worked many times after that, and Dizzy Gillespie's bassist Sam Jones (no relation), who went on to a longterm relationship with Cannonball Adderley. The influence of his stay in Miles' band is clear from his driving version of "Night and Day" as well as his choice of and performance on the hard bop tunes "Minority" by Gigi Gryce and "Oleo" by Sonny Rollins.

The real classic during that session is his original "Peace Piece," which was originally conceived as an extended introduction to Leonard Berstein's standard "Some Other Time." It became a jazz standard, and he performs it during a 6 minute 41 second piano solo on the album. The tune is based on a succession of scales, which the player extends at will before going onto another scale, a new kind of balance at the time between structured and free (although similar in concept to Indian ragas) The tune, therefore, would never be played the same way twice.This is the nature of a free piece: the structure as well as the melody is unique to each individual performance occasion.

Along with the more driving swing in this album came a more personal, more nuanced touch. Evans was moving away from the dominant influences of his jazz formation-Bud Powell, with his extended horn lines, and Horace Silver, with his bluesy percussive approach-and toward the sound that would characterize his mature years. It testifies to a large amount of exploration and growth in the 26 months between the two recording sessions, including the assimilation of the influence of Lennie Tristano's long flowing lines into his playing.

Since the stint with Miles had only benefited Bill's reputation, Keepnews decided to title the album Everybody Digs Bill Evans and put testimonials from Davis, George Shearing, Ahmad Jamal and Cannonball Adderley on the cover. Issued in May, 1959, it sold much better than the first one.

Miles Davis' Kind of Blue

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.

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
About Bill Evans
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