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Bill Evans: 1929-1980

AAJ Staff By

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In 1956 Mundell Lowe called Orrin Keepnews at Riverside and prevailed upon him and his partner Bill Grauer to listen to a tape of Evans over the phone. This was highly unusual, but Keepnews and Grauer heard enough to convince them they had to record Evans. But first they had to convince him! The very self-effacing Bill Evans didn't believe he was ready to record, and Keepnews and company had to persuade him to the contrary. The atmosphere in the studio was relaxed. Evans had chosen Paul Motian, his drummer with Tony Scott, and Teddy Kotick, an excellent young bassist, who had already worked with Charlie Parker and Stan Getz. They recorded 11 pieces in a single day in September of 1956-it was Riverside's money saving policy-including four Evans originals: "Five," "Conception," "No Cover, No Minimum," and the eventual classic "Waltz for Debbie." This last tune was one of three short (under 2 minutes) piano solos Evans recorded after the other members were dismissed. The album, entitled "New Jazz Conceptions" was a critical success, winning Evans very positive reviews in Down Beat and Metronome (by Nat Hentoff). But it only sold 800 copies in a year.

Gaining Experience

As a sideman that year and the next he also recorded with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, trumpeter Art Farmer, and reedmen Lee Konitz and Jimmy Giuffre, vibest Eddie Costa, and avant-garde conductor-composer (-pianist) George Russell, whose Lydian harmonic system Evans had found very useful. That year he also met Scott LaFaro, while auditioning him for a place in an ensemble led by trumpeter Chet Baker. Evans was impressed by the young bassist, whom he found overflowing with almost an uncontrolled energy and creativity. When Evans later chose LaFaro for his own trio he found that LaFaro had his talents under better control.

During a concert at Brandeis University in 1957, which combined written-out classical style music and jazz improvisation (before Gunther Schuller had founded the "third stream" movement, which claimed to do just that) Evans distinguished himself during a long solo on George Russell's "All About Rosie." Schuller and Russell were part of the event, along with jazz bassist Charles Mingus, Jimmy Giuffre and composers Milton Babbitt and Harold Shapiro. The solo constituted the announcement of the arrival of a new major talent, which his subsequent recordings would soon confirm.

Miles Hires Him

Evans' big break, though, came when Miles Davis hired him shortly thereafter, putting him in a rhythm section behind John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley in addition to himself. Miles' former pianist, Red Garland, had walked out on him, and Miles needed someone more versatile anyway. He was looking for a player who could handle modal playing, and Evans was it. He had met Evans through George Russell, with whom Evans was studying.

A performance of the Ballet Africaine from Guinea in 1958 had originally sparked Miles' interest in modal music. Miles had very big ears and was always listening for new musical currents, both inside himself, from his past, and to new sources fellow musicians brought him. This African music, which featured the finger piano or kalimba, was the kind of music which stayed for long periods of time on a single chord, weaving in and out of consonance and dissonance. It was a very new concept in jazz at the time, which was dominated by the chord-change based music of bebop, which was really an extension of the American popular song. Miles realized that Evans could follow him into modal music. Moreover, Evans introduced Miles to Rachmaninoff, Ravel and Khachaturian, revealing new scales to him and generally expanding his appreciation for classical music.

Miles found Evans a very quiet, self-effacing person, so he wanted to test Evans' musical integrity. After all, Evans was the only white guy in a powerful, prominently black band. Miles needed to see if he would be musically intimidated, so he said to Evans one day,

"Bill, you know what you have to do, don't you, to be in this band?"

He looked at me puzzled and shit and shook his head and said, "No Miles, what do I have to do? I said, "Bill, now you kow we all brothers and shit and everybody's in this thing together and so what I came up with for you is that you got to make it with everybody, you know what I mean? You got to f... the band." Now I was kidding, but Bill was real serious, like Trane [John Coltrane].

He thought about it for about fifteen minutes and then came back and told me, "Miles, I thought about what you said and I just can't do it, I just can't do that. I'd like to please everybody and make everyone happy here, but I just can't do that. I looked at him and smiled and said, "My man!" And then he knew I was teasing. (Davis, 226)

So Evans passed the test. Here's why Miles liked Bill's playing:

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.
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