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Jazz in the Aquarian Age

Breakfast with Bill Evans


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I never aimed to be a stylist or influence. I didn’t even aim to have an identity. I just play music the way I play it, putting it together my own way and trying to serve a certain kind of quality or beauty.
[Bill Evans was in a relaxed mood late in the morning on a cloudy spring day in 1979 for this interview. He was very happy with his most recent recording and excited about the new direction he was taking with his trio. In addition to sharing memories about his musical career from its earliest days, he reflected on his place in the history of jazz. He died not long afterwards, in September 1980.]

Greeting me at the door of his apartment in Fort Lee, New Jersey, Bill Evans runs his fingers through his slightly disheveled hair and holds back a yawn.

"I had a long night last night," he explains, then apologizes for having slept through his alarm.

"This will give you a chance to witness the making of the famous Bill Evans omelet—famous because it's the only thing I can make. I don't like them the way they're served in any restaurant. They're too fat and fluffy. The trick is I only use one egg, and then I put some grated cheese around the edges so that there's a nice, crispy crust."

We sit down in Evans' dining area. I've got my notepad and tape recorder, and he has his omelet and fresh-squeezed orange juice. It's funny to be with Evans at the breakfast table—a peculiarly ordinary situation to be in with one of the most important contemporary jazz musicians around, possibly the most accomplished and influential practitioner of the improvising trio format. But then it's a somewhat fitting setting, since Evans is an extremely relaxed, humble and unassuming man, a straightforward person whose approach to life and music is direct.

"I don't try to be hard to understand," he says. "I really don't want to be obscure. But I do want to try to say something that goes just a bit deeper than the everyday."

In the realm of jazz, few if any pianists nave created a more truly personal harmonic language and approach to music. Evans' playing has been characterized as lyrical, sensitive, warm, and beautiful—yet swinging. His reaction to the praise is very modest. "I feel extremely flattered," he says. "I never aimed to be a stylist or influence. I didn't even aim to have an identity. I just play music the way I play it, putting it together my own way and trying to serve a certain kind of quality or beauty. I guess the end result of it all is that somehow my personality comes through."

Born in Plainfield, N.J., in 1929, Evans has long been regarded as an important figure in jazz, even before his celebrated short stay with Miles Davis in 1958—a stint that included a contribution to the classic Davis album, Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959). Shortly after leaving Davis, Evans made several trio recordings featuring drummer Paul Motian and the outstanding bassist Scott LaFaro. These recordings were greeted with great critical acclaim at the time and are still considered among the pianist's best work.

Evans has recorded dozens of albums under his own name and won many awards for his playing—including five Grammys. Evans has ventured out of the jazz field with successful results, but he has never compromised himself or lost sight of his jazz roots. His 1975 duet album with Tony Bennett was called by one critic the best pop album of the year. As Joseph McLellan of the Washington Post put it, "Evans is one of the great virtuosos of jazz today, and in the contemporary style his real virtuosity is not in his hands (that is taken for granted) but in the mind that works constantly to make each performance a new creation, each rehandling of a motif a new vision."

Evans seems particularly satisfied with his latest album, Affinity (Warner Bros., 1978), which features harmonica player Toots Thielemans. "I think it's really a nice record," he notes.

"If you heard it without knowing, you'd think it was Toots' album. I wanted to present him as the lead voice. He has such great qualities of beauty and communication. I don't think most people are aware of the dimension of his work. He's really a complete musician; he can play up-tempos, beautiful ballads; he can improvise and really wail.

"We did a couple of tunes with just Toots and myself on Fender Rhodes, an instrument which mixes well with the harmonica. We also did a couple tracks adding bass, a couple with bass and drums, and three tunes with bass, drums, and sax. The material goes from very straight, pretty ballads to more or less modern jazz originals. So we've got a variety of contexts and sounds and material in there."

Ever since the fall of 1977, Evans' regular working trio has undergone a number of personnel changes. He seems satisfied finally with his current group, which includes bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe La Barbera. Evans found it particularly difficult to replace bassist Eddie Gomez, his companion of 11 years. "It was a long, happy, and beautiful relationship," he recalls. "With all that we had learned together, I must say it was rather traumatic for me to even contemplate having a new bassist. I think all in all it ended up being a constructive move. Change is healthy, and it forces you to look at things a little differently, to reach a little deeper.

"My drummer, Eliot Zigmund, left almost the same time as Eddie, and Philly Joe Jones came with the trio then. We worked with various bass players for a while until Marc Johnson came along. Marc, who had been working with Woody Herman, had been calling me, and we were trying to get together, but he was always on the road with Woody. So finally he got a night off while they were in West Virginia, and we were at the Village Vanguard. He called me and said he'd fly up. I said. 'If you want to go through all that juts to sit on, it's up to you.' So, he came, and very shortly after we started playing the first tune, I realized there was something very special in him. I got extremely positive feelings."

Does Johnson's playing remind him of Gomez?

"Not really." he answers. "I'm sure that he's learned some things from Eddie. But to me their sound and articulation are quite different. And they really think differently. Marc really reminds I me more of Scott LaFaro."

That's no small comment coming from Evans, for it was the work of LaFaro in particular that sparked Evans' trio of the early '60s to great heights. And Evans still seems to regard his work with LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian as one of the high points of his career.

"That was just a marvelous, magical thing," he recalls. "It was a case of three talents arriving early in their careers, meeting with a desire for a common goal, and laying everything else aside to try to achieve it. We tried to give ourselves room to break with some of the traditional things, but only when it made sense—not just for its own sake. By the time we had done the Village Vanguard dates, a lot of that conception had been realized. That was the last time we played together before Scott was killed."

"That group was the springboard that all my subsequent trios came off of. But the trios that followed looked to that conception as a point of departure. I became more of a leader, and mine was the main projected voice. Of course, maybe it was just as well, because I think Chuck Israels' strong point was his time playing and his musicality; he wasn't the virtuoso that Scott was. When Eddie Gomez came along in 1966, he provided a chance to revamp. We did a lot of beautiful things with Eddie, but I think with him I was less inclined to take that fresh approach. I had gotten into a more predictable feeling. I always tried to play creatively and spontaneously, but conceptually it was pretty static. That's where I hope we'll start to change more.

"I have the feeling that this current trio is more similar to the one with Scott and Paul than any I've had before. I don't know exactly what it is except that they inspire me to go for that fresh approach, and when I do, they go right with whatever's happening. Maybe it's the mixture of the personalities and interests. I don't want to put down any of the trios that I've had because they're all special in their own way. But I feel like the perspective for this trio offers some potential that the others might not have had.

"Also, I feel that I am coming to a greater expressive period personally—a new creative feeling. Maybe that has more to do with it than anything. Some of the other trios were more than ready to go to various different directions, but I think I was less able to carry them there then. The last year or so has been the beginning of some kind of new period for me, though. I can hear it in the records I've made, and we're working and performing more, too. I have this feeling that it could be a really good time for me during the next 10 years if I can hang on that long."

Growing up in central Jersey, Evans studied classical piano at a very early age and by the time he was 12 considered himself quite an accomplished boogie-woogie player. He was introduced to jazz soon after that.

"My brother Harry, who is two years older than me, played trumpet in a rehearsal band in high school one night a week. When their pianist go the measles, he brought me along to replace him. So I stayed in band, and for about three weeks just kept tackling these stock arrangements they were working on until one night we were playing an arrangement of 'Tuxedo Junction,' when I got inspired and played a sound that wasn't written. It was such a thrill, because then, to my mind, you just didn't make up music spontaneously—you just played what was written.

Since that early motivating epiphany, Evans' improvisational skill has reached a highly developed and complex artistry. One element important to his improvisational method is his thematic approach, or use of motive development. "Combined with all the other reference points, this is where the language of music is found," Evans states.

"The art of improvisation, and the art of music, for that matter, lies in mastering the ability to take an idea and treat it as such—to respond to it musically, according to the context in such a way as to say what you want to say, which for me is to try to get to a slightly deeper feeling.

"The treatment of an idea is part of the essential language of music," he continues, "and it can develop in a number of ways. Essentially, you get it through rhythmic or tonal expression or contraction. You can make it smaller, you can make it larger. You fill it in. You can empty it. You can play it at different levels. You can play it upside down and backwards. There are so many ways you can mold the musical clay of an idea"

Some have criticized Evans for a lack of swing, and this disturbs him. "To me the essential quality of jazz is the beat. If it wasn't there in my thinking then I wouldn't be able to play. Anyone who denies that quality in my work just hasn't looked into it very deeply. You don't have to go very far to see examples of it in my recorded output alone. It's certainly there on my records with Miles and Art Farmer. And you can't deny a great physical quality in the playing on my first trio album. I never attempted to diminish that inner feeling, only to present it not quite as obviously. But the constant inner swing, the beat, the pulse, and the form give everything I do its real meaning."

Evans seems to find it difficult to be completely satisfied with his work, however. "I've always tried my utmost to play and create on a high level, but I always look at my playing from a super-critical standpoint. It's hard for me to judge. It's funny, but I've made records that I've actually felt bad about in some way or another and then learned love. I may go in to make a record, for instance, and have certain expectations of perfection or achievement, and if I don't get to that point I'm striving for, I feel like I've failed—even though I may have come close to it. Later, when I divorce myself from the record, I'll realize that there were a lot of worthwhile things happening."

Evans finds it equally difficult to see his own position in the scheme of jazz from a historical viewpoint. "It's hard for me to see anything historically because I'm looking at it from my perspective. I can't get outside of myself that much. I can only judge it from the reality of what has happened is that I have a stable position in jazz. I suppose there must be some reason for all the attention, awards, polls, and so forth."

Does he hear his influence in other musicians?

"Not necessarily. Occasionally I'll hear something. But I think other people will have noticed it a lot more. It's an awfully hard thing for me to judge. I don't think I can. In fact, it's hard for me to even hear myself objectively. I can only judge it from the viewpoint that what everybody says must have some amount of truth to it. They seem to say that I've been an influence. But that's very flattering.

"One thing I never did was a mimic, though. I never even copied a solo. That wasn't my approach. My approach was always to kind of tune into the spirit of what was happening, and if something happened that I liked, I would try to figure out the principle that was involved musically. I've been influenced by everything that I've ever liked—some things more than others—but I think my identity as somewhat of a natural thing. I think if you strive for something like that it becomes an affectation.

"My rule has always been never to replace something unless what I replace it with is better. I'm not talking about specific ideas necessarily, but structural thinking. For the sake of variety, don't sacrifice quality.

"I feel fortunate in the sense that my career and popularity, I have almost always been on the upswing," says Evans, turning to his now-cold eggs. "Even though I don't place as high on the polls as I used to perhaps, the money I make is much better, my audiences are larger, and my recording contracts are better. Jazz is almost like pro sports in a way; it's a 'young blood' thing very often. So, in that sense I feel very fortunate to be one of a few older jazz people to have attained an ascending position.

"I certainly feel gratified to have the position I have. I can play what I want to play; I can record what I want to record and make a nice living at it. I get a lot of ego support from the fans, and at the same time I don't have the lack of privacy or the kind of constant harassment that pop stars do."

Originally published in The Aquarian Weekly, May 9-16, 1979.

[For more on Evans' music, two especially notable books offer detailed explorations: Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings, by Peter Pettinger (1998) and Bill Evans: Everything Happens to Me, by Keith Shadwick (2002). For two fascinating accounts of Evans' personal life, see The Big Love: Life & Death with Bill Evans (2010) by Laurie Verchomin, and "The Two Brothers as I Knew Them: Harry and Bill Evans" (2011) by Pat Evans.]

Selected Discography (by original recording date)

Bill Evans, Turn Out the Stars: The Final Village Vanguard Recordings(Nonesuch, 1980)
Bill Evans, We Will Meet Again (Warner Bros., 1979)
Bill Evans, Paris Concert: Edition One (Blue Note, 1979)
Bill Evans, Affinity (Warner Bros., 1979)
Bill Evans, I Will Say Goodbye (Original Jazz Classics, 1977)
Bill Evans, You Must Believe in Spring (Warner Bros., 1977)
Tony Bennett/Bill Evans, The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings (Concord, 1975-76)
Evans/Eddie Gomez, Intuition (Original Jazz Classics, 1974)
Bill Evans, The Sesjun Radio Shows (Out of the Blue, 1973)
Bill Evans, The Bill Evans Album (Columbia, 1971)
Bill Evans, Alone (Verve, 1968)
Bill Evans, Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival (Polygram, 1968)
Bill Evans, At Shelly's Manne-Hole (Original Jazz Classics, 1963)
Bill Evans, Conversations with Myself (Polygram, 1963)
Bill Evans/Jim Hall, Undercurrent (Blue Note, 1962)
Bill Evans, Interplay (Original Jazz Classics, 1962)
Bill Evans, The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings (Riverside, 1961)
Bob Brookmeyer/Bill Evans, The Ivory Hunters (United Artists, 1959)
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)
Bill Evans, Everybody Digs Bill Evans (Original Jazz Classics 1958)
Art Farmer, Modern Art (Blue Note, 1958)
Bill Evans, New Jazz Conceptions (Original Jazz Classics, 1956)
George Russell, The Jazz Workshop (RCA, 1956)

Photo Credit: Guy Fonck

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