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Breakfast with Bill Evans

Bob Kenselaar By

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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."
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