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Breakfast with Bill Evans

Bob Kenselaar By

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"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.

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