Breakfast with Bill Evans

Bob Kenselaar By

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"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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