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Quiet Fire - a view of Bill Evans
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Though tremendously shy, Bill Evans found himself in the limelight, where he created a poetic playing style that would have a lasting influence on his fellow musicians.   Nick Shave explains how Evans came to earn a place in the jazz pantheon.

Pianist Mag Img © The Pianist 2005.   This article is reproduced by kind permission of The Pianist, whose website may be viewed by clicking on the image.  

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Introduction.   [TOP]

evans_bill_imgFrom the first time he stood up to applause on stage, Bill Evans (1929-1980) was both gratified and a little embarrassed by playing in public.   Frail, bashful and seemingly serious in appearance, the bespectacled pianist would play at the keyboard ‘as though he were about to sneak into the piano and hide,’ as one critic observed.   His brooding, mulling approach to jazz solos marked him out as one of the early romanticists in modern jazz, yet his intellectual approach to harmonic and rhythmic invention freed him from the pitfalls of schmaltz and sentimentality.   Indeed, it is somewhat remarkable that Evans stands out as one of the influential jazz players of our time, considering he was by no means an entertainer.   ‘I have always preferred playing without an audience,’ he once admitted.   ‘I think it’s just a problem of self-consciousness which has to be conquered through discipline and concentration.’

Kind of new   [TOP]

Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, Evans first played the piano when he was six years old, treading a traditional path through classical repertoire.   His natural flair for sight-reading was put to good use in the local high school band where he first began to improvise, adding notes to the traditional triads before him.   After taking a four-year graduate course at Southeastern Louisiana College in New Orleans, he joined the Herbie Fields band, picking up jazz chords as he went along and building up his technique to the point at which he could play without thinking about the mechanics it involved.   ‘I did not have a natural fluidity and was not the type of person who just looks at the scene and through some intuitive process and immediately produces a finished product,’ he once recalled.   ‘I had to build my music very consciously, from the bottom up.’

After a stint in the army where he played flute in the marching band, Evans moved to New York, making his first significant record in 1956 – The Jazz Workshop album – under the direction of jazz composer-theorist George Russell.   He went on to secure his recording contract with Riverside in the same year, issuing New Jazz Conceptions that included a short solo performance, ‘Waltz for Debby’, which would become one of his best-known compositions.   His reputation grew.   Recordings with Charles Mingus and Eddie Costa followed until, in 1958, Miles Davis, phoned him up after hearing him play at New York’s Village Vanguard.   Whether he liked it or not, Evans would be thrust into the limelight.   ‘I thought that Miles was the king of modern jazz,’ he recalled.   ‘I thought it was the greatest jazz band I ever heard.’

At Davis’s invitation, Evans joined the sextet for eight months and explored some of the styles for which he is now best known, his moody ruminations and impressionistic harmonies bringing new colours to Davis’s repertoire, most famously in their recording Kind of Blue.   Colour was as key to Davis as it was to Evans.   ‘Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano,’ the trumpeter later recalled.   ‘I had to change the way the band sounded again for Bill’s style by playing different tunes, softer ones at first.   The sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.’   Yet, as the only white member of the band, Evans also felt isolated and found himself on the receiving end of flak from the clubs’ black patrons, who felt that he could not swing as hard as his predecessor in the group, Red Garland.   Sensitive, self-destructive (and in keeping with the band), Evans experimented wildly with heroin – his lifelong addiction.

Three’s company.   [TOP]

On leaving the Sextet, Evans turned permanently to leading his own trio, bring together bassist Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian on drums to record Portrait in Jazz.   Dedicated to a sense of freedom and democracy, the trio allowed Evans to explore new melodic ideas.   Their most important recording took place on 25 June, 1961 at New York’s Village Vanguard, released as Sunday At the Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby on Riverside.   A study in musical intuition, these recordings set the standard for future piano trios, mixing elements of ‘cool jazz’ with a unique and inimitable synergy.   It was the last time that Evans would see his bassist LaFaro, who tragically died in a road accident just ten days after the recordings were made.   Though Evans pulled himself out of depression to regroup with bassist Chuck Israels nearly one year later, and later joined forces with bassist Eddie Gomez, he was bitterly aware of the loss.   ‘When you have evolved a concept of playing that depends on the specific personalities of outstanding players, how do you start again when they are gone?’

Within his trio, Evans explored a highly individual harmonic language, carefully selecting each note of his harmonies and at times paring them down with a deliberateness of touch that could heighten their expressivity.   His exploration of tonal nuance was central to his touch: harmonies were enhanced by inner and outer moving parts, passing chromatic notes at times growing into chords, before splintering into a new voicing.   Evans himself likened the rhythmic placement of his chords to shadow lettering, in which only shadows are drawn in order to make the observer aware of the letters.   He also talked openly about an ‘internalised’ pulse, around which his trio played, regardless of where bar lines fell.   Some aspects of his playing, however, remained secret.   ‘He would never show me anything, like his voicings,’ recalled one pianist friend, Warren Bernhardt.   ‘Everyone wanted to steal them from him.’

Making tracks.   [TOP]

To practise, Evans would often play through classical repertoire.   He was convinced that Bach’s two- and three-part inventions were perfect exercises, technically accessible yet enough to flex the fingers and, above all, aesthetically pleasing.   He was also very particular about his choice of piano.   While Oscar Peterson preferred Bösendorfer, McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett the Steinway, Evans joined Erroll Garner and Dave Brubeck as a Baldwin artist, but not without trying out the Fender-Rhodes electric piano along the way.   ‘I’ve been happy to use the Fender-Rhodes to add a little colour to certain performances but only as an adjunct,’ he later explained.   ‘Many clubs pay more attention to their trash cans than the house piano, but I’ve been lucky in this respect and most of the instruments I use are acceptable, though not always in tune.’

Alone at the piano, Evans also pushed back the boundaries of innovation, not least with his use of multi-tracking recording techniques.   In 1963 he recorded Conversations with Myself in which he ‘overdubbed’ himself playing solo on Glenn Gould’s cherished Steinway.   As his liner notes explain: ‘I listened to the first track while playing the second, and the first two while playing the third, the process involved was an artificial duplication of simultaneous performances in that each track represented a musical mind responding to another musical mind or minds.’ It was Evans’s chance to express his admiration for Thelonious Monk with tributes such as ‘Blue Monk’ and to explore the rich warmth of Gould’s Steinway through atmospheric musings.   The solo album brought Evans his first Grammy Award and a round of applause from the jazz community that he would happily shy away from.

Selected discography.   [TOP]

  • Bill Evans: Conversations with Myself - Verve 5214092
  • Bill Evans Trio: Portrait in Jazz - Riverside OJC-200882
  • Bill Evans Trio: Explorations - Riverside OJC-200372
  • Bill Evans Trio: Everybody Digs Bill Evans - Riverside OJCCD-0682
  • Bill Evans Trio: Waltz for Debby - Riverside OJC-202102
  • Bill Evans Trio: Sunday at the Village Vanguard - Riverside OJC-201402
  • Bill Evans Trio: Consecration 2 - Milestone 8MCD 44362 (8 CD box set)
  • Miles Davis (with Bill Evans): 58 Sessions featuring ‘Stella by Starlight’ - Sony SNY 478352
  • Miles Davis (with Bill Evans): Kind of Blue - Sony CKC 4935
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