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“In 1958, my friend brought along Miles Davis’ latest – something called Jazz Track [Columbia CL 1268]. The piano on this stunning record was being played by an unknown musician with an ordinary name: Bill Evans. But the way he was shading his tone was anything but ordinary; he sounded like a classical pianist, and yet he was playing jazz. I was captured there and then – the archetypal pivotal moment.
The concept of the ‘Bill Evans sound,’ instantly enshrined and distilled what I had always hoped to hear.
It was the plaintive harmony, the lyrical tone, and the fresh texture that captivated so; it was the very idea that one style of music could be played with the skills and finesse normally only brought to the other; it was a timeless quality, a feeling that the music has always been there; and above all, it was a yearning behind the notes, a quiet passion that you could almost reach out an touch.” Peter Pettinger, Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, Preface p. ix; paragraphing modified].
Over the years, many Jazz fans of my generation have built up a fairly large collection of recorded forms of the music.
Some of these collections have no doubt reached a library-like scale in an effort to catalogue the chronological expanse and diversity of styles associated with Jazz’s evolution.
But if you’re like me, there are certain records by artists whose music you return to more often than other recordings in your collection.
For example, because my interest in Jazz was first ignited after unearthing [almost literally] my father’s collection of swing era big band 78 rpm’s from the blanket of dust it was gathering in the cellar of our New England flat, I periodically find myself returning to the “Let’s Dance” refrains of the Benny Goodman Orchestra.
And, as described in an earlier piece, my later discovery of the music of Dave Brubeck Quartet’s helped me to “see out a bit” [pianist Barry Harris’ phrase] by helping me gain an appreciation of the more modern forms of Jazz, so it’s easy to understand why the DBQ is on my most-frequently-revisited-list.
Along these lines, but for other reasons, I closely identify with the music of Stan Kenton, Count Basie and many of the groups that recorded on the West Coast in the 1950s, so it’s not surprising that I often return to these albums. For me, they represent the musical equivalent of “comfort food.”
Many current artists such as Joey De Francesco, Bill Charlap, Conrad Herwig also fall into a similar category of repeated listening.
One musician whose music has been of paramount important in my life is Bill Evans. His way of playing Jazz touches me deeply. It seems that I return to it especially if I’m in a reflective and/or introspective mood. Listening to the music of Bill Evans is one of Life’s greatest pleasures. It’s beauty and taste are particularly pleasing when I also wish to experience the more aesthetic side of Jazz.
A general question that has always intrigued me is how does a particular style of playing Jazz evolve, and as a more specific corollary, how did Bill’s singular style of Jazz come to be?
Or, if this question about the evolution and distinctiveness of Bill’s style is asked from another perspective, what are the factors that make it distinctive as seen from the eyes of another pianist?
Frankly, I hadn’t had much luck in deriving any answers to how Bill’s method of playing Jazz came into being and what it’s major ingredients might consist of until I stumbled across a book by pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, who was for many years categorized as the “Italian Bill Evans.”
[It has been said that all drummers are frustrated pianists and I think that this generalization may apply to me – thus the interest in the answer to this question.]
Very early [for the cognoscenti, no pun intended; for everyone else, see below] in this blog’s history [if something that is two years old can be said to have one], I featured an excerpt from Enrico Pieranunzi’s loving tribute to Bill Evans, a man who unquestionably, was his greatest influence. It is entitled Bill Evans: Ritratto d’artista con pianoforte/Bill Evans: The Pianist as an Artist.This book, using a side-by-side Italian/English format was published in Rome in 1999 by Stampa Alternativa with Darragh Henegan providing the English translation. Each edition of the book included a CD entitled Evans Remembered featuring Pieranunzi in solo piano settings including a track displaying 6 variations of Bill’s composition Very Early. Also included are four, sextet tracks in which Enrico plays his or Bill's original compositions or tunes closely associated with Bill in a group made up of a number of prominent Italian Jazz musicians.
The first selection from Pieranunzi’s book appeared in the columnar or left-hand side of the blog and offered Enrico’s unique and insightful reviews of Bill’s Interplay [Riverside (9)445] and Loose Bloose/Blues [Milestone 9200-2].
As I explained during the initial posting: “These albums were also issued in combination as The Interplay Sessions [Milestone 47066] and are noteworthy because they mark one of Bill’s very few departures early in his career from his preferred trio format for expressing his music.”
To date, this Pieranunzi-on-Evans posting has received more favorable comments than any other entry that has appeared on Jazz Profiles. And while it has since been deleted from the columnar section to make room for other articles, reviews and graphics, the editorial staff of Jazz Profiles continues to receive requests for more excerpts from the book to appear on the blog.
Since it is very difficult to find a copy of this book [and not inexpensive when you do], what follows is an acknowledgement of these requests through the posting of more segments of the book on Jazz Profiles.
The editorial staff decided to change the sequence of the chapters in order to first provide the reader with the “how’s” and “why’s” of Pieranunzi’s decision to write the book and then follow with the chapters in which Enrico explores the inter-relationship of Bill’s life with his music.
As the book moves along from its opening chapters, Pieranunzi analyzes almost every aspect of Bill’s life from his earliest influences in the home, to his musical associations over the last 25 years of his life and also includes a detailed description of Bill’s pianism, or those techniques of playing the instrument that made his body of work such a significant, artistic creation. The central purpose of his writing always remains - what made Bill play the way he did?
In his Introduction to this work, Ira Gitler observed:
"Within the articulate individuality of his own playing Enrico Pieranunzi has well demonstrated his understanding of Bill Evans’ music. Now Pieranunzi has written the story of Bill Evans’ life in a way that combines Evans’ persona and music, and how they intertwine. He discusses his playing, writing and the nature of his various groups without becoming so technical as to lose the interest of the lay listener. Such a book, coming from Pieranunzi, a highly accomplished pianist and an astute, sensitive observer, is a significant contribution and singularly valuable addition, standing strongly on its own, to previous studies of Evans."
From time-to-time, I have taken the liberty of translating the Italian into slightly different phrases or altering the grammar and/or syntax for which I hope its translator, Mr. Darragh Henegan, will indulge me.
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Let’s begin with the Interview of Enrico Pieranunzi by Gianfranco Salvatore and Vincenzo Martorella as to what his purpose was in writing this book and how he went about it.“What did it mean for you, as a jazz pianist, to write a book on Bill Evans?
I was very hesitant about doing it. In the early 1990s I had only recently succeeded in convincing both audiences and critics that playing jazz piano and having a trio did not automatically mean being a clone of Bill Evans. I had found my own, original way to make music, and Evans' legacy was part of the past. So writing a book on him could have seemed a sort of step backwards. When I finally accepted I realized that maybe the real reason for my writing the book had not as much to do with music as it did with something else that concerned the creativity/self-destruction combination. I wanted to explore that aspect, to understand why, in order to be creative, in music and in other art forms, one should have to pay a price as high as the one Evans paid. I wanted to denounce that tragic, absurd cliché that identifies being an artist with illness, or even madness.
Was it difficult for you, not being a professional writer, to undertake a task like this?
It was fascinating and tortuous at the same time. Writing words and composing music have something intangible in common: shaping a sentence is not so far from tracing the outline of a melody. It has to have song-quality, musicality and feeling. In a melody as in a story, the choice of a word or a note, their placement or movement have enormous impact and consequences.
Melody and story: are not perhaps these the most significant elements in the legacy of Bill Evans, as well as his relevance?
A melody has powerful narrative potential. One of the great mysteries of music is the possibility of breathing life into a story without needing to use words. It's as if the melody had its own silent words that turn it into a song. But in order to get there you have to completely abandon yourself to it, and in this Bill Evans was clearly a master. It is no easy thing to make the piano sing the way he was able to.
How do you mean?
Bringing out the expressiveness of which the human voice, or some wind instruments like the trumpet, are capable poses thorny problems for the pianist. Evans resolved them by making use of devices which originated partly in classical piano music, and in this way truly brought about a silent revolution. Phenomena like Jarrett or Mehldau would be unimaginable without Evans' enormous achievements in the face of the technical/expressive problems of the piano.
What was your first contact with Evans?
Sometime between '66 and '68 I bought a weekly music magazine at a newsstand that cost more or less the equivalent of one dollar at the time. It had a record insert with three pieces played by Evans: Tenderly, Blues in F and Peri-Scope. I was deeply struck by Blues in F, and especially by his left hand work. At that time my playing was much in the style of Bud Powell, and even a little bit ala Erroll Garner, so when I heard Evans play a blues like that I wondered what on earth he was doing. It took me a long time to de-code the way he set up the left hand chords, and to figure out that famous voicing that nowadays is so much the norm for all young people learning to play jazz. I also think that the trio with Chuck Israels and Larry Bunker was one of the best and most underestimated that Evans ever had. Israels had grown up a lot since 1962 when he replaced LaFaro. He was much more sure of himself and interacted magnificently with Evans. What's more, he had a very profound and relaxed walk. As for Bunker, among other things, he had an extremely important gift: he knew how to play soft - not over but under the acoustic level of the piano.
You mean to say that others of Evans' drummers weren't able to do that?
Yes! The drummer is always a problem for the pianist, and the reason for this is simple: if he doesn't listen to you, if he decides not to listen to you, he will inevitably play much louder than you, and so as the pianist you're forced to change something touch, expression, phrasing. Evans was perfectly aware of this, to the extent that, according to him, the truly ideal trio was a piano/bass duet! even though at the same time, he was crazy about some drummers, first among whom was Philly Joe Jones.
You have played with three drummers, Motian, Zigmund and LaBarbera, who played at one time or another in Evans' trio. How did it make you feel?
Very excited - my emotions ranged from the impact I felt when Motian told me that the cymbal he had used while we were playing together was the same one that he had used on Spring Is Here, with Evans and LaFaro, to some others more difficult to put into words. In reality, although I tried not to get labeled, a series of rather paradoxical coincidences very often led me into Evans' orbit, through the musicians like those you have just mentioned. From the point of view of my own identity I knew perfectly well that I was running a big risk, but I think I have met the challenge.
On the other hand, you have established a collaborative artistic relationship with Marc Johnson that has lasted for sixteen years now!
My musical relationship with him is based on an instinctive and deep mutual understanding which, I believe, goes beyond any form of "Evansism"; we have recorded a lot of CDs together and done lots of concerts.
We have, also, made several recordings and tours with Motian, so when people hear us play together, it's almost inevitable that the ghost of Bill Evans, to some extent, is evoked. But in reality our music is completely original and goes its own way.
What is Evans relevance?
It's two-fold. On the one hand, there is that marvelous piano "vocabulary' that, before Evans, had never been heard in jazz, and which is destined to remain the fundamental nucleus of any study of this language form. The other, more specifically artistic one lies in the beauty of his music, a shadowy beauty concealing an obscure, gnawing anxiety - that death-wish which played a decisive role in the attraction that drew people to Evans' music. No wonder Gene Lees defined it as “Love-letters written to the world from some prison of the heart.” His is, briefly, the relevance of a Caravaggio or a Van Gogh, or of all great artists who succeed in giving us a glimpse into corners of human reality that are usually invisible, but who deny us, perhaps, the hope that the beauty of their art would seem to promise.
If I were to ask you to write another book on the subject of jazz, would you accept?
If it were a book that gathered many of my personal memories in true narrative form: in other words, a story made up of stories. I would prefer this to a monograph on this or that jazz personality since that assonance between writing and composing music which I mentioned earlier could grow even stronger. Despite the incredible transformations in communications that we are currently witnessing, I still believe very much in the power, and in the necessity, of telling a story either in words or in song.”
In a further effort to “set the stage” for this treatment of Bill Evans’ work, let’s turn to the last bassist to work with Bill’s trio - Marc Johnson – who provides this Afterword or Postfazione to Pieranunzi’s book:
“’Every man’s life is a story,’” Bill once said. For the willing listener Bill Evans' story can be heard through the magic of his sound. It is a story of haunting beauty, of balance, and control of a marvelous technique. Bill left us a large body of documented work from which we can discover and rediscover this sound. My personal favorites are the Riverside recordings with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian - especially the "Village Vanguard Sessions" -, "Alone", which appeared on Verve and features an exquisite rendition of Never Let Me Go, "Intuition", a duet recording with Eddie Gomez on Fantasy and "The Paris Concert" from 1979 on Elektra/Musician of which Joe LaBarbera and I were a part.
Bill worked hard at the mechanics of music. His musical language was clear and direct. His lyricism and sense of melody flowed as if he were speaking words, sentences and whole paragraphs. He worked within very well-defined limitations by utilizing the popular song form and drew on material ranging from Broadway show tunes to songs from tin-pan alley to movie themes. He wasn't lured to the avant-garde, (although he had the skills to explore that musical world as well), nor was he tempted to follow any trends in the music business with regard to being more commercially viable. Consequently we can listen to Bill from the start of his career as a leader to the end with a sense of continuity; one can clearly hear his development as he grew to a fuller expression of his art. [emphasis, mine].
When Bill emerged on the jazz "scene", his sense of harmony was something new. Informed by his study of classical repertoire and especially the French impressionists, Bill's music was rich with color and warmth. So strong was his conception that the way Bill treated a song became the definitive version of it.
Another important contribution was the relationship between piano and bass that Bill and Scott LaFaro developed. The bass took on a more prominent role in the trio, functioning not only as a time keeper but as a time shaper, an independent melodic voice in dialogue with the piano and drums which became a new school of interactive playing.
Certainly, Bill will forever be remembered for his ballad playing. Perhaps that is why he is referred to as "the poet". The "poet" also had in his vocabulary very strong bebop roots as evidenced in the many medium and up-tempo groove tunes performed on his recordings. And if you want a totally different insight into Bill's sense of rhythm and harmony, research the various versions of Nardis spanning Bill's career. It's a mind-blower!
I don’t think it's too subjective to say that there is a melancholia around Bill's music; as Toots Thielemans is fond of saying, “Somewhere between a tear and a smile.” Bill's depth and sensitivity come through his art. That he was able to transmute his life experience so clearly through his craft is a testament to his genius and artistry.
To illustrate this point I'll have to leave you with one anecdote from my travels with Bill. We were playing in Chicago at Rick’s Cafe American, which was actually a club inside the Holiday Inn Hotel. Naturally a certain segment of the audience was comprised of hotel guests; conventioneers and businessmen looking for a convenient evenings' entertainment.
Many of these were uneducated to the idiosyncrasies of jazz or inexperienced listeners to music of any complexity whatsoever. Yet, the audience was usually respectful and remained quiet and attentive for the performances. After a set one night, I was sitting at the bar sipping a coca-cola and this balding, middle-aged man in a suit and tie approached me and told me he was a farmer, that he was in town doing some banking business and this was the first time he had ever heard jazz.
The man was obviously very simple in his tastes, the quintessential mid-western farmer who, judging from the looks of his ruddy complexion and rough hands, spent long days working in the fields. I was about to disregard him owing to his lack of knowledge on the subject of jazz and creative music in general. But something about his attitude and demeanor was very humble, honest and sincere. He was trying to understand what he had just witnessed, trying to put into words something he could not comprehend. I'll never forget the look of wonder and amazement on his face, nor the chill I got when he said: “That was like some kind of religious experience.”
For myself I feel privileged and honored to have been in his musical company - Bill changed me as I am sure he changed countless other musicians and people who, when encountering his music, discover something deep inside themselves. Such is the spirit of Bill Evans.” - Marc Johnson
And now, to begin at the beginning and close this first part of Pieranunzi-on-Evans, let's turn to the book's first chapter Very Early, entitled after Bill’s original composition, which in this case, I think Enrico was thinking – pun intended.
"In those days the Evans family lived in Plainfield, New Jersey. We visited them on weekends. Lots of families did their visiting on weekends. We'd go to Plainfield, and of course, we had to listen to Harry play his early pieces on the piano ... they had no thought of giving Bill piano lessons. He was too young ... we didn't know why, but Bill used to crouch over in the corner and listen, and when they walked out, he'd go over and have picked up the information and would sit down and play what he had heard."
Earl Epps remembers his precocious first cousin Bill Evans, adding that even without taking lessons he was a quicker study than his older brother Harry, who had a teacher and practiced constantly. Epps' father was a good classical musician who, years earlier, had had to give up a promising career as a concert pianist, and to whom Bill's parents naturally turned when deciding whether to have him take piano lessons as well.
Although neither one was a musician, both were great music lovers and had decided to have both their sons study a second monodic [“having a single vocal part”] instrument in addition to the piano. Bill chose the violin (which he abandoned at the age of twelve for the flute), and Harry the trumpet.
This entrance to the magical world of sound delighted the younger of the two boys. He immersed himself completely in this unknown land, exploring it with intense pleasure. His mother bought him loads of sheet music, polkas, marches, late-19th century sentimental tunes, etc., which Bill studied avidly. He spent at least three hours a day at the piano and the time flew. He enjoyed reading that music and never got frustrated; if he ran into some difficulty, a piece that wasn't working out, he would just move on, secure in the knowledge that he would eventually get it right. There was nothing of the showman in him; doing scales and arpeggios wasn't really his thing. He wasn't attracted to the piano per se, the instrument simply provided the doorway to a musical universe.
But it wasn't long before dark clouds began rolling in to disturb this peaceful picture. In a photo of Bill taken at the age of eight or nine - one of the rare images in which he appears holding his violin - we begin to note a kind of bewildered melancholy in his eyes, the serious, painful awareness of someone who has lost something very precious and irretrievable. This longing, this questioning, destined to remain unanswered, which we very often hear in Evans' adult music, was already there. Perhaps what psychoanalyst Alice Miller has called "the tragedy of the gifted child" had already begun for the young Bill.
Although Bill's childhood is usually described as a happy one there is room for doubt. The peaceful family ménage was often upset by the problems stemming from their father's alcoholism. Harry Sr., a rather mild-mannered man of Welsh origins, was in the printing business, but was constantly in search of a better-paid job. At the end of the 1920's he and his brother-in-law took over the management of a pool and billiard hall and bowling alley and later, after the birth of his two sons (the second, William "Bill" John, was born on August 16, 1929) he got the chance to take on the management of a golf driving range. But Harry's entrepreneurial activities were subject to frequent interruptions due to his propensity for the bottle which, above all, had negative repercussions on the family finances, and raised complaints from his wife Mary.
Born Soroka, the daughter of Russian immigrants, Mary's childhood had been hard. Her family was extremely poor and she was sent to live in a convent run by a Russian Orthodox order. It was there that she developed her love for those evocative hymns of the ancient liturgy, a fascination which she later transmitted to her sons. Those solemn and mystical chants left a lasting impression on Bill, hints of which their modality more than anything else would show up many years later in his music.
Evans had an "alternate" Russian name which he never used in public, but he always maintained a very strong link with his roots, as is confirmed in the many psychological, expressive and technical aspects that his piano approach shared with that of Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky, Scriabin and Rachmaninov. That sense of solitude, which his parents' frequent fighting could not have helped but encourage, soon brought Bill to consider his brother Harry his main point of reference. Playmate, a paradigm to equal or outdo in music as well as in sport (both were already excellent golfers at a young age), Harry was to remain very important in Bill's life. Theirs was such a close and deep union that, when Harry tragically chose to end his own life, Bill too decided, deep within himself, that life no longer had any meaning. Not even music, at that point, was enough - that music which, since childhood, along with the love he had received and had felt for Harry, had been the most secure refuge from the aggressive and fearful reality of the world outside. Bill's psychological relationship with his mother, a woman with a very strong character who had a soft spot for him, very probably contributed to the early and gradual formation of his special "sense of the world." A need to defend himself, the fragility that comes from not feeling truly loved, always permeated Evans' life and his art.
As had already happened with the piano, it was also through brother Harry that Bill discovered the jazz world. Having recently taken up the trumpet, Harry had joined the school band and had begun to become interested in jazz. One day the band's pianist had the measles and Bill was called in to substitute. At the time he was about twelve years old and had developed a remarkable technical ability which, along with his innate musical talent, had enabled him to read and perform quite complex classical pieces. Nevertheless he was completely at a loss when it came to improvising or to playing anything that wasn't written as a score in front of him. So he played the arrangement that he found on the music stand exactly as it was written, not a note more, not a note less. In any case, he got the job - but one evening something very unusual happened: "We were playing Tuxedo Junction, and for some reason I got inspired and put in a little blues thing .... It was such a thrill! The idea of doing something in music that somebody hadn't thought of opened up a whole new world to me.”
From that first student band Bill went on to another made up of older students. Bassist George Platt (who “had the patience of job”) took it upon himself to give Bill his first, accurate notions on harmony, teaching him how to properly put one chord after another. Thanks to him Evans began to “understand how the music was put together.” That band was, as opposed to the first, more jazz than dance music-oriented, which gave Evans the opportunity to try his hand at some real soloing.
Discovering jazz completely usurped Bill's adolescence, and his school work was suffering dangerously as a result of the many evenings "gigging around". Insatiably curious, he began to obsessively collect records by Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell, Dexter Gordon and Nat "King" Cole. This latter, along with Powell, was the pianist who struck him the most: "Nat, I thought was one of the greatest... he is probably the most under-rated jazz pianist in the history of jazz." It is not difficult to find in Evans' early piano style the vivid echo of Cole's elegant and relaxed sonority and harmonic approach.
A real fever had taken him. He made frequent trips from New Jersey to New York City where he could listen to the best bands on the scene. Sometimes he tried to "sneak in the clubs on 52nd Street with phony draft cards." where Parker, Gillespie and Monk were feeding the revolutionary; earth-shaking "Bebop era." With an unbelievable amount of patience and analytical skill, Evans devoted himself to de-coding and learning the Bebop language for which he had, by now, an uncontainable passion.
The process was long and complex: "I had to build my whole musical style. I'd abstract musical principles from people I dug, and I'd take their feeling or technique and apply it to things the way that I'd built them."
So, we see that Evans was not into inventing, but he demonstrated an extraordinary aptitude for creative re-cycling of existing materials. "Bad artists borrow, real ones steal," Stravinsky once said. Evans "stole" based on his feelings, intuiting where the most valid content was to be found. Then, through an extremely personal re-organization of the materials, he gave birth to new forms that obeyed exclusively his individual taste. This kind of approach was far from being merely imitative. Evans let himself be "selectively influenced" and this, combined with his rigorous tenacity in following only his own emotional and aesthetic criteria, made of the piano player from Plainfield an artist of great originality who always swam upstream.
Tall and good-looking, Evans was left-handed - a feature that he ingeniously took advantage of in resolving various mechanical/musical problems of jazz piano. Those who were close to him tell us that he was a very sweet, reserved and intelligent man with a subtle, witty sense of humor. He was surely shy but, in any case, not passive, if we are to believe the story that in all the time he spent at Southeastern Louisiana College none of his teachers was able to make him do scales, arpeggios or the like that study of "technique" in other words that none of his fellow students was able to escape.
"Excellent improviser, with a particular flair for the smoothest modulations from key to key" (as the head of the Department of Music would write about him in a letter of recommendation upon his graduation), Bill was to dedicate his four years there to the study of classical piano and music education. As complement to his piano major, Evans took a minor in flute, an instrument to which he had already dedicated himself for some years by that time and one which he would come to master with great skill. In addition to the study of these two instruments there were courses in music theory and other, non-music related subjects. Bill practiced piano an average of six hours a day, covering all the standard literature of the instrument from Bach to the 20th century. They were eight semesters of hard work, during which his studies took up almost all of his time. His only chance for diversion was the odd football game between the teams of the various departments (Bill held his own perfectly as a full back), or playing at evening dances with the student band, the Casuals. Thus, college life was his first important experience on his own, far away from his family. Many years later, on the occasion of a concert at Southeastern with his last trio, Evans would recall his final two years there as the happiest of his life.
His first composition, Very Early, dates back to those years. It was already marked with Evans' unmistakable style, both for its formal aspects - the sort of dialogue between the various sections - as well as for its push/pull mood, which perfectly fit in with the harmonic movement. The piece is in waltz tempo and is based on a lyrical, interrogative thematic cell which takes on a new meaning each time it reappears in a different key. Very Early is a piece well before its time - the first, juicy fruit of a profound and highly personal compositional talent.
Classical pianist Peter Pettinger who as of this date has written what must be considered the definitive treatment on Bill Evans in his autobiography entitled Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings had this to say about the piece:
“It is a highly disciplined piece of writing, its melody comprising a two-bar falling, and then rising, germ; it can withstand the most rigorous structural analysis. It exemplifies a fundamental lifelong characteristic: the application of logic to the creative musical process. That approach was the backbone of the form and content of Evans’ art. And yet, when we listen to the music, we are conscious not of the compositional process but only of the resultant poetry.
Played ‘straight’ from the page, ‘Very Early’ is a lyrical gem, but it also provides its composer with a fruitful sequence for improvisation, the earliest of many compositions that sustained him around the globe for three decades.” [p. 17].
As the final performance of his school years, Evans gave a senior recital on April 24, 1950. The program included pieces by Bach, Brahms, Chopin and Beethoven (all in minor keys), in addition to four preludes by Russian composer Dmitri Kabalevsky. His rendition was termed "outstanding" and "very mature" by two members of the jury. It is Interesting to note that, on the occasion of his board exam, some of his teachers confirmed his talent but could not resist criticizing the "rejection of technique" which Evans had maintained steadfastly throughout all his four years. He graduated with high honors and was given numerous letters of recommendation from the Head of the Department of Music. And so an intense formative period ended in the best of ways. During this period, aside from working on his classical repertoire, Evans had proceeded in his meticulous and accurate penetration of the jazz language, which had recently expanded to include the new jazz of Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz.
to be continued ...
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The December 8, 1960 edition of Down Beat magazine, carried an article written by Don Nelson entitled: Bill Evans: Intellect, Emotion and Communication. [pp. 16-19].
In it, Bill Evans described his tour of duty from 1951-1954 in the United States Fifth Army Band posted at Fort Sheridan just north of Chicago in the following terms:“I was very happy and secure until I went into the army. The I started to feel there was something I should know that I didn’t … I was attacked by some guys for what I believed, and by musicians who claimed I should play like this pianist or that. Pretty soon I lost the confidence I had as a kid. I began to think that everything I did was wrong.”
Bill’s insecurity about what it would take to succeed in the world after discharge was to continue in these reflections which appeared in Brian Hennessey, Bill Evans: A Person I Knew, that appeared in the Jazz Journal International, March, 1985, pp 8-11:
“After the army, I went home to my parents and took a year off. I set up a little studio, acquired a grand piano and devoted a year to work on my playing. It did not come easy. I did not have the natural fluidity, and was not the type of person who just looks at the scene and through some intuitive process, immediately produces a finished product. I had to build my music very consciously, from the bottom up. My message to musicians who feel the same way is that they should keep at it, building block by block. The ultimate reward might be greater in the end, even if they have to work longer and harder in the process.”
Enrico Pieranunzi picks up the thread of Bill’s calamitous 3-years of Army life, provides his own insightful commentary into the consequences of it on Bill’s psyche and musical development and goes forward with Bill’s first forays into the Jazz Life in his next chapter –Waltz for Debby.
“Evans' first engagement, freshly graduated from Southeastern Louisiana College, was not very encouraging. He had joined clarinet player Herbie Fields' band, whose music he found quite corny and not particularly inspiring. But that 'on the road' experience was one of the first occasions of real freedom after his years of secondary school and college and that, in itself, was enough. Unfortunately, that autonomy so joyfully inhaled over the six months he spent with Fields was rudely interrupted by an Army draft notice. This was certainly no reason for joy, given the political climate of early 1950s America with The United States on the front line in Korea as well until 1953.
Evans was stationed for three long years with the Fifth Army at Fort Sheridan, near Chicago. He was profoundly at odds with army life and the occasional evening spent in some little club in or around Chicago did nothing to alleviate this, nor did the time he spent as flutist in the Army band. What would be described many years later as his - "destructive side" - began to develop in Bill's sensitive psyche. Life at Fort Sheridan confirmed the hostility of the outside world that he had, by other means, perceived since childhood. His need to defend himself from an intolerable loneliness and bewilderment opened a void, a gap in him that he was never to bridge. Years later (was it by accident?) Evans was to include in his repertoire the main theme song from the soundtrack of Robert Altman's hit movie M*A`S*H*, which was subtitled Suicide Is Painless - a choice that carried his bleak memories of the army, and that was a chilling prediction of Bill's last years of life.
Discharged early in 1954, he spent that whole year in New Jersey at the home of his parents. Only occasionally did he go into New York City, and the infrequency of these visits were not enough to make himself better known on that jazz scene. "It's not the kind of place that immediately opens its heart to you. It can eat you alive, crush you, break you. It can do anything to you." Evans would later say, describing that metropolis. In 1963 he dedicated N.Y.C.'s No Lark [Conversations With Myself, Verve V-8526; CD 821 984-2] one of his most desolate compositions, to the city's darkest, most anguishing and hopeless side. The piece, a kind of disturbing dirge-like chant alluded, in reality, to the premature death as a result of drug addiction of pianist Sonny Clark, a musician whom Evans had deeply admired (Clark's name is encrypted in the song's anagram title). This tragedy put Evans in mind of his own "internal death". Those bitter and strained thoughts about the Big Apple were surely related to the "personal problems" which were plaguing Evans in the early 1960s. He lived practically his whole life with them but, due to his reserved nature, he was never led into the kind of shocking scandals which jazz musicians have long been famous for. This very sad experience, which tragically marked his life and music, was something that he kept under wraps.
In July of 1955 Bill moved to New York. The desire to get to work was there. He began to take courses in composition at the Mannes School of Music and recorded with some minor musicians. At the beginning of the following year the opportunity to make himself known to a wider range of musicians presented itself. He was invited by George Russell to play in a session with his Jazz Small-tet to be recorded on RCA. Russell, born thirty-three years earlier in Cincinnati, and originally a drummer (he had had to turn down a gig with Charlie Parker for reasons of poor health), had been formulating an innovative theory over the preceding years on the relationship between melody and harmony in jazz.
This new approach was based on a concept of pantonality - which he distinguished from atonality - and had been summarized in a text entitled The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. The idea of fusing the most specifically "black' aspects of Afro-American music with elements from the European musical tradition intrigued not a few musicians in those years of the mid-1950s. But Russell, thanks to an insightful musical intelligence and a healthy dose of creativity, succeeded in avoiding the traps inherent in this kind of intermingling. In fact, as many examples of the so-called Third Stream (the movement that claimed to fuse jazz with contemporary classical music) had demonstrated, this cross-pollination could easily generate monsters.
The personnel that Russell had planned for that first session on March 31st included Art Farmer, trumpet; Hal McKusick, alto saxophone; Barry Galbraith, guitar; Milt Hinton, double bass; and Joe Harris, drums - which meant for the 27-year-old Evans a much more prestigious company than he had been accustomed to. The session also represented an immense leap in quality with respect to Russell's compositions which, even today at a distance of more than forty years, retain a noteworthy complexity. They recorded four selections that day. Evans felt comfortable. He showed that he was in possession of exactly the background required to confidently follow the path traced by Russell in his composition; this means an extensive preparation in and exposure to classical music and, in addition, that sort of perseverance which, over the years, had helped him to absorb the Bop language, and later that of the so-called cool jazz (Tristano, Konitz).
He was more than ready to face the alternation of written parts with improvisations on pre-planned chord changes. He was allowed space for some solos and it seemed that he expected nothing less, exuding energy and even happiness in his playing. It is clear that he is "full" of jazz and that he was just waiting for the right opportunity to express himself. His solo in Ezz-thetic [based on the chord changes to Love for Sale] is rich in rhythmic vitality. The phrasing of the right hand recalls Horace Silver, of whom Evans was a passionate follower at the time, and he even quotes a couple of his typical phrases at the opening of the solo. But there is already a precise stylistic identity in this solo. We can recognize it, for example, in the masterful way with which he manages the relationship between left and right hand sounds.
In Ye Hypocrite, Ye Beelzebub Evans does an uproarious solo; the long, snakey lines of the right hand trace an unpredictable path of great harmonic imagination in the middle-low register of the keyboard. In this solo he completely quits using the left hand, which allows him to function like a horn with no need to be subject to the harmonically conditioning tyranny of the left hand. Here his style is reminiscent of Lennie Tristano, a musician whose skill in structuring the music and tracing lines had always charmed Evans; but the fluidity, the souplesse, the full and yet delicate tone are already, unmistakably, Evans'. About six months later the same combo, with Paul Motian replacing Harris, recorded another four selections. Among these that Concerto for Billy the Kid where Evans played a solo that shook jazz-listeners and musicians alike.
His phrasing in this celebrated studio performance is dense and compelling. Here and there we note the influence of Stan Getz, a saxophone player whom Evans greatly admired. But, once again, it is the rhythmic thrust that is amazing. After the rapid and demanding initial two-handed octave passages in the upper register of the keyboard that reveal the brilliant, sure technique of the not-yet-27-year-old pianist, Evans literally explodes into a gripping improvisation on the chord changes of I'll Remember April [i.e.: the chord changes for Concerto for Billy the Kid]. Evans proves here that he can really swing hard, and this enormous skill is soon to earn him notable credibility even among black circles, notoriously critical from this point of view.
The same cockiness, joy and rhythmic exuberance, together with a complete mastery of phrasing (a special mixture of bop and cool) can be found in their entirety in New Jazz Conceptions [Riverside 223(M); OJCCD 025.2], the first album that Evans recorded under his own name. It was recorded a few weeks before his solo in Concerto for Billy The Kid, and, who knows, maybe something of the great satisfaction he felt for having realized the first completely self-generated product of his musical life, ended up in the overwhelming spirit of that famous solo. It is true that, regardless of the increased faith in his skills gained with the recording of New Jazz Conceptions, it did not come about without doubts and insecurities. Orrin Keepnews, owner of the then newborn Riverside label, remembers that “it took a lot to convince him that he was ready to record, which is the opposite of what usually happens.” (It had been guitarist Mundell Love, occasional partner of the pianist during their college years in Louisiana and very much impressed by him, who had got Keepnews to listen to a tape of Evans over the phone). So, where did all these doubts come from? Evans seemed to be insecure about whether he had anything to say or not, and in need of someone to acknowledge his talent - something which probably went back to his childhood - but at the same time his playing expressed a deep strength, an unconscious impulse to reveal his inner self in sound.
Here and there in some of the selections on this album there are hints of a sort of childlike wonder at his own skill. In fact, the very Tristano-like atmosphere and harmonic meandering of Tadd Dameron’s Our Delight shimmers with the joy of someone who has discovered with satisfaction “how this improvisation toy works.” On Speak Low Evans' touch is trumpet-like. The notes sound rounded and staccato and he seems to be playing as a sort of challenge with himself. He even repeats some phrases almost as if to reconfirm to himself that it was really him who had been improvising them.
We find on New Jazz Conceptions all the emotion of the first-timer called upon to show what he's made of Even the three very short piano solos on this LP echo this both tense and enthusiastic atmosphere. The Ellington-esque I Got It Bad is expounded with wide-ranging chords in open harmony, making of the piano a veritable big band and recalling the broad concert style of Art Tatum. The tender Waltz For Debby, written a couple of years earlier for the daughter of his beloved brother Harry, also has a somewhat bitter sound, a far cry from that dancing softness that, over the years, would make of this piece a sort of manifesto of Evans' poetics. A great vehemence, tempered as always with elegance, permeates this first Bill Evans album, thanks also to the generous contributions of Teddy Kotick and Paul Motian. This encounter with this drummer who was to play such an important role in Evans' artistic future was not actually the first one. About one year earlier, in fact, the two had happened to work together. “I first met Bill Evans at an audition in New York”, Motian recalls, “It was for a tour with Jerry Wald, a clarinet player who had had some success with a big band and was now organizing a sextet for a small East Coast tour. Even before Bill sat down at the piano, I knew he could play. I overheard someone say, 'That's Bill Evans from Plainfield, New Jersey. He's supposed to be real good.”
On close inspection, New Jazz Conceptions offers only a few of those innovative elements that, two or three years later, would make Evans one of musicians' and critics' most listened-to pianists, to the point of considering him among the most significant representatives of a certain white, intellectual, artistically engagee avant-garde.
Why then did the clever and careful Keepnews venture such a demanding title for the first trio album of this “shy and studious looking young pianist?” In reality, the jazz market of 1956 was still dominated by the reverberations of the so- called "West Coast jazz.” The echoes of Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan, or those of Dave Brubeck who, a couple of years before had driven young American students wild, were still being felt. So Evans' music, with his language deeply rooted in bop and in its subsequent development cool jazz, sounded paradoxically new for its time. His originality had not yet been extended to the concept of the trio. In fact, on this first album of his we find no trace of that 'interplay', of that equal partnership of the trio members that would appear some years later in his celebrated collaboration with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. Actually, he seemed to be more concerned with the widening and updating of the trio pianist's lexicon.The technique of harmonizing (see his Displacement or a standard like My Romance) sounds totally innovative. In the first of these two, Evans seems to think like an arranger voicing a given melody for several sections, taking care to avoid the so-called "doublings" (the same note played by more than one instrument) that impoverish the general resonance of the orchestra.
On My Romance Evans embellishes the harmony with the left hand playing a kind of "contrapuntal melody” - a procedure he owed to his assiduous exposure to classical European tradition, in particular to Romantic and late-Romantic piano music. In addition to these perceptible aspects, "New Jazz Conceptions" bears the decided trademark of an artist who had already made of jazz and improvisation a “how,” a manner of expression, instead of a “what,” or series of formulas.
“If it were a 'what' it would be static, never growing,” he would later observe insightfully. Keepnews, therefore, had been right, when he pointed out in the album’s liner notes which he himself wrote, that Evans was not just a promising artist. He, in fact, as opposed to many young musicians of the time content to simply imitate the greats by helping themselves to their vocabularies, already had “his own, distinctive voice,” and so he had no need to rely on someone else's vocabulary. Evans, in reality, was saying something new simply because he was trying to tell 'his self', winding up a sort of unwitting innovator.”
DisplacementTwo of Evans' compositions on New Jazz Conceptions, the aforementioned Displacement and Five, foretell an important aspect of his piano approach: cross-rhythms - a feature of his piano style not to be underestimated. In Displacement the whole first part of the theme uses rhythmic accents which do not coincide with the beats. The regular rhythmic flux, crossed by another "oblique" rhythmical line, creates such tension that, at a certain point, it leads to an unavoidable tempo change (from 4/4 to 3/4). This alternating of even/odd tempos was to be a rather frequent aspect in Evans' music, both in his original compositions (Peri-Scope) and in his re-workings of old standards (Someday My Prince Will Come). Five is so-named because its melody presents a characteristic counterpoint of five notes per bar contrasting with the usual 4-beat tempo. This "5 against 4" creates a curious "limping" effect that, in the middle section of the piece, turns into a sort of giddy, circular dance. This piece would later become, especially during the 1960s, the signature tune at the end of many performances by the Evans trios.
Nineteen-fifty-six came to an end for Evans with two further studio experiences: a big band session under the direction of clarinetist and arranger Tony Scott (Bill contributed with an arrangement of Davis' Walkin' that gave proof of his audacious harmonic ideas), and the recording of four more pieces to complete the work begun with George Russell in March. Scott, struck by Evans' talent, took great pains in that period to introduce the young pianist to the New York City jazz scene. The esteem of musicians like Scott and the faith of a courageous producer like Keepnews were not long in bearing fruit.
In fact, through the entire following year and the beginning of 1958 Evans was more and more sought after as a sideman in recording studios. His ability to give a touch of class to any musical situation, and his speed and precision in sight-reading, quickly helped to increase his work opportunities. He recorded with Don Elliott (a trumpet player and vibraphonist Evans had played with in his high school band), Eddie Costa, Joe Puma, Jimmy Knepper and Helen Merrill. Two recordings in particular drew the attention of the public, the critics and his fellow-musicians: the piece All About Rosie (first performed on a TV program, and later recorded in the studio), and his work on "East Coasting", an album by bassist Charlie Mingus.
All About Rosie belonged to a group of pieces commissioned from six composers who were able to write in the "mixed" language of the Third Stream, which many musicians were studying and experimenting with in those years. The six compositions were to be performed at the Brandeis jazz Festival in the summer of 1957 by an orchestra co-conducted by Günter Schuller and George Russell. Evans' overwhelmingly swinging performance in All About Rosie struck both journalists and musicians. Critic Nat Hentoff commented that "aside from proving himself professionally-speaking, Evans has some very original and meaningful things to say."
It was, perhaps, exactly that solo which gave Mingus the impetus to call him in on his sextet project "East Coasting", recorded in August of the same year. The great bassist deeply admired Evans' ability to consider soloing on the piano a construction formally connected with themes initially set up by the horns,