Friday, March 13, 2009

Enrico Pieranunzi, Part 6 - "Bill Evans: The Pianist as an Artist"

[C] - Steven A. Cerra, Introduction, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Perhaps it may be fitting to conclude Enrico Pieranunzi’s retrospective on Bill Evans as an artist and his explanation of what made Bill Evans’s style so unique and so innovative by introducing what Bill Evans’s had to say about how he arrived at his approach and why he thought it distinctive.. Bill’s comments [BE] are from a portion of an interview that he gave to Wayne Enstice and Paul Rubin [PR] in 1979, just a year or so before he died:

“PR: We’re surprised to hear that you never strived for identity. Within four bars, your sound is unmistakable!

BE: Well, if there is a striving for an identity, it’s something that’s so much a part of my individuality or personality that it’s just automatic. I never said, like, “I want to have an identity,’ in so many words. What I said was ‘I want to approach the musical problems as an individual. I want to build my music from the bottom up, piece by piece, and kind of put it together according to my own way of organizing things. Yet I want it to fit in, but I'm not going to take it en toto from any one place,’ which is what I did, really. I just have a reason that I arrived at myself for every note I play Now, I think just as a result of that you probably have an identity-just because you are an individual and you see the problem, and so forth, in your own way. But as far as saying, like, ‘I'm going to project my personality’ or ‘I'm going to project an image onto music’ -a kind of a personality image onto music, which is kind of the way most people think of identity - that was no part of it whatsoever. And I don't think that can be effective.

I think having one's own sound in a sense is the most fundamental kind of identity in music. But it's a very touchy thing how one arrives at that. It has to be something that comes from inside, and it's a long-term process. It's a product of a total personality. Why one person is going to have it and another person isn’t, I don't know why exactly. I think sometimes the people I seem to like most as musical artists are people who have had to-they're like late arrivers. Many of them are late arrivers. They've had to work a lot harder in a sense to get facility, to get fluency, and like that. Whereas you see a lot of young talents that have a great deal of fluidity and fluency and facility, and they never really carry it anyplace. Because in a way they're not aware enough of what they're doing.

There are certain artists - Miles Davis is a late arriver in a sense. I mean, he arrived early, but you couldn't just hear his development until he finally really arrived later. And Tony Bennett is another one that's just always worked and dug and tried to improve, and finally, what he does as a straight singer has a kind of a dimension in it and is able to transport the listener way beyond other singers in his category. Or Thad Jones is another one that I can enjoy listening to play. I enjoy listening to player. that think for themselves, especially. I mean, you could line up a hundred players that all more or less sound alike, and they're all good players, and I can even enjoy listening to them. But if just one of them thinks for himself, he stands out like a neon sign. And it's so refreshing to hear someone who thinks for himself.

Now at the same time, the danger of a person grabbing a concept like this is that they think thinking for themselves is being eccentric or being rebellious or being-especially of being ‘different’ - and that's not it. The idea is to be real and right in the core, right in the middle, but still an individual enough to handle the material your own way.”[Jazz Spoken Here, New York: Da Capo Press, 1994, pp. 139-141].
With these comments from Bill and the following, concluding chapters from Enrico’s book about Bill and his music, we have now come full circle as to what started me on this quest of trying to understand why Bill’s playing evolved the way it did, especially as analyzed from the perspective of another Jazz pianist.

And while we have focused this Jazz Profile on Enrico Pieranunzi’s narration on the career and music of Bill Evans - the single greatest influence on Jazz piano in the 2nd half of the 20th century – the editorial staff is also planning a future profile on Enrico with an in-depth look at the sizeable footprint that he has placed on Jazz in Italy over the past 25 years.

I Will Say Goodbye
Evans believed in "simple" music; but simplicity, of course, not necessarily at the expense of beauty, and it was precisely that which he demonstrated a couple of years later. Beauty has to do with a deeper and somehow mysterious dimension - a something that Bill possessed, and thanks to which he had captured, especially in the 1950s and 60s, the hearts and minds of musicians and jazz lovers all over the world. In May of 1977 Evans recorded his last album for the Fantasy label, I Will Say Goodbye, with Gomez and the sensitive Zigmund on the drums. The album's title track, written by Michel Legrand, as well as Johnny Mandel's tender Seascape, are both film score tunes which, in Evans' hands, become compelling, intimate Mendelssohn-like "songs without words.”
Here Evans revives the classical piano modules of Brahms and Chopin, Debussy and Scriabin, whom he had known and loved in his childhood and later in his college years in Louisiana. He treats these melodic lines, evoking images of separations ("goodbye") and seascapes, with a touch that unearths a rich range of color and nuance that had been lost in his years with Gomez and Morell. Here he greatly refines the classical technique of playing three or four notes with the right hand, making their upper voice "sing".

All this is made possible also by Zigmund's sensibility and capacity to listen to and play with Evans, avoiding the error of other drummer's of playing "with the bass", thus leaving the piano isolated. Zigmund follows the emotional and sound "curve" of the pianist and, in this way, restores to the trio the breath that has long been missing.
Another big film hit tune People, written by Jules Styne and made popular by Barbara Streisand, had been used by Evans a couple of years earlier for his solo album Alone Again. That performance had marked a moment in which Evans seems to have declared his belief more in interpretation than in improvisation as the primary vehicle for his musical communication. The melody of People is played for more than thirteen minutes in various keys and becomes a sort of "theme and variations" in which Evans shows the many possibilities for dealing with a simple song on piano. His use of the left hand playing arpeggio-lines as a kind of "contrapuntal" accompaniment to the right is characteristic here. This device goes beyond just simply confirming or tracing the harmonic path of the piece, and is able to create a second "voice" dialoguing with the right hand and, at times, functioning as protagonist.

Throughout the entire length of the performance, the original melody is never abandoned. John Wasserman, who wrote the liner notes for this album, rightly observes, “one would have to be a fool or a genius to pick such songs, songs that have been played with a repetition past counting. The fool would choose them because they are familiar and one with nothing to say must be satisfied with quoting others. The genius chooses them for the challenge; for the untapped potential lying underneath the facade. It requires supreme confidence and fundamental humility in addition to an innate sense of beauty. His music, complex and simple at the same time, is like stop-action photography - the learning, the understanding, the feelings of a lifetime compressed into three minutes, or five, or seven.”
The material that Evans chose for both Alone Again and I Will Say Goodbye, was almost always very easy on the ear, mostly evoking melancholy, nostalgia for something lost, something which had perhaps never existed, or else had always been unattainable. Very often, as has already been said, these were songs from films which spoke of lost, impossible or troubled love, or of the travails of couples and the unending search for happiness. Russian tradition is full of story-telling and fables, and we must not forget that Evans origins were half Russian. It is no surprise, therefore, that he was orienting himself more and more towards musical stories written to accompany picture stories. Improvisation as such seemed no longer to interest him very much. Far from the extreme harmonic quest of a Coltrane, extraneous also to the contemporary jazz/rock revolution with its new rhythms and sound, Evans was heading in a musical direction that no one but he was attracted to in those years.

In August of 1977 Warner Bros made Evans a very generous recording offer, and it was Helen Keane who made the switch to that label possible. You Must Believe In Spring (again with Gomez and Zigmund) continues along the lines of I Will Say Goodbye, but there is much more in it. This album, however, also begins to reveal the traces of a destiny marked by some unsettling clues: the opening piece, B Minor Waltz, is dedicated to Bill's former long-term, unfortunate girlfriend Ellaine (was it just a coincidence that the key of B minor was the same as Tchaikovsky’s tragic, desperate "Pathetic" Symphony?”); the closing piece, Johnny Mandel's theme from Bill's favorite TV series M*A*S*H*, is sub-titled Suicide is Painless. What was happening to Bill?

Why dwell on self-destruction? Maybe because “suicide ... brings on many changes, and I can take or leave it as I please?” Perhaps a successful hit like M*A*S*H*was enough to set off that subconscious image/sound mechanism which always seemed to stimulate him. The story of M*A *S*H* (set, as everyone knows, in the Korean War) denouncing the madness and psychologically devastating violence of war, probably sparked Bill's memory of his psychically wounding experiences at Fort Sheridan in the early 50s, where he had come into contact with the harsh and senseless reality of army life. His slow slide into a self-destructive depression, probably traceable to those distant days, led him some years later into the drug habit (“the longest suicide in history,” as writer and great friend Gene Lees would say of him) which he shared with fragile, vulnerable Ellaine, who could not bear the idea of being separated from him.
Not even the birth of his son Evan the previous year had been able to fulfill that promise of regeneration that he had begun to glimpse, not to mention the fact that his marriage with Nenette was on the rocks. Perhaps all this would be enough to explain the album's mournful tone. Alongside the images of that movie which recalled his own suffering and the pain of another failure, that of his marriage, Bill was “speaking" through his music to Ellaine.

But another element must be factored in to give You Must Believe In Spring [Warner Bros. 3504] a special place in the final stages of Evans' artistic activity. The entire record, in fact, and not only the piece We Will Meet Again, was dedicated to his beloved big brother Harry - although Harry was never to know this. Bill loved movies, as we have already pointed out, but a script that not even the most imaginative screenwriter could ever have conceived had cast him in the leading role. His past (Ellaine) and his present (Harry) were soon to be linked precisely by the suicide. Two years after the recording of You Must Believe In Spring, Harry Evans Jr., he as well suffering from a long depression, took his own life. Since the album had not yet been published Harry never heard it nor did he ever know about that act of affectionate brotherly devotion - a shocking premonition. Starting with the recording of that ill-fated album in August '77, a dark destiny seemed to be rushing towards the artist; but he still had a little more time - time enough to say many more things in music and to "close the circle" of his musical journey.

Affinity Near the end of 1977, at more or less the same time, Zigmund and Gomez - who had been with Evans for eleven years - quit the trio. Evans was left with the job of forming a completely new group. He played for about a year with the trusty Philly Joe Jones on drums, alternating different bass players, until an old college friend called his attention to a young bass player playing at the time with the Woody Herman orchestra, and who he thought had “something special that Bill would like.” Marc Johnson, the 24-year-old son of a pianist, had grown up listening to Bill Evans records. He had studied cello for a while before taking up the bass, and this, along with a truly unique musical sensibility, gave his playing that "vocal" appeal that Evans had always set such high store by in his own music and in that of his partners. The two finally met, after a certain hit-and-miss period of trying to hook up, and their first gig together was at the Village Vanguard. "Before we even finished the first number, I got the feeling immediately that this was the guy."
Evans had recently recorded another solo album New Conversations [Warner Bros. 2-3177] on which he made use of the same over-dubbing technique already employed on two previous albums, this time extending it to the electric piano. This album contains his first recorded version of Reflections in D which is played right through once without any over-dubbing - a piece which was to become one of his standards in this last brief stretch of musical activity. It was an old improvisation by Ellington in one of his rare trio recording sessions in the early 1950s which, in Evans' hands, sheds its somewhat decorative character and is turned into a piano essay of the highest order, both in terms of its formal construction as well as its haunting charm.
In July of 1978 Evans went off on a European tour. The Johnson/Jones combination worked well, regardless of some imbalances between the boisterous drummer and the refined young bass player whose true value and potential began to shine through. Johnson, gifted with an instinctive, genuine capacity for interplay, proved to be tuned in to Evans and also had a lot of his own things to say when soloing. The three performed at various European festivals (among which Umbria Jazz and Montreux), playing at times with guest musicians such as Lee Konitz and Kenny Burrell.

Upon his return to the USA Evans recorded the splendid Affinity [Warner Bros. 3293] where we find him encountering the marvelous lyrical sound of the phenomenal Belgian harmonica player Toots Thielemans. A successful meeting once again made possible with the help of the skillful Helen Keane; Marc Johnson on bass, Eliot Zigmund on drums and the talented young tenor saxophone player Larry Schneider completed the personnel. Proving not to recognize any distinction between genres, nor to care about where a piece came from when something struck him, Evans selected, among some well-known standards, the beautiful Sno'Peas by pianist Phil Markowitz as well as Paul Simon’s I Do It For Your Love - both very likely on the suggestion of Thielemans (“any time that I come across a tune that I really love and get into, I'll use it regardless,” as Bill once said). Evans' performance here is one of extraordinary poetic value: he and Thielemans establish a solid lyrical understanding fed by great depth and communicative authenticity which rigorously avoids the trap of mannerism.
Shortly afterwards, sometime between late 1978 and early 1979, on the strength of another recommendation (this time from guitarist Joe Puma with whom Bill shared a long-time friendship as well as a passion for trotter-racing), Evans decided to hire drummer Joe LaBarbera for his trio, despite worries that he might not have been completely available due to his heavy studio commitments. LaBarbera’s capacity to “do the right thing at the right time” made him a drummer of considerable musical intelligence. Gifted with a strong and relaxed sense of swing a la Elvin Jones he, like Johnson, had a highly developed ability to listen to his partners. The chemistry between these two and Evans gave him reason to expect peaks like those that he had known with LaFaro and Motian and, in fact, that is what happened.

Nevertheless, the first recording featuring LaBarbera and Johnson together - We Will Meet Again [Warner Bros. HS 3411] was a quintet album, the two horns being Tom Harrell's expressive trumpet and again the brilliant tenor sax of Larry Schneider. This album is comprised exclusively of original Bill Evans compositions, among which the inspired Laurie - dedicated to the woman who would be at his side in this last brief leg of his journey - and We Will Meet Again (which Evans had recorded two years earlier, surely never imagining the sad circumstances under which he was to find himself re-recording it). That session of August 1979, in fact, took place shortly after the tragic suicide of Bill's brother Harry, and the solo piano version of We Will Meet Again included here was clearly a despairing musical farewell directed towards this brother whom he had always worshiped.
“It's there for that reason. Also a solo version of For All We Know because that's linked with the title. So, there are those two solo tracks - For All We Know- We May Never Meet Again- and then the song We Will Meet Again.” These words from an interview with Evans' in August of 1980, give us an illuminating glimpse, flashing momentarily on the secret code that often encrypted the connection between his music and his life. With the benefit of hindsight it is not difficult to see that this was precisely the period in which Evans had unconsciously decided to let loose all his self-destructive urges, and in which he began to chant his swan song.

From that August 1979 on, in fact, we see his gradual and complete rediscovery of music, but the energy in that new spurt of growth would be inversely proportional to how much he cared about his own life, which was rapidly slipping into decline. The trio with Johnson and LaBarbera made its European debut in November of that same year. A couple of months earlier, on the occasion of his son Evan's fourth birthday, Bill had composed a tender piece for which he had also written the bitter-sweet words. The affectionate and detached Letter To Evan was performed many times along the tour, one concert of which was recorded and released on the two LPs The Paris Concert, Edition One & Edition Two and received with great enthusiasm by fans new and old. Curiously, Evans was being "rediscovered" in those years by a large number of younger listeners who had begun to tire of rock music and who were beginning to get interested in his music, having heard him perform at various European festivals.

Your Story
The trio with Johnson and LaBarbera evolved rapidly. Bill was satisfied and proud of the extremely fast progress his two partners were making, and of how in tune they were with his musical world. But he was beginning to have serious problems with his health. For some time now, and probably increasingly so following his brother's tragic death, he had been using cocaine, and this was having repercussions on his way of playing, among which a strong tendency to rush the tempo (something of which he was completely aware, according to what he once said to LaBarbera).

In fact, on his final recordings, his solos were frenetic at times and lingered at the highest register of the keyboard. Regardless of all this, his creative energy was propelled by a new impetus, and he began once again to compose extensively. The structures he used were extremely varied, but the prevailing approach was one that we might call “nuclear", in which the same brief sequence of notes and their rhythmic layout is repeated many times in a harmonically modulating development.

This is the case with the yearning Your Story, a piece in which the music is both a confession and an invocation. Here, thanks to his masterful use of enharmonic modulation, Evans tells a true story of regret and desperation; a vast and hopeless "why?", repeated and then repeated again, knowing that there will never be an answer. He also began to perform Nardis again, repeating it at almost every concert. The version he played in Paris, and which appears on the The Paris Concert Edition Two is a remarkable one. The long piano solo he improvises on the structure of this piece, whose Eastern flavor has always held a special attraction for him, becomes an amazing recapitulation of all the elements that have contributed to his piano style, of everything that he has ever loved in music. Shades of classical music (Khachaturian, Rachmaninoff, his favorite Russian composers), harmonic derivations from Tristano an entire piano tradition ranging from Romanticism to the 20th century and jazz are fused in this Nardis, something which has no antecedents in either jazz or in the classical music tradition.

Without giving up the structure, thereby remaining anchored to a tonal approach, Evans succeeds in escaping from it to create a series of sound forms in which constructive intelligence and pathos, mind and heart are no longer separate. When, after a series of variations, Johnson and LaBarbera join him, the audience understandably explodes in the joyous applause of those who have been led across unknown and beautiful places never before seen. Thus Nardis became a kind of message that Evans was sending out to everyone in each of his final concerts. His whole personal story is here, in this series of inventions and combinations: he seems to be posing the music one more question, whose answer is the certainty of his own creativity. This re-discovered faith shines through in the whole of this last phase.
The collaboration of the highest caliber offered him by Johnson and LaBarbera was never routine and brought him back that tension and passion for the musical quest with which he had peaked twenty years earlier at the time of his unparalleled collaboration with Motian and LaFaro: “This trio is very much connected to the first trio ... I feel that the trio I have now is karmic.” Having previously been heavily involved in Zen, and also due to his Russian Orthodox background which had given him a natural aptitude and sensitivity for the metaphysical and spiritual, he felt that having these two young musicians alongside him was a sign of destiny, of the "circularity' of things and their inexplicable propensity for moving according to a script already written.

Evans was drifting by now, no longer resisting his own karma, in which the key role was being played by his powerful subconscious death-wish. With his adventurous piano solos in Nardis he was confirming what many years before clarinet player Jimmy Giuffre had said of him: “Bill Evans is a greater musician than Charlie Parker;” and to clarify so surprising a statement to his incredulous listeners he added: “There is an area up here where musical categories do not exist. This area isn’t only jazz, or European music, classical or anything else. It's just music, great music which cannot be categorized. That's what Evans plays.”

In reality Evans played his own experience, his thoughts, his wisdom, and lived his music, as like Charlie Parker himself had said a real musician has to do. Or better, he had the power to “express tenderness, love, rage, fear, happiness, despair wonder: in a word, beauty,” as Don Nelsen writes in the liner notes of Trio '65. “A lot of people feel these emotions deeply but haven't the technical means to crystallize and communicate them. Others have the technical ability but seem unable to probe into the depths of emotion. The rare bird has both the insight into the universal and the means to express it.”

The communicative force of Evans' music in that last year was becoming more penetrating than ever. He had gone back to music as his definitive refuge from the world. Despite the fact that his physical condition was rapidly deteriorating, to the point of becoming literally emaciated, amazingly enough he was able to find the energy to make a long and successful European tour in the late summer of 1980. In Great Britain, Belgium, Norway, Italy and Germany his enraptured audiences listened respectfully to this artist who still had the strength to go on telling them his fascinating and touching musical stories. Once back in America, Bill continued to work frenetically. August 31 found him engaged for a week at the Keystone Corner in San Francisco. Right after that, on Tuesday, September 9th, he began a new gig at Fat Tuesdays in New York. The Thursday afternoon of that week he called the club to say that he was not feeling well and was in no condition to play.

Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera convinced him to go to the hospital, and even in this he succeeded in keeping his surreal wittiness and his proverbial composure: on the way there he is quoted, in fact, as having commented: “I must be close to the end, because I'm seeing all these good-looking girls go by and it's not phasing me at all.” His condition rapidly and irreparably deteriorated. A series of massive hemorrhages due to his long-lived, and by now devastating, hepatitis brought the situation past the point of no return. On September 15 1980, at the age of fifty-one, Bill Evans died. The void he left behind was profoundly felt by jazz musicians all over the world, many of whom dedicated compositions to his memory.
As often, unfortunately, happens in cases like this, his passing away sparked renewed interest in the work of this musician who had never, in his lifetime, drawn huge crowds; an anti-hero who, discreetly but with unusual depth, had penetrated the hearts of both jazz fans and ordinary listeners everywhere. In 1981 Evans was inducted into Down Beat magazine's Hall of Fame, taking the "place of glory' reserved for him alongside the greatest and most important names in the history of jazz. Memorial recordings and concerts abounded recalling this reserved poet of the piano able to reveal through music his most intimate self.

In 1982, under the auspices of Helen Keane, fourteen pianists (among whom George Shearing, Teddy Wilson, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner) recorded a moving tribute in which each played one of Bill's pieces or a composition from his repertoire. In England a Bill Evans library was founded that collected all types of audio/visual material regarding the pianist and curated initiatives aimed at keeping the musical heritage of this great artist alive. September of 1989 saw the publication of the first issue of the periodical entitled "Letter from Evans" (which has now gone on the Internet). Here the founders wrote a sort of manifesto explaining their reasons for dedicating this publication precisely to Bill Evans, these were his voicing, his personal sense of rhythm, the new definition of roles within the trio. All this had for a long time been the object of study and loving attention by pianists, both jazz and otherwise, in corners of the world.

This is the "material" part of Bill Evans' legacy, but it is the astonishing artistry of his work that makes of his heritage a pivotal contribution to the history of 20th century music.

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