© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"...I wasn't striving to be an identifiable stylist — I was really only striving to make music and to put it together in some way of my own."
- jazz pianist Bill Evans
Considering how beautiful all aspects of the late pianist Bill Evans music is, I’m surprised that there have not been more efforts to reconstitute it in other settings.
“Reconstitute” is the key word here in the sense of building something up from its parts; reconstruct in another setting might be another way of putting it.
Guitarist John McLaughlin had a go at is when he along with the members of the Aighetta guitar quartet recorded the Verve CD Time Remembered: John McLaughlin Plays Bill Evans which we posted about here.
But for the most part, orchestrators and arrangers have shied away from reconstituting Bill’s compositions and improvisations in other musical formats.
Perhaps, as was the case with the work of the late pianist, Michel Petrucciani, they seem to be near perfect as performed in Evans’ preferred setting of a piano-bass-drums trio. Perhaps, too, they feel unequal to the task of trying to match Bill’s brilliance.
When such attempts do come along, they seem to be “here today and gone tomorrow,” or at least that’s my impression of one such effort, Don Sebesky’s 1998 CD - I Remember Bill: A Tribute to Bill Evans [RCA BMG Classics 09026 68929-2].
Although Don’s arrangement of Waltz For Debby won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Arrangement, I doubt that many Jazz fans in general and Bill Evans fans in particular have ever heard of the recording. [It has been removed from distribution by the label and is only available from third-party sellers on Amazon. The site does not offer a digital download.]
In her insert notes to the recording, Stephanie Stein Crease, the author of the definitive Gil Evans: Out of the Cool: His Life and Music and whose writings about Jazz have appeared in The New York Times and Down Beat, offers these insights into Bill and his music and Don Sebesky efforts at reconstituting it on I Remember Bill: A Tribute to Bill Evans.
"...I wasn't striving to be an identifiable stylist — I was really only striving to make music and to put it together in some way of my own," said the jazz pianist Bill Evans, in his talk that closes this tribute. Nonetheless, the Bill Evans sound has been a persistent force in modern jazz since word about Evans — quiet and introspective, never a self-promoter — started humming through the New York jazz scene during the mid-1950s.
Evans followed in the wake of Bud Powell, the pianist who'd forged a dazzling hornlike approach to bebop piano. The young Evans had an awesome grasp of the intricate language of bop and its harmonic possibilities. He had the ability to express, with dazzling clarity, a musical whole along with a range of subtleties. And he developed a sound on the piano — each note rounded from within, his playing fiery at times, uniquely understated at others — that was as full of warmth and individuality as that of Erroll Garner or Arthur Rubinstein.
The cumulative effect? An upturning of every musical idea or chord voicing or standard song into something never quite heard before. Evans' music flowed from his profound and analytic intelligence. His playing was often tinged with a deep melancholy, and was always illuminated with a rare beauty.
Evans, who died in 1980 at the age of fifty-one, started studying piano formally at the age of six, the violin at age seven, and the flute at thirteen. He was all of twelve when he started subbing for his older brother Harry in a no-name dance band in New Jersey, with its book of stock arrangements. It was in this setting, fooling around with standard dance tunes, that he experienced the first thrill of musical freedom: the insertion of a chord change, a melodic variation, or a short improvisation all started pointing Evans towards jazz. His first real jazz gigs were occasional summer jobs with the guitarist Mundell Lowe (another master of supple understatement), who Evans met in the late 1940s while attending Southeastern Louisiana University in New Orleans. After an army stint in Korea from 1951 to '54, the pianist settled in New York. By 1956, he had made his debut recordings as the leader of his own trio.
The following year, he performed one of his most brilliantly developed solos ever in George Russell's extended work All About Rosie, a virtuosic vehicle designed for Evans (who performed it in concert and recorded it). After a relentlessly creative eight months with Miles Davis in 1958 (which resulted in Kind of Blue), Evans steadfastly pursued his own muse, for the most part in a trio with bass and drums, making the piano trio a viable and vibrant setting for jazz.
Interplay/intuition was key, in Evans' relationships with bassists and drummers, in his duets with Jim Hall, in virtually all his musical collaborations and even with himself (as in his Conversations With Myself). This sensibility, as well as Evans' dedication to musical exploration, helped generate this tribute, a project that the acclaimed arranger Don Sebesky has brought to fruition after five years. Sebesky has artfully reconstructed Evans' elliptical compositions such as Peace Piece and Epilogue, and transformed Evans' subtle deliberations and piano voicings for jazz orchestra on such standards as So What and Autumn Leaves. Bill Evans was an arranger too: reharmonizations, rhythmic development, well-defined contrapuntal lines, and Evans' extraordinary voice-leading — his unique way of spelling out emotions — were part and parcel of his work.”
And Don Sebesky added his own thoughts about Bill’s music and this recording in these excerpts from the insert notes to I Remember Bill: A Tribute to Bill Evans.
I Remember Bill
“Rarely does a day go by without my feeling the influence of Bill Evans. Bill didn't just strive for perfection. He, like all true geniuses, was incapable of putting forth less than his very best: the best note, the truest chord, the richest voicing, creating a balance between head and heart which characterizes his music and makes it so fresh and interesting every time we listen. He set a standard of excellence to which we all aspire, and by which we all measure ourselves, and our work. In this album, I pay tribute to him in gratitude for his having enriched us all with his remarkable gift.
After much thought, I've selected a mix of tunes which Bill composed (Waltz for Debby, Very Early, T.T.T.T., Peace Piece, Epilogue, Blue in Green); standards which he liked to play (Autumn Leaves, All the Things You Are, I'm Getting Sentimental Over You); and a couple of pieces I've written and dedicated to him (I Remember Bill, Bill Not Gil).
The first time I ever heard Bill play was on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, arguably the most influential recording of the last fifty years. From that album, I've selected two tunes. Blue in Green has new lyrics by Gene McDaniels, which encompass not only the tune, but also Miles' and John Coltrane's solos. I've also included So What, in which I've doubled the original tempo and built the arrangement around an orchestration of Bill's solo.
I've inserted orchestrated versions of excerpts from Bill's improvisations into All the Things You Are, Autumn Leaves and I'm Getting Sentimental Over You as well — treating the ensemble as if it were a giant piano instead of limiting it to a traditional big band role. Being especially fond of Bill's solo playing, I arranged and orchestrated his elegant improvised adagio, Peace Piece. In this version, you'll hear echoes of Copland, Bartok, and probably a few other classical composers, though the actual notes are Bill's.
In the opening choruses of All the Things You Are and I'm Getting Sentimental Over You, I've treated the band in a way that I imagine Bill might have, had he been an arranger, creating contrapuntal interplay between lines and allowing the rhythmic aspect of the tunes to be carried by the horns only — no rhythm section.
We were fortunate to have been able to reach out all over the world to musicians who played and recorded with Bill over the years. Two of his rhythm sections, Eddie Gomez with Marty Morell and Marc Johnson with Joe LaBarbera provide the support for the brass and string ensembles which surround them. Alumni Lee Konitz, Bob Brookmeyer, Toots Thielemans, and Tom Harrell (who was on Evans' last recording) all demonstrate their own remarkable musicianship here, as do Larry Coryell, Joe Lovano, Eddie Daniels, Hubert Laws, Dave Samuels, John Pizzarelli, Jeanie Bryson and New York Voices. My heartfelt thanks to them all for contributing their artistry to this project.
My favorite reconstitution by Don of Bill’s work is his string arrangement of Quiet Now, an original by fellow-pianist Denny Zeitlin that Bill played often. It features clarinetist Eddie Daniels and vibraphonist Dave Samuels and you can check it out on the following video.