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Bill Evans, one of the foremost jazz pianists of the postbop era, profoundly influenced three generations of keyboard players. Among contemporary jazz's most popular and accessible artists, he had at least fifty albums as a leader and five Grammy Awards to his credit.
When playing, Evans would sit hunched over the keyboard, head parallel to his large hands, glasses dangling precariously off the bridge of his I nose. Combined with the subtly lyric and impressionistic side of his music, his introspective image led to the early criticism that his sense of swing and time were too studied to involve his audiences.
Looking back, it is clear how inaccurate that criticism was. Many of Evans' early recordings as a sideman and a leader exhibit a powerful rhythmic authority, and even his most hushed ballad work rode on a steady inner propulsion. The last half decade of Evans' life saw his music enriched by an even more exuberant drive. This was due in part to changes in his personal life and a deeper confidence in his music but also to the dynamic musical partnerships he formed during that period, particularly with Jack Dejohnette on drums, Eddie Gomez on bass, and the members of his last trio, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera.
Evans' distinctive touch and gorgeous voicings were unmistakable on acoustic or electric piano, inspiring great respect among his contemporaries. Miles Davis reportedly once said, "Bill Evans plays the piano the way it's supposed to be played." Evans drew deeply from the heritage of Western keyboard music, and his expansion of the song form in jazz, wedded to a harmonically rich romanticism, touched pianists as diverse as Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, George Winston, Herbie Hancock, Marian McPartland, and Paul Bley.
Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1929, Evans began his musical studies at the age of six. After graduating from Southeastern Louisiana College, he worked with a succession of bands, including those fronted by clarinetist Tony Scott, bassist Charles Mingus, and composer George Russell, who first exposed Evans to modal-based jazz.
Evans' debut recording as a leader was New Jazz Conceptions, released by Riverside Records in 1958. However, it was not until his association with Miles Davis—he played with the sextet in 1958 and was then rehired
in 1959 for the historic Kind of Blue recording sessions—that Evans gained international prominence.
In 1959 Evans also established his initial, and many contend his most satisfying, working unit with the late Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. From its inception, this group displayed an uncanny improvisational rapport and forged the prototype for the "pure" trio in modern jazz. A live recording made at the Village Vanguard in 1961 documents this trio and, in the opinion of some, is Evans' peak accomplishment. Tragically, the glory days of this Evans band were cut short by LaFaro's death in a 1961 car accident. Suffering a profound personal and professional loss, Evans did not record for a year.
In 1962 he returned to the studio with Motian and bassist Chuck Israels, who was a sympathetic improviser in the mold of LaFaro. Evans varied his musical formats to some extent over the next two decades of his life from the occasional large ensemble to a series of duet and solo piano recordings. But until his death in 1980, Evans favored his trios, a setting that enabled him to transcend typical rhythm-section roles and cultivate new levels of interplay among piano, bass, and drums.
Bill Evans' dominance as a pianist has tended to eclipse his achievements as a composer. He left a modest but memorable legacy of jazz tunes, including "Peace Piece," "34 Skidoo," "Show-Type Tune," and perhaps his most inspired melody, the lyrical "Waltz for Debby."
Coming the year before his death in 1980, the following interview is perhaps one of the most candid and comprehensive in terms of his pianism that Bill ever gave in his all-too-brief career and this is probably attributable to the well-prepared, insightful questions put to him by Wayne and Paul.
WE: Bill, if music can be classified as a language, how does your trio approach this musical language to ensure that your message is reaching an audience?
BE: The language of music is sort of a motivic language. It's a developmental language in a sense, and there are just so many subtle ways that it's used in relationship to the form or the phrase or the period or whatever. I would say that I have worked hardest on my music to develop that kind of language. And I want it to come out of a genuine jazz tradition and to be absolutely a musical language as well, and it is something that I've dealt with personally on a very deep basis as much as I can with the music that we play. And to understand it one would have to listen to it correctly.
Now some people might listen to our music as just a series of abstract ideas which are related to nothing except themselves. This isn't really enough. In order to really understand our music and the language that we use, one would have to be aware of always where the music is in relation to the form that is being used in that particular performance or a particular piece. So that might take a little bit of conditioning. However, we do work with popular forms — forms that are felt by people that grow up in this culture — and I don't think it would take too much effort or concentration brought to bear before a person would be able to understand how to listen to our music. And one must really pay attention to it. It can be listened to as music in the background, and one could get an impression that that might be all it is, but really, as I say, in order to appreciate the language, what we're trying to say and the meaning of it, one would have to really know where we are in relationship to the particular thing we're doing.
I mean, I've certainly studied more or less all kinds of approaches to music and opened my mind to them and so on, but I've made the choice for various philosophical and personal reasons to go with the kind of idiomatic and form content that I use. And it can be, as I say, rather abstract if one doesn't tune in to where it's at. But I think the melodic content and harmonic content and even the form content of it all come out of popular music. And the traditional popular forms—not only out of the culture, but I mean really, you know, if we examine classical forms they basically come out of various song forms. Even the symphonic forms are extensions of smaller forms.
So, it's nothing new, but [in] the same way that a person would miss a great deal listening to a symphony if they don't understand the form, they would miss perhaps even more if they don't understand the form with us. But I'm not trying to be hard to understand; that certainly is not my goal as a musician. But of course, having gotten deeper into the music and trying to say more, we have gotten perhaps a little sophisticated. However, we like to feel that if people will make the effort to learn how to listen correctly that they would be rewarded, hopefully.
WE: Could you elaborate on what is meant by the term song form?
BE: Well, of course, there are many different kinds of song forms. The most well known would be an a a b a form in which there are three identical sections: one repeated at the beginning and then repeated again at the end—a a—and then the b as a transitional or opposite or different content that occurs. Strictly speaking, they would be like eight measures each; that makes what we call the thirty-two-bar song form. Now there also are, you might say, a-1 form, which would be sixteen, and sixteen with a slight alteration in the second half; and then there are many different varieties that grow out of this.
Now, most things that I write I find more or less determine their own form out of a conditioning. I have to feel a song form and work some natural changes in it, and I'll be using some extensions and so forth. In fact, I am not even aware of the metric content unless I reexamine what I do. I just really feel the development of it.
So there are many varieties of song form, but when one learns to feel the form, and in listening, to feel the form, as long as it's not a concocted thing, you know, and screwed together somehow, it should be easy to feel. And I just happen to respect forms that come out of history and come out of culture and tradition as something which is substantial and real and which, if one learns to live with them and [they] become part of you, that you can then extend and use these things as organic means to make music.
I respect the American popular song very much and some of the masters that have composed in that form. And it became a means for jazz players to improvise by using a lot of these forms in songs to play off of. And I studied this very hard, analytically and diligently as I was growing, and got deeply enough into it so that I feel it's worthwhile to continue working with it, 'cause there's still explorations that I haven't begun to make yet into handling these things.
PR: As I understand you, you want to make enduring music of classical proportions. But some jazz musicians today seem less bent on classical values than on pursuing sounds and forms that reflect our everyday lives. Are there many current musicians who share your aesthetic?
BE: I think there are quite a few. But I know that there are people that, as you say, work with the everyday. The way I feel about all those things is everybody has to live with themselves, and I think everybody knows inside the reasons for doing what they're doing. "To each his own" is all I can say. I'm just doing a thing that gives me the greatest pleasure. I made my choice for my own reasons, and I'm willing to live with them, and I live with them pretty happily.
But I think that all that controversy about all those things, I don't know whether it really matters that much or not. Certainly I want something better than the everyday. When I go to any kind of art I look for something very special. I don't look for the person's bathroom noises or anything else. I don't want something everyday. I want something that they've had to really dedicate their lives to protecting, and nurturing, and cultivating, and searching for and bring me something special, you know, 'cause I could hear the everyday or see the everyday just by going out into the world, and I don't consider that to be art.
PR: As you were growing up, what was your exposure to the heritage of Western culture?
BE: Well, I think one of the primary influences that comes to my mind is the conditioning as children to have a great reverence for art. This is something which happens in certain families today. It doesn't seem to happen as much in the schools as it did then. Like, we were presented even in third and fourth grades and fifth and seventh grades, we would have a listening hour where we'd listen to great music. And whether or nor nine out of ten of the kids really tuned in, all of them probably realized that here was something which was being presented with great respect so it must be important even if they didn't tune in. And the ones that did tune in developed that kind of respect.
Also from my family I got it. I think this is basic, in that you respect something which is far out of your sphere; it's not immediately attainable, and placing those artists in the realm of spiritual leaders, great people in history. The trend today is to glorify the mediocre. We'd like to think, it seems like, today that "Gee, if I bought enough electronic equipment and devoted six months of work, I too could be a great musician." But this kind of perspective of really great reverence and respect for something that's considered to be exceptional, then you just naturally devote yourself in a serious way to it. You take it seriously, you won't be satisfied with just superficial things, and I think that has a lot to do with it at bottom, the conditioning that you have towards your goals.
WE: During your formative years, was there a particular person or event that inspired you to become a musician?
BE: I'm sure that happened. The encounters which aren't so glamorous that were important were, for instance, having a wonderful woman as a teacher, rny first teacher, who brought me into music and got me to read music, and therefore [I] developed a great ability to explore music through a superior sight-reading ability, without bringing the whip down as far as a type of approach to music like the scales and arpeggios and heavy technical work which would have, with my temperament at that age, turned me against music.
Other than that, there were, of course, many experiences or perhaps a good teacher here and there. Things that I came across, listening experiences, you know. I can remember, for instance, the 78 album of Petruschka which I got early on in high school as a Christmas present — a requested Christmas present. And just about wearing it out, learning it. That was the kind of music that at that time I hadn't been exposed to, and it just was a tremendous experience to get into that piece. But there were things like that all along the line.
I remember first hearing some of [Darius] Milhaud's polytonality and actually a piece that he may not think too much of — it was an early piece called Suite Provencale — which opened me up to certain things. But there were countless events like that which are all revelations in their own right and inspirational. I don't know, it's such an accumulative thing, you know, the ability to manipulate music in some kind of a comprehensive way. And I've really just kind of dealt with it piece by piece over a long period of time, and it seems that at this point in my idiom I enjoy a certain amount of freedom.
I mean, I've come to the point where I have a great deal of enjoyment playing, whereas for many years it was bringing a great deal of concentration to bear — conscious concentration of technical things, you know, of having to think a great deal — at the same time trying to leave one part of my mind free to just be the expressive part. Now it's more that I can enjoy almost the total expressive part, and I'm thinking only at less-conscious levels about technical things. So I have arrived at that point, which is very enjoyable, but it's taken a tremendous amount of preparatory years and efforts.
PR: Let's turn for a moment to the first trio you fronted that included bassist Scott LaFaro. How would you estimate LaFaro's contribution to modern bass playing, and what role did he play in the development of that first trio?
BE: In my mind Scott LaFaro was responsible in a lot of ways for the expansion of the bass. I think he is acknowledged, at least within musical circles, as being more or less the father or the wellspring of modern bass players. And when we got together I realized that Scott had the conceptual potential, he had the virtuosity, and he had the experience and the musical responsibility, and so forth, to handle the problem of approaching the bass function in jazz, especially with a trio, which is a very pure kind of setup with more freedom.
I thought I could depend on him to approach this, and we just really accepted a conceptual goal which was more conversational, more a thing where, including the drums, where everybody could contribute. They didn't have to play the roles that were more or less assigned by jazz tradition — that you could only walk at this time, that you could only do this at this time, and you could only do this at this time — but rather leave our minds wide open but with responsibility, so that we weren't just going off into space, that we were using that tradition but allowing ourselves to be a little bit more open within it. And of course, with that trio in a space of about two years we tried to work toward that goal with responsibility .. .
The last night that that trio played together [in July, 1961] before the tragedy of Scott being killed in an automobile accident, I think we had worked toward those goals pretty well. We had reached at least a point of some development in it that meant something. Even on the very first record you could hear that we were already working towards that, but I think it got a much more refined and complete thing by the time we had done the last records.
Musicians, you know, in various countries told us that those particular records seem to have had an impact in that they represented this kind of — wasn't like a kind of a break, an iconoclastic thing, you know, where we just rebelled against everything. That wasn't the kind of break it was; it was more like an extension of what had been happening and perhaps more of a completion or something like that.
But anyhow, that was the beginning of it, and that sort of conceptualized the trios that I had after that. I mean, they were more or less modeled on the development that we had made with that trio. And of course, we developed in other ways within those conceptual goals that we had accomplished.
But I might add that — maybe it's a personal thing, you know — I'm also coming into, I think, a new period in the last couple of years or so. But the particular trio I have now with Marc Johnson on bass and Joe LaBarbera on drums is giving me a great deal of pleasure. It has me excited, and [I'm] enjoying myself in a way that — really I can't remember feeling this way since that original trio. So it is kind of really a good feeling, and it's also a marvelous thing to feel that a bassist twenty-five years old, Marc Johnson, can come into my trio with all the abilities and aesthetic and love the music and fit right in emotionally and aesthetically, and Joe LaBarbera who is just a little over thirty, because I'm of another generation, and it's encouraging to me that, you know, that they're interested enough in the music in every way to become a real part of it.
PR: Could you elaborate on the musical function of each member in your trio?
BE: This is a rather pure group, in that there's just one person really for each function, and then we cross over the other functions. I mean, the drummer is really controlling timbre and various colors and contributions in the rhythm and, you know, the propulsion and other things, maybe just coloring, or whatever. And then you have the bass function primarily in the bass, and then he becomes a solo voice also, and an accompanying voice. And then, of course, I have most of the time the primary voice in the harmonic content. And of course, we all share all these roles in various degrees as we move around. But I don't really define the roles so much, because at this level it's like we all just approach the music, and I expect them to be responsible to the music and not everybody to be just indulging themselves. And we try to dedicate ourselves to the total musical statement, whatever it might be, and try to shape it according to musical ends and not ego ends.
PR: How do you feel about extended choruses?
BE: I think things get a little lopsided sometimes, when everybody takes seventy choruses. It seems to be justified in certain ways, but to me, it's not just fine in terms of the content or the thing that they're doing — it just stretches it out beyond all dimensions, beyond any kind of emotional shape that's desirable.
If you'll notice, if we play a concert we may do seven, eight, or nine things in the first half. Now, what I try to think of in a set like that is I choose each thing to follow each thing in a way so there's a total pacing to the set. I'm really quite sensitive to that, in that in clubs I won't even predetermine sets, but I have an ability now to pace, let's say, an almost infinite number of combinations of what we do in a way that will generally work out to be a very well-paced set and a very well-shaped set. So that what we're thinking of in terms of individual pieces in effect become almost movements — you might say there will be eight or nine movements in a total work. A set would be like a total work. I'm thinking in terms of the keys and the moods and tempos and all kinds of things, you know— who might be playing a lot on one thing and not much on another. And trying to really shape this thing so that it's an emotional and musical feeling of inevitability in a sense, you know, that one thing moves to another with a sense of purpose.
So I like to feel that we don't work one thing too hard, you know, that before you get feeling like "Gee, they've been on that too long," we move into a change, some sort of a change of mood that is somehow emotionally the next thing that should or could happen that will be satisfying.
WE: Many active pianists have commented on the impact of your conception on their playing. Are you aware of the influence you have had on other players?
BE: No, it's really difficult for me to see or feel those things. I believe it's true, because it's been said so much, you know, and for so long that I suppose there's some truth in it. I don't look for it, and I don't recognize it as much as — once in a while I seem to catch an inkling of it, but of course, I'm not looking for it.
First of all, I never strived for identity. That's something that just has happened automatically as a result, I think, of just putting things together, tearing things apart and putting it together my own way, and somehow I guess the individual comes through eventually. I suppose I could see where I could be an influence, because I think what I've done is I've put something together which is not eccentric; it's a nice kind of eclectic amalgamation of what has gone down maybe before me or something like that. And I think it's something that a student of music who is talented that's coming up can focus on and draw from. Now somebody like Monk or even Erroll Garner who are great in a sense so stylized, and in the case of Monk even eccentric, that it's sort of very difficult to get into their bag at all or to utilize much of what they've done. You can learn from their spirit more than anything.
So maybe that's one reason why I might have been an influence, and it's something that somebody can pass through also. They can become influenced by it, and they could also just then move through it, because it's not eccentric and it's not so highly stylized, I think. At least that's the way I see it, that it might be attractive for that reason.
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 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 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 in 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 players 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 try to be real and right in the core, right in the middle, but still be an individual enough to handle the material in your own way.
PR: So is it fair to say that you consider yourself a late arriver?
BE: See, I said I was coming into the new period, and it has something to do with this, in that I'm opening up the expressive feeling more. I'm allowing it a little more room, and I think the dimensions are growing, you know, so that the feelings can become a little larger, a little more grand, perhaps, which I don't know makes that much difference. Perhaps those feelings were there all the while, and maybe I'm just going to display them a little bit differently or something.
But yeah, as I say, the early arrivers are always a little suspect to me, although they many times show great facility, and I can enjoy them, but I have generally found that very few of them carry things forward or take things into a new area. Those types of talents generally are very assimilative. They have that ability — some sort of a conglomerate of intuition which just takes and sops up and just sort of comes out, you know, it organizes itself and comes out, but they don't know generally, completely enough, all the constituent things that go into what they do, and therefore, they're not able to really discard and add to in any conscious way, and they're kinda trapped, in a sense, by that facility.
WE: Let's turn to some of our favorite Bill Evans recordings. "My Funny Valentine" from Undercurrent with guitarist Jim Hall is a knockout. Could you give us some insight into that session?
BE: Sure. Alan Douglas was the producer of that album for United Artists. Monty Kay was managing me at the time, and he said, "I've talked to Jim Hall, and if you guys would like to do an album together, it would be nice. Just pick the rhythm section that you want." And it just occurred to me, knowing Jim's ability, the broad ability that he had, that this might be something we could do without [a] rhythm section, that we might do just together, so we proceeded with that conception. And we did it in one night.
However, Alan Douglas asked, as the producer, that we do all low-key, more ballad-type things, totally. So really what happened was that by the time we had done the rest of the record, aside from "Funny Valentine," we were beginning to feel a little frustrated that we hadn't moved into another mood. And we said, "Look, we just gotta do, you know, something that moves a little more." And we selected "My Funny Valentine," which we played at a very bright tempo, as you know. And I think one of the reasons that it kind of comes to life is that it was the only thing that we did in that mood,
PR: Another favorite is Interplay, with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet. We don't often hear you in the company of horns. Why is that?
BE: I don't know exactly. Of course, I was concentrating a great deal on the trio and its development. But I like that album myself. I love all the musicians on it, and it was just one of those things we did, I think, in one afternoon. The frameworks were rather loose, just enough to give us something to play off of, and these wonderful players, you know, just made a really good-feeling album out of it. And I still enjoy listening to that album.
But I have done some albums more recently with horns. There are two quintet albums that came out recently. One called Quintessence, with Ray Brown, Philly Joe Jones, and Harold Land on tenor, and Kenny Burrell on guitar. And then there's another quintet album most recently, called Cross-Currents, with Lee Konitz on alto and Warne Marsh on tenor and my trio. And the latest release on Warner Brothers is called Affinity, with Toots Thielemans on harmonica featured most prominently, and Larry Schneider plays tenor and soprano on a few tracks. So it does happen — I do try to vary the output —l ike it'll either be a solo album or perhaps an album with a large orchestra, you know, or a quintet album or trio album. The trio, however, is the fundamental performing group, so that occurs most frequently. But I think there was a stretch where I didn't play with horns for quite a while on record, and I expect I'll make up for that maybe in the future, because I enjoy playing with horns.
WE: Our last question, Bill. A lot of musicians today disavow the term jazz. Do you?
BE: No, I don't, because it's just most naturally the term that is associated with our kind of music. Unfortunately, for instance, in the Book of Lists, I don't know if you're aware of that book - it just has lists of various things from the five most humorous letters to "Dear Abby" to the seven tallest mountains in the world or whatever—but [of] the seven words in
the English language that elicits the most negative response, one of them is jazz.
It was very discouraging to find this in the Book of Lists. And I think one of the reasons that some people just adopt a more or less pop-oriented name which is not like the Bill Evans Trio, but you know, we might call ourselves the Light Switch or something and then never use the word jazz in association with the music. Surprisingly enough, if you do that you'll probably enjoy a much-greater public acceptance, and it just has a lot to do with the fact that jazz is a categorization that a lot of people do not react positively to. But I don't disavow the word.”