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“I can recall quite vividly the very first time I heard Bill Evans play. I was about seventeen years old and had already been subjugated by Miles Davis with his record "Milestones." His following record was the now "classic" record, "Kind of Blue."
Naturally I bought this record for Miles, but was astonished to hear the pianist Bill Evans, who seemed to me to have a kind of empathic communication with Miles and his way of playing.
Among the many qualities Miles had, poignancy was one of his most eloquent; Bill understood this exceptionally well, and had the capability of encouraging this while accompanying Miles. Bill played many different kinds of harmonies that, though I couldn't understand them at all, were so "right." I spent many hours listening to that recording and, I can add, listen regularly to now.
A couple of years later I heard his first trio record with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. This was a turning point in my life. The next six months were spent listening almost exclusively to this record, and trying to analyze it while marveling at the interaction between the three players. It was on this record that I heard Bill's compositions for the first time and, although incapable of playing them, did my best to try to understand his harmonic and rhythmic conceptions which were so new to me. It was only much later, on having discovered the music of Ravel, Debussy, and Satie, that I began to understand the origins of Bill's harmonic viewpoint.”
- John McLaughlin, guitarist
“In terms of style, what musical influences are you aware of? The role of bebop in your melodic lines is evident, but there's a lot more. Where does it come from?”
“It's more a personality characteristic of putting things together in my own way, which is analytic. Rather than just accept the nuances or syntax of a style completely, I'll abstract principles from it and then put it together myself. It may come out resembling the [original] style, but it will be structured differently, and that may be what gives it its identity. I've often thought that one reason I developed an identity, which I wasn't aware of until recently - people were telling me I had an identity, but I wasn't aware of one! I was just trying to play - is that I didn't have the kind of facile talent that a lot of people have, the ability just to listen and transfer something to my instrument. I had to go through a terribly hard analytical and building process. In the end I came out ahead in a sense because I knew what I was doing in a more thorough way.”
“Do you mean because of analyzing the elements in your own music?”
“In other people's music, too. If I liked something and wanted to be influenced by it, I couldn't just take it whole hog like some people can, like getting it more or less by osmosis. I had to consciously abstract principles and put them into my own structure.”
- Len Lyons, The Great Jazz Pianists [p. 221]
In some form or fashion, I think I’ve read this answer/explanation in just about every “How did it all begin?” interview that Bill Evans ever gave and, given his immense popularity, especially during the last decade of his life [he died in 1980], he gave a lot of interviews.
He would sometimes add as a corollary, that musicians who developed early due to some simplistic, innate ability to play Jazz, usually burned out early too because they lacked a depth of awareness about what they were doing.
Bill has also made the statement that his stature as a Jazz pianist was due to “2% talent and 98% hard work.”
Both his “… putting things together in my own way…” and “…98% hard work” references were always heartening and encouraging to me because things didn’t come easy for me in the music.
I also had to break things down and reconstruct them step-by-step in order to find my way through, although, in my case, the results weren’t nearly as effective as Bill’s.
Bill’s music touched so many Jazz musicians, whatever the instrument. Larry Bunker, gave up a lucrative studio career for about one year to go on the road as Bill's drummer.
When I once asked him why he took on this opportunity at such a financial sacrifice, he laughed and asked me: “Wouldn’t you have?”
Because piano and guitar parallel each other in so many ways [each is a chording instrument], I always thought that the lyrical nature of Bill’s approach to music would be a natural for the guitar.
“We’ve got to improvise on something!”
In a nutshell, this statement from bassist Charlie Mingus encapsulates the eternal dilemma for Jazz musicians, then and now.
Because what a Jazz musician decides to play, or more specifically, play on, determines the most significant element of a Jazz performance - the improvisation.
The tune, or song if it has lyrics, is a point of departure upon which a Jazz musician improvises. It provides the melody, harmony and rhythm upon which the improvisation is framed.
While it sounds structurally simple, the psychological and emotional implications are enormous because “what we improvise on” also creates the basis for how we improvise. Moods can be determined or shaped, phrasing can be effected, and the overall sound or tonality of a solo - among many other variables - are reflective of the choice of material and artist selects as the basis for improvisation.
Getting the match up right is easier than it sounds, although some artists like Art Tatum, or Phil Woods or Jim Hall can play on anything and create solos that sound good.
One format that is often visited as the basis for new material upon which to improvise is “The Music of” approach and that’s what’s on offer in the new recording by guitarist Ricardo Pinheiro, bassist Massimo Cavalli and drummer Eric Ineke - Turn Out The Stars: The Music of Bill Evans [Challenge CR73523]. The CD is made up of music closely associated with Bill: five are his original compositions, one is by Michel Legrand and the other is from the pen of Leonard Bernstein.
Which brings me back to the lyrical nature of Bill’s music being a natural for guitar interpretation, but not just any guitarist. It requires a guitarist with sensibilities similar to Bill’s use of time and space to make the transfer work.
And that’s what makes Ricardo Pinheiro’s interpretations of Bill’s music work on the guitar - he allows them to evolve, to open, to breathe - he doesn’t overplay them, but underscores them with shadings, nuances and tonal colorings.
Another feature of Bill’s music that Ricardo captures as the lead voice on this recording is the free-flowing interchange of ideas between the guitar, bass and drums. He keeps the music “open” and allows Massimo and Eric to engage him in thematic ideas, harmonic variations and rhythmic inventions.
All of which is not to say, that Ricardo, Massimo and Eric don’t put their own stamp of originality on these pieces: You Must Believe in Spring transitions from a dreamy ballad to a medium tempo swinger; Turn Out The Stars and Time Remembered are taken in tempo and given a nice bounce; Waltz for Debby opens with solo guitar, moves to double time when the bass and drums come in and then segues into a slow, straight-ahead out chorus!
Conversely, Interplay is taken more slowly than the original with Eric adding emphatic “kicks and fills” with brushes, almost as though he was playing it as a big band arrangement; Massimo stays in two; Eric switches to sticks and the piece then goes into 4/4 with Massimo and Eric each soloing before Ricardo takes the melody out.
Ricardo induces a series of electronic effects from the guitar that wash over Some Other Time and gives this rendition almost an ethereal effect marked by sustained chording which actually does serve to give the arrangement a sort of otherworldly and perhaps, in that sense, a timeless quality.
In making the decision to “play on” or “improvise on” the music of Bill Evans and the music closely associated with him, Pinheiro, Cavalli and Ineke stepped up to a large responsibility - reimagining the oeuvre of a Jazz giant in a different setting.
In writing about the unexpected pairing of tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, then riding the crest of the bossa nova sensation wave, with 21-year old vibraphonist Gary Burton in 1964, Art Lange wrote in the insert notes to Stan Getz: Nobody Else But Me [Verve 314-521 660-2]:
“It’s endlessly interesting how influences and accidents result in something unexpected, unique and marvelous.”
The combination of Pinheiro, Cavalli and Ineke had worked together before, so their combination on this recording is no accident, but the influence of the music of Bill Evans as heard on their Turn Out The Stars: The Music of Bill Evans certainly results in “something unexpected, unique and marvelous.”