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"MUSIC OFF THE TOP OF HIS HEAD"

by Laurie Prior

Bill Evans was described by some as a "troubled" man and though he sometimes appeared to be unhappy or otherwise preoccupied, I think this may be misleading. His introverted on-stage persona was perhaps due to his shyness and modesty. He happily and expertly discussed jazz with friends and fellow musicians but he seemed to find socializing with other musicians difficult. I believe it was Eddie Gomez, the bass player who worked with Bill the longest, revealed in an interview that members of the trio nicknamed Bill "The Phantom" because of the way he would simply vanish at the end of a gig. They would turn to speak to him and he'd be gone from the bandstand, having hurriedly slipped away to his hotel room to watch TV. Here he was reported to have spent long daytime hours with the curtains closed watching sports. Eddie Gomez also said that the stresses of touring and burning the midnight oil on the road wore him out.

Though Bill was prone to constant introspection and even depression, as well as on-and-off drug problems for many years, he nevertheless seemed to have the strength to study passionately, and not just music. On a BBC-Radio Series in 1990 entitled Along came Bill, it was revealed that he made an in-depth study and became something of an expert on the works of William Blake and Thomas Hardy, two authors not noted for their optimistic view of life. Both of those two writers were pretty hard going for most people. On the road though, he almost always seemed able to play at 100% capacity for a staggeringly long time.

Bill had a unique ability, however, to tap into areas of peace, through the solace and calmness he found in jazz. He was obviously someone who had gained the ability to stand back from himself and listen to the sounds he made, almost as if another person was playing. That is a rare ability. To hear the deep tranquility in his soul, you only have to listen to his solo rendering on I loves You Porgy (The Complete Riverside Collection, Disk 11), and of course, the dreamy and infamous Peace Piece. There is always that classical seriousness or solemn approach in both of those tracks, and so many others where you hear Bill connecting to his own emotions and laying his soul bare for us all to hear and feel. Beyond all this he played what I can only describe as "poetically" in the same kind of sense that Paul Desmond played lyrically. In a master class that Bill once gave he was asked questions about his unique harmonic approach, in which he seemed to find inside any given key signature, another key trying to get out. He dismissed his harmonic specialness as something that most good musicians normally have, and indicated that the quest for melodic line was a far more difficult one to master.

Bill himself said he might have gone in either of two directions at one point in his career; after obtaining his degree he had to choose between a classical performing route or or entering the jazz world. He chose jazz and what a good job he did! Think what we would have missed?

Bill Evans had a singularly discernible style; it has often been said that if you catch a tiny fragment of his playing, (like Thelonius Monk) you instantly know it's him. But in an aesthetic sense it may not be so much style as much as message. His approach was totally unique. I have to admit it makes me stop in my tracks and feel strangely reverential towards what I am hearing. To me, Bill's music was like the feeling you get when you enter a huge cathedral and sense an instant and abstract respect for the vast architecture -- the sheer size and awesome splendor of the art that went into creating it. The music in such places lets you fully realize the present moment! Time seems to stand still. As long as Bill stayed there, just playing, we would stay there and listen. In a word, I can only say it was stunning.

Technically speaking, the interplay between both hands in Bill Evans' way of playing, was often similar to what is known as dove-tailing techniques used in choral writing. It's possible to make a small number of notes (voices) overlap into each other's zones so as to make the harmony appear to be much bigger and extended - the effect is to create the sound of many more voices than are actually there. He handled the chord voicings of jazz in a very choral way. He could punctuate tenor and bass areas of his changes to fill out the voices without offending a bass player or treading on their territory. Equal weight was sometimes given to all the voices on the piano so that what came out, was, in fact, akin to an orchestration. It's especially inherent in his solo playing, which was, again, unique. You didn't get comping left-hand chords all the time with acrobatic right improvising like so many pianists who were his contemporaries. Evans once said, "I want my music to sing, and as long as it has that element of singing I'm happy". I think it's safe to say he achieved his goal in that respect.

Some have called Bill's music "emotionally exposed", as if that is a bad thing. Perhaps that is what Bill was trying to say musically, "Listen to how this feels - feel how this sounds". Above all he seemed to say he was in love with the music and the sound the piano gave to it, in his hands. He knew it was a gift but was too modest to ever admit it -- That, surely is the mark of an artist and a devoted perfectionist. Listen to his slow, relaxed playing on Young and Foolish with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian (from "Portrait in Jazz"). It's a quintessential example of how the depth of musical feeling exists in the spaces between the notes as much as in the choice of notes themselves.

His was a tremendous musical discipline. In the video The Universal Mind of Bill Evans (Rhapsody Films, 1966) his brother Harry -- also a musician -- asked him to explain this "less is more" phenomenon in his playing and he demonstrated how some players are tempted to force too many notes into the space provided. Then he demonstrated the same couple of lines of music done his way, and instantly a completely different map came from the piano. His idea seemed vastly more interesting whether the listener knew anything about music or not. Bill never actually gave away how he did this or where his choice of phrases came from. I think it was built-in. He didn't know why the effect was so good, yet he knew precisely what he was doing at any given moment through a deep knowledge of how it all knits together. What I'd give for that ability! In this video, his brother seemed unsatisfied with Bill's explanation because he was still frustrated that he couldn't do it the same way as Bill. Bill once refused to tell him what tricks he used and adopted a policy of not showing his brother any chord-substitutions at all, much to Harry's chagrin. "You have to find out for yourself, the way I did", Bill said. He didn't think anything of value could come from copying him. "Style has to happen to you, you can't force it" was another of his quotes.

Frequently when Bill was engrossed in that deep concentration playing a solo he often had his head bowed down inches from the keyboard and his eyes tightly closed, putting maximum concentration into what he was saying through the instrument. Then the music seemed to come out of the top of his head directly into the keyboard, if you will, as though nothing intervened on this thought process. His fingers operated automatically as a direct extension of his thoughts. Watching his hands in close-up, they appeared to be using movement more economically than was possible to create such complex phrases. His fingering was naturally perfect. The effect was greater than the sum of its parts.

It's probably inaccurate to describe Bill's music as coming from a "troubled mind", though one can see how he got that kind of reputation. One only has to study his choice of repertoire, to get clues as to his preference for a certain kind of melancholy mood. "You must believe in Spring" from the CD of the same title, or perhaps the solo "Everything Happens to Me" (from the solo tracks on the Complete Riverside Collection disk 10). Or "Haunted Heart"; the many versions of "My Foolish Heart"; the solo version of "What kind of Fool Am I"; "Time Remembered" to name but a few. They say Bill didn't play blues often. Maybe not, but he certainly thought blues often within his melodic devices! It's par for the course isn't it? However, his was often a poignant heart-rending approach.

In Bill's playing, above all I sense his total lack of egotism in his performances. He never indulged in showing off; the integrity of the music was too important to him for that. He could put the occasional musical joke into his improvising, but I don't think he was often engaged in trying to be humourous, per se. As has often been said -- Bill Evans was his own fiercest critic. He had total respect for the music just being there - like a mountain that just has to be climbed. This is perhaps why he was so ill at ease with audiences. He was climbing his own mountain and the presence of a crowd often had no bearing on this man's communion with himself and his sojourn.

As a composer, Bill often gravitated towards simple melodies (yet within complex structures) sometimes utilizing small close-knit phrases such as one of his last tunes, "Your Story". It's a classical kind of "developing" theme on a tiny melodic phrase of just two notes. It became known to jazz fans, much to Bill's amusement as "The Diddly-ahh tune" and the public would request him to play it regularly at gigs. It moves one tiny two-note theme within many many harmonic progressions and variations. It was a favourite with the public as well as one of his own. That type of piece made it easy for the listener to be astounded at the possibilities that could be extracted from one simple motif. The effect was one of taking the listener musically by the hand, and saying come here - this way - look at that view, did you ever see anything so fantastic?

Bill worked from such a beautiful viewing platform. It seemed to be one that people wanted to crowd onto and join him. Once he had let us all visualize it, he quietly slipped away, as do so many true artists. They let their wake streaming behind, to do what it will, until it eventually calms and dilutes -- but the great artist's music never vanishes. Those who keep stirring the water still revel in the legacy left us in pictures and sounds -- thank goodness we can recapture it through the many recordings he left behind. We can go back there for another look whenever we feel like it. When we do, nothing has changed; Bill is still there. To quote Matthew Arnold in the great poem "Thyrsis", written in the late 19th century:

"Why faintest thou?
I wandered till I died.
Roam on! the light we sought is shining still.
Our tree yet crowns the hill.
Our scholar travels yet the loved hillside".


(January 2002)

Laurie Prior is a professional piano technician and part-time jazz pianist
who has done extensive studies on the music of Bill Evans. He lives in Devon, England.

All opinions expressed are not neccesarily those of The Bill Evans Webpages site
and any content, or statement herein are the solo responsibility of the writers submitting to this site,


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