"MUSIC OFF THE TOP OF HIS HEAD"
by Laurie Prior
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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".
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.
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