Bill Evans

(Excerpted from beginning of Evans coverage in chapter 15.)

Bill Evans (1929-1980) played with Miles Davis for about nine months during 1958 and 1959. This exposure brought him wide attention among jazz musicians and fans. He became known particularly for his work on the important Davis album Kind of Blue. Shortly before his involvement with Kind of Blue, Evans had made a trio record called Everybody Digs Bill Evans. Its “Peace Piece” provided the basis for “Flamenco Sketches” on Kind of Blue. (To hear selections from Kind of Blue , listen to “So What” in SCCJ, “Flamenco Sketches” in the Jazz Classics CDs, and “Blue in Green” in the Concise Guide CD. Evans arranged all of them.)

Prior to 1959, Evans displayed considerable dexterity, and his style included elements from several sources. His long, fast, smoothly contoured eighth-note lines remind us of saxophonist Lee Konitz, one of his early favorites. Because Konitz derived his style from pianist Lennie Tristano, the Evans approach indirectly derives from Tristano’s influence. Evans’s piano solos also borrowed elements from bop pianist Bud Powell. Occasionally, Evans also used some bluesy figures which might be traced to pianist-composer Horace Silver, a far-reaching force during the 1950s. The manner in which Evans developed his ideas across a solo improvisation also reflects his debt to Nat Cole, who had also influenced Powell and Silver. In addition, Evans cited George Shearing as having opened his ears to the beauties of tone.

The Bill Evans style is unique in the history of jazz piano. His tone and conception are delicate without being fragile. On slow pieces, he sometimes creates a harp-like effect by sounding single tones and letting them ring, as though to savor each vibration. (Listen for this in his solo on “Flamenco Sketches” in the Jazz Classics CDs.) Though he possessed considerable dexterity, his work was never flashy. Though he was physically quite strong, he usually steered clear of an aggressively percussive manner. Evans crafted his improvisations with exacting deliberation. Often he would take a phrase, or just a kernel of its character, then develop and extend its rhythms, melodic ideas, and accompanying harmonies. Then within the same solo he would often return to that kernel, transforming it each time. And while all this was happening, he would ponder ways of resolving the tension that was building. He would be considering rhythmic ways, melodic ways, and harmonies all at the same time, long before the optimal moment for resolving the idea.

An unheard, continuous self-editing occurred while Evans improvised. Evans spared the listener his false starts and discarded ideas. Though he had a creative imagination, Evans never improvised solos that merely strung together ideas at the same rate they popped into his head. The results of these deliberations could be a swinging and exhilarating experience for the listener. However, they reflected less a carefree abandon than the well-honed craftsmanship of a very serious performer working in the manner of a classical composer. “Introspective” is the adjective most frequently applied to his music.

Bill Evans refined an approach to rhythm in jazz improvisation that has been called “non-obvious pulse,” “floating pulse,” “phrasing across the bar line,” and “de-emphasizing the beat.” (For explanation of beat, meter, and rhythm, see pages 358 to 363.) His work was rhythmically very involved. He frequently constructed phrases without starting or stopping them on main beats. He did not necessarily accent beats that indicate the meter of the piece–the first of every four beats, in meter of four, for example. In other words, his phrases did not necessarily accent beats in ways that jazz listeners had come to expect–the manner of march and dance rhythms. Though his melodic ideas are very rhythmic, many are not obvious in terms of the beat. Evans may, for instance, stagger a melodic figure across several measures, always accenting the upbeats, never squarely accenting a downbeat. He may float past it instead. This contrasts with the rhythmic tendencies of most jazz pianists. Evans conceived his improvisations in reference to the meter and tempo of the piece. Yet listeners often could not gain a clear indication of this unless they also heard walking bass or ride rhythms as a reference. Unlike most hard bop pianists, Evans evolved away from playing strings of bouncing eighth notes that explicitly delineated each beat and formed contours that evenly rose and fell. The architecture of his lines was more complex, and tension was resolved less often. These tendencies became far more pronounced later in his career, but they were already evident in his widely ac- claimed Village Vanguard sessions of June 25, 1961. (This was the last recording he made with bassist Scott LaFaro. It came to be known as the “Village Vanguard session” because it was recorded live during an appearance at that New York nightclub, and it was originally issued on an album called Sunday at the Village Vanguard. It is represented by “Solar” on the Jazz Classics CDs .)

Despite Evans’s refinement of non-obvious pulse, he did swing. In fact, many of his admirers praised his quality of swing feeling. Evans was not swinging, however, in the perceptions of listeners who were accustomed to hearing a relaxed, easily rolling line that frequently accented the first of every four beats.