"Everybody talks about my harmonic conception. But if I really worked hard in this domain, it's because I did not have good ears". (Bill Evans)
Evans' focus settled on traditional jazz standards and his own original compositions. In an interview with Rubin and Enstice for the book Jazz Spoken Here (Da Capo Press, 1994) Evans stated, "I respect the American popular song very much and some of the masters that have composed in that form ... and I studied this very hard, analytically and diligently as I was growing.... There's still explorations that I haven't begun to make yet into handling these things."
He was a master in interpreting standards, he made arrangements, reharmonized them and rephrased the melodic lines. He was able to create alterations to a tune’s original harmony in short order, often in the studio just before recording a tune. His reharmonizations are so beautiful that when playing standards, most musicians use his changes, rather than the original ones. Saxophonist Cannonball Adderley stated: "Bill Evans has rare originality and taste and the even rarer ability to make his conception of a standard seem the definitive way to play it." Jazzpianist Warren Bernhardt said
of Bill Evans "Everything he plays seems to be the distillation of the music, he never states the original melody. Yet his performance is the quintessence of it."
By analysing the devices Evans used for the interpretation of the original melodies of the standards were: diminution and augmentations, rhythmic displacements, drop voicings, inner lines, rubato,
substitute chords, voice leading, chord anticipations, fills, chromatic approach chords, left hand lines, melody with thirds, fourths, fifths and sixths, contrary motion and use of changing key
centers. Evans effectively combined all of these devices together to produce his own original, significant, and influential solo piano style. (An analysis of Bill Evans' approach to playing the melody of selected jazz ballads, thesis by M.I. Can Cankaya, William Paterson University, 2009).
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Bill Evans took post-graduate studies in composition at the Mannes College of Music during the periode in which he recorded
his first album as a leader. Initially Evans was underrated as a composer, his talents in this area being "overshadowed by the genius of his playing". He was however a productive composer and wrote more than 50 compositions. His compositions were closely tied to his improvisational style.
In his third year at high school he wrote already his first composition "Very Early", a tune in waltz time. Over the years, many of this tunes became prime jazz standards, like “Waltz For Debby” and “Turn Out the Stars”. Most compositions have been recorded several times and were part of Bill Evans' trio and solo repertoire.
Bill Evans was a gifted and sensitive composer, his compositions are among the richest and most original compositions in jazz, laced with beautiful, lush alterations and passing chords. His work has been interpreted by other pianists in countless ways through the years.
He took his place alongside the great masters of composition,
demonstrating all of the style characteristics that have distinguished him as one of the most innovative pianists in jazz.
His compositions often utilized a few basic formulas or patterns combined into a complex structure over which he then improvised.
He composed throughout his career, but especially in the last years before his untimely death his compositions as well as his playing showed more harmonic richness.
Several compositions were written as theme and variations over an ostinato bass like "Peace Piece",
while another took the form of a fugue like the classical counterpoint in the intro melody of "Fudgesickle Built for Four",
a long-forgotten Evans obscurity on the Loose Blues album from 1962. Evans was particularly in his last years a very productive composer.
An excerpt from the Merv Griffin Show, Sept 23, 1980: Griffin: Our next guest is considered one of the most influential piano soloists in the jazz world today, and his new album is called We Will Meet Again. Would, you welcome the great Bill Evans! Evans: I'm gonna change up on you. You know, directors always panic about what you're gonna play — “Don't play anything slow." I don't get a chance to play on shows like this too often, where I reach this many people, and I've been writing songs — they've been coming out lately like laying eggs. Every once in a while I'll go [imitates chicken squawking], and there's a new tune! The last tune I wrote, I was calling for a while — because it was untitled — "the diddly-ah tune." Finally I realized it's formed mostly of one idea, over and over, and goes in different places. It seemed to be making more and more of a statement, the more we played it. So I would like to do this, which I think is a little more serious, maybe, for your audience.
I won't improvise, just play two choruses of the melody. It's now called “Your Story."
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The most historically significant contributions of the Evans trio recordings were to loosen
the common practises of the bop style rhythm section which had become standard during the 50s,
walking bass, drummer playing ride rhythms and snapping shut hi-hat cymbal on the second and fourth
beats. In the Bud Powell-style trio is the amount of rhythmic and melodic interaction between
bassist and pianist relatively limited because the pianist fills up most of the spaces with lines of his own.
By contrast what Bill Evans did not play, is his thoughtful and restrained manner of playing and masterful
use of silence, which allowed bass and drums players to interact as much as they did, emancipating the
piano, bass and drum roles.
“Music itself is some sort of silence, because it imposes silence on noises and before all else the most unbearable of these noises are words.
Music is the silence of words, like poetry is the silence of prose (Vladimir Jankélévitch, a French philosopher and musicologist in Somewhere in the Unfinished).
What distinguishes the music of Bill Evans from all or almost all other music genres is its poetic dimension. A form of communication that says as
much by what it doesn't say as by what it does. Bill Evans is always engaged in a duet with silence, and the silence says as much as he says. Evans' essence was defined by his tastful economy of expression. The notes he chose not to play were fully as crucial as the ones he did. He was the master of the silent note, both in his reharmonizations of traditional jazz standards and his own original compositions.
Pascal Wetzel, a French pianist and teacher, made for more than 35 years note-for-note transcriptions of compositions and standards played by Bill Evans. Four books of his work on Bill Evans' music have been released at this time, three of them being devoted to his own compositions, following a book of standards: The Artistry of Bill Evans (CPP/Belwin, 1989), Bill Evans Fake Book (TRO, 1996), Bill Evans at Town Hall (TRO, 2004) and The Mastery of Bill Evans (TRO, 2006). From his website: "At the beginning it was a way to understand the sound of his voicings, his harmonic system, his personal treatment of the standards, the architecture of his own compositions, and the amazing mixing of control and emotion at the same time which characterized his interpretations. And I discovered a magic world, a music whose perfection was really astonishing, being unwritten: I realized the music that I got on paper was richer than I could imagine when simply listening." Summarized, Pascal states in his recent article From sound to idea to symbol: 1. The transcription of jazz comes from a recording. If the player of the transcription first listens attentively to the recording, it reveals the slightest playing nuances, including touch. This is a huge advantage. Unlike the situation with most classical music, we have the recording of the original interpretation by its creator — it is an ideal “road map". It is therefore necessary and desirable to use it. As a pianist, I cannot imagine learning a transcription of Bill Evans without carefully referring to the original recording. Interpreters of a jazz transcription must also use their ears, just as the transcriber did! 2. Music notation is very precise about which notes to play (“what?”) but much less so about their execution (“how?"). For that, it would be necessary to comment on almost every note in detail, which is impossible. Interpretation and expressiveness are “values added" by the musician. A score is the translation of sounds and their durations into written form. Therefore, it is inherently formulaic and limited. It does, however, act as a basic scenario which can be realized in different ways. (Clavier Companion, March-April 2012, pages 58-60).
Jack Reilly is a pianist, composer and educator in both the jazz and classical genres, who made an extensive in depth analysis of Bill's harmonic development of several Evans tunes in his book The Harmony of Bill Evans (Hal Leonard Corporation, 1994). In March 2010 a second volume has been released, including a CD. In this volume, he provides a deeper appreciation and understanding of Evans' compositions. It includes two important theory chapters, plus ten of Bill's most passionate and melodically gorgeous works. The voicing charts for all ten songs are more complex than volume one and pianistically more demanding, yet always worth the effort. In volume two he makes an analysis of Evans first composition "Very Early". From the accompanying audio CD two short tracks: the melody with chords and the voicings. (Published here with permission of Jack Reilly).
Jed Distler is composer, pianist, broadcaster, writer, and presenter. In 1980 he was asked by Bill Evans to help edit and transcribe his piano solos for publication. The transcriptions for the album Conversations with Bill Evans (Decca, 1997) by pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet are largely from Jed Distler. Other sheetmusic from him is Bill Evans : Rare Transcriptions Vol 3 including "Reflection in D" by Duke Ellington and Bill Evans 4 including "Waltz for Debby", "Turn Out The Stars", "One for Helen" and "Time Remembered". He is artistic director of ComposersCollaborative inc. and reviewer of Gramophone and Classicstoday.com. He was one of the organizers of the thirtieth anniversary of Bill Evans’ passing on September 15, 2010 at the Cornelia Street Café in New York, together with poet Bill Zavatsky and Laurie Verchomin, last girlfriend of Bill Evans and author of THE BIG LOVE ~ Life and Death with Bill Evans. A recent album by him is Meditate With the Masters (Musical Concepts , 2011). Some of Jed's transcriptions as played by Bill Evans and used by Thibaudet for his Evans album can you find here: "Reflections in D", "Noelle's Theme" and "Hullo, Bolinas". (Published here with permission of Jed Distler).
Chuck Israels, the bassist of the Bill Evans Trio from 1961 till 1966 made a clarifying and thorough analysis of the music of Bill Evans in an article on his website. The article deals apart from his compositions about rhythm, tone color, melody, voicings and phrasing of Bill Evans. The article from his website is published here with permission of Chuck Israels. See also his interview with Sean Dietrich from Allaboutjazz: Chuck Israels: Evans, Education and Philosophy.
Chuck Israels: "The piano is an amazing instrument; a bunch of keys, levers, and hammers that are so sensitive that they respond
differently to each player's touch. Few jazz pianists have developed the range and nuance that was an integral part
of Bill's playing. One chord, or two or three notes over a three-inch speaker in a car radio and his touch is
identifiable even as it is constantly changing".
(Time Remembered, record liner notes, Milestone Records, 1983).
Enrico Pieranunzi , who played and recorded with Evans' sidemen Paul Motian and Marc Johnson, wrote a book Bill Evans: The Pianist as an Artist (Continuum Books, 2004). He shows a great sensitivity to Bill's music and life and speaks knowledgably about the melodies, harmonies and style. "Even more than his harmonic conceptions and voicings, the depth and honesty of the interpretation of his music mean to me the essential legacy of Bill Evans". (Jazzman, November 1996) An interview about the book is published here with permission of Enrico Pieranunzi.
Sheet music and transcriptions
This link refers to a survey of songbooks, sheet music, play-alongs, transcriptions and stylistic collections of Bill Evans.
Several compositions of Bill Evans were dedicated to beloved persons in his environment:
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• B Minor Waltz
• Bill's Belle
• Bill's Hit Tune
• Blue In Green
• C Minor Blues Chase
• Catch The Wind
• Children's Play Song
• Chromatic Tune
• Comrade Conrad
• Evanesque (posthumous)
• For Nenette
• Fudgesickle Built For Two
• Fun Ride
• Funny Man
• G Waltz
• Here Is Something For You (posthumous)
• In April
• It's Love - It's Christmas
• Knit For Mary F
• Letter To Evan
• Loose Blues
• My Bells
• N.Y.C.'s No Lark
• One For Helen
• Only Child
• Peace Piece
• Peri's Scope
• Re: Person I Knew
• Remembering The Rain
• Show Type Tune
• A Simple Matter Of Conviction
• Since We Met
• 34 Skidoo
• Song For Helen
• Story Line
• Song No.1 (posthumous)
• Sugar Plum
• The Opener
• Theme (What You Gave)
• There Came You
• These Things Called Changes
• Time Remembered
• Turn Out The Stars
• The Two Lonely People
• Very Early
• Very Little Suite
• Walkin' Up
• Waltz For Debby
• Waltz In Eb
• We Will Meet Again
• Yet Ne'er Broken
• Your Story
WILLIAM CLAXTON AND A SURVEY OF SOME MAJOR ISSUES ON THE ART OF JAZZ PHOTOGRAPHY
Bill Evans © William Claxton
Bill Evans © William Claxton