The piano has been a central instrument in the evolution of jazz. From the beginning jazz piano has been an integral part of the jazz history , in both solo and ensemble settings. The piano is also an essential instrument in the understanding of jazz theory and arranging, because of its combined melodic and harmonic nature. Pianists have always been among jazz’s great improvisors, composers and bandleaders. The pianist has all the elements of complete musical expression: rhythm, melody and harmony with innumerable combinations. The piano is one of the few versatile instruments in a jazz combo which can play chords, rather than single notes only. Zoot Sims: “I think one of the best things you can do, no matter what you play, is to take up piano. Music is based on chord changes and harmonies, and you can get ’em more out of an instrument like piano, where you can hear all the notes at once.” Bill Evans put the piano into its proper place in jazz by using the instrument’s strenghts instead of trying to copy trumpetplayers and saxophonists by playing single lines: he used chords, impressionist runs, and pulled one note out of the top of clusters of notes to let the melody ring out …..and there has never been a more responsive rhythm section. The piano has the capacity to be in itself a complete, autonomous, expressive musical medium. That’s why the statement of a jazzpianist: “I’m lucky I’m a pianoplayer, I never need feel frustrated, I have got my own orchestra.”
Early Jazz piano was heavily the stride and ragtime technique and was often solo. Historically influential exponents of early jazz piano include James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, Willie “The Lion” Smith , Art Tatum, Thomas “Fats” Waller, Mary Lou Williams and Teddy Wilson. Later Earl Hines, the “father of jazz piano” expanded the piano capabilities in all respects: rhythmic, harmonic and melodic. Until about 1940 the piano functioned supportively in big bands or as a solo instrument. Modern jazz piano began to appear in the mid-1940’s. Unlike swing, modern jazz is intended for listening rather than for dancing. Some of the most important, influential pianists of the 1950s and 1960s include Red Garland , McCoy Tyner , Ahmad Jamal, Wynton Kelly, Thelonious Monk, Phineas Newborn Jr., Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Lennie Tristano. Bill Evans was part of a new generation of players emerging in the 1960s which included Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock,
Keith Jarrett, John Taylor, Andy Laverne and Richie Beirach. Recent and contemporary pianists are Bill Charlap, Geoffrey Keezer, Brad Mehldau, Mulgrew Miller, Danilo Perez, Fred Hersch, Jacky Terrasson, Esbjorn Svensson, Tord Gustavsen, Robert Glasper , Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Enrico Pieranunzi.
When one talks about “jazz piano music,” one is almost always talking about the piano trio in jazz music. The jazz piano trio has been an important part of the jazz scene for more than half a century. The trio is and has been most jazz pianists’ favorite format, and with good reason: the jazz piano trio has been said at times to represent the essence of jazz in the most refined yet effective way possible. A piano trio takes full advantage of swing, interaction, and dynamics. There are many outstanding jazz piano trios throughout the jazz history, each with its own signature sound: there is the majestic swing of the Oscar Peterson trio, Art Tatum‘s trio substituted guitar for drums, the Nat King Cole trio, the classy bop of Hank Jones and his trio and the great independence within the Bill Evans trio.
On the left a 20 CD Box Set Jazz Piano History from ragtime to contemporary jazz. This exclusive box includes several extensive booklets. (Membran International GmbH, 2006)
The History of Piano Jazz. A boxed set, which contains no fewer than 25 CDs tracing the history of jazz piano from early 1899 to the end of 1958. The final disc takes up to the end of 1958, after which the chance to use copyright-free material runs out. This means that we hear nothing from many important modern pianists, such as Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul, McCoy Tyner et al. So the “History of Piano Jazz” is incomplete. The last CD contains 4 pieces by Bill Evans: “Minority”, “Tenderly”, “Night And Day” and “Peace Piece” from the album Everybody Digs Bill Evans. (Le Chant du Monde, 2009).
BILL EVANS AND THE PIANO TRIO, INTRODUCING THE DEMOCRACY WITHIN THE TRIO
To begin, view the TIMELINE of the bassists and drummers of the Bill Evans trio from 1956 to 1980.
The term piano trio in jazz usually refers to a group comprising a pianist, a double bass player and a drummer. The pianist is usually considered the leader of these trios, and trios are usually named after their pianist. Since 1960 piano trios have become a more interactive and democratic character. Formerly, in the swing and bop period, the piano took on a very dominant role where, it was less a trio in the ideal sense of three equal roles, than it was piano plus bass and drums. There will always be room for more straight-ahead swinging piano trios, where bass and drums play roles more defined as timekeeping and support for the pianist, but at present the trios evolve to a much greater interaction. The goal was not just a pianist with two backing instruments, but rather a three-way conversation. The sensitive, quiet and introverted Bill Evans wanted to work with the music more freely, from the inside out. His playing is almost impressionistic with just a hint of rhythm. “Bill Evans is a pianist who crossed over boundaries in terms of color, he used the piano as his canvas” (Roberta Flack). “The sound Bill got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall” (Miles Davis). Miles Davis considered him as one of a few pianists who didn’t only play the chord, but played a sound. Regardless of style, era or instrument, the greatest jazz artists share an essential attribute: a recognizable sound. An individualist like Bill Evans announces himself: his tone, phrasing, touch, harmonic choices and rhythmic turns are calling cards. (“Emulating Bill Evans” by Doug Ramsey, The Wall Street Journal, 2010). The percussive style of playing adopted by many of other pianists, was hardly compatible with his legato treatment of the eighty-eight keys. “Evans was an introverted performer who possessed an inexplicable charisma miscast in a world of extroverted giants” (Scott Yanow, Jazziz, May 1997)
Wrongfully some, like the controversial jazz critic Stanley Crouch, write Evans off as a romantic pianist who didn’t swing hard enough and played not deep enough into the blues. The neoclassicist Crouch, who appeared in Ken Burns’ 2001 criticized documentary “Jazz” and who served on the film’s advisory board also postulated with a tunnell vision that the European and classical traditions have never made any significant contribution to the history of jazz music. Bill Evans was accused of not being able to swing, or abused for an “weak” approach to jazz that was unfamiliar to its African sources. Also Tom Piazza, who is part of the Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch camp, dismissed Bill Evans in his Guide To Classic Recorded Jazz (Iowa Press 1995): “I have trouble sitting still for his work for very long. He doesn’t swing enough, he can’t play the blues, and I don’t feel close to his soul.” Evans seemed to be immune from criticism, he was simply uninterested in the blues, both as a form and as part of his musical vocabulary and repertoire. “I do not feel confined to the blues form as so many other jazz musicians … The blues is a particular emotional state. Some emotional situations can not be as the blues” (Bill Evans to Franois Postif in JazzHot). While Bill Evans swings in a very different way than Oscar Peterson, the same could be said for other authoritative pianists – it’s different. However, there are plenty of Evans recordings which show that he could indeed flash the technique and swing as hard as anyone when he wanted to, especially in the first and last period of his career. To disprove the myth that Bill Evans can’t play the blues, one only need listen to the Oliver Nelson recording “Blues And The Abstract Truth”, “Freddie the Freeloader” on the album “You Must Believe In Spring” or “Blues In – F” on the album “Bill Evans Trio at Shelly`s Manne-Hole”. Jazz author and jazz historian Eric Nisenson in his book Blue: The Murder Of Jazz (Da Capo Press 2000): Does Evans “sound white”? What if he does? He is white, after all, and if his music is authentic it has to be expressive of his own life and truth. The beauty and power and—yes—authenticity of Bill Evans’s music is vouched for by the fact that some of the greatest African-American musicians of this century . . . respected him enough to have Evans play in their bands and/or record with him.
The earliest Bill Evans Trio, featuring bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, is considered by many to be the prototypical “melodically and interactive” piano trio. Scott Lafaro had an amazing fluidity and velocity on his instrument and was also very melodic and inventive. He wasn’t walking all the time in 4/4, but served as a melodic countervoice within the trio, as a kind of dancing accompaniment between the piano and drums. Bill Evans: “If the bass player, for eample, hears an idea that he wants to answer, why should he just keep playing a 4/4 background? I don’t really understand why the basic 4/4 meter has to be pounded out year after year when other things that are more subtle can be projected, as long as it is within you”. (From Does Bill Evans Swing, Commentary, September 1995, Terry Teachout). In this trio, the bass critically provided complex poly-rhythmic and melodic counterpoint and also offered lead lines as raw material for the rest of the group. Bill Evans developed a more democratic piano trio with an integrated trio sound, encouraging greater contrapuntal interplay. “Interplay” became the key term: collective invention in the trio formation in which nobody was the soloist, nobody merely accompanist. As continued inheritance we can nowadays listen to piano trios like those of Keith Jarrett, Steve Kuhn, Bill Charlap, Enrico Pieranunzi and Brad Mehldau. The “space” in Evans playing has been criticized by some devotees, who emphasize that all jazz groups must groove on quarter note swing bebop to be classified as “jazz”. Thus, melodically interactive trios, like those of Bill Evans, are sometimes thought of as being incapable “swinging.” However, it is unequivocal that these “Golden Triangle” trios are more than capable of an intense locked driving swing; they often prefer medium tempo swing and waltzes in order to provide the space for interplay. Evans became among the first musicians to represent what has become known as the “floating pulse”, a natural flow, where the steady beat of the beat of the song was allowed to ebb and flow with the mood of the collective improvisation. This is a style of rhythm section playing in which an explicit statement of every beat is replaced by unusual melodic and rhythmically displaced material which only imply the underlying tempo. In an interview with Rubin and Enstice for the book Jazz Spoken Here (Da Capo Press, 1994), Evans stated “In my mind Scott LaFaro was responsible in a lot of ways for the expansion of the bass. I think he is acknowledged, at least within musical circles, as being more or less the father or the wellspring of modern bass players. And when we got together I realized that Scott had the conceptual potential, he had the virtuosity, and he had the experience and the musical responsibility … to handle the problem of approaching the bass function in jazz, especially with a trio.” Bill Evans, bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian changed the concept of the piano trio from that of a soloist accompanied by bass and drums to that of three musicians who breathe, think and function as one.
Piano, bass and drums in the Bill Evans Trio: the geometry of the equilateral triangle, 1+1+1=3 and not 1+2=1,5 (Alain Gerber: Bill Evans, Fayard, 2001).
After leaving Miles Davis in 1959, Bill Evans formed a trio with Jimmy Garrison on bass and Kenny Dennis on drums, later replaced by Philly Joe Jones. He had a lot of trouble, and changed the rhythm section several times with about eight bass players. “I remember that I had been looking for a special kind of bass player for sometime. I think that perhaps my approach to the concept of the first trio required a different kind of player. I wanted to make room for the bass and try to leave some fundamental roles empty so that the bass could pick them up. If I am going to be sitting there playing roots, fifths and full voicings, the bass is relegated to a time machine. I think in terms of a tune having a total shape and, for example, I try to avoid getting to full intensity too early. Any one thing done for too long gets tiring. Contrast is important to me. I even thought that drums would be a problem and we might better without them. It was remarkable that Paul Motion came along and identified with the concept so completely that drums were no longer a problem. As for Scott, I remember that he sat one night at the Composer’s Club in New York. I was astounded by his creativity, a virtuso. There was so much music in him, he had a problem controlling it. It was like a gusher and he could not contain his ideas. He stimulated me to other areas and perhaps I helped him contain some of his enthusiasm. It was a wonderful thing and was worth all the effort that we made later to suppress the ego and work for a common result” ( From Bill Evans, a person I knew, by Brian Hennessey in Jazz Journal International, March 1985)
The recordings that Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro, and Paul Motian made at the Village Vanguard in 1961 were avant-garde for the time. Bill Evans employs a floating pulse with subtle ways of phrasing so as to avoid accenting the most obvious beats, absence of walking bass, staggered placement of phrases, displaced and fragmented drumming accompaniments, reharmonizations of comping chords, blurring of turnarounds, quartal harmonies, playing in and out of swing feeling. (Mark C. Gridley, in Jazz Styles: History and Analysis, Prentice Hall 10 edition, 2008)
From an interview with Paul Motian by Ted Panken, a professional jazz and creative music journalist (Down Beat, Jazziz, and Jazz Times): “It depended on who I played with. I remember the day when I first played with Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro, the way Scott LaFaro was playing. I’d never played with a bass player who played like that before. I was playing with Oscar Pettiford, Tommy Potter, Curley Russell, Wilbur Ware, people who just played straight-ahead 4/4 time. Here was Scott LaFaro playing… People used to say, “He sounds like a guitar player.” All of a sudden, the time started to break up. I guess maybe during that period was when I first started to realize that the time was already there; you don’t have to play it all the time. Maybe. Now it seems that every bass player plays like that. But in those days, it seemed that nobody played like that. Maybe Gary Peacock might have, but I didn’t know Gary yet”.
Chuck Ralston Scott Lafaro Homepage
In 2001 the International Society of Bassists (ISB) organized a Convention recital at the Butler University, Indianapolis, with a special tribute to Scott LaFaro entitled “The Bassists of Bill Evans” with Chuck Israels, Eddie Gomez, Marc Johnson and special guest Scott’s sister Helene. In 2009 Helene published a biography of Scott Jade Visions (University of North Texas Press) with an introduction by Gene Lees. Also in 2009 Resonance Records released an album of Scott LaFaro “Pieces of Jade” with Don Friedman on piano, Scott LaFaro on bass and Pete LaRoca on drums recorded in New York City, 1961. Scott LaFaro never recorded as a leader and appeared on less than twenty albums before his untimely death in that year by a car accident shortly after the Village Vanguard sessions with Bill Evans. The album closes with a 20 minutes rehearsal tape of “My Foolish Heart” with Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro from 1960 and a 13 minutes interview of Bill Evans about his collaboration with Scott LaFaro from 1966.
Bill Evans about Scott LaFaro (George Klabin, 1966)Alternative contentEliot Zigmund about Scott LaFaroAlternative contentPaul Motian about the trio (Ben Sidran, 2006)Alternative contentFrom an interview with Scott LaFaro by Martin Williams in Jazz Review (1960): “It is quite a wonderful thing to work with the Bill Evans trio. We are really just beginning to find out our way. Bill gives the bass harmonic freedom because of the way he voices, and he is practically the only pianist who does. It is because his classical studies. I found out playing with Bill that I have a deep respect for harmony, melodic patterns and form. We were each contributing something and really improvising together, each playing melodic and rhythmic phrases. The harmony would be improvised; we would often begin only with something thematic and not a chord sequence. I don’t like to look back, because the whole point in jazz is doing it now. There are too many things to learn and too many things you can do, to keep doing the same things over and over. My problem now is to get that instrument under my fingers so I can play more music. My ideas are so different from what is generally acceptable nowadays that I sometimes wonder if I am a jazzmusician”.
Chuck Israels was the bassist of the Bill Evans Trio from 1961 till 1966. He described his role in the trio as “not a rhythm function”. “My voice is left open because Bill doesn’t play the bass in his left hand. So I mold the contour of my bass line to fit the character of the piece.” Therefore because Israels knows the harmonic nature of the piece, Evans knows he can leave out the bass voice on piano, Israels will fit it in. Chuck Israels made a clarifying and thorough analysis of the music of Bill Evans in an article on his website. The article deals about rhythm, tone color, melody, voicings, phrasing and the compositions of Bill Evans. The article from his website is published here with permission of Chuck Israels. (Also as a ‘PDF‘ file). Drummer Paul Motian: After Scott’s death we didn’t work for six month. Then Chuck Israels played with us on bass. That must have been a difficult time for Chuck. It had taken us two years to get to the peak we had reached with Scott, and now with Chuck we had to start all over.” Bill Evans: “Because everyone was looking at Chuck with Scott in mind, he was in a very sensitive position. He did admirably, but he had many things on his mind, things of a technical nature, concerning the musical means with which we work.” (Gene Lees, Down Beat, 1962)
Eddie Gomez, the bassist of Evans from 1966 till 1977: “I’d always wanted to play with Bill Evans because I felt that the relation between the piano and the bass always gave the bass such an openness that anything went, in musical way. And I always wanted that kind of freedom. It has to be tasty, because anything goes, you have to edit. Bill doesn’t ask for anything except that you be as musical as possible, and he is always more demanding of himself.”
(Interview with Kitty Grime in Jazz At Ronnie Scott’s, London, 1979)
Bill Evans talking with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morell (Audio excerpt from the DVD Bill Evans Trio in Helsinki, 1970).
A personal note from drummer Joe Hunt: “Rob, I was with Bill for almost one year from mid/late 1966 – early/mid 67. I don’t remember exact dates. I joined him with Eddie Gomez maybe fall/winter 1966 – our first trio gig The London House, Chicago, opposite Eddie Higgins trio. It was a very loud and noisy restaurant but Bill was patient with the noise and our youthful enthusiasm. One of the only negative comments he ever said was on the opening night “You guys are rushing”. This was probably because we were following him and we were so excited to be his trio members. After that his comments to us were usually positive”. (Joe Hunt)
Marc Johnson, the last Evans’ bassist from 1978 till 1980 is rather modest about his playing with Evans, in reality his fresh ideas clearly energized and inspired the pianist. “I was still a very young player, 25 years old, when I was with Bill, but by playing with him night after night I matured a lot. My confidence grew, my ability to concentrate heightened, my sense of timing improved, and my knowledge of harmony expanded. With Bill, if the drummer was playing 4/4, there was no reason why the bassist had to be doing so, too. The bassist could play something different while also feeling the time and the form, and relating to the structure of the piece. So, there was a looser quality that finds bassists playing through the forms instead of obviously outlining the form.” “Focus and commitment always come to mind when I think of him. Bill played at a very high level, not only in technical mastery but in focused conception. Evans deepest influence on musicians was through his methodology. All of the pianists who I have played with in other trios have been touched by Bill’s conception. Although he was popular and influential, I think Bill Evans is still underated”. “We will never know the true artist that Bill Evans was. Right after he died, I spent a couple of months just immersed in his music. I just had to listen to it. And then, suddenly I found that I couldn’t listen to it. It was just too devasting to me”. (Win Hinkle, interview with Marc Johnson, Letter From Evans 2, Sept 1990)Interview with Chuck Israels (John Liebman, 2014):Alternative contentInterview with Eddie Gomez (NPR, 2008):Alternative contentInterview with Eddie Gomez:Alternative contentInterview with Marc Johnson (NPR, 2008):Alternative content
Bill Evans considered his last trio with Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera as important as his first trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. “I don’t compare them qualitatively so much, but characteristically, I think the last trio resembles the first trio more than any other trio I’ve had. The music is evolving and growing of itself like the first trio.”
(Interview after a performance in Norway at the Molde Jazz Festival on August 9th, 1980).
Marc Johnson about the trio conception:Alternative content
“I’am hoping the trio will grow in the direction of simultaneous improvisation. If the bass player, for example, hears an idea that he wants to answer, why should he just keep playing a 4/4 background. After all, in a classical composition, you don’t hear a part remain stagnant until it becomes a solo. There are transitional development passages – a voice begins to be heard more and more and finally breaks into prominence.” (From an interview with Bill Evans by Nat Hentoff in The Jazz Review, October 1959).
Jazz is always, as Bill Evans once remarked, “a social situation”; it involves a number of musicians speaking a shared language, but with highly individual sensibilities. “We try to dedicate ourselves to the total musical statement, whatever it might be,” said Evans, “and try to shape it according to musical ends and not ego ends.”
“The mutual responsiveness within the trio is so acute as to be extrasensory. By there strong inner cohesion and subtle use of cross-rhythms, they made each tune seem to pulsate with an inner life. This was jazz as free and as intense as anything the avant-garde could create, but made ultimately sublime by the inner tension and discipline of the basic chord structure and tempo. In his masterful balancing of form and freedom, Bill Evans has created a music that is the most profound and exhilarating experience jazz has to offer.” (From a review of a gig by the Bill Evans Trio at Ronnie Scott’s Club, London, 1965, by jazzcritic and writer David Rosenthal in Jazz Journal, May 1965)
“When Bill Evans formed a trio, late in 1959, with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, a peculiar thing happened: The burden of being the soloist instead of a soloist appeared too much for him, and he became increasingly ruminative and withdrawn. He experimented endlessly with slow, cloudy numbers, and the singing climaxes all but vanished. Then, in the spring of 1961, bassist Scott LaFaro, a stunning musician who tried to draw Evans out by working contrapuntally with him and by playing daringly executed solos, was killed in an accident, and Evans work became even more closeted and gloomy. The irony was uncomfortably plain: Evans, shy to the point of pain, had become a young Werther.” (Whitney Balliett, jazzcritic and writer, on the chemistry between Evans and Scott LaFaro)
BILL EVANS ON PRACTICING AS A TRIO
Bill Evans on practicing as a trio.
Three informal interviews.
Audio excerpts from the DVD
“Bill Evans Trio in Helsinki 1970”
(JazzShots 2009)Alternative content
Alternative contentAmazingly, Evans told Marian McPartland in an interview for her Piano Jazz series (The Jazz Alliance 1978, reissue 2002), that the trios had had only about four rehearsals in 20 years. In an other interview by Michael Spector for Contemporary Keyboard, (1977) Evans postulated about practicing: “No. Again I say that I don’t necessarily recommend it, but the working mode of the trio has always been to develop the music in performance. I would say that during the sixteen years that the trio has been in existence we’ve rehearsed perhaps five times, which was mainly to go over new material prior to a live recording. Other than that, everything has been done in performances and on the job. And as I said, I don’t necessarily recommend this, because I think we probably could have expanded our frameworks and approach towards handling some material by having a rehearsel; but on the other hand, in this way everything is done spontaneously and everything develops in a very natural way. I think this is a good part of it.” The Evans philosophy is to the point: never impose any verbal conception of the music before the performance. Let everything happen through the playing. In an interview by John A. Tynan in Down Beat (1965) : “What gives the trio its character, is probably a common aim and sort of feeling of potential. The music develops as we perform. What you hear in a set has become that way through performance. We have discussed music collectively but never the specifics of a performance. I want the other guys to feel as I do, that the object is to achieve what we want in a responsible way. Naturally, as the lead voice in the group I might shape the performance, but to attempt to dictate …. never.”
BILL EVANS AND THE PIANO DUO
The jazz piano duo, is relatively uncommon. One can mention only a few notable combinations such as Duke Ellington with Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington with Count Basie, John Lewis with Hank Jones, Hank Jones with Tommy Flanagan, Chick Corea with Herbie Hancock, Alan Broadbent with Bill Mays, Richie Beirach with Andy LaVerne and Stefano Bollani with Franco d’Andrea. It is true Bill Evans played in a duo setting with guitarist Jim Hall on two albums, with Tony Bennett on two albums and one with bassist Eddie Gomez, but duos with fellow pianists are exceptional. On the album Jazz in the Space Age (1960) by George Russell some tracks features duelling pianos between Bill Evans and Paul Bley like a real piano battle, perhaps one of the most memorable encounters in modern jazz. During the interview on Piano Jazz (1978) on some tracks he plays duo with pianist and interviewer Marian McPartland. On the album The Ivory Hunters (1959) Bill Evans plays duo with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer this time on piano, with Percy Heath on bass and Connie Kay on drums. On one track on the DVD The Bill Evans Trio In Europe Bill Evans participates in a four-hands jam with the pianists John Lewis, Marian McPartland and Patrice Rushan with Eddie Gomez on bass and Paul Motian on drums. The performance happened during the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1975. Recently an album has been released with pianist Luiz Ea and Bill Evans performing together at Chiko’s Bar, Rio de Janeiro, 1979: Piano Four Hands. Luiz Eca is the composer of “The Dolphin”. A friend of Earl Zindars showed Bill Evans the lead sheet, who decided to record it on his album From Left To Right (1970).
Did you ever considered to play duet or release a duet album with another pianist to respond to the other instead of responding to yourself like the album Conversations with myself? Bill Evans: “It should be however for hundred percent the right person. You can always do that and have some fun together, but to achieve one’s aim to produce one’s own intrinsic contribution, what should be relatively pure, than you need exactly the right partner. That’s why I play in some way or other rather on my own, because I know exactly what happens and because the feelings and the intentions should agree. (Interview in the German magazine Jazz Forum in 1979 with Clifford Jay Safane)
BILL EVANS AND PIANO SOLO
For others, unlike the piano trio, solo piano jazz represents the ultimate challenge: a grand piano and a grand pianist in the most intimate setting. “Exposed”, “naked”, “out there alone”, these are some of the expressions used by pianists to describe the experience of playing solo piano. The combination of these elements has placed the Maybeck Recital Hall series among the most respected undertakings in modern piano jazz. Maybeck Recital Hall is located inside the Kennedy-Nixon House in Berkeley, California. It was built in 1914 by the distinguished architect Bernard Maybeck and seats up to 50 people. The house was purchased in 1987 by jazz pianist Dick Whittington, who opened the hall for public recitals. Concord Records in California set out to take advantage of the building’s amazing acoustics. Between 1989 – 1995, Whittington and Concord records produced and recorded 42 solo piano performances at Maybeck Recital Hall. Each album featured a different jazz pianist and Whittington made a concerted effort to include in these recital pianists whom he felt deserved wider public recognition. In addition, Concord also released CDs of 10 jazz duets with piano and bass that were performed at Maybeck during this same period. The great unifying aspect of all of these recordings is the beautiful acoustics, the amazing playing and the simple grandeur that is associated with listening to the unaccompanied grand piano. The music evoke predominantly introspection and a relaxed ambient. The Maybeck Recital Hall series is a fair index of Evans’ influence. It does not require intense listening and the rigor of musicological analysis to conclude that at least half of the 40 pianists simply would not play as they do if Evans had not lived. Others in the series have incorporated aspects of Evans into their styles.
Bill Evans never performed solo at Maybeck Recital Hall, because he untimely died in 1980. From 1963 till 1978 however he recorded 7 solo studio albums without audience: Conversations With Myself (1963, Grammy Award), the first recording of overdubbed solos, Solo Sessions Vol 1 and Vol 2 (1963), Further Conversations With Myself (1967), the second recording of overdubbed solos, Alone (1968, Grammy Award), Alone Again (1975) and New Conversations (1978), the third and final recording of overdubbed solos. Moreover he played solo tracks on several albums from his earliest recordings on New Jazz Conceptions (1956) to his last-known solo tracks during the interview with Marian McPartland on the Piano Jazz album (1978). In this NPR radio show, Bill made two comments about playing solo piano: first, it’s exceedingly challenging and therefore more satisfying than performing in a trio; second, he has never felt himself equal to the task.
Another comment of Bill Evans about solo playing to Len Lyons in Down Beat, march 1976: “It’s the best practise in the world for a pianist. I wish I could play a solo gig for about a year; but I am more interested in the trio, and to keep it together I have to keep it working. My conception of solo playing is a music that moves, let’s say a more rhapsodic conception that has interludes of straight-ahead jazz. It would be a more orchestral conception, moving very freely between keys and moods. In other words, things you can’t do with a group. That’s the added dimension.”
Although he regularly included a solo section in his concert program or recordings, he found playing solo very difficult. For Evans, as a protective cover in a creative and interactive setting, performing in the context of the piano trio with bass and drums was actually indispensable. For every jazz pianist, unaccompanied solo playing is the musical equivalent of single combat: no bass no drums, just one mind, two hands and 88 keys.
BILL EVANS AND MODAL JAZZ PIANO
The main characteristics of modal jazz are: slow-moving harmonic rhythm, the repetition of a single chord or a pair of alternating chords lasting for at least 4 measures, absence of standard functional harmonic patterns and static harmony for a longer part of a piece. Bill Evans was the first pianist who played modal jazz. As a musical entity , modal jazz was originally centered in the work of a handful of musicians that included Miles Davis and George Russell, arranger Gil Evans, pianist and composer Bill Evans, saxophonist/composer Oliver Nelson, and later Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane. Herbie Hancock attributes hearing the modal concepts of Evans’ solo on “So What” as a turning point in his own approach. Chick Corea heralds him as one of his main inspirations and acknowledges Evans’ great musicianship as a factor in his own musical development. In modal jazz, improvisations are based on individual scales or modes rather than on the overall key of a piece. The scales formed the stepping stone of solos instead of the busy progressions that had featured jazz music since the bop period. Often, modal jazz performances move back and forth between only two chords based on a mode.
Miles Davis recorded one of the best selling jazz albums of all time in this modal framework with “Kind Of Blue” in 1959 with Bill Evans at the piano. Bill Evans’ notes to the album may be the most widely read liner notes in jazz history. “There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous.” Evans goes on to draw a relationship between that art and the musical structures which Miles created for Kind of Blue. This best selling jazz record of all time was released 50 years ago and it still sells 5,000 copies a week. A typical example on this album is “So What”, this song only uses two chords during its 32 measure duration. The result is a song that contains fewer chord changes and allows more time and freedom for melodic improvisation. In essence, it’s about a return to melody. The chord changes (harmonic rhythm) move at a much slower rate than is usually heard in bebop. (Miles Davis’ “So What” as Modal Jazz Case Study by Titus, Jason Roger Ph.D., University of Rochester, Eastman School of Music, 2010). Next an audio clip with Miles Davis about Bill Evans:
Modal jazz often has an impressionistic, meditative character. In a piano trio they choose not to play their songs using chords, but instead use modal scales. This means that the bassist, for instance, don’t have to ‘walk’ from one important note of a chord to that of another – as long as he stays in the scale being used and accentuate the right notes within the scale, he can go almost everywhere. The pianist will not have to play the same chords or variations of the chords, but can do anything, as long as he also stays within the scale being used. The overall result is more freedom of expression and the soloist can be more adventurous. Even when Bill Evans played his standard tunes, which are essentially tonal, he used modes as an element of harmonic and melodic renewal, but without altering the original form, as for example Maurice Ravel did in his own context. One can draw parallels between “Since We Met” and Ravel’s “Sonatine”, for example, or the minimalism and the climate of “Peace Piece” with a “Gnossienne” of Satie. Two fine modal examples of Bill Evans compositions are “Re : Person I Knew” and “Time Remembered” . The modal approach at last permeated all of jazz. One can hear modal features in most of the jazz styles since the 1960s.
Here’s why Miles liked Bill’s playing, he considered him as one of a few pianists who didn’t only play the chord, but played a sound. “Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall. I had to change the way the band sounded again for Bill’s style by playing different tunes, softer ones at first. Bill played underneath the rhythm and I liked that, the way he played scales with the band. Red’s (Garland) playing had carried the rhythm but Bill underplayed it and for what I was doing now with the modal thing, I liked what Bill was doing better. (From the autobiography Miles by Miles Davis, 1990)
The meaning of Bill Evans for his contemporary pianists is best illustrated by the next survey. The jazz writer Gene Lees* interviewed in the early eighties more than 60 noted pianists in that period. The survey included among others Dave Brubeck, Dave Frishberg, Roger Kellaway and Billy Taylor. He asked them to mention five pianists who they thought were successively the “best,” the “most influential” and the “personal favorite.” The results of this survey: the best – Art Tatum, 36; Bill Evans 33; Oscar Peterson, 27; the most influential – Art Tatum, 32; Bill Evans, 30; Bud Powell, 24; and the personal favorite – Bill Evans, 25; Tatum, 22; Peterson, 19.
(* Liner notes in a 9 CD box set The Complete Fantasy Recordings, containing material recorded by Bill Evans for Fantasy between 1973 and 1979)