Just prior to his association with Miles Davis, Evans recorded an unrehearsed modal composition entitled “Peace Piece” for his LP Everybody Digs Bill Evans. Recorded in December 1958, four months before Miles Davis’s album Kind of Blue. “Peace Piece” is one of the most beautiful and evocative solo piano improvisations ever recorded and a unique entry in the Evans’ discography: a pastoral improvisation built on a gentle two-chord vamp. The song has been used for soundtracks of motion pictures, as music for ballet choreography and inspired poets. “Peace Piece” has been recorded by contemporary fellow jazz musicians and classical musicians made transcriptions.
Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1958), was Evans’ second album for Riverside as a leader. It was a trio date, recorded with Sam Jones and Philly Joe Jones, but for a couple of numbers Evans had the space to himself with as highlight “Peace Piece”. The gentle two opening chords of “Some Other Time” from the musical On The Town composed by Leonard Bernstein served as the building blocks to “Peace Piece”.
The song was almost inadvertently developed while he was trying to create an introduction of Bernstein’s piece. He used the refrain as the basis for his startlingly inventive improvisation and did a beautiful rendition of this song. His producer Orrin Keepnews in “Bill Evans: The Early Recordings”: “The second album, Everybody Digs Bill Evans, was recorded very shortly after Bill left the Davis band, and its rather flamboyant title (my idea, which Bill really didn’t care for) was not much of an exaggeration. Of course, everything else aside, that session deserves to be remembered because it saw the creation of “Peace Piece.” The strange story of how that came about is quite accurate: Searching at the piano to work up an introduction to the Leonard Bernstein show tune “Some Other Time” (the album repertoire had been preset, but details like overall length and introductions and the like were in those days routinely left open until we were ready to roll tape), Bill found that he’d gotten into something he liked better than that song and went on to record his own reflective, probably immortal improvisation” (Contemporary Keyboard, December 1980).
An analysis of “Peace Piece” demonstrates an extensive stylistic presence of sounds heard in the impressionistic music of Debussy and Ravel. Modes and other scalar collections are apparent. Traditional chord progressions are not present. Unresolved melodic and harmonic tensions and the constant presence of a pedal point containing two fluctuating chords also occur in this piece.
The piece starts out spare and melodic and is also a modal tone poem equal to anything Erik Satie composed. This modest and ultimately quiet “Peace Piece,” is a timeless, meditational, reverent, pastoral improvisation that is more a mood than a composition. The tune has no changes or a 32-bar structure, it consists of a freeform melody over a simple left-hand ostinato and is played in rubato. The tune is based on a succession of scales, which the player extends at will before going onto another scale, a kind of balance between structured and free. The tune, therefore, would never be played the same way twice.This is the nature of a free piece: the structure as well as the melody is unique to each individual performance occasion. The solo piece was done at the end of the recording session when everybody was sent home. Two takes have been recorded, the latest version was finally released on the original album. The Bernstein composition was taped later in the session, but was omitted from the original LP album. “Some Other Time” later did appear on the Milestone two-fold Peace Piece and Other Pieces and the box set Bill Evans: The Complete Riverside Recordings. The cover of Everybody Digs Bill Evans was designed by the famous designer Paul Bacon. He was the illustrator and art director of many early Blue Note albums and became Riverside’s art director until the 1960s, when he went on to an even more illustrious career as a book-cover designer. He designed covers for more than 200 jazz albums.
Playing a club date one evening Bill Evans slid unaccompanied into a fragilely twining song of his own composition titled “Peace Piece”. Afterwards, a teen-age fan rushed ecstatically up to the piano. “He told me,” recalls Evans with a faintly puzzled frown, “that when he heard it he felt like he was standing all alone in New York.” Few musicians ever captured a profound sense of aloneness like pianist Bill Evans.
Chuck Israels, the bassist of the Bill Evans Trio from 1961 till 1966 made a clarifying analysis of “Peace Piece” in an article on his website:
“Peace Piece” is an example of the depth of Evans’ compositional technique. It is an ostinato piece, composed and recorded long before the more recent superficial synthesis of Indian and American music; in fact, it owes more to Satie and Debussy than to Ravi Shankar. The improvisation starts simply over a gentle ostinato, which quickly fades into the background. Evans allows the fantasy that evolves from the opening motive (an inversion of the descending fifth in the ostinato) more freedom than he would in an improvisation tied to a changing accompaniment. He takes advantage of the ostinato as a unifying clement against which ideas flower, growing more lush and colorful as the piece unfolds. Polytonalities and cross rhythms increase in density as the ostinato undulates gently, providing a central rhythmic and tonal reference. The improvisation becomes increasingly complex against the unrelenting simplicity of the accompaniment, until, near the end, Evans gradually reconciles the two elements. (Published with permission of Chuck Israels)
There are however conflicting memories about the genesis of “Peace Piece”. Bill’s theory teacher at the Southeastern Louisiana University testifies that it was a written out homework composition when Evans was still a student. Peri, Bill’s girlfriend during that years (“Peri’s Scope” from Portrait in Jazz and We Will Meet Again) remembers that she often asked Bill to play “Some Other Time” for her. She had heard Bill improvising on ostinato of the first two chords of “Some Other Time” before the recording session for “Everybody Digs Bill Evans”. She felt that “Peace Piece” was the culmination of an idea Bill had been toying with for months. She said that in a phone interview with Win Hinkle for the newsletter “Letter From Evans”. Evans’ bassist Chuck Israels supposes that it was a “practised improvisation”. Others asume a parallel with Chopin’s “Berceuse” opus 57, also based throughout on a two-harmony left-hand ostinato like “Peace Piece”. (How My Heart Sings by Peter Pettinger, pages 68, 69)
The French classical pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet says that some parts of the improvisation recalls to him Olivier Messiaen’s tone poem Catalogue d’oiseau. Messiaen (1908 – 1992) was a French composer, organist and also ornithologist. Birdsong fascinated Messiaen from an early age. He included stylised birdsong in some of his compositions integrating it into his music by techniques like the modes of limited transposition and chord colouration. Messiaen even notated the bird species with the music in his score.
Evans wrote out the the chords for “Flamenco Sketches” on the modal masterpiece album and best-selling jazz record of all time Kind of Blue with Miles Davis. The sober signature ostinato with that insistently repeated musical two-chord bass pattern is identical in harmony, tempo and initially in key to his openings to “Peace Piece” and “Some Other Time”. Although Miles Davis asked Bill Evans to record “Peace Piece” for the Kind of Blue session, Evans instead proposed not to tape individual pieces but to try something else: “Think up a progression of places with the same feeling”. “Instead of doing one ostinato, we could move through two or three or four or five levels that would relate to one another and make a cycle and Miles agreed.”
Evans was often asked to perform “Peace Piece” in later years, but he usually resisted, claiming that it had been the inspiration of the moment, and not something that could be recreated, he considered it as a one-time thing.
Only one occasion in 1978 he performed “Peace Piece” with the Bill Evans Dance Company in Seattle that was founded in 1975 by his namesake choreographer and director Bill Evans, who selected music from the pianist Bill Evans and choreographed it for four performances called Double Bill, an abstract and lyrical modern dance for five to eight dancers. Later they performed Mixin’ It Up, a fusion of modern, jazz and tap involving extensive improvisation, for six or more versatile dancers.
Personal note by the choreographer Bill Evans, who send next email:
The Double Bill performances took place on March 17 abnd 18, 1978 at Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle. The work was about 45 minutes long and included several other Bill Evans compositions besides Peace Piece. I know that we danced to Waltz for Debby. Bill brought Michael Moore and Philly Jo Jones. We performed together again in 1979, also at Meany Hall. This time, we repeated Double Bill and added another 45 minute piece called Mixin’ It Up. The new piece was choreographed to Bill’s recordings of jazz classics by other composers, including Nardis, Sweet and Lovely, How Deep Is The Ocean, Hi-Lilli Hi-Lo and other pieces, as well as an improvisation by the side men, Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera. Reviews for both shows were overwhelmingly positive. We sold out the theatre for all performances. Working with Bill was one of the highlights of my performing career.
Bill Evans, choreographer
Bill Evans Dance Company
Visiting Professor/Guest Artist in Dance
The College at Brockport 350 New Campus Drive Brockport, NY 14420
Jacques Rda (France, 1929) is a French poet and jazz critic. He received in 1983 the Grand Prix de posie de la Ville de Paris and in 1993 the Grand Prix de l’Acadmie franaise for his total body of work. He was editor of the French periodical Jazzmagazine. Jacques Rda published L’improviste” volume one and two, and Anthologie Des Musiciens De Jazz. He wrote like several authors poems on the music of Bill Evans. He wrote 5 poems with the title Tombeau de Bill Evans, perhaps with reference to Tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel, inspired by the Bill Evans songs “Displacement”, “Conversations With Myself”, “Peace Piece”, “Interplay” and “Explorations (L’improviste II – Jouer le jeu, Gallimard 1985), also published in the French journal Jazzmagazine. An example is the poem on “Peace Piece”. On the left the original for those who master the French language , next to it an attempt to translate the poem in English.
Comme ces longs rayons dors du soir qui laissent
Le monde un peu plus large et plus pur aprs eux
Sous le trille exalt d’une grive, je peux
M’en aller maintenant sans hte, sans tristesse:
Tout devient transparent. Mme le jour pais
S’allge et par endroits fait briller une larme
Heureuse entre les cils de la nuit qui dsarme.
Ni rve, ni sommeil. Plus d’attente. La paix.
copyright by Jacques Rda
As the long golden rays of the evening that leave
The world a little wider and purer after them.
Under the ecstatic whistle of a thrush , I can
Go now without haste, without sadness:
Everything becomes transparent. Even the heavy day
lightens and in some places make sparkle a tear
Happy between the eyelashes of the night that moves.
Neither dream nor sleep. More waiting. Peace.
copyright by Jacques Rda
In 1965 the Swedish award winning film director Bo Widerberg, a contemporary of Ingmar Bergman, used for the soundtrack of his film Love 65 the tune “Peace Piece” as well as music of Antonio Vivaldi. In 2001 the Canadian director Gaurav Seth used “Peace Piece” for his film A passage to Ottawa, and recently Philip Seymour Hoffman for his film Jack Goes Boating (2010). Other films with soundtracks by Bill Evans are The Guardian (1990) by William Friedkin with “Waltz for Debbie”; the film Camera Three (1962) by Nick Havinga with “Time Remembered”, “Re: person I knew”, “Waltz for Debbie”; a Danish film Signalet (1966) by Ole Gammeltoft; Fatal Attraction (1987) by Adrian Lyne with “When I Fall in Love” ; Comment Je Me Suis Dispute (1996) by Arnaud Desplechin with “Waltz for Debbie”; Corazon Iluminado/ Foolish Heart (1996) by Hector Babenco with “Never let me go”; Sideways (2004) by Alexander Payne with “Symbiosis”; Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) by Robert Wise.
Other jazz musicians performed “Peace Piece” on several “tribute albums”: the pianists Richie Beirach, Ricardo Fioravanti, Liz Story and Stefano Battaglia, the guitarists Stephen Anderson and Nino Josele, the flutist Herbie Mann. In 1999, Don Sebesky won a Grammy Award for the album I Remember Bill: A Tribute to Bill Evans. He matched the “musical personality” of Bill Evans by employing the softer side of the “orchestral palette,” according to Down Beat, using saxophones, flutes, clarinets, and muted trombones and trumpets. He achieves with his transformation of “Peace Piece” an elegant adagio, with Hubert Laws on flute, accompanied by strings, harp and woodwinds.
Classical musicians like pianist Jean Yves Thibaudet and The Kronos Quartet performed his music. Jean-Yves Thibaudet, known as the Champion of the French Impressionists like Ravel and Debussy, has recorded note-for-note transcriptions on his album Conversation With Bill Evans (Decca 1997). He is a longtime jazz aficionado of Bill Evans. In his hands the very Satie-like “Peace Piece” glowed like the finest songs without words. The pastel harmonies and introspective lyricism of Bill Evans have a common cause with those early French moderns, a fact that Thibaudet is able to make plain via this collection of well-wrought transcriptions. He included some pieces of Bill Evans in his piano recitals as an encore.
The famous Kronos Quartet, founded in 1973, is specialized in new music like Arvo Prt, Henryk Grecki, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The string quartet won a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance. They released the album Kronos Quartet Plays Music of Thelonious Monk. They performed “Peace Piece” as a transcription for string quartet on the album Music Of Bill Evans (Landmark Records 1986) with Eddie Gomez on bass and Jim Hall on guitar. The first violin takes the role of Bill’s right hand throughout the performance, described by the violonist as possibly the hardest work he has ever attempted.
Some songbooks with a transcription of “Peace Piece” are published by Hal Leonard Corporation.
BILL EVANS – 19 ARRANGEMENTS FOR SOLO PIANO – Series: Piano Solo – Publisher: TRO – The Richmond Organization – Arranger: Andy LaVerne
BILL EVANS – A Step-by-Step Breakdown of the Piano Styles and Techniques of a Jazz Legend – Series: Signature Licks Keyboard – Author: Brent Edstrom
BILL EVANS FAKE BOOK – Series: Richmond Music Folios – Publisher: TRO – The Richmond Organization
An instructional video lesson by pianist Doug McKenzie who created a comprehensive and intuitive way to teach jazz piano. He also released an “Instructional Piano DVD” that is full of video that illustrates not only the chords and fingerings, but also includes comments on what he was thinking at individual moments during the tune. It contains many files in WMA format of recordings of live played midi files. Instead of relying on the often poor quality soundcards in most computers, these have been recorded using a Yamaha P250 digital piano, and high end sampled bass and drums.