the sublime pianist bill evans -- 4/12/24

Today's selection -- from 3 Shades of Blue by James Kaplan. The earliest performances of the soon-to-be-immortal Bill Evans:

“I met an unknown piano player who looked and played like a country hick. He bore no resemblance whatsoever to any talented jazz pianist I had ever known. He looked like a college student majoring, perhaps, in archeology or advanced botany. Although it pains me to admit this, he was a classic nerd. His name was Bill Evans. He later became the Bill Evans. When we first met, however, he was far from being the path-breaking, transformational piano shaman whom everyone came to respect and adore. His playing was corny and stiff, with spastic movements augmenting his cornpone squareness. This version of Bill Evans sat rigidly straight, bouncing up and down when he became engaged in the music. His sound was reminiscent of Milt Buckner, a longtime pianist and organ player with Hamp [Lionel Hampton], though he lacked Milt's residual drive and swing. This early incarnation of Bill Evans had an absurd way of patting his feet. Notice I said feet. While he played, he would lock his feet together and roll or wobble their knotted unity back and forth from beat-to-beat-heels then toes, over and over, again and again, creating a kind of rocking-chair gait with both feet clamped together like a vise. I have never understood how he did that. I assure you, he had a performance persona so estranged from any jazz posture or attitude or, for that matter, from any musical self-presentation that I encountered before or since that I truly cannot fathom how the great musician he became could have originated from that. 

“About four years later, having long since moved on from Herbie Fields, Golson reencountered Evans: 

“Unbelievably, the Bill Evans I had briefly encountered years earlier had disappeared. Someone with the same name took his place, an utterly different Bill Evans. What I heard across those earopening moments left me breathless. This former ‘cornball’ played some of the most beautiful chords and voicings I had ever heard. That night he touched my heart again and again: amazing tonal complexity, unearthly lyric beauty. I listened flabbergasted. How could this be? Not only were Bill's chord choices enchanting; his pace and time sense were otherworldly. He knew when and how to suggest dark and light shades, holding overt dynamic contrast in reserve. He had a knack for jumping ahead to compress or elaborate his melodic narrative. His playing kept me riveted and off guard. I did not know what to expect at any moment. I was overwhelmed with admiration. This was musical genius. 

“What had happened? Golson was gobsmacked enough to put that very question to Evans, who answered with almost Monk-like ellipsis: ‘Sometimes we have to make changes.’ 

Evans in 1961

“Benny Golson's first take on Bill Evans was almost completely physical and behavioral rather than musical: he simply can't get over the pianist's nerdy presentation, his un-jazziness, his—dare we say it?—extreme whiteness. As for the playing itself, it's ‘corny and stiff,’ with no further explanation of what exactly this might mean. Does it have to do with time, rhythm, or lack thereof-some fatal inability to swing? This would seem odd given that by all accounts, Herbie Fields's smallish band-seven to nine players, depending on the gig-played something more akin to R&B than to jazz. ‘I have often been condemned for not playing strongly,’ Evans recalled years later. ‘But when I was with this band I would come off the stand with split fingernails and sore arms.’ Fields's one hit record, a 1947 cover of the twenties dance number ‘Dardanella,’ had a driving boogie-woogie beat. Why would he have hired a piano player who couldn't swing? 

“In 1947 Bill Evans was still four years away from joining Herbie Fields. After graduating high school in Plainfield, New Jersey, that year, he entered Southeastern Louisiana College, in Hammond, forty-five miles northwest of New Orleans, on a music scholarship. 

“If anything, what the young Evans seems to have been is a gifted musical chameleon. He'd studied (and loved) classical piano from a tender age: ‘From the age of six to thirteen,’ he later said, ‘I acquired the ability to sight-read and to play classical music ... performing Mozart, Beethoven, or Schubert intelligently, musically.’ 

“And yet, he added: ‘I couldn't play “My Country 'Tis of Thee” without the notes.’”



James Kaplan


3 Shades of Blue: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and the Lost Empire of Cool


Penguin Press


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