The Bill Evans Question

Although generally held in high regard by most, Evans has had his detractors even when he was considered the “it guy.” And recently, let’s say in the last 10-15 years, I’m finding less support for his contributions generally, more bashing on the latest jazz water cooler, jazz message boards, and (for some reason) belittling from certain geographies.

There was also the cause célèbre from pianist, Brad Mehldau who on a few occasions, in liner notes and in a double interview with Pat Metheny, basically said that Bill Evans was “not that great a pianist.”**(see below update 11/13/14) I attributed some of his prior commentary against Evans as a result of irritation from the constant critical comparison (in this interview and before) which I agree is basically unfounded. His strongest stylistic influence to my ears is Keith Jarrett, although he also denies Jarrett’s trio influence, which he has stated as “not caring for.” Some have termed this condition the anxiety of influence. In a way I can understand it. It’s kind of like saying, “Can you stop pigeon-holing whom you think I sound like and just listen to what I’m doing?”

Still, as a person whom I respect in terms of his achievements in establishing an identity in jazz, with considerable intellectual gifts and jazz history knowledge, I find Mehldau’s statements both puzzling and frankly irritating. The fact is that Evans changed the whole paradigm for jazz piano, the lexicon or whatever fancy names you’d like to call it. If Evans wasn’t there, there’s no inspiration for Hancock, Corea or Jarrett  to build on that model and consequently Meldhau. He is clearly building on that moody jazz piano house  and language that Evans started more or less single-handedly and helped perfect, whether he feels that or not. He’s a branch or sub-branch of that claiming no relation to the root. Clearly Miles Davis knew how great he was, and is quoted as such. Hancock and Corea certainly didn’t think that Evans was “not that great a pianist.” They knew better and their influence is far greater than Mehldau’s. Suppose Evans didn’t exist and all there was was Peterson, Jamal, Silver and Kelly? They are all great but Evans is a huge hole to fill in terms of the progression of jazz piano and jazz music generally towards modernity. Who would play the music he played between 1959-1962:  Nardis? Blue in Green? Re: Person I Knew? Who was playing jazz waltzes the way and frequency Evans was playing them? And playing with such freedom and authority mixing 3/4 and 4/4 meters before anyone else was doing it? Who had so much personality in both his lines and chords that after just a few notes you could immediately identify him? And I’m sure Meldhau knows this but it seems like a fruitless argument to argue what is self-evident. And you don’t have to love, transcribe or even embrace the majority of artist’s work to acknowledge their influence. Prime example, Brad Meldhau. I’m not a huge fan of his playing personally, but I acknowledge his influence on players and style because I can hear it, for example in players such as Robert Glasper, Aaron Parks and others. And he’s raised the bar technically for every pianist that has come after him. Influence is the key objective yardstick.

Maybe by the same token, there may be some too quick to cite Bill Evans as the king of jazz piano and ignore his more overtly swinging counterparts, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly and Oscar Peterson. I think much of this stems from the dedication exclusively to art of the jazz piano trio. There were frankly not so many models for the piano trio post Nat King Cole and Bud Powell.  When Evans came to forefront, the other models were Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal primarily. This is the yin side to Evans yang. So Evans more coloristic and contrasting approach stood in particular stark relief. This is something jazz critics and buffs frustratingly ignore, the context of artistic achievements at the time they happened. In other words, how did Evans think of playing the way he did given the available models at the time? The artistic achievement is stunning.

Let’s get back to the original question of the Evans contribution. Firstly, I love Bill Evans, that’s obvious. Some of this is a generation thing. He was situated perfectly in terms of my age and my appraisal of the jazz continuum. I grew up listening to him in my house in addition to my father, brother, Stan, Brookmeyer and all my father’s classical records. When I was a kid, Evans was the most popular pianist, generally speaking. In subsequent years, Hancock, Tyner, Corea and Jarrett took the top honors and then everyone else since then. Yet inevitably I keep coming back to Evans. And I have to ask myself. Why is that? Is it a generational thing? or something else?

To describe Evans as a poet although apt feels a little trite. What Evans has is a complete understanding of his melodic language and a complete dedication to every note and phrase he lays out there in musical space. He always reconciles what he plays. This is the onus of compositional integrity. He rarely plays things for frivolous reasons. There was also that artistic balance in his playing so that he didn’t go in endless tangents and micro-studies in barrages of notes. This is because he had a sense of larger structure and eschewed ideas that didn’t meet with the criteria of that bigger picture as it unfolded. He had maturity and melodicism. He also had a sense of humility and modesty about his achievements. These qualities are what I find lacking in many pianists and in Meldhau truth be told. This is not to say, I love every note Evans has ever played or I don’t find faults. Everyone knows he rushes and this trait grew worse later as well as his tendency towards the hyper-romantic. The fact is, I could find fault with many artists that I listen to and admire, including Evans. Really the question is which artist consistently has records that are head and shoulders above the rest and stand up to repeated listens. And who was specifically devoted to the piano trio and its particular niche and requirements? To my ears, before Keith Jarrett revived the jazz piano standards trio based on the Evans mold in the early 80s  no one else was really doing it consistently. And everyone else followed after this.

In my next post I will get into the specifics of what makes Evans great and also address some of the specific criticisms against him.

Go to follow-up Evans articles:

Bill Evans Explained – Part 1

Bill Evans Explained – Part 2

**(Update 11/13/14) Given this article seems to have been picked up in other places, I decided to re-investigate what exactly was said in that Metheny/Mehldau interview. Indeed I did find – technically – that I put some words in Mehldau’s mouth. However the spirit of what he said (and perhaps what he was going to say but didn’t) was definitely akin to my statement – not that great a pianist. The tone is almost mocking and belittling. You can read behind the lines, “I don’t know why people think he’s that great” essentially. This is the exact quote:

Interviewer: Why do you hate that comparison, just because you don’t think its accurate or acute?

Meldhau:  Well yeah, it’s just a fiction and no matter how many times I say no I barely listened to this guy, it’s stated as a matter of fact that he’s my main influence, and furthermore that I’m inheriting this throne or whatever… I don’t really quite understand why he’s put on a pedestal really because to me he’s one guy … I don’t even really – if I can be controversial here – I’m not even really crazy about his playing – and you know listen I’ve got a few Bill Evans records (mocking laugh) …

Studio360 Interview (about 10:30 where that segment starts)  I also didn’t care for Metheny stoking that comparison issue either. He did however say that Undercurrents was a big album for him (before the stupid snappy comeback interruption by interviewer) but he was happy to say that Brad had never even heard that record.  He really did have the opportunity to say you know that record was a great record and maybe give Mehldau some food for thought. He didn’t.

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