Bill Evans Explained part 2

Following up from my previous post, Bill Evans Explained, I’d like to continue with my next subsection:


For me one simple measure of artistic personality is quick recognition without prior knowledge of the artist or recording being listened to. Use Ben Webster as a reference point. There’s no mistaking him. The piano is a more difficult instrument to establish an identity than a saxophone in part because of the nature of the instrument. There is less direct contact and control of the means of sound production. So if you can establish pianistic identity, it’s an important measure of achievement. Even great pianists can sometimes only be deduced rather than directly identified based on how they’ve decided to express themselves. This can happen in more traditional players who build on similar language lines that do not use any particular signature licks, mannerisms or have striking feel differences that stand out, for example, players like Tommy Flanagan or Hank Jones. There are some, but it is more nuanced than let’s say some of the players below like Garland, Peterson or Kelly.

In my opinion these are the only pianists that are recognizable within a few measures:

Thelonius Monk
Art Tatum
Errol Garner
McCoy Tyner
Wynton Kelly
Bud Powell
Bill Evans
Oscar Peterson
Herbie Hancock
Chick Corea
Red Garland

A strong case could be made for the following pianists but it’s less sure fire strictly speaking:

Keith Jarrett
Barry Harris
Brad Meldhau (yes, him)
Lennie Tristano
Earl Hines

But there are only three that can be identified easily on ballads and with their approaches to harmony and chords.

Art Tatum
Thelonius Monk
Bill Evans

This is rarefied territory.

But what constitutes personality? Does it have to  do with decisions regarding the use of other artists’ work in the formation of your own style? Or how many artists you incorporate and from what instrument?   I don’t think adopting many different influences guarantees personal style. There are plenty of players out there that employ a litany of best practice ideas from different places but you still can’t figure out who they are, only that they play well enough to be remembered and replayed.  To say they are lacking in personality doesn’t quite answer the vexing question, “Why?” The most fundamental characteristic of personality is whether the artist’s language sounds like it’s living or not and whether it is put together in a way strikingly different than what is currently the norm. But that makes the case of Barry Harris an odd one. I find him readily distinguishable in his feel, lines articulation and chords despite how much language he derived from Bud Powell. This has to do with the sound logic and melodic conviction he has. He has such command of his language (albeit derivative from Powell) that you begin to identify him as someone that communicates lines at a very advanced level of architecture that is in the same spirit of his idols. To a degree technical skill becomes an identifier as well, but in isolation this only gets to the level of “deduction”. So in a sense Tatum and Peterson qualify on these regards but they have other expression traits separate from technical prowess that clearly identify them and do not in my opinion in players today like Eldar or Gonzalo Rubalcama.

So it would seem you have personality when you succeed in transmitting ideas that are uniquely yours and at a very high level of expression that raises you a notch above your peers. For me Evans is capable of that and that is what distinguishes him from his generation of players.  Here’s one of my favorites of his, “Re: Person I Knew” from his 1962 album, Moonbeams that for me demonstrates clearly:

Re: Person I Knew

This tune is an extension of the “sketch over harmonic pallette” type reflected in his collaborative modal work with Miles Davis on Kind of Blue. To start it uses his signature minor-major 7th sound (he also uses the same approach transposed on his m9b5 chords, ie. F-#7=D-9b5). But what really sets this solo so apart from anything happening at that time is the striking change from the existing concept of 4/4 time and forward motion against the meter.  It’s another animal entirely. It’s a more languid harmonically advanced tapestry with long chords filling the void as if it were a ballad with interjections on the 1+ and time inflections of triple meter. The time feels like its floating and pulsing with the opening thematic up and down scalar motive continually developing. The most fundamental thing I can say about this solo is that its practically conversational. A dialogue about the opening measures brought to its fruition. At the top of the 2nd chorus, the use of 8ves is poignant. It is taking the essence of the opening 9th melody and reemphasizing the theme stronger and more simply. I have listened to it many times and I have to ask myself. How did he think of doing that? How did he know it would work? Generally speaking, soloists move forward in their solo creation scheme, building more complexities and excitement. Evans has no issue back stepping and creating a different type of excitement. As if to say, “What about this? It’s simple. Listen!” He really began achieving this concept by late 1957 and continued on from there. And finally the climatic triplet line near the end of the solo is like nothing I ever heard either. It is not the line content itself, which is more or less standard bebop content; it’s the 4/4  content that has been recast into triplets.

Here is Evans take on this very hard subject. Put crystal clear and humbly as usual in the previously referenced NPR program, “Piano Impressionism”:

“I never said like I want to have an identity, in so many words. What I said was I want to build my music from the bottom up, piece by piece and kind of put it together according to my own way of organizing things. Yet I wanted to fit in and just have a reason that I arrived at myself for every note I play. I think having one’s own sound in a sense the most fundamental kind of identity in music but it’s a very touchy thing how one arrives at that. It has to be something that comes from inside and it’s a long-term process.”

Next  time: “continuity of conception”

Go to previous Evans’ articles:

Bill Evans Explained – Part 1

The Bill Evans Question

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