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Bill Evans: The Brilliant Leader of A Jazz Piano Trio

William John Evans (usually called Bill Evans) was an American composer and jazz pianist whose musical brilliance shone as a leader of a trio. Bill’s interpretation of traditional jazz, use of block chords, rhythmically independent melodic lines, and style of impressionist harmony continue to influence the world of jazz today.

Bill Evans in 1961

Early Life

Bill Evans was born in New Jersey’s North Plainfield and his father Harry Evans was a Welshman who ran a golf course. His mother Mary Evans came from a family of coal miners. Bill’s early piano lessons were in Somerville where his mother stayed with her sister due to the destructive character of Bill’s father. Here, between the age of five and seven, a local piano teacher, Helen Leland, introduced Bill to the music of a piano even though he was considered too young to be taking music lessons.

When he was seven years old, Bill started taking violin lessons and soon became inclined towards learning piccolo and flute. Although these instruments lost Bill’s interest, their impact can easily be found in the composer’s keyboard style.

Bill got a flavor of the 20th-century music when he listened to Petrushka by Stravinsky, which he later recalled as a “tremendous experience” along with Milhaud’s Suite “provencale,” which in his own words “opened him to new things.”

At the age of twelve, came his first exposure to jazz as he heard the band of Harry James and Tommy Dorsey on the radio. When he was thirteen years old, an opportunity came knocking at his door when Bill had to substitute a sick pianist, where he had to play alongside Harry James who was on the trumpet. Another significant incident that happened with Bill during these times was his meeting with the bassist George Platt. It was this musician who exposed Bill to the melodious theory of harmony.

Musical Journey

A Humble Beginning

In September of 1946, on the back of a flute scholarship, Bill got an admission to the Southeastern Louisiana University where he thoroughly studied the interpretations of classical piano with musicians like John Venettozzi and Louis P. Kohnop. His teacher during this time was Gretchen Magee, whose teaching style and methods greatly influenced Bill’s composition style and made a big impact on his musical career.

When Bill was in his third year, he composed his first-ever tune called “Very Early.” In 1950, Bill performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 as his senior recital and duly graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education and a Bachelor of Music in piano. In July of 1950, Bill joined the band of Herbie Field in Chicago when they went on a three-month tour performing across the country. Shortly after returning to Chicago, Bill was handed over the draft notice as he started his life in the US Army. In the army, Bill used to perform in the Band of Fifth US Army at Fort Sheridan where he used to play piano, piccolo, and flute. In 1953, Bill composed “Waltz for Debby” for a young niece of his which incidentally became his best-known tune.  

In January 1954, Bill got discharged from the army and the strong criticism he received for his music forced him to take a sabbatical year. In July of 1955, Bill returned to the city of New York and joined the Mannes College of Music, where he took a postgraduate course on music composition. While Bill was studying, he also performed at low-profile gigs and Jewish weddings, with the scarce opportunity of playing solo at the Village Vanguard where Bill played opposite the Modern Jazz Quartet. On one such day, Bill saw Miles Davis in the crowd, listening to his music.

A Long-lasting Bond with George Russell

In 1955, Lucy Reed recorded “The Singing Reed '' where Bill was present in the group of four. This event was important in the composer’s life because it was during this period when Bill met Helen Keane and George Russell. The former became Bill’s agent after seven years and both Bill and George worked together soon after. The first impression that Bill made on George Russell was quite negative until Russell confidentially heard Bill play the piano when the former completely changed his mind. It was during these times that Russell’s arguments on the compatibility of Lydian mode with tonality influenced musicians like Miles Davis. Bill, who was already acquainted with these groundbreaking ideas in jazz, started working with Russell in 1956.

In September of the same year, Bill recorded his debut album New Jazz Conceptions which featured the original versions of “Five” and “Waltz for Debby.” This album marked the beginning of a relationship between Riverside Records and Bill Evans. Although receiving positive reviews from the critics, New Jazz Conceptions did not do well financially and ended up with only 800 copies sold for the first year of release. After the release of the album, Bill turned his focus to J. S. Bach and learned the art of music which subsequently helped him improve his own techniques.

The year 1957 was quite successful for Bill in terms of recognition for his ability and musical sense. He was one of the six composers who were given the task to compose a piece for the Festival of Creative Arts that has the backdrop third-stream jazz. This gave birth to George Russell’s “All About Rosie,” in which Bill was one of the soloists to take part. Till today, “All About Rosie” is considered a very convincing composition where the polyphony in jazz gets distinctly reflected. For his performance only, Bill Evans fetched a legendary status in the jazz circles. In 1957, a very important meeting took place between Bill and Scott LaFaro, who would eventually join Bill’s trio in three years. LaFaro came to an audition and the bassist created quite an impression on Bill.

Miles Davis and Bill Evans Come Together

1958 was the time when Bill Evans came together with Miles Davis. Bill came as a replacement for their pianist and this was the beginning of Bill’s interest and serious study of modal jazz. After joining the group formally in April, the band was being featured on radio shows which finally led to Bill recording his first album with Miles Davis. This studio recording was first published as a piece of Jazz Track but later the piece got republished as 1958 Miles. The success of the band was critically based on the fusion of Miles Davis’ interest in modal jazz, Bill’s interest in 20th-century classical composers, and the backbone of George Russell’s treatise.

In July, Bill took part as a sideman on "Portrait of Cannonball" as he featured in the very first performance of “Nardis.” Davis was not very satisfied with the performance although he had himself written it specifically for the session. Later, this performance became a frequent occurrence in Bill’s trios. As Bill Evans was gradually advancing in his professional development, he was awarded the DownBeat International Critics’ Poll for the album New Jazz Conceptions, along with his work for Miles Davis.

In September that year, Bill took part as a sideman in Art Farmer’s album Modern Art, for which again won the Downbeat poll along with two others.

After leaving Davis’ sextet in November of 1958, Bill returned to New York in December and recorded his second album as a leader with Riverside Records called “Everybody Digs Bill Evans,” which was a successful trio album with a bassist and a drummer. In 1959, at the request of the trumpeter, a much reluctant Bill joined Davis’ sextet to record “Kind of Blue,” which is still considered the bestselling album of all time, from the school of jazz music.

The Legendary Trio of Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro, and Paul Motian

This trio became the most celebrated piano trio in jazz circles. The backbone of this band was traditional jazz compositions with an interplay among the members where the emphasis was put on a high level of musical empathy.

In December 1959, the trio recorded their very first album with Riverside Records called “Portrait in Jazz.” Through the 1960s, the trio went on a tour covering Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, then finally returned to New York to perform at the New York City Hall. Although they did not record an album during this year, two radio broadcasts of them were released illegally, which later were posthumously republished as “The 1960 Birdland Sessions.”

The success of the trio did not restrict Bill to their band performances only as he carried on to perform as a sideman and did many recordings such as “The Soul of Jazz Percussion.” He also worked as a sideman in “The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones” and “The Great Kai & J.J.”  

In February of 1961, Bill and his trio recorded their second official album “Explorations,” where Bill and LaFaro had many arguments during the recording sessions. This was the time Bill was recovering from hepatitis and was very unwilling to release the album thinking of its poor quality standards. But later when he heard the recordings, he did appreciate the music in very positive terms.

In late June, the trio recorded their final two albums called “Waltz for Debby” and “Sunday at the Village Vanguard.” These two albums are considered by many as the best ever jazz recordings, simply because of the touching musical interplay between the members of the trio.

Ten days after the performance at Vanguard, Scott LaFaro died in a car accident at the age of 25 and this tragedy devastated Bill for he did not perform after that for several months.

In October 1961, he made a return to the music scene with the album “Rah”. With a new flutist and a bassist, Bill recorded a session for Nirvana in December, and in 1962, he completed the recording of the album “Undercurrent” with guitarist Jim Hall.

It was on 1962 when the release of two albums “How My Heart Sings!” and “Moon Beams” followed by the recording “Conversation with Myself” in 1963 which got Bill his first Grammy Award.

Eddie Gómez strikes a chord with Bill Evans…

The 1966 marked the beginning of an 11-year relationship with the bassist Eddie Gómez, through which the latter sparked new musical developments in Bill's conception of music and trio composition.

In 1968, came the recording “Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival,” which fetched Bill his second Grammy. To date, this album has remained a critical favorite in the jazz circles. Some of the masterpieces that came out of this period are “Solo – In Memory Of His Father,” “Bill Evans at Town Hall,” “Intermodulation,” and the great solo album “Alone,” which got him his third Grammy Award.

This was the most stable period in Bill’s life in terms of the trio and personal stability when he was off his heroin addiction and looked settled in the music scene. Between 1969 and ’70, Bill recorded an album called “From Left to Right,” for which he used an electric piano for the very first time.

In 1971, Bill recorded “The Bill Evans Album” for which the pianist won two Grammy Awards. In the following years came the albums “The Tokyo Concert” (1973), “But Beautiful” (1974), and “Since We Met” (1974).

Last Years of Bill Evans

The tragedy in this legend’s life was quite resounding. He had hepatitis, an addiction to heroin, along with peptic ulcer and cirrhosis. His brother’s suicide, LaFaro’s death, and his marriage created quite an emotional turmoil and Bill’s close associates often found him saying that he knew he was about to die very shortly.

On September 15, 1980, Bill Evans passed away in New York City at Mount Sinai Hospital. 

Bill’s Style of Music

When it comes to jazz music, Bill Evans is considered to be the primary reformer of harmonic language. Impressionist composers such as Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy influenced his style greatly. His own compositions had modal inflections, added tone chords, unconventional modulations, and substitutions, along with thorough reharmonization.

A distinctive trait in Bill’s harmony could be easily picked up where he excludes the roots in his chords, leaving them implied or played by another beat of the same measure. This is because Bill always expressed the chords as a unique color or quality identity and this is why most of his harmonies have quartal voicings or added note chords.

Another distinctive style of Bill’s music was rhythmic displacement. This is the reason why most of his improvisations depended heavily on motivic development. This development could either be rhythmic or melodic.

Bill Evans was also highly influenced by Bach. Especially during his later years, he completely changed his style of playing the piano following Bach’s style where he put much emphasis on weight distribution rather than finger technique.

A Quiet Legend Who Creates the Effect of Melodious Continuity

Bill Evans was the creator of a jazz style that was more than just melody and harmony – it was exquisite and enthralling. His music was distinct, delicate, and resonating at the same time. His notes were like that of crystal clear water falling down a sparkling waterfall, where it made the most melodious impact.

Bill’s playing style was fluid as he created an elegant tone which was quite unusual during his times and highly introspective. Influenced by Bach, Bill worked a lot on the development of modal jazz. During his lifetime, he won seven Grammy awards and 31 nominations. In 1994, Bill Evans was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, posthumously for his contributions to the jazz world.

No matter how turbulent this legend’s personal life was, he touched the soul of a lot of people with his calming notes, melodious chords, and dreamlike playing style.



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