William John Evans was an American jazz pianist and composer who mostly worked as the leader of a trio. His use of impressionist harmony, interpretation of traditional jazz repertoire, block chords, and trademark rhythmically independent, “singing” melodic lines continues to influence jazz pianists today.
Bill Evans is seen as the main reformer of the harmonic language of jazz piano. Evans’s harmonic language was influenced by impressionist composers such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. His versions of jazz standards, as well as his own compositions, often featured thorough reharmonisations. Musical features included added tone chords, modal inflections, unconventional substitutions, and modulations.
An example of Evans’s harmonies. The chords feature extensions like 9ths and 13ths, are laid around middle C, have smooth voice leading, and leave the root to the bassist. Bridge of the first chorus of “Waltz for Debby” (mm.33–36). From the 1961 album of the same name.
One of Evans’s distinctive harmonic traits is excluding the root in his chords, leaving this work to the bassist, played on another beat of the measure, or just left implied. “If I am going to be sitting here playing roots, fifths and full voicings, the bass is relegated to a time machine.” This idea had already been explored by Ahmad Jamal, Erroll Garner, and Red Garland. In Evans’s system, the chord is expressed as a quality identity and a color. Most of Evans’s harmonies feature added note chords or quartal voicings. Thus, Evans created a self-sufficient language for the left hand, a distinctive voicing, that allowed the transition from one chord to the next while hardly having to move the hand. With this technique, he created an effect of continuity in the central register of the piano. Lying around middle C, in this region the harmonic clusters sounded the clearest, and at the same time, left room for contrapuntal independence with the bass.
Evans’s improvisations relied heavily on motivic development, either melodically or rhythmically. Motives may be broken and recombined to form melodies. Another characteristic of Evans’s style is rhythmic displacement. His melodic contours often describe arches. Other characteristics include sequenciation of melodies and transforming one motive into another. He plays with one hand in the time signature of 4/4 and the other momentarily in 3/4.
At the beginning of his career, Evans used block chords heavily. He later abandoned them in part. During a 1978 interview, Marian McPartland asked:”How do you think your playing has changed since you first started? Is it deliberate or is it just happening to change?”Bill Evans: “Well it’s deliberate, ahh but I stay along the same lines … I try to get a little deeper into what I’m doing. As far as that kind of playing goes, [jazz playing rather than an earlier example where he played Waltz for Debbie without any improvisation or sense of swing], I think my left hand is a little more competent and uhh … of course I worked a lot on inner things happening like inner voices I’ve worked on.”
The first line of “Time Remembered“, as penned by Evans in the early 1970s.
At least during his late years, Evans’s favorite keys to play in were A and E. Evans greatly valued Bach‘s music, which influenced his playing style and which helped him gain good touch and finger independence. “Bach changed my hand approach to playing the piano. I used to use a lot of finger technique when I was younger, and I changed over to a weight technique. Actually, if you play Bach and the voices sing at all, and sustain the way they should, you really can’t play it with the wrong approach.” Evans valued Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier” and his “Two- and Three-Part Inventions” as excellent practice material.
Views on contemporaneous music tendencies
Evans’s career began just before the rock explosion in the 1960s. During this decade, jazz was swept into a corner, and most new talents had few opportunities to gain recognition, especially in America. However, Evans believed he had been lucky to gain some exposure before this profound change in the music world, and never had problems gaining bookings and recording opportunities.
Evans never embraced new music movements; he kept his style intact. For example, he lamented watching Davis shift his style towards jazz fusion, and blamed the change on considerations of commerce. Evans commented “I would like to hear more of the consummate melodic master [Davis], but I feel that big business and his record company have had a corrupting influence on his material. The rock and pop thing certainly draws a wider audience. It happens more and more these days, that unqualified people with executive positions try to tell musicians what is good and what is bad music.” However, Evans and Davis kept in touch throughout their lives.
While Evans considered himself an acoustic pianist, from the 1970 album From Left to Right on, he also released some material with Fender-Rhodes piano intermissions. However, unlike other jazz players (such as Herbie Hancock) he never fully embraced the new instrument, and invariably ended up returning to the acoustic sound. “I don’t think too much about the electronic thing, except that it’s kind of fun to have it as an alternate voice. … [It’s] merely an alternate keyboard instrument, that offers a certain kind of sound that’s appropriate sometimes. I find that it’s a refreshing auxiliary to the piano—but I don’t need it … I don’t enjoy spending a lot of time with the electric piano. I play it for a period of time, then I quickly tire of it, and I want to get back to the acoustic piano.” He commented that electronic music: “just doesn’t attract me. I’m of a certain period, a certain evolution. I hear music differently. For me, comparing electric bass to acoustic bass is sacrilege.”
WE&P by EZorrillaM.