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The Bill Evans Legacy

By

Doug Ramsey

Feb. 3, 2015 7:03 p.m. ET

Bill Evans, who died 35 years ago this year at age 51, has remained a central influence on how pianists play jazz. His conception of the jazz trio became the model for balancing the good of the group with individual freedom in the modern rhythm section of piano, bass and drums. And musicians unborn when Evans was at his peak are inspired by his harmonic concepts, the way he touched the keyboard, the flow of his rhythm as he phrased his solos.

Evans conceived of a trio that could master simultaneous improvisation.ENLARGE
Evans conceived of a trio that could master simultaneous improvisation. Photo: Getty Images

As a youngster, Evans emulated Nat King Cole’s light keyboard touch and melodic imagination, but what he called bebop giant Bud Powell’s “comprehensive composition talent” for improvisation directed his mature development. In a 1970 radio interview, Evans told the Norwegian journalist Randi Hultin: “There are some feelings which don’t make you emotional. They don’t make you cry, they don’t make you laugh, they don’t make you feel anything but profound, and that’s the feeling I got from Bud.” The Powell feeling suffused Evans’s best keyboard work, but Evans left a legacy that opened jazz to interaction and harmonic richness well beyond the norms of bebop. 

Evans shaped the most significant music in trumpeter Miles Davis’s 1959 sextet album “Kind Of Blue,” the best-selling jazz recording in history. His interest in improvisation rooted in scales and modes, rather than in traditional sequences of chord progressions, was the basis of “Flamenco Sketches” and “Blue in Green.” Those pieces in “Kind Of Blue” had an effect on Davis’s tenor saxophonist, John Coltrane, as he lessened his reliance on standard harmonic structures and became an influence on generations of jazz artists. As for Evans’s playing, Davis described it in a widely quoted phrase as “like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.”

In a recent conversation, pianist Bill Mays called my attention to another Evans attribute. “People don’t seem to talk about his ability with rhythmic displacement of lines—that is, to play an improvised line that was not hemmed in by two-bar or four-bar phrasing. It might surprise you by starting later and ending later than you would expect.”

In his study “The Harmony of Bill Evans,” composer and pianist Jack Reilly says: “He changed the approach to the sound of jazz piano by his touch and his attention to pedaling, phrasing and dynamics.” Mr. Reilly emphasizes Evans’s “remarkable way of handling the possibilities of interplay within the piano-bass-drums trio.” 

Evans had a vision of that interplay well before he found musicians who could help him achieve it. The work with Davis behind him, in December 1959 he finally formed the trio he had been hearing in his mind for three years. The young New York veteran Paul Motian was the drummer. The bassist was 23-year-old Scott LaFaro. Evans had heard him three years earlier in a Los Angeles audition. He recognized LaFaro in 1956 as talented, but according to Evans biographer Peter Pettinger, likened his playing to “a bucking horse.” Now, however, he had fluidity of thought and execution that was ideal for Evans’s concept of a trio that would “grow in the direction of simultaneous improvisation rather than just one guy blowing followed by another guy blowing. If the bass player, for example, hears an idea that he wants to answer, why should he just keep playing a steady background?” LaFaro made possible an even more fundamental element of Evans’s specifications for his trio: “Especially, I want my work—and the trio’s if possible—to sing. It must have that wonderful feeling of singing.”

Pianist Fred Hersch detects a commonality between the Evans trio and the quartet of saxophonist Ornette Coleman, which also debuted on record in 1959. Coleman is inevitably identified as “iconoclastic” in histories and the jazz press. But “I can’t see now what the fuss was about Ornette Coleman,” Mr. Hersch says. “It was just beautiful playing, very lyrical. You hear lots of blues and Charlie Parker, but he just basically said, ‘Dump the chord changes.’ He approximated them sometimes, and sometimes not. What he did that was comparable to what Bill did was to let the rhythm section loose. He could invent harmony and Charlie Haden on bass would be right there with him. Bill opened up sonic space for LaFaro’s bass and, in a way, Ornette did the same thing. Ornette was the star, but Charlie was the supporting actor, just as Bill was the star and LaFaro was the No. 2.” 

Alan Broadbent, a few years older than Mr. Hersch, acknowledges Evans’s singing quality as an influence, and says: “My aim was to have a swinging eighth note, and that comes by singing like a horn player. You can have a pianist’s technique if you like, but the feeling has to come from that same singing place.” He says that he doesn’t hear the Evans feeling in most of today’s young pianists. “I hear virtuosity for its own sake. I’m waiting for the kid who speaks to my heart just as Bill Evans and Sonny Clark did when they were kids. Early Bill Evans is deep in the swinging eighth note feeling. And somehow he learned to translate that into a three-person unit that felt it as one.”

Evans is so much a part of the jazz environment that many musicians who reached maturity in the 21st century are not conscious that his concepts are part of their musical DNA. Exceptions are Jeremy Siskind, an active player who also teaches at Western Michigan University, and Sullivan Fortner, a New Orleanian who plays piano in trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s quintet. Former students of Mr. Hersch, each was born seven years after Evans’s death. 

Mr. Siskind calls Evans an influence but adds: “It’s pretty hard to say what comes from Bill and what comes from somebody who comes from Bill. Essentially, for every jazz pianist and rhythm section player out there, that kind of trio playing has become deeply ingrained. If you’re a bassist, for instance, who can’t capture some element of how LaFaro interacted with everybody in the Evans trio, then you’re not going to work much. I find it easier to play when I don’t have the whole weight on my shoulders, when surprising things are happening and I can latch onto an idea from the drums or the bass and let it take me somewhere unexpected.”

Mr. Fortner says, “It’s really hard to be a modern pianist and not be affected by Bill in some way, as far as touch and feeling and overall interpretation of tunes, especially ballads. He had a really, really big influence on me in ballad playing, and playing waltzes, because of the looseness and the density of his voicings and harmonic choices, which goes back to Bud, you know.”

A future seems assured for the Evans-Powell legacy.

Mr. Ramsey, a winner of the Jazz Journalists Association Lifetime Achievement Award, blogs about jazz and other matters at Rifftides, www.dougramsey.com.