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Transcendent Voice

Why Bill Evans was, and remains, an original.

Nov 7, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 08 • By IAN MARCUS CORBIN
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In the spring of 1958, Miles Davis was in search of a new piano player, and a new sound. He found both in an unlikely figure: Bill Evans, a shy, neatly combed, bespectacled white boy from Plainfield, New Jersey. Evans, who was 28 at the time, had been in New York for a little less than three years, steadily building a reputation as a sensitive and original player. He joined Davis’s sextet, and seven months later the ensemble—which included Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, John Coltrane, Davis, and Evans—entered the studio and recorded, in just two sessions, the beautiful, contemplative, wrenching Kind of Blue, one of the great masterpieces of American music, and of American art in general.

Photo of man conducting music

Bill Evans, 1966

Lebrecht Music and Arts

Evans’s influence on Kind of Blue was profound; its deep, languorous palette, realized with such startling maturity so quickly, did not burst into being ex nihilo. Evans had patiently ground its pigments through years of serious training and careful attention. Attention is key—and for whatever reasons, Evans had the patience and courage to demand conviction from every note. He said that he always preferred playing a few fully meant notes to going “all over the keyboard on something I wasn’t clear about.” His playing seems to well up naturally, unrushed, from a deep emotional and intellectual reservoir. Davis had been searching for a cooler, more spacious sound and when he found it in Evans’s piano, he absorbed and expanded it, to immediate, wonderful effect.

The short-lived collaboration that produced Kind of Blue can seem almost fated—as if Evans and Davis, its principal architects, were brought together at the precise moment when each of them was ready to propel the other in new and spectacular directions. His triumph with the world-renowned sextet gave the ever-insecure Evans confidence to keep thinking and feeling for himself, and in doing so, to craft a rich and singular oeuvre that has repeatedly widened the expressive parameters of jazz.

Evans always strove, above all, for expressive fluidity, and insisted that such striving was accomplished by way of disciplined workmanship. Happily, he had habits of mind to match his scholarly appearance: He was a great student of music theory and connoisseur of the traditions that mattered to him, both jazz and classical. His classical training began at age six, and extended up through his bachelor’s degree, earned in 1950 from Southeastern Louisiana College. Much of Evans’s musical innovation is, in fact, a feat of syncretism. His jazz playing borrows, and very liberally, from the classical tradition.

When jazz aficionados look for words to describe Bill Evans’s sound, they often resort to dramatic sensual metaphors. In his autobiography, Miles Davis wrote, “Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano .  .  . the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.” The palpable beauty of Evans’s playing, its clarity, precision, and nuance, had been gradually forged by the unique demands of playing classical compositions. He explained, for instance, that it was through playing Bach that he had learned to depress the keys, not with his fingers, but by releasing the weight of his hand—a method that opens up a pianist’s dynamic range. His pedal work, too, was developed by his classical training far beyond the level of any of his jazz contemporaries. 

Evans’s chordal idiom is similarly dazzling, a combination of limpid transparency and thick, meditative opacity. The piano, as Evans remarked with pleasure, is uniquely able to sing in multiple, beautifully overlapping, voices. No jazz pianist before him had endeavored to make so many different voices sing in such complex, lovely harmony; after him, very many have done so, and to beautiful ends. But while the emotional depths plumbed in Evans’s playing are deeply, authentically his own—he is a supremely vulnerable, candid player—this chordal language is unabashedly borrowed. Evans (like Miles Davis) was a longtime devotee of the French Impressionist composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, and any Evans fan who listens to their piano compositions will recognize the provenance of his profound, glassy chords.

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