Bill Evans was born on this day in 1929. Gratitude for that gift to music is not merely in order, it is mandatory. Here is a little of what I wrote a decade ago in an essay for the CD box, Bill Evans: The Secret Sessions.
The evolution of jazz music as a distinct form of creative expression is contained in only eight decades of the 20th century. The maturing of the art of jazz piano improvisation is an index to the astonishing speed of that development. It took less than 40 years, and its main current ran from James P. Johnson through Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole, Bud Powell and Bill Evans, with Art Tatum standing apart as an unclassifiable phenomenon.
Today, I might add Jelly Roll Morton at the beginning of the list and Thelonious Monk as the other great unclassifiable.
Acting on insights gained from the music of Debussy and other impressionist composers, he enriched his chords beyond those of any other jazz pianist. Comparisons that come to mind are with harmonies that Gil Evans and Robert Farnon wrote for large orchestras and with some of the mysterious voicings of Duke Ellington. Even in his earliest trio work he stretched and displaced rhythm and melody and hinted at modes and scales as the basis for improvisation.
With the 1958 Miles Davis sextet that included saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones (replaced before very long by Jimmy Cobb), Evans had enormous influence in determining the course that mainstream jazz follows to this day. Although in his own groups he was to remain within the song form all his life, at this time Evans clearly accelerated Davis’s change from a repertoire of popular songs and jazz standards to pieces with fewer chord changes and greater demands on the taste, judgment and imagination of the soloist.
Davis saw ways of using the pianist’s approach to open up and simplify harmonies. By applying modal changes, the two men even transformed a twelve-bar blues, already the simplest traditional jazz form. By 1959, their work together helped lead to the landmark Davis sextet recording, Kind Of Blue. (It is fair to say that of important players and writers whose styles were not set before 1960, most developed in the shadow of that album.) Their modal and scalar approach to improvisation profoundly influenced John Coltrane’s turn toward fewer harmonic guideposts. Independently, at about the same time, alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman was solong on melodic lines, which he wrote without key centers, modes or scales. Taken together, the two methods led to Free Jazz or The New Thing, the avant garde jazz of the 1960s.
On his website The Bill Evans Web Pages, Jan Stevens writes:
Needless to say, he changed the way we all hear jazz –whether this is realized or not — and of course, he changed the very foundations of chord- voicing and improvisation forever. A very private and reserved soul who nevertheless reached out through his own naked self-expression, Bill was able to somehow create a fresh and vibrant soundscape that remains illuminating, if not downright spiritual to all who can really get inside of it and hear it at the highest levels.
Make no mistake: Bill Evans was, of course, firmly within the jazz tradition and its ongoing aethetic, and was proud of it. Besides his legendary ballad playing, he could swing like crazy with his own trios, and it’s impossible to imagine certain albums by Miles or Mingus or Chet Baker or Cannonball Adderley or Kai and J.J. and many others without him. Yet, aspects of some of his best work transcend jazz as we know it –sometimes even confounding and delighting those who are not amenable to jazz to begin with. (Try out an early “My Foolish Heart” or almost anything from the “You Must Believe in Spring” album on your uninitiated, musically-intelligent friends and see what happens.)
To read all of Jan’s tribute, go here and find disclosures of what Evans might have done had he lived.
Bill Evans died on September 15, 1980. He was fifty-one years old. In a habit of anticipation developed during the course of his career, I still go to the mailbox in hopes that a new Bill Evans album will appear.