Bill Evans, in his tenure as one of the most prominent jazz pianists from the
1950's until his death in 1980, represents one such artist. Though Evans's
Bill Evans: Making Impressions Every so often, an artist comes along whose work transcends the constraints of time, yet all at once presents itself as perfectly situated in its context, or as a functional bond between preceding and succeeding art. Bill Evans, in his tenure as one of the most prominent jazz pianists from the 1950’s until his death in 1980, represents one such artist. Though Evans’s playing drew from a wide breadth of both classical and jazz influences, he was one of the first jazz pianists of his time to incorporate into his music the ideas of musical Impressionists such as Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Erik Satie. In large part, his connection to Impressionism gave his playing its unmistakable nature. Evans’ singular playing style and prolific career, in turn, deeply influenced the major jazz pianists who came after him, as well as shaped the development of jazz in the latter half of the twentieth century. Evans’ expert touch or finger technique, and chordal harmony are two components of his unique playing that not only demonstrate roots in Impressionist ideals, but also influenced later jazz artists like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, and Keith Jarrett. In his employment of Impressionist themes within the context of jazz in the 1960’s, Bill Evans fashioned music that was all at once timeless in its grasp of a musical tradition, and revolutionary in its incorporation of that tradition. Impressionism as a movement can be traced back to the early paintings of Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro, and, according to Lionello Venturi, it was initially rooted in the goal of capturing light and reflection in water landscapes in the manner that the human eye perceives the “appearance of reality” (Venturi, 36). These artists subsequently developed an interest in a new color palette, “expressing light by opposing colours without using
dark tones for shadows” (Venturi, 35), as well as a focus on texture, in order to ultimately create a pictorial work of art, or one that absorbs “the picturesque fragments of nature” (Venturi, 42). When translated to the succeeding Impressionist movement in music, one discovers a similar stress placed on the color of tone, timbre, and harmony, as well as texture within the relationships between notes and rhythms. In this manner, Impressionist music strives toward “a general effect of timbre rather than a clearly intelligible succession of notes” (Eaglefield-Hull). As Samuel L. Miller asserts, the implementation of common Impressionist devices like parallel motion, unresolved melodic tensions, and modal and whole-tone scales, promises an evocative, yet unclear composition, saying, “These techniques were combined to produce music of the most exotic, suggestive, and often vague effects” (Miller, 65). This aim for color, texture and a suggestive atmosphere in music did not, by any means, die with Impressionism, but, in fact, was later resurrected by Bill Evans in an unlikely context: mid-twentieth century jazz music. In assessing Bill Evans’ lasting impression on jazz and his easily identifiably sound, many refer to his superb touch at the piano. As Gene Lees, jazz critic and one of Evans’ close friends, says, “One chord and I knew who it was” (NPR: ‘Jazz Profiles’). Peter Pettinger attributes much of Evans’ unmistakable playing to his broad and in-depth classical training, saying, “The constructional knowledge of music that Evans later brought to jazz was firmly rooted in this European tradition, as was his thoroughly trained and exquisitely refined touch at the keyboard” (Pettinger, 16). However farreaching Evans’ training background, his expert “weight technique” (Pettinger, 39), as he called it, ultimately fostered a playing that, in many ways, was focused toward an Impressionistic effect. Evans’ technical command over the keyboard manifested itself in
his achieved control over timbre and tone. Chuck Israels, a former bassist of Evans, says that Evans’ “ability to give different color and weight to different voices gave Evans’ playing a textural variety not found in the work of more conventional jazz pianists” (Israels, 111). In this manner, Evans’s well-trained touch results in descriptions of color and texture that could just as easily be applied to an Impressionist composition. For instance, Debussy stressed a similar control over timbre, and sensitive touch, that led critics to compare his musical works to the paintings of Monet. For his emphasis on timbre in his music, Debussy has been called “a master of half-lights and delicate shadows” (Hadow, 381), and “a sensitive recorder, to use his own apt phrase, of ‘impressions and special lights’”(Gilman, 36). Gene Lees describes the manner in which Evans was able to control tone on the piano, saying, “It is all in how the hammers are made to strike the strings, as well of course as the more obvious effect of pedaling, of which Bill was a master” (Lees, “Re: Person I Knew”). In this statement, Lees refers to a pedaling technique employed by Evans, that in addition to his touch, allowed him to, as Pettinger says, “shade Debussy and Ravel to a fine degree” (Pettinger, 45). Evans’ touch and technical prowess provided a means to an Impressionist product of color or weight in sound, which in turn contributed to his one-of-kind playing style. In the National Public Radio Segment, Jazz Profiles: A Tribute to Bill Evans, one of Bill Evans’s students, Andy Laverne, refers to the major jazz pianists who followed Evans, like Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett, and Herbie Hancock, saying, “None of those players would be playing what they’re playing today if it hadn’t been for Bill” (NPR: ‘Jazz Profiles’). This assertion holds true in regards to Evans’ technical expertise and precise use of touch. All of the pianists that Laverne mentions play with
and have been influenced by the same immense control of timbre that Israels describes about Evans when he says, “All dynamic gradations short of bombastic pounding were at his command, and he used them to express delicate nuances of melody” (Israels, 110). Herbie Hancock describes his indebtedness to Bill Evans, saying, “Bill leads the pack as far as the quality and the amount of influence. I've always been influenced by harmony and touch. Bill was a master of both” (Hancock, Bill Evans: A Tribute. Booklet.). On the Chick Corea song “Now He Beats the Drums, Now He Stops” one can hear technical components in Corea’s playing that draw from Bill Evans, whether it is the sensitive timbre drawn out of the keyboard with his fingers and the singing quality in the song’s early notes, or the expert use of pedaling that contributes to the rich tone quality of those notes. On a song medley like “I Fall In Love Too Easily/ The Fire Within”, Keith Jarrett’s playing exemplifies the “dynamic gradations” that Israels referred to, using Evans’ “weight technique” to let the “voices sing” (Pettinger, 39) in moments of both complete tenderness and extreme aggression. The Impressionistic effect that Evans was able to achieve through a technique and control grounded in the European tradition was transmitted to the major players in jazz of the second half of the twentieth century, breeding in their own playing a sense of color, texture, and control of timbre. Another unmistakable element of Bill Evans’s playing is his chordal harmony, the distinctiveness of which can be broken down into his use of rootless chord voicings and parallel motion, his brief experiments in modality, as well as his use of atonality and nonconventional chord successions in his original compositions. As Pettinger explains, Evans’s use of rootless chords was perfected in his trio work as a means of avoiding doubling with the bass, allowing him to develop a new language of chord voicings to
compliment melody. On this subject, Evans himself said, “If I am going to be sitting there playing roots, fifths, and full voicings, the bass is relegated to a time machine” (Pettinger, 105). Pettinger describes Evans’s process of developing a new chord language, saying, “a flash of insight would fleetingly evoke a new voicing, one that worked perfectly... A new harmonic world glimmered on the horizon toward which he would ever strive” (Pettinger, 48). Out of this pursuit, Evans notably perfected and manipulated block chord techniques, in which a chord scale accompanies the melody, the complementary chords moving in parallel motion with the melody line. In a song like “Waltz for Debby”, Evans pairs the melody with accompaniment that fits the characteristic of Impressionist as music of “exotic, suggestive, and often vague effects”. In the song, the intricately calculated accompaniment, frequently moving in parallel with the melody creates a highly textural, tonally vague, yet atmospheric and evocative listening experience. Miller addresses the function of parallel motion as it appears in Impressionism, as he examines measures 8-12 of the Debussy piece, Jardins sous la pluie, saying, “Here, the parallel harmonies are played softly and rapidly as broken chords, as if to symbolize the patter of rain drops during a gentle down-pour” (Miller, 65-66). In each case, the composer consciously utilizes parallel motion as a means to render a type of harmonic ambiguity, through which the piece gains its Impressionist quality. Though he only focused on it sporadically throughout his career, Evans’ use of modality, especially on the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue, played an instrumental role in the later development of jazz, as well as it evinced a deep connection to the harmonic experimentation of the Impressionists. As Ed Byrne asserts, George Russell recommended Bill Evans to Miles Davis for Kind of Blue, on the grounds of “the strength
of Evans’s knowledge of the music of French Impressionist composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel” (Byrne, 1). Though it was Davis who had the primary interest in modal harmony at the time, one should not mistake Evans’s role on the record. According to Pettinger, “[Evans] was able not only to distinguish himself in one of the greatest small bands in history but also to exert his own influence upon its leader” (Pettinger, 53). The use of the Dorian scale mode throughout the album, and the famous first two chords of “So What” reveal Evans’s contribution to what, as Ed Byrne says, some historians “termed Impressionist Jazz” (Byrne, 1). The incorporation of modal and quartal harmony was common among the Impressionists, like Maurice Ravel, who demonstrated “a predilection for certain scales not of the classical tradition” (Landormy, 432). In a later album, entitled Nirvana, Evans pays tribute to the modality of the Impressionist Erik Satie, playing the song “Gymnopedie No. 2”, that, as Pettinger says, “was a salutary reminder that modal aspirations away from tonality were already under way in the late 1880’s”, adding that throughout his career, Evans was “always mindful of Satie’s peculiar brand of melancholy and stark innocence” (Pettinger, 121). In this regard, the effect in both Evans’s and the Impressionists’ modality is that of a distinctive openness and freedom from the constraints of previous harmonic practices. This openness and freedom in Bill Evans’ chordal harmony worked its way into his atonal composition, “Time Remembered”, which is, arguably, one of his most Impressionist pieces. The piece is atonal, employing an atypical chord succession, which is a common characteristic of Impressionist music. In the piece, this nonconventional atonal chord succession operates outside of any typical sense of musical motif, and thus attempts to evoke the poignancy in its free chord relationships. In this manner, the piece
attains a similar quality to the music of Debussy, which was “founded not on the stringing together of motives, but on the compared power of the sounds in themselves” (Mauclair, 300). Additionally, the piece exhibits an overall avoidance of leading tones, another salient characteristic of Impressionism, which stems from the piece’s largely modal configuration. As Pettinger states, “A modal feeling permeates the timeless progression of its predominantly minor sevenths” (Pettinger, 148), providing a further link between the modality of both Evans and the Impressionists. Evans’s original pieces, as is evident in “Time Remembered”, work outside of notions of typical tonality, yet all at once, the sounds are so carefully juxtaposed so as to conjure their inherent power and evocative nature. Bill Evans’s multi-faceted and distinctive breed of harmonic thought is perhaps the most influential component of his playing; the one that contributes the most to his “Gorgeous, crystal sound” (NPR: ‘Jazz Profiles’), as bassist Eddie Gomez referred to it. Evans’s perfection of block-chording techniques and rootless chord voicings inspired many later jazz pianists to compliment melody in such a calculated manner. For instance, in Keith Jarrett’s version of the Young/Heyman song “When I Fall in Love”, Jarrett accentuates the melody with these rootless Evansesque voicings, often moving them in parallel motion around the cadence of the melody, creating a final product that is unmistakably akin to Evans’s own version of the same song. The modal influence of Kind of Blue ran deep in the succeeding era in jazz, as Nancy Wilson, the host of NPR’s Jazz Profiles, supports when she calls the album “a benchmark for future players” (NPR: ‘Jazz Profiles’). Following the release of Kind of Blue, modal music emerged as the next major development in jazz of the second half of the twentieth century. As Gene Lees
states, “Bill contributed enormously to that recording” (NPR: ‘Jazz Profiles’), an assertion that is validated by the common reference to the voicing used by Evans on the first track of Kind of Blue as a “So What chord”. This voicing -- constructed of five notes each separated by perfect fourths with the exception of the highest note which is a major third above the second highest note – became so popular in the succeeding movement in jazz that Mark Levine included it as a chapter in his famous “The Jazz Piano Book”. On John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, an album that many consider to be one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, the pianist McCoy Tyner makes extensive use of the “So What” voicing, paying tribute to the modal world that Evans and Davis explored on Kind of Blue. Furthermore, some of the more acclaimed jazz albums of the second half of the twentieth century, like Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, Chick Corea’s Now He Sings/ Now He Sobs, or McCoy Tyner’s Infinity, were all based around a modal concept, an idea impressed upon the genre of jazz, in part, by Evans in his brief, but crucial stint playing modal music with Davis, and also writing it, as is the case in “Time Remembered”. Furthermore, Evans’ groundbreaking use of atonality or nonconventional chord successions in a jazz context demonstrates his influence all the way up to the present era. Vijay Iyer and Brad Mehldau, two prominent twenty-first century jazz pianists, frequently compose atonal pieces that, like “Time Remembered”, attempt to elicit “the compared power of the sounds in themselves.” Evans’s widespread impact on the world of jazz is, in large part, a byproduct of his ground-breaking and wholly unique harmonic sensibility, which contributed to jazz not only a carefully thought-out language of rootless voicings, but also experiments in modality and atonality.
In analyzing Bill Evans’ impact on jazz in the latter half of the twentieth century, it is important to look at two more defining components of his career not explicitly linked to the Impressionist movement, but through which he was able to infuse Impressionist ideal into the language of jazz. These two components are his revolutionary trio work, as well as his reinvention of the American popular songbook. As aforementioned, Evans’ trio work, in part, helped him to develop his unmistakable chord voicings. Playing with a bassist showed Evans no need to play root notes in his left hand, thus freeing him to explore new note combinations in the form of rootless chords. As Bill Evans’s last bassist Marc Johnson says, this freedom resulted in “No wasted motion, no wasted notes” (NPR: ‘Jazz Profiles’), bringing to bear the sort of coloristic harmony that encompasses Evans’s playing. His trio work had the additional effect of changing the role of the rhythm section forever. As the drummer Jack Dejohnette says, “Bill not only changed the approach to piano, but he also changed the approach to trios, and it affected everybody” (NPR: ‘Jazz Profiles’), which refers to Evans’s innovative belief that piano, drums and bass all played an equal role in the resulting musical conversation. Rather than having the bassist and drummer simply act as the accompaniment to the pianist, and, to use his own words, relegating them “to a time machine”, he permitted notions of simultaneous improvisation, allowing for the interplay between the individual voices in the trio. In reinventing the nature of the jazz trio and elevating drummer and bassist from the roles “assigned by jazz tradition” (Evans, NPR: ‘Jazz Profiles’), Evans influenced every major trio since, from Keith Jarrett’s famous trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, to modern avantgarde groups like The Bad Plus, who make frequent use of Evans’ principle of simultaneous improvisation. Just as central to Evans’s legacy as his re-envisioning of the
jazz trio was his ability to refashion jazz standards from the American popular songbook, applying his own matchless sound to the work, and subsequently giving the piece new life. As Nancy Wilson states, Evans “May be remembered for his reshaping of the works of others” (NPR: ‘Jazz Profiles’), this reshaping being, in large part, a product of his command and touch at the piano, as well as his unique manner of voicing chords around a melody. Through Evans’s expert control over the timbre of the notes, carefully calculated harmonic color of his chord voicings, and the textural element of his chords in their juxtaposition around the melody, he nearly rewrote songs such as, “Someday My Prince will Come”, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”, “Stella by Starlight”, “Autumn Leaves”, and “But Beautiful”. In this manner, Evans’s iconic, Impressionist influenced sound granted him a great deal of ownership of and identity in the resulting product, even though someone else may have written the song initially. By redefining both the jazz trio and American popular song, Bill Evans was able to further cultivate his Impressionistinfluenced playing as well as embed his distinctive sound into the language of jazz. Shortly before his death in 1980, Bill Evans responded to the question of his influence on jazz by saying that he saw himself as part of a “jazz continuum” (NPR: ‘Jazz Profiles), playing a sound and a concept that built off of the preceding jazz tradition, through which new ideas could develop and emerge. Thus, Evans viewed his music as perfectly suited to the place and the time in which it was conceived, as a link in the grand scheme of twentieth century jazz. Perhaps, though, Evans has a place in a broader musical continuum: one that encompasses a larger scope of time and genre. Evans’ understanding and implementation of Impressionist paradigms to create a singular and irrefutably influential sound establishes him as the suitable link between this genre of
classical music and the jazz that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century. Bill Evans’s music is all at once grounded in a previous movement and progressive in nature; it is ageless and revolutionary, ultimately affirming his crucial role in the musical continuum of the twentieth century.
Works Cited • • • • •
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"Bill Evans: 'Piano Impressionism'" Jazz Profiles. National Public Radio. 27 Feb. 2008. Radio. Byrne, Ed. "Jazz: Miles Davis and Modality." Web log post. My Music Bank. 26 Jan. 2009. Web. 5 Dec. 2011. . Byrnside, Ronald L. "Musical Impressionism: The Early History of the Term." The Musical Quarterly LXVI.4 (1980): 522-37. JSTOR. Web. 5 Dec. 2011. Eaglefield-Hull, Arthur. A Dictionary of Modern Music and Musicians. London, 1924. Print. Gilman, Lawrence. Phases of Modern Music: Strauss, MacDowell, Elgar, Loeffler, Mascagni, Grieg, Cornelius, Verdi, Wagner, "Parsifal" and Its Significance. [S.l.]: Lane, 1904. Print. Hadow, Henry. “Some Tendencies in Modern Music,” Edinburg Review (October, 1906), p. 381. Hancock, Herbie. Booklet. Bill Evans: A Tribute. TBA Records, 1991. CD. Israels, Chuck. "Bill Evans (1929–1980): A Musical Memoir." The Musical Quarterly LXXI.2 (1985): 109-15. JSTOR. Web. 5 Dec. 2011. Landormy, Paul. "Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)." The Musical Quarterly XXV.4 (1939): 430-41. JSTOR. Web. 5 Dec. 2011. Lees, Gene. ""Re: Person I Knew"" JazzLetter 11 (Feb. 1984). Print. Mauclair, Camille. “La Peinture musicienne et la fusion des arts” La Revue bleue, September 6, 1902. Miller, Samuel D. "Motion in Musical Texture and Aesthetic Impact." Journal of Aesthetic Education 17.1 (1983): 59-67. JSTOR. Web. 5 Dec. 2011. Pettinger, Peter. Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2002. Print. Venturi, Lionello. "The Aesthetic Idea of Impressionism." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 1.1 (1941): 34-45. JSTOR. Web. 5 Dec. 2011.