Personalities | Bill Evans | Fifties | Jazz & Blues

Bill Evans was one of the most lyrical and romantic of all jazz pianists. His distinctive lightness of touch and singing tone on the piano shone most brightly in his favoured trio settings with compatible bass players and drummers, including famous line-ups that featured Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, and later Eddie Gomez and Marty Morrell.

Evans was born in Plainfield, New Jersey in 1929 and studied classical piano (and also violin) from the age of six (the trademark hunched position that he later adopted at the keyboard would doubtless have horrified his teacher!). He turned to jazz in his teens and began working professionally in New York in the early 1950s. He came to wider notice through associations with George Russell, Cannonball Adderley and – most significantly – the Miles Davis Sextet of the late 1950s.

Rethinking The Piano Trio

Evans’ contributions as pianist or composer to all but one track on the classic Kind Of Blue was as crucial as anyone’s to the success of that famous session. His own recording career as a leader began with New Jazz Conceptions (1956). His influences included Bud Powell and Horace Silver, but while his style remained rooted in bop, he developed his approach in an individual fashion that laid heavy stress on the lyrical facets of his music and on original harmonic thinking.

His famous trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian brought a new lustre to one of jazz’s most established formats, but the tragic death of LaFaro in a road accident in 1961 brought the group to a premature end. The live recordings that they made at the Village Vanguard in New York are among the highest accomplishments of the trio repertoire in jazz. LaFaro was well-equipped to adopt the kind of interactive accompanying role that Evans favoured, and set a benchmark that the pianist always sought to emulate in his choice of bassists. Later incumbents of that key position included Gary Peacock and Eddie Gomez.

A Pervasive Influence

The pianist’s refined sense of melodic inflection and harmonic subtlety proved very influential, not only on his peers but also on a subsequent generation of great jazz pianists, including Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. That influence remains equally pervasive today. If the trio was his principal vehicle, Evans also explored the use of overdubbing to create multitracked ‘solo’ piano recordings, as on Conversations With Myself (1963). He recorded duo albums with guitarist Jim Hall and singer Tony Bennett, as well as with Eddie Gomez, and sometimes worked with horn players added to his trio. He also recorded with a symphony orchestra in 1965.

Making The Piano Sing

Evans’ ability to radically remake standard tunes by the most deft and subtle of alterations was legendary, and his own compositions have stood the test of time. His best-known originals include ‘Blue In Green’ (jointly credited to Miles Davis), ‘Waltz For Debby’, ‘Comrad Conrad’, ‘Peace Piece’, ‘Detour Ahead’, ‘Funkallero’, ‘Interplay’, ‘NYC’s No...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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