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Bill Evans performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival (Switzerland) with his trio consisting of Marc Johnson, bass & Philly Joe Jones, drums, July 13, 1978. (Photo by Brian McMillen)
|Birth name||William John Evans|
|Also known as||Bill Evans|
August 16, 1929|
Plainfield, New Jersey, United States
|Died||September 15, 1980
Fort Lee, New Jersey, United States
|Genres||Jazz, Modal Jazz, Third Stream, Cool Jazz, Post-Bop|
|Labels||Riverside, Verve, Fantasy|
|Associated acts||George Russell, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Philly Joe Jones, Scott LaFaro, Paul Motian, Eddie Gomez, Marty Morell, Tony Bennett, Jim Hall, Monica Zetterlund|
William John Evans, known as Bill Evans (August 16, 1929–September 15, 1980) was an American jazz pianist. His use of impressionist harmony, inventive interpretation of traditional jazz repertoire, and trademark rhythmically independent, "singing" melodic lines influenced a generation of pianists. He is considered by some to be the most influential post-World War II jazz pianist. Evans had a distinct playing posture in which his neck would often be stooped very low, and his face parallel to the piano.
Bill Evans was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, United States, to Harry and Mary Evans (née Soroka). His father was of Welsh descent, and his mother of Ukranian Rusyn ancestry. The marriage was stormy, brought on by his heavy drinking, gambling, and abuse. He had a slightly older brother named Harry, who later became a conservatory professor. He received his first musical training at his mother's church. Evans' mother was an amateur pianist with an interest in modern classical composers, and Evans began classical piano lessons at age six. He also became a proficient flautist by age 13 and could play the violin.
At age 12, Evans filled in for his older brother Harry in Buddy Valentino's band. At this age he was able to interpret classical music, but he couldn't improvise. In the beginning, he played exactly what was written in the sheet, but soon started trying to improvise, while learning about harmonies in the songs and how to alter them. Meanwhile, he was playing dance music (and jazz) at home, in a recording studio he built in his family's basement. In the late 1940s, Evans played boogie woogie in various New Jersey clubs. He attended Southeastern Louisiana University on a music scholarship, and in 1950 performed Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto on his senior recital there, graduating with a degree in piano performance and teaching. He was also among the founding members of SLU's Delta Omega Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, and played quarterback for the fraternity's football team, helping them win the school's 1949 intramural tournament.
Evans's first professional job was with sax player Herbie Fields's band, based in Chicago. During the summer of 1950, the band did a three-month tour backing Billie Holiday, including East Coast appearances at Harlem's Apollo Theater and shows in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and at Washington D.C.'s Howard Theater. In addition to Fields and Evans, the band included trumpeter Jimmy Nottingham, trombonist Frank Rosolino and bassist Jim Aton. Upon its return to Chicago, Evans and Aton worked as a duo in Chicago clubs, often backing singer Lurlean Hunter. Shortly thereafter, Evans received his draft notice and entered the U.S. Army.
After his army service, Evans returned to New York and worked at nightclubs with jazz clarinetist Tony Scott and other leading players. Later, he took postgraduate studies in composition at the Mannes College of Music, where he also mentored younger music students.
Working in New York in the 1950s, Evans gained recognition as a sideman in traditional and so-called Third Stream jazz groups. During this period he had the opportunity to record in many different contexts with some of the best jazz musicians of the time. Seminal recordings made with composer/theoretician George Russell, including "Concerto for Billy the Kid" and "All About Rosie," are notable for Evans's solo work. Evans also appeared on notable albums by Charles Mingus, Oliver Nelson, Tony Scott, and Art Farmer. In 1956, he made his debut album, New Jazz Conceptions, featuring the original version of "Waltz for Debby," for Riverside Records. Producer Orrin Keepnews was convinced to record the reluctant Evans by a demo tape guitarist Mundell Lowe played to him over the phone.
In 1958, Evans was hired by Miles Davis, becoming the only white member of Davis's famed sextet. Though his time with the band was brief (no more than eight months), it was one of the most fruitful collaborations in the history of jazz, as Evans's introspective approach to improvisation deeply influenced Davis's style.
|“||Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got, was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall [...] I've sure learned a lot from Bill Evans. He plays the piano the way it should be played.||”|
Evans's desire to pursue his own projects as a leader (and increasing problems with drug use) led him to leave the Davis sextet in late 1958. Shortly after, he recorded Everybody Digs Bill Evans, documenting the wholly original meditative sound he was exploring at the time. But Evans came back to the sextet at Davis's request to record the jazz classic Kind of Blue in early 1959. Evans's contribution to the album was overlooked for years; in addition to cowriting the song "Blue in Green," he had also already developed the ostinato figure from the track "Flamenco Sketches" on the 1958 solo recording "Peace Piece" from his album Everybody Digs Bill Evans. Evans also penned the heralded liner notes for Kind of Blue comparing jazz improvisation to Japanese visual art. By the fall of 1959, he had started his own trio.
At the turn of the decade, Evans led a trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. This group was to become one of the most acclaimed piano trios — and jazz bands in general — of all time. With this group, Evans's focus settled on traditional jazz standards and original compositions, with an added emphasis on interplay among the band members that often bordered on collective improvisation, blurring the line between soloist and accompanist. The collaboration between Evans and the young LaFaro was particularly fruitful, as the two achieved a remarkable level of musical empathy. The trio recorded four albums: Portrait in Jazz (1959); and Explorations, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, and Waltz for Debby, all recorded in 1961. The last two albums are live recordings from the same recording date, and are routinely named among the greatest jazz recordings of all time. In 2005, the full sets were collected on the three-CD set The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961. There is also a lesser-known recording of this trio, Live at Birdland, taken from radio broadcasts in early 1960, though the sound quality is poor.
In addition to introducing a new freedom of interplay within the piano trio, Evans began (in performances such as "My Foolish Heart" from the Vanguard sessions) to explore extremely slow ballad tempos and quiet volume levels, which had been virtually unknown in jazz. His chordal voicings became more impressionistic, reminiscent of classical composers such as Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, and Satie, and he moved away from the thick block chords he had often used with Davis. His sparse left-hand voicings supported his lyrical right-hand lines, reflecting the influence of jazz pianist Bud Powell.
Like Davis, Evans was a pioneer of modal jazz, favoring harmonies that helped avoid some of the idioms of bebop and other earlier jazz. In tunes like Time Remembered, the chord changes more or less absorbed the derivative styles of bebop and instead relied on unexpected shifts in color. It was still possible (and desirable) to make these changes swing, and a certain spontaneity appeared in expert solos that were played over the new sound. Most composers refer to the style of Time Remembered as "plateau modal," because of its frequent juxtaposition of harmony.
LaFaro's death at age 25 in a car accident, ten days after the Vanguard performances, devastated Evans. He did not record or perform in public again for several months. His first recording after LaFaro's death was the duet album Undercurrent, with guitarist Jim Hall, released on United Artist Jazz records in 1963. Recorded in two sessions on April 24 and May 14, 1962, it is now widely regarded as a classic jazz piano-guitar duet recording. The album is also notable for its striking cover image, "Weeki Wachee Spring, Florida" by photographer Toni Frissell.
When he re-formed his trio in 1962, Evans replaced LaFaro with bassist Chuck Israels, initially keeping Motian on the drums. Two albums, Moon Beams and How My Heart Sings!, resulted. In 1963, after having switched from Riverside to the much more widely distributed Verve, he recorded Conversations With Myself, an innovative album on which he employed overdubbing, layering up to three individual tracks of piano for each song. The album won him his first Grammy award, for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance — Soloist or Small Group.
Though his time with Verve was prolific in terms of recording, his artistic output was uneven. Despite Israels's fast development and the creativity of new drummer Grady Tate, they were ill-represented by the rather perfunctory album Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra, with the piece Pavane by Gabriel Fauré remarkably reinvented with improvisations by Evans. Some unique contexts were attempted, such as a big-band live album at Town Hall, recorded but never issued due to Evans's dissatisfaction with it (although the jazz trio portion of the Pavane concert was made into its own somewhat successful release), and an album with a symphony orchestra, not warmly received by critics.
During this time, Helen Keane, Evans's manager, began having an important influence. One of the first women in her field, she significantly helped to maintain the progress (or prevent the deterioration) of Evans's career in spite of his self-destructive lifestyle.
In 1966, Evans discovered the remarkable young Puerto Rican bass player Eddie Gomez. In what turned out to be an eleven-year stay, the sensitive and creative Gomez sparked new developments in both Evans's playing and his trio conception. One of the most significant releases during this period is Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival, from 1968. Although it was the only album Evans made with drummer Jack DeJohnette, it has remained a critical and fan favorite, due to the trio's remarkable energy and interplay.
Other highlights from this period include "Solo — In Memory of His Father" from Bill Evans at Town Hall (1966), which introduced the famous theme "Turn Out the Stars," a second successful pairing with guitarist Jim Hall; Intermodulation (1966); and the subdued, crystalline solo album Alone (1968), featuring a 14-minute-plus version of "Never Let Me Go." In 1969, Evans visited Ilkka Kuusisto's home in Helsinki and was interviewed about jazz before performing.
In 1968, Marty Morell joined the trio on drums and remained until 1975, when he retired to family life. This was Evans's most stable, longest-lasting group. Evans had kicked his heroin habit and was entering a period of personal stability as well. The group made several albums, including From Left to Right (1970), which features Evans's first use of electric piano; The Bill Evans Album (1971), which won two Grammies; The Tokyo Concert (1973); Since We Met (1974); and But Beautiful (1974), featuring the trio plus legendary tenor saxophonist Stan Getz in live performances from Holland and Belgium, released posthumously in 1996. Morell was an energetic, straight-ahead drummer, unlike many of the trio's former percussionists, and many critics feel that this was a period of little growth for Evans. After Morell left, Evans and Gomez recorded two duo albums, Intuition and Montreux III.
In 1974, Bill Evans recorded a multimovement jazz concerto specifically written for him by Claus Ogerman entitled Symbiosis, originally released on the MPS Records label. The 1970s also saw Evans collaborate with the singer Tony Bennett on 1975's The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album and 1977's Together Again.
On September 13, 1975, Evans's son, Evan, was born. Evan Evans did not often see his always-touring father. A child prodigy, he embarked on a career in film scoring, ambitiously attending college courses in 20th-century composition, instrumentation, and electronic composition at the age of ten. He also studied with many of his father's contemporaries, including Lalo Schifrin and harmony specialist Bernard Maury.
In 1976, Marty Morell was replaced on drums by Eliot Zigmund. Several interesting collaborations followed, and it was not until 1977 that the trio was able to record an album together. Both I Will Say Goodbye (Evans's last album for Fantasy Records) and You Must Believe in Spring (for Warner Bros., released posthumously) highlighted changes that would become significant in the last stage of Evans's career. A greater emphasis was placed on group improvisation and interaction, Evans was reaching new expressive heights in his soloing, and new experiments with harmony and keys were attempted.
Gomez and Zigmund left Evans in 1978. Evans then asked Philly Joe Jones, the drummer he considered his "all-time favorite drummer" and with whom he had recorded his second album in 1957, to fill in. Several bassists were tried, with Michael Moore staying the longest. Evans finally settled on Marc Johnson on bass and Joe LaBarbera on drums. This trio was Evans's last.
In 1979, Bill's brother Harry, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, was found dead from a self-inflicted bullet wound to the head. Many speculate that it was the grief caused by this event that pushed his cocaine addiction to its insurmountable peak.
During the last sixteen months of his life, Evans had a relationship with Laurie Verchomin, several years younger. He composed his ballad "Laurie" for her.
Evans's drug addiction most likely began during his stint with Miles Davis in the late 1950s. A heroin addict for much of his career, his health was generally poor, and his financial situation worse, for much of the 1960s. By the end of that decade, he appeared to have succeeded in overcoming his addiction to heroin. However, during the 1970s, cocaine use became a serious and ultimately fatal problem for Evans. His body finally gave out on September 15, 1980, when, ravaged by a bleeding ulcer, cirrhosis of the liver, bronchial pneumonia, and a lifelong battle with hepatitis, he was accompanied by Joe LaBarbera and his partner Laurie Verchomin, to the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, where he died that afternoon. Evans's friend Gene Lees bleakly summarized Evans's struggle with drugs to Peter Pettinger as "the longest suicide in history." At the time of his death, Evans was residing with his partner Laurie Verchomin, in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Bill Evans is buried at Roselawn Memorial Park and Mausoleum, Baton Rouge, East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana (Section #161, Plot K), next to his brother Harry Evans, who died the previous year. The inscription reads, "William John Evans; August 16, 1929; September 15, 1980."
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While Evans was emminently an acoustic pianist, from the 1970 album From Left to Right on, he also sporadically released some material with Fender-Rhodes piano intermissions. However, Evans did never take the instrument seriously.
I am interested in other keyboard sounds, but basically I'm an acoustic pianist. I’ve been happy to use the Fender-Rhodes to add a little colour to certain performances but only as an adjunct [...] It's hard for people to recognize individuals on an electric piano. Because it is an electric instrument, it's hard for a personality to come through.—Interview with Chris Albertson, The Jazz Set, 1971
I don't think too much about the electronic thing, except that it's kind of fun to have it as an alternate voice. Like, I've used the Fender- Rhodes piano on a couple of records. I don't really look on it as a piano— merely an alternate keyboard instrument, that offers a certain kind of sound that’s appropriate sometimes. I find that it’s kind of a refreshing auxiliary to the piano— but I don't need it, you know. I guess it’s for other people to judge how effective it’s been on my records; I enjoyed it, anyway. I don't enjoy spending a lot of time with the electric piano. I mean, if I play it for a period of time, then I quickly tire of it, and I want to get back to the acoustic piano.—Interview with Les Tomkins, 1972
Music critic Richard S. Ginell noted, “With the passage of time, Bill Evans has become an entire school unto himself for pianists and a singular mood unto himself for listeners. There is no more influential jazz-oriented pianist—only McCoy Tyner exerts nearly as much pull among younger players and journeymen—and Evans has left his mark on such noted players as: Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, John Taylor, Steve Kuhn, Don Friedman, Marian McPartland, Denny Zeitlin, Bobo Stenson, Warren Bernhardt, Michel Petrucciani and Keith Jarrett, as well as many other musicians worldwide. The music of Bill Evans continues to inspire younger pianists like Fred Hersch, Bill Charlap, Lyle Mays, Eliane Elias and arguably Brad Mehldau  early in his career.
Many of his tunes, such as "Waltz for Debby," "Turn Out the Stars," "Very Early," and "Funkallero," have become often-recorded jazz standards. Many tribute recordings featuring his compositions and favorite tunes have been released in the years following his passing as well as tribute compositions. Pat Metheny's "September 15th" is one such recording.
During his lifetime, Evans was honored with 31 Grammy nominations and seven Awards. In 1994, he was posthumously honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Evans repertore consisted of both songs by other composers and his own works. The following list contains all the songs he released.
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