Bill Evans Web Pages Interview
Hal, can you tell us the very first time you heard Bill Evans? Do you recall how old you were at that time and what album it was? What was your reaction then, and how and when did you go on and listen to more of his music?
HG: The first time I heard Bill was on his first trio album “New Jazz Conceptions” when it came out, I think, in the mid ’50’s. It got me pretty upset as I had an idea that we might be heading in the same direction. To avoid being overly influenced by him –I didn’t want to be thought of as a Bill clone — I decided I wasn’t going to listen to him any more. To try to change my direction. It was only after many years passed that I realized than any similarities, contrary to what the critics may have said, were only coincidental and natural. I was still hesitant to spend much time listening to him but couldn’t avoid it. He was playing so great.
As far as Bill’s earliest period, did you hear a great difference in his approach with, say playing with Miles, or even Mingus or on the Oliver Nelson record (“Blues and The Abstract Truth”) than with the subsequent trio?
HG: Definitely. His melodic style seemed to lean increasingly toward a more thematic style than linear. But I think his harmonic and rhythmic development was the most remarkable.
What do you feel was Bill’s influence on your own playing personally, and how did that come about? And how did it change the way you approached voicings or perhaps rhythmic displacement ?
HG: I was attracted to his harmonic conception but not his lines. I tried a few of his voicings but a truth I learned when I was copying Red Garland raised it’s ugly head again: what you play on any instrument will be dictated by the sound you get on it, i.e., one’s touch. When I played Red’s or Bill’s voicings, I had to either add or subtract notes to make them sound good with my hands.
Because your touch was different, or because you were looking for a different overall concept, or sound for yourself? Or was it part of a process of finding your own stylistic “feel”?
HG: Because my touch was different. (I think I answered that above.) Rhythmic displacement has been a constant interest of mine, but Bill and I (what nerve to mention us together in the same statement) took different directions and used it differently. When Dizzy spent a week as a guest with the Phil Woods Quintet, I learned that, to be able to subdivide tempos accurately, Diz and I had created similar exercises when we were young. For example: taking a bar of 4/4 and playing five quarter notes per bar. Then making each of the five quarter notes pairs of eighth notes but playing them in four-note-groups. The effect was as if one were playing eighth notes in a slightly faster tempo than the 4/4. I did this with as many subdivisions as I could find. Eventually, as Dizzy confirmed, one could play any notes anywhere within the tempo and subdivide accurately.
So you did this first as a conscious exercise? Or was it maybe something that came out of listening to something that Dizzy was perhaps doing?
HG: It came about this way: There are two kinds of “time” players: those who play good time and those who play with good time. Some of my early models “played good time.” By that I mean they had a particular place they played their lines within the flow of time and stayed there. For example, Tommy Flanagan, Sonny Stitt. They stated the time clearly. Some of my other models, Dizzy, Bird, and especially Sonny Rollins “played with good time.” They were subdividers and played their lines anywhere within the flow of time — in other words, on top, in the middle and behind the beat. They could place any line anywhere they wanted. When I was trying to emulate those that played good time, I felt rhythmically confined. But when I didn’t play that way I felt that my time was going all over the place. After a while I realized that my natural way to play time was as a subdivider. That the way for me to achieve rhythmic freedom was to develop the ability to subdivide the beat accurately and symmetrically into its smallest increments. I had to figure out my own rhythmic exercises to achieve this goal.
Have you transcribed any of Evans’ solos? And if so, what stands out in your mind about them? Do you have any favorites among Bill’s own compositions?
HG: No, I never transcribed any of his solos. I’m not much a fan of transcribing. It’s just that, at least in the melodic aspect, I think we parted ways.
Well, an individualistic approach is always best, as you develop your own voice on the instrument and absorb from everyone, as Bill himself even said many times. It’s just that so many players who came after Bill, were almost too influenced, one might say, by his linear approach — you know, the long phrases, the longer lines extending over many bars, those cascading triplets, the other licks of his that many copy, etc. It might have been inevitable, especially later on after Herbie and Chick became so prominent, and then Keith Jarrett—- all whose playing has reflected Bill’s melodic concept, one way or another. Did you find yourself making an intentional effort to “part ways” with Bill’s melodic approach because you found better ways to express yourself, or was it something in his playing that made you want to just do it differently?
HG:I didn’t make “an intentional effort to part ways” with Bill’s melodic approach because I wasn’t interested in his melodic approach in the first place. I didn’t get into much of his writing until recently, especially after hearing his “Practice Tape #1.”
But I’d assume you have played through some of his tunes like “Very Early” or “Turn Out the Stars”, to see how he though about the way harmonies can move. “Turn Out the Stars” is one of those that makes a good structural study, of cycles, especially in moving around II-V-I cycles in terms of tri-tones, no?
HG: I’ve played a lot of Bill’s tunes in various settings over the years and was familiar with his cyclical motion. Still am to some degree. But it was his voice leading and the way he structured his voicings that held my predominant interest. I wanted to see how he did it so I could apply his harmonic concepts to my own voicings.
Hal, I’ve always felt that Bill Evans’ reputation among the general jazz public was formed, in a wider sense, first from Miles “Kind of Blue”, to the classic 1961 Vanguard albums with LaFaro and Motian, and then through the Verve years of the 1960s. But it seems to me that fewer jazz listeners, and more so —the critics, are aware of some of the most adventurous, outgoing playing he ever did: mostly the ‘live’ stuff posthumously released with the last trio with Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera. Would you agree?
HG: Absolutely! I have the two sets of CD’s of his Keystone Corner recordings[San Francisco, August 1980]. For a pianist —at least for me anyway –they are brutal to listen to! But I’m going to keep on playing anyway. The music was so intense and on such a high level, I had to take a rest from them. It took me months to finally nerve myself up to listen to the last three CDs of the sets. I’ve been feeling confident enough in my own musical identity to be assiduously studying those recordings since the beginning of last summer. Especially for what he is doing harmonically. Not that I wanted to play his voicings but wanted to understand how to use my voicings better. His statement to Gene Lees that harmony was counterpoint only confirmed a suspicion I had gained from listening to these recordings. It was a revelatory realization! Sure, I had been told that in my early harmony classes at Berklee in the mid ’50’s but it kind of went over my head and I never thought about it much till now.
Despite my aversion to transcribing, I did get a few books of his voicings,the most interesting ones being Jack Reilly’s books and his analysis of Bill’s harmonic system. I also contacted as many of Bill’s “disciples” as I could to confirm the counterpoint thing. But I still haven’t found anything printed of his latest harmonic approach. Listening to those later recordings created three questions for me:
1. How much of his voicings were worked out on his arrangements?
2. How much did he practice these voicings out of context of his arrangements? In other words, did he have his voicings so together that he could apply them at will when he needed them?
3. Or, was it just a matter of he was just plain more talented than I?
Needless to say, my research showed that the answers to the above were all yes. For months (during the period when I couldn’t finish listening to the last three of the sets) he knocked my off my confidence base. I was convinced that my harmony totally sucked and I had a lot of work to do to upgrade it. I was right in one respect, I had to be more scrupulous with my voicings. To pay closer attention to their colors.
By “colors” — notably in these, some of he last of the playing he ever did — do you mean you detected a different systematic approach that he took previously, or just an bigger expansion on what came before? I hear it both ways — there’s a looser and more supple approach in the ways he divides things: lots more of 3 against 4, and 4 against 3 for instance in the time, a lot more breaking up the line structure and interjecting two handed “chord phrases” where the upper extensions became the existing line for that moment, etc.,–in general a far more adventurous approach that he had when Eddie Gomez was with him. I think he was far more willing to take chances, and he was very secure in his approach, and in the last trio’s willingness to respond so quickly to his ideas — that he could do that.
HG: You took the words out my mouth on that last question. It was high-risk playing. Taking a lot chances. My favorite kind of playing. I didn’t get my harmonic confidence back until I got a CD burner last Christmas and started burning my cassette tape collection to CDs. It was sort of a retrospect of my playing over the decades. It was only then that I realized that I had been, at times using counterpoint but didn’t know it. It was then that I realized that anyone investigating harmony on it’s deepest level would naturally come to the counterpoint conclusion. That made me feel a lot better. I’m now being more “picky” about the way I move my voicings.
The problem is that pianists usually start learning voicings by the process of “stacking” notes in thirds or fourths or whatever.. This creates a static perception of harmony. What is remarkable about Bill’s voicings is that each note can function separately as a independent melodic line. True counterpoint. It really hit me while listening to his “Practice Tape #1,” where, after working on his voice leading for a while, he slips into Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” then switches back to his voicing work. (What a great Bach interpreter he was!) You can really get the clearest idea of his use of counterpoint from his switching back and forth. It was Jack Reilly’s paper on inversions that gave me the clue: you have to have a thorough and complete knowledge of inversions to use harmony as counterpoint.
So many jazz historians and critics consider Bill Evans’ most important contribution to jazz to be perhaps his unique approach to ballads. As a jazz professional for so many years, do you agree with that assessment?
Is that what they say? Truthfully, I don’t have much interest in what the “jazz historians and critics” have to say about much of anything. History is a myth and criticism in general has strayed too far from its original intent; to define an artist’s goals and determine how closely one came to achieving them.
In terms of the history of jazz piano, do you agree with many who said that Evans was the next –and maybe the most recent –innovator after Bud Powell? What would you say is his place within that history remains the same, all these years after his passing?
I’m not so sure I’d describe Bill as an innovator but more as a “synthesizer” — more of a great stylist. Bud [Powell] and Ahmad [Jamal] were innovators. Their influence was global. They changed the face of music. Bill influenced a lot of pianists and was one of the foremost proponents of group improvising but even that had been done before, in Dixieland music for example.
Hal can you tell us what you’ve been up to the last few years and what your future plans might be?
After booking my band for the ten year period between 1990 and 2000, and writing my book “The Touring Musician” [see Hal’s website for more info] I broke up my trio. I’m semi-retired, and teaching part-time at The New School and at Purchase Conservatory. This leaves me free to devote more time to practicing and writing.
I do a gig every once and while, when its worth it. But mostly I’m in the process of completing my book “Forward Motion” and working on another educational project with [bassist] Rufus Reid and [drummer] Billy Hart.
We recorded a concert we played at the New School’s “Jazz @ 6 & 1/2” series last November. With only a half-hour talk-down before the concert, the recording is a prime example of the techniques of non-verbal communication and musical conversation. Of what can occur when three pros get together and wing it; what we call “signaling.” For a music that is learned mostly by listening to it, it’s surprising how many students don’t know or recognize what their hearing. As one of my students once put it “gee, I thought that stuff just happened.”
We’re writing a companion book to go along with the recording. Sort of a musical “Roshamon”, where each player will discuss from their perspective what the other played at certain spot and how they were reacted to. Like, I did this at 3:10 in the first tune and Rufus did that and Billy did that, kind of thing. The recording will come out in a DVD format because a DVD allows you to use 100 ID’s per track whereas a CD only allows 99 ID’s per CD. This way, the student can go directly to any part of any tune to hear the examples mentioned in the book. It’s a rather long-term project and logistically and technically complex, and it may take a while before it’s published. We plan to self-publish the book ourselves.
I’m also in the process of buying back my albums from many of the record companies I’ve recorded with over the years and am planning to re- release them under my own label: Redux Records — as well as marketing my Forward Motion book myself. Those who are interested can keep in touch with my web site or get on my emailing list for further updates.
Thanks so much Hal. This has been great.
HG: My pleasure.