How things started

Group dialogue
The Bill Evans Trio 1
The Bill Evans Trio 2 s
Particular about pianos
The stimulus of the city
How things started
The Bosendorfer
Talking to Joe Vandyl in 1972

Let's talk about how things started. The first LP, 1 think, that is known in this country is "New Jazz Conceptions", and I suppose listening to it now we hear a different Bill Evansó the influences you had before seem to be more marked. What do you feel about it now?

I still think that it was a good record at the time, as good as I could do and I still will listen to it without any misgivings; as you say, the influences were perhaps more marked. There were a lot of influences; some. of the major ones might have been George Shearing, Bud Powell, of course, Nat Cole, Earl Hines and many players you never hear of. I think some of the main influences were the obvious people like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles, Stan Getz and Bird. It's like building an idiomatic language and a musical language, and you kind of take abstract principles, melodic, harmonic and rhythmic influences, and you put them together. . .

Do you listen to your own records?

Very little; I used to a long time ago. I think I'm getting back to them now, but foró about ten years I barely listened to any of the things I did.

Listening to the 'fifties recordings, there is a lot of involvement with technique. Did you find it a particular challenge at the time?

Well, not really. . . you know, I started very young, developing a keyboard facilityó my problem has more been thinking than producing what I think; in other words, the technical problems have never been that great to meó the problems have been which buttons to push at what time.

Did you overcome the technical problems of the piano through classical music?

Oh, a lot of it, but, you know, I started playing gigs when I was twelve or thirteen, and the technique came from playing a great deal of jobs in jazz, along with what I had already developed in my earlier years from six to twelve, in classical
music. And then I got a degree in piano and following that also when I was in the Army, from twenty on, and then moved to New York when I was twenty- five. For the next three or four years I did some very heavy practising, playing a lot of repertoire, a lot of Bach, Beethoven, Bartok, etc.

Do you still practise classical music now?

Well, not much, not enough to really count; I would like to, because there's no substitute for spending a couple of hours with Bach, and I know itís necessary because it makes your fingers think in ways you would never let them think themselves.

1 think, personally, that classical music is relevant to your music. Do you agree?

A lot of people seem to think that; but there haven't really been direct influences; it's more like just a general love of classical music. Most of my improvisation and jazz playing have developed out of playing jobs, and dedicating myself to jazz exclusively. But maybe my aesthetic sense has been influenced by classical music and it gives me a sort of more disciplined approach.

Sometimes a bit of Debussy and Ravel seems to creep into your playing, perhaps?

That may be more the type of harmonies I am using, which, anyway, coincides with the way jazz was developing. I mean, I love impressionism, but I don't strive for a cloudy effect; I'm striving for a lot of clarity really. I haven't thought much about this parallel because I'm just trying to reflect what I like to hear . . . it's just me, whatever it is. . though I'd be happy to be associated with Debussy in any way!

How important to you was the association with Scott LaFaro?

Well, it was fate that brought us together. I think we were both trying to emerge on a jazz scene and I felt that he was a unique and wonderful new talent; so I was very happy that he consented to get together with me and Paul Motian and try and do something. We more or less dedicated ourselves to trying to further a newer concept of trio playing.

Did Scott LaFaro develop his incredible solo facility just by playing with you?

Hell, no, he had all the seeds of his facility before we met. What he really needed, and I needed, was a sounding board or context in which to contain it and give it conceptual dimensions; this sort of happened as a result of mutual influence. We did agree at the beginning that we didn't want to put all the so- called "hip limitations" on ourselves, like having to play four- in- the- bar, for instance; so from there on, it was just playing together and listening and allowing it to develop. What we really agreed on were the tunes we were going to play and some of the structures we were to use; the rest of it was all interplay.

How long were you with Miles Davis before you met Scott LaFaro?

I was with Miles for less than a year during 1958, and when I left him I started a trio and the first job I had was with Jimmy Garrison and Kenny Dennis. We were working opposite Benny Goodman at the Basin Street East in New York, and were relegated to obscurity as far as the listeners were concerned; anyhow, the egos of the other two guys couldn't take it so they quit the gig before it was over. Meanwhile, Scott was playing around the corner with someone and he would come over and sit in and it was like I had found my long- lost brother. So thatís when we more or less tried to dedicate ourselves to any work involving the trio. I had a recording contract, which enabled us to make records, and consequently any work offered to the trio was taken and other individual things dropped. And thatís what we did until Scott was killed; in fact, the trio was not really a practical success; we could not have lived on what we made.

What about Miles Davis now, looking back on your association?

Well, it was a wonderful experience; after all, Miles, Coltrane, Cannonball, Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers were in the band and I was the first replacement for the original player. The "Kind Of Blue" album was actually made four or five months after I had left Miles' band; he had called me in especially to do the date because he had a conception in mind for that record and he felt I understood it. In fact, the kind of sympathy that existed between Miles and myself may have influenced my music and the way I was playing. I was very happy to be part of the "Kind Of Blue" session; it undoubtedly did me a lot of good.

With regard to Miles Davis, can you explain how two people who were so compatible in 1959, can be on such opposite courses in 1974?

I can't, really. I feel that maybe Miles isn't actually that different. He has surrounded himself with different people and a different type of music, but I wonder has he really changed that much? He's putting himself in another context; now, whether that makes him completely happy, only Miles can answer. The fact of putting yourself as a musician in a different context is something that can happen to anybody; I mean, some of the records I made with George Russell in '58 or '59, and the record we did a year or so agoó there were some "outí' things on that. So what I'm saying is, that if I suddenly decided I wanted to be totally immersed in that "out" context, I would pretty soon be identified with it, but whether or not that would be the best thing for me, or whether that would make me ultimately happy is something else. Actually, I often wonder, if I were on a desert island and there was nobody there but me and my musical instrument, would I be playing the same kind of music? And I have to wonder: are some people really happy with what they're doing?

Was that recent George Russell LP just an experiment?

No, not an experiment, because as I said, I did things fifteen years ago that were as "out" as that; itís just that I admire George, he has great integrity and talent, and was delighted to get together on a project. My fans, many of them, can't get with that record at all, because they only see one side of my musical self, they donít realise I could really enjoy the challenge of another medium. But whether I would take further steps in that direction or make any big revolutionary changes in my approach is doubtful; I really want to try and find a special kind of beauty that really touches me, and therefore I hope will touch somebody else.

How do you choose your repertoire? Would you like to just play your own compositions?

I would like to play only my own compositions if I felt they would balance out, but I just play things because I enjoy playing things; I don't make a daily effort to find new material, itís more or less coincidental what comes into my life. I do carry manuscript with me and a lot of times I jot down things I'm playing, and in that way I do a little writing all the time.

What about the trio work in the 'sixties and its changing personnel?

After Scott died, Chuck Israels came into the trio and we played together for three years. Paul Motian and Larry Bunker in the drum seat, but during an interval when Chuck wasn't with the trio, Gary Peacock joined, and I considered that he was a rare talent. Unfortunately, his life took him on a detour into "diasthetic spiritualism" and his bass playing went by the wayside. I felt that with Gary we could have developed in new ways, as we did with Scott. There is only one album with Gary, "Trio 60", but it was kind of quickly put together and it didn't really represent what we could have done. But then, of course, finding Eddie Gomez was like a second find of a lifetime. Eddie's been with me a little over eight years and Marty Morell a little over six years; so this trio is by far the longest that I have had together.

How do you feel about solo performances?

I don't really feel I am a solo pianist; I only play solo on very special occasions. I haven't really developed what I would call a solo style. Playing on your own, there's a good chance of capturing a personal feeling that's maybe a little more difficult with group playing, and exploring the music a little more freely; so for that reason I like playing alone.

That visit to Montreux in 1968 was an undoubted success. What was your reaction?

I was very surprised, really. I think that it was quite a good day at the festival, and it was an above average day for playing and feeling, but the response of the audience was really surprising, It's a beautiful thing when you don't work for a lot of applause, and you get it; it means they really want to let you know. As regards this kind of over- enthusiastic reaction, I think that audiences are fundamentally the same everywhere: they may be conditioned a little differently, like in Japan; they are not conditioned to be a vociferous audience, but still the .. appreciation is very deep. So I think the level of response doesn't vary that much.

Does the level of crowd noise in a club during a performance annoy you?

Well, it can; if there is a group playing opposite us that has brought in a different type of audience, or if we play in a place that doesn't expect us to be there. Now one night (at Ronnie Scott's), I felt that we didn't have a very sympathetic response, but another night we had, I thought, a very good audience. If there are a few couples here and there that talk, I shut it out unless itís something extremely penetrating.

Do you feel that your style of playing today contains a little more aggression in its approach?

It's possible; I think it might have I to do with the group personnel. Marty is a drummer who always has fire at whatever level we play.

Where to from now?

I don't visualise a revolutionary change in style; I would like just to continue right along the path that I have been going along, write some new songs, and continue to play and function in music according to the sense of duty that I have.

It's obvious what influence you've had on your contemporaries; I wonder whether those contemporaries, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, etc., have had any feedback on to you?

Well, I'm sure there is a lot of room for me to be influenced by them, because they have emerged as the great younger talents of today, but I really haven't approached things as a student that much in the last few years; I'm more or less working with what tools I have. But I believe I should be listening more than I do to these people.

Finally, what are your feelings about the sometimes unfortunate association an intimate and intricate pianist can have with being a "cocktail bar" musician and how can one overcome it?

Well, I've heard Erroll Garner referred to as a "cocktail pianistí', and if Erroll isn't a jazz pianist I don't suppose anybody is. I don't know, it may be a matter of taste, or people's needs. I think you have a chance to create your own audience over the years, if you have anything going, and I find my audiences are receptive. When the conditions are right, I am really quite happy with the response. I think that people have been more than generous in their reaction.

Copyright © 1972, Joe Vandyl. All Rights Reserved