A couple of weeks ago I posted an item about a classic recording of On Green Dolphin Street featuring the great pianist Bill Evans. At the weekend I was listening to some CDs from my collection and thought I’d post a track from one of them, an album called Intermodulation (recorded in 1966) which features Bill Evans in collaboration with the guitarist Jim Hall. One of the notable things about Bill Evans’s On Green Dolphin Street was the “two-handedness” of his playing which gives his improvisations a very rich harmonic structure. In this recording, however, apart from the introduction and ending he uses practically only his right hand. The reason for this change in style is simple: he wanted to leave space for Jim Hall’s guitar chords to be heard. Anyway, it’s a lovely piece with a real sense of dance to it, and in which the pairing of these two great musicians is heard to great combined effect. Enjoy!Follow @telescoper
Archive for Bill Evans
I was listening to this wonderful track yesterday and couldn’t resist reposting a piece I wrote I wrote about it over 7 years. If I were ever to be asked on one of those programmes where you have to pick examples of your favourite music, this would probably be the first I’d write on my list.
Years ago in 1980, when the great pianist Bill Evans passed away suddenly, Humphrey Lyttelton paid tribute to him on his radio programme “The Best of Jazz” by playing a number of tracks featuring him. I didn’t really know much about Bill Evans at the time – I was only 17 then – but one track that Humph chose has been imprinted on my mind ever since, and it’s one of those pieces of music that I listen to over and over again.
The track is On Green Dolphin Street, as recorded in 1958 by the great Miles Davis sextet of the time that featured himself on trumpet, John Coltrane on tenor sax, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto sax, Jimmy Cobb on drums, Paul Chambers on bass and Bill Evans on piano. This is the same band that played on the classic album Kind of Blue, one of the most popular and also most innovative jazz records of all time, which was recorded a bit after the recording of On Green Dolphin Street. I love Kind of Blue, of course, but I think this track is even better than the many great tracks on that album (All Blues, Flamenco Sketches, Blue in Green, etc). In fact, I’d venture the opinion – despite certainty of contradiction – that this is the greatest Jazz recording ever made.
On Green Dolphin Street was suggested to Miles Davis the band’s leader by the saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. It was the theme tune from a film from the late 1940s. It’s also the title of a more recent very fine novel by Sebastian Faulks.
I think the Miles Davis version demonstrates his genius not only as a musician himself but also as a bandleader. On Green Dolphin Street definitely bears the Miles Davis hallmark, but it also manages to accommodate the very different styles of the other musicians and allows them also to impose their personality on it. This is done by having each solo introduced with a passage with the rhythm section playing a different, less propulsive, 3/4 time behind it. This allows each musician to set out their stall before the superb rhythm section kicks into a more swinging straight-ahead beat (although it still keeps the 3/4 feel alongside the 4-4, courtesy of brilliant drumming by Jimmy Cobb) and they head off into their own territory. As the soloists hand over from one to the other there are moments of beautiful contrast and dramatic tension, especially – and this is the reason why Humph picked this one in 1980 – when Bill Evans takes over for his solo from Cannonball Adderley. He starts with hesitant single-note phrases before moving into a richly voiced two handed solo fully of lush harmonies. It’s amazing to me to hear how the mood changes completely and immediately when he starts playing, and it always sends shivers down my spine.
Not that the other soloists play badly either. After Bill Evans’s short but exquisite prelude, Miles Davis takes over on muted trumpet, more lyrical and less introspective than in Kind of Blue but still with a moody, melancholic edge. He’s followed by John Coltrane’s passionately virtuosic solo which floods out of him in an agonized stream which contrasts with Miles’ poised simplicity. By contrast, Cannonball Adderley is jaunty and upbeat, sauntering through his solo up to that wonderful moment where he hands over to the piano. Then Miles Davis takes over again to take them to the conclusion of the piece.
I’m not into League tables for music, but this is definitely fit to put up alongside the greatest of them all…
The Times Higher has given me yet another reason to be disgruntled this week, in the form of an article that talks about the possible effect of the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) on “creative” subjects. What bothers me about this piece is not that it criticises the TEF – I think that’s an unworkable idea that will cause untold damage to the University system if, as seems likely, it is railroaded through for political reasons – but that the author (Nigel Carrington, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Arts London), like so many others, lazily implies that STEM disciplines are not creative. I think some of the most intensively creative people in the world are to be found in science and engineering and creativity is something we try very hard to nurture in students at Sussex University regardless of discipline.
Anyway, while feeling grumpy about this article, I remembered this video of an interview with the great jazz pianist, Bill Evans. Jazz is undoubtedly an intensely creative form, not only because it requires spontaneous real-time conversion of ideas into sounds. Evans talks with great passion and insight about creativity in music-making, but the striking thing about what he says at the very beginning about the need to analyse your subject at a very elementary level before proceeding in order to create something that’s “real” applies equally well to, e.g. theoretical physics as it does to jazz.
In the following section he reiterates this point, but also stresses the discipline imposed by a particular form and why this does not limit creativity but makes it stronger.
It’s better to do something simple that is real. It’s something you can build on. because you know what you’re doing. Whereas, if you try to approximate something very advanced and don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t build on it.
No matter how far I might diverge or find freedom in this format, it only is free insofar that it has reference to the strictness of the original form. That’s what gives it its strength.
In much the same way, theoretical physics is not made less creative because it has to obey the strict rules of mathematics but more so. This is true also in the fine arts: the more limited the canvas the more creative the artist must be, but it also applies to, e.g. engineering design. Self-teaching is important in STEM subjects too: the only really effective way of learning, e.g. physics, is by devoting time to working through ideas in your own mind, not by sitting passively in lectures.
All subjects require technical skill, but there is more to being a great jazz musician than mastery of the instrument just as there’s more to being a research scientist than doing textbook problems. So here’s to creativity wherever it is found, and let’s have a bit more appreciation for the creative aspects of science and engineering!Follow @telescoper
By way of an interlude in this busy period as term gets back underway I thought I’d post this beautiful track by the great jazz pianist Bill Evans. I remember reading somewhere that Bill Evans recorded this right at the end of a session, in 1958. It was unrehearsed, entirely improvised and done in one take. It’s based on a simple two-chord progression that subsequently appeared in Flamenco Sketches, one of the tracks on the classic Miles Davis album Kind of Blue. To my ears, Peace Piece is more redolent of the composition style of Erik Satie than any other jazz musician I can think of. Although it starts out very simply it becomes more complex and fragmented as it develops, and makes effective use of dissonance in creating tension to contrast with the rather meditative atmosphere established at the beginning. Anyway, this is one of my all-time favourite tracks by one of my all-time favourite jazz musicians so I hope you don’t mind me sharing it on here.
Back from a short break I thought I’d mention that BBC Radio 3 recently announced the results of a poll for the top Jazz artist of all time. The result was:
- Miles Davis
- Louis Armstrong
- Duke Ellington
- John Coltrane
- Ella Fitzgerald
- Charlie Parker
- Billie Holiday
- Thelonious Monk (8=)
- Bill Evans (8=)
- Oscar Peterson
Although my ordering would have been a little different, I was quite surprised that the top 10 corresponded so closely with my own selection. In fact 8 of the above list would have made it into mine: Miles Davis; Louis Armstrong; John Coltrane; Charlie Parker; Billie Holiday; Thelonious Monk; and Bill Evans.
The only differences were that (a) I couldn’t possibly have had Billie Holiday without having Lester Young and (b) I simply had to have Ornette Coleman in there. To accommodate Messrs Young and Coleman I would have displaced Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson. The latter are great artists, of course, but I wouldn’t say either influenced the development of Jazz as much as the others I mentioned, and that’s one of the criteria I applied.
No surprise that Miles Davis (above) came top. He changed musical direction so many times that he should actually count as four or five different musicians. It’s no coincidence that Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans all appeared on Kind of Blue, which is arguably the greatest jazz record of all time. I don’t think any serious Jazz enthusiast could have left out Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk either. And of course, Louis Armstrong just had to be there too. It’s hard to imagine what Jazz would have been without Satchmo. The same goes for the great Duke Ellington.
Anyway, it’s all a matter of personal choice. There are dozens of great jazz artists who didn’t make it into the top ten. Among my near misses were Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet, Eric Dolphy and Dizzy Gillespie.
Who else would you have picked?Follow @telescoper
I’m currently sitting in my office eating a sandwich and girding my loins for three hours of appraisal training this afternoon. Just time, therefore, to post this musical gem I recently discovered on Youtube. It’s Bill Evans recorded in 1965
Miles Davis said of Bill Evans “He plays the piano the way it should be played”. I’m not going to disagree with that, because I think Bill Evans was wonderful, but keep an ear out for Chuck Israels fantastic work on bass too!Follow @telescoper
If yesterday’s post made you wonder how difficult it is to turn a piece of sheet music into sound using a piano keyboard, then perhaps today’s will make you wonder how a pianist like Bill Evans managed to create music as beautiful as this without any score at all! This is Here’s that Rainy Day from the 1968 album Bill Evans Alone. Miles Davis said of Bill Evans “He plays the piano the way it should be played”. I, for one, won’t argue with that.