Archive for Bill Evans

Jazz, STEM and the Creative Process

Posted in Art, Jazz, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on January 23, 2016 by telescoper

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!




Peace Piece

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on January 9, 2016 by 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.




The Top 10 Jazz Artists

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on December 8, 2015 by telescoper

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:

  1. Miles Davis
  2. Louis Armstrong
  3. Duke Ellington
  4. John Coltrane
  5. Ella Fitzgerald
  6. Charlie Parker
  7. Billie Holiday
  8. Thelonious Monk (8=)
  9. Bill Evans (8=)
  10. 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?


Some Day My Prince Will Come..

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on July 3, 2013 by 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!

Here’s That Rainy Day ..

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on April 28, 2012 by 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.


My Funny Valentines

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2012 by telescoper

I’m not really into all this St Valentine’s Day nonsense (meaning: “I never get any cards”), but at least it provides me with an excuse to post three versions of the great Rogers & Hart ballad  My Funny Valentine.

The first is by the great Miles Davis Quintet featuring Miles Davis on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter bass and Tony Williams on drums. This was recorded live in Milan on October 11th 1964. There’s a slight distortion in the sound in the form of a pre-echo, which is a bit eery, but I still think it’s a marvellous performance.

And if Miles Davis isn’t your cup of tea, here is something completely different. It’s by Julie London, but very late in her career in 1981 when she was 55. Her voice was much smoother in her heyday in the 1960s, but I love the smokey sound of this very characterful rendition. By ear I’d say the bass player on this is Ray Brown and the guitar is Barney Kessel, both of whom (like Julie London herself) are no longer with us.

Last one up is a miracle of joint improvisation between the great Bill Evans on piano and Jim Hall on guitar, the sort of music that mere mortals can only dream of…

Portrait in Jazz

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on February 5, 2011 by telescoper

At the end of a very busy week (during which I haven’t had much time to post), I decided to relax a bit this morning by listening to some old favourite Jazz CDs. When I got to this one, Portrait in Jazz, by the Bill Evans Trio I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t played it for so long. Surely I can’t have forgotten such a masterpiece? Anyway, I decided to write a post about this wonderful album. If it helps just one person discover this timeless music then it will have been worth it.

Bill Evans was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Jazz pianists of all time. Among other things he practically created the modern piano trio, converting it from what it had been before – a pianist with bass and drum backing – to an equal partnership of these three very diverse instruments. To make the format work required partners of equal brilliance and compatibility and it was a while before Bill Evans found the right musicians to join him. Eventually he formed his first regular trio with the superb Scott La Faro on bass and Paul Motian on drums.

Innovations based on collective endeavour rarely succeed immediately, however. It took Evans and La Faro a long time, and two or three albums, before the latter was able to work out how his bass lines might comment on and blend with the piano improvisations instead of merely underpinning them. As their relationship changed and matured, Evans’ contributions actually became a bit more fragmented, so as to leave room for the bass to burst through, and increasingly their performances became like dialogues for piano and bass. Not that we should ignore the contribution of the drummer Paul Motian either; he does far more than just keep time in the way old-fashioned drummers when playing in a trio format.

But on Portrait in Jazz, their first album together, the accent was still predominantly on Evans the soloist and because his playing here is so entrancing one has to acknowledge that the eventual change of emphasis, however justified from an artistic point of view, was in some ways a mixed blessing.

What characterises this album is Evans’ lyricism and lightness of touch. He doesn’t try to overwhelm with virtuosic flourishes. Each phrase and indeed each note is finely shaded. Confidence in his timing enables him to make subtle use of the space between phrases and bring off the most dazzling rhythmic displacements, almost casually.

I’ve picked one track to give as an example. It wasn’t an easy choice but I think this – the standard Autumn Leaves – is the best track on the album. After the opening statement there’s a fine example of the interplay between the three members of the trio that was to become more prominent on later albums, but eventually (about two minutes) they kick into tempo and Evans launches into a stunningly beautiful solo improvisation in which every note sings with a sustained emotional intensity few, if any, pianists have ever achieved in any idiom. As Miles Davis once said of Bill Evans “He plays the piano the way it should be played.” Amen.


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