That Innate Ability to Make the Leap

“One of the most thrilling things about jazz as a spontaneous creative process is in recording it, and later, hearing oneself and being so surprised at what has happened.”

– Bill Evans

Early on, it was the pianist and composer Bill Evans, who so deeply moved me. His choice of music and the way he played those most expressively sensitive lines elicited all sorts of emotions in me. He could sometimes fill you with sadness; he could bring you to a place of peace and tranquility; and on those especially gorgeous, heart-rending ballads, his calming delivery could bring tears to your eyes.

Because of all his unique qualities, I spent many hours becoming more familiar with Bill Evans. One of the more enlightening works I discovered of the great pianist was a brief documentary produced in 1966. It was kind of a step-by-step discussion involving creative problem-solving featuring Bill and his brother Harry, a music teacher who played both piano and trumpet (The documentary is still available online, including this additive version assembled by composer Jon Brantingham).

In it, they begin by discussing improvisation and the nature of jazz, which Evans describes as a “process” rather than a style. Then, moving to the piano, Bill demonstrates how to take the basics of the song “Star Eyes” as a simple framework and from there add succeeding layers of rhythm, harmonics and melodic variation.

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For Evans in 1966, then in his late ‘30s, what he formulated in those final three minutes of this demonstration was all so perfectly natural, so spontaneously creative and finished. And I’m guessing if Bill had listened to a playback of his ad-libbing on this tune – seemingly very simple, at least to him – he would still have heard something that was surprising.

Why? Because this is the nature of improvisation, creating in the moment. You can’t expect an artist to go back and play exactly what he/she has just conceived. There are no written notes. That’s what makes jazz so inspiring, so exciting. It’s always fresh. For both artist and listener, that’s the surprise.

The first time I heard that documentary, I was also surprised to learn that in one very small way, Bill Evans’ early music experience was similar to my own. He, too, got his start through classical training and over time, was able to perform complete masterpieces from the written scores. Yet, he was unable to play a simple tune without a music chart. “I couldn’t play ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ without the notes,” he stated. Even after joining a dance band as a teenager, he would still play the stock arrangements exactly as written.

But then, “...one night, I got real adventurous on ‘Tuxedo Junction,’” he said, “and I put in a little ‘Bwang’...this was such an experience, to make music that wasn’t indicated.”

In Evans’ case, reaching the lofty pinnacle of perfection that he achieved was an ongoing process, taking him many years. It wasn’t until “...maybe something like 28 when I began to feel a degree of expressive ability,” he said.

The journey for every creative musician is different; for some, it appears to be much easier. Fortunately for those of us who are huge Bill Evans fanatics, he just kept at it. In his own way, something inside compelled him to stretch out, to go beyond the written notes, to reveal his innate creative personality.

Only a special, select few have this capability and enjoy this distinction.When we discover them, they should certainly be celebrated.


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ALBUM Waltz for Debby (Riverside, 1961) Bill Evans Trio

COMPOSITION “My Foolish Heart”

PERSONNEL Bill Evans, piano; Scott LaFaro, bass; Paul Motian, drums