Bill Evans was one of the greatest jazz pianists of the second half of the 20th century. His playing on Miles Davis’s landmark 1959 record, Kind of Blue, and as leader of the Bill Evans Trio was a major influence on players like Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea. “Bill’s value can’t be measured in any kind of terms,” Corea once said. “He’s one of the great, great artists of this century.”
Evans’s approach to music was a process of analysis followed by intuition. He would study a problem deliberately, working on it over and over until the solution became second nature. “You use your intellect to take apart the materials,” Evans said in 1969. “But, actually, it takes years and years of playing to develop the facility so that you can forget all of that and just relax, and just play.” In the book Jazz Styles: History and Analysis, music writer Mark C. Gridley describes his playing:
Evans crafted his improvisations with exacting deliberation. Often he would take a phrase, or just a kernel of its character, then develop and extend its rhythms, melodic ideas, and accompanying harmonies. Then within the same solo he would often return to that kernel, transforming it each time. And while all this was happening, he would ponder ways of resolving the tension that was building. He would be considering rhythmic ways, melodic ways, and harmonies all at the same time, long before the optimal moment for resolving the idea.
Evans discusses his creative process in a fascinating 1966 documentary, The Universal Mind of Bill Evans. (You can watch it above, or find it in multiple parts on Youtube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.) The film is introduced by Tonight Show host Steve Allen and features a revealing talk between Evans and his older brother Harry, a music teacher. They begin with a discussion of improvisation and the nature of jazz, which Evans sees as a process rather than a style. He then moves to the piano to show how he builds up a jazz improvisation, starting with a simple framework and then adding layers of rhythmic, harmonic and melodic variation.
“It’s very important to remember,” Evans says, “that no matter how far I might diverge or find freedom in this format, it only is free insofar as it has reference to the strictness of the original form. And that’s what gives it its strength. In other words, there is no freedom except in reference to something.”
The structure of this process of improvisation–the mastering of a thing explicitly prescribed in order to burn it into the subconscious for use later in creating something new–echoes the progression of Evans’s development as a musician. He says it took him 15 years of work from the time he first started improvising, at age 13, until he was ready to create something truly valuable. The thing is not to get discouraged, but to enjoy the step-by-step process of learning to make music.
“Most people just don’t realize the immensity of the problem,” Evans says, “and either because they can’t conquer immediately they think they haven’t got the ability, or they’re so impatient to conquer it that they never do see it through. But if you do understand the problem, then I think you can enjoy your whole trip through.”