[The Harmony of Bill Evans, Vol.2, by Jack Reilly. Hal Leonard Corporation,2010]


By Jan R. Stevens

“Though everything else may appear shallow and repulsive, even the smallest task in music is so absorbing, and carries us so far away from town, country, earth, and all worldly things, that it is truly a blessed gift of God.” -- Felix Mendelssohn

The incomparable pianistic innovations of Bill Evans (1929 – 1980) continue to be celebrated by jazz fans, and closely studied by serious musicians worldwide. During his over twenty-five year recording career, he changed the approach to the sound of the piano itself in jazz by his touch, and his attention to pedaling, phrasing and dynamics. His remarkable approach to the possibilities of interplay within the piano-bass-drums trio is well-documented from the late 1950s on. His contributions to modal music in jazz are always noted as well, along with his sideman work on recordings by Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, George Russell, Oliver Nelson, Tony Scott, Lee Konitz, and others.

Coming from a thorough and disciplined training in European classical music as well as years and years playing through the Great American Songbook, Evans virtually “reinvented” the way certain popular standards of the 30s -50s have since been played in jazz, and he brought a singular originality to the music with his highly melodic ideas, and his now-legendary chord voicings and harmonic movement. These landmarks of the jazz language are continually being absorbed into the greater musical language of newer generations of players and arrangers, some even outside of jazz. (Pop artists and songwriters such as Donald Fagen, Sting and David Foster, to name just a few, have cited Evans as an important influence.). One can sing aloud many phrases in some of Bill’s solos and they almost sound like songs in themselves—so satisfying are they in their melodic contour and use of color and space and time. The many available published transcription books of his various solos are scrutinized by musical amateurs and professionals far and wide, and are a big part of modern jazz college curriculums, perhaps rivaled in number only by those of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

Evans’ rhythmic contributions to jazz, though sometimes overlooked, cannot be easily dismissed either. Throughout his career he continued to develop his concept of displacement, as he demonstrated to pianist Marian McPartland in a 1978 radio interview – moving his chordal accents and anticipations around within a highly personal and stylistic structural thinking that he continuously worked on. Of course, his love of waltzes has been cited many times before. As another example, a careful listening to his “comping” behind the various bassists in his trios over the years reveals all sorts of playful, earthy and supportive phrasing; always seeking to compliment their lines, always listening, adding rhythmic interest and counterpoint. Then there’s his penchant for triplets and threes against four, sometimes quintuplets against four, and fours against three, and other surprising ways of execution, phrasing and unexpected groupings of off-center accents that was just one aspect of a flowering expansion in his later playing.

This growth was, incredibly, far more apparent and intense in the all-encompassing pianism of the last two years of his life than it was in some of his earlier periods. Elements of all of these things can not only be heard in his own playing but in his own compositions as well. Let’s face it, these are not simple “heads” thrown together for blowing on. Working through the pieces in this book reveals what Bill often said in interviews – that he had a reason for everything he did. As he once explained:

“I tried to take theory and feeling for jazz rhythm and jazz melody… and to build them myself according to some architectural sense that I have. And it’s not so completely intuitive, or I didn’t just assimilate [it] in an intuitive way. It was quite analytical and it was built over a long period of time.”

Bill Evans changed the way most of us actually hear jazz, whether we realize it or not. So much of his approach has been directly assimilated in the work of many of the great musicians that came after him, whether pianists or not. As highly inventive as they all are, it’s fair to say we’d have no Keith Jarrrett, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, without having a Bill Evans first.

A very private and reserved soul prone to a truly humble self-deprecation, he nevertheless reached out through his own naked and inward self-expression as he leaned over into the keyboard -- and from a life filled with much tragedy and sadness -- was somehow able to create a vibrant and crystalline soundscape that was purely his own. All these years later, its echo is still with us, and it is still vital, illuminating and spiritually moving to those who can immerse themselves in it and hear it at the highest levels. As Evans himself said:

“My creed for art in general is that it should enrich the soul -- it should teach spirituality by showing a person a portion of himself that he would not discover otherwise; a part of yourself you never knew existed."

That he succeeded in that quest so brilliantly in a life unexpectedly cut short, and that his music still often generates emotional response in new generations of musicians and listeners through his many recordings is a testament to his artistry. Besides all this, he was honest, noble, witty and a genuinely kind and decent human being -- as those of us who ever spent some time with him can attest to.

Bill Evans was a serious composer, working organically within the jazz context. His work demonstrates that from his earliest years, he was resolutely immersed in the syntax and procedures of harmony, melodic
and motivic development, counterpoint and structure - which clearly came from a comprehensive study of much of the last four centuries of music. Besides the massive amount of practicing he began at the age of six, part of this may be due to the fact that he was also a monster sight–reader, according to those who witnessed firsthand the phenomenon of the pianist easily reading in tempo through Bach, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, ancient sheet music and just about anything else put in front of him. Thus, as his jazz knowledge grew, he was as intimately familiar with Nat Cole, Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano - pianists he so admired - as he was with Chopin, Ravel and Debussy – composers he was so influenced by.

Evans was also known to compose and even write out twelve-tone rows in his notebook, while in an airport, or riding on the NYC subways late at night, after gigs. He said that he would sometimes write an entire piece away from the piano, and just check it for accuracy at the keyboard later. By contrast, (while referring to his teen years) he once called himself the “best boogie-woogie player in central [New] Jersey”. During that period in the late 1940s, the young pianist paid his dues working in society outfits and dance bands. The story told by a bassist who worked with him at the time, was that Bill was quite adept ay playing many tunes a whole or half step lower than the key the band was in, if a bad piano was that far out of tune! (Imagine, for example, trying playing a high-speed bop version of “Cherokee” in A Major, rather than its regular starting key of Bb!) To think that the budding, young pianist was just in his mid-teenage years at this time is almost scary. Having such an exceptional ear, and ongoing classical and theory training, while working his way up in so many varied jazz and pop ensembles, surely allowed a greater propensity for exploring all the rich harmonic possibilities which became so much a signature of his work.

Evans often spoke out eloquently in interviews about his dedication to the importance of form and structure in jazz. He always felt it led to a greater freedom in the music, and that firm belief was a part of a larger aesthetic philosophy he held so dearly. The legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger once remarked “The more boundaries you set, the more freedom you have” and that was a credo that Evans tangibly demonstrated in his own

work, whether compositional or improvisational. It will become readily apparent as you go through his compositions, which as bright and harmonically challenging as most are, also display an irrefutable logic, a sublime sense of form, and an innate sense of flow. Even to the musically-aware layman, they just sound “right”. If there is anything surprising at all about this, it is only that the possibilities for improvisation in his music are themselves virtually boundless - for the schooled player - which makes his material even more exceptional and inspiring to study.

Knowing as he did that you need to know the rules before you can break them, Bill Evans often explored new territory in jazz writing by intentional and specific methodologies. He would often set particular musical goals within a certain framework he chose, or purposely set up musical puzzles to solve for himself. He might set up a gambit from a specific tonal principle and work from there – like introducing a melodic phrase, establishing it in the listener’s mind within a certain harmonic foundation, and then perhaps repeating the phrase again, maybe in a slightly varying permutation, or with a completely different harmonic base. His techniques were of the highest intellectual order, yet the end results can convey warmth or a joyful exuberance that draws the listener in.

His “Re: Person I knew” (itself an anagram based on the letters of his producer’s name) is written entirely on a C pedal tone - the harmonies flowing out of diatonic chords, both in C major and in its parallel minor. Another (“Sugar Plum”) works off a fairly simple progression: two bars of I, two bars of the bVII, two bars of I again, and then utilizing the 5th to become the II chord as the II-V- I of the next key, going through the cycle of fifths each time through all twelve keys. The beautiful “Time Remembered” (another Evans tune fast becoming a jazz standard) is also fascinating, in that though it moves around a lot harmonically within tonal regions, yet uses no dominant sevenths in its transitions! Another of his tunes is an ingenious 24-bar structure which then modulates from the closing harmonies of the last phrase, to the next key, and so on through the cycle of fifths – while alternating between ¾ and 4/4, at the same time. As in many of his best performances, such were the various simultaneous levels on which Bill’s mind worked

The composer Robert Schumann wrote in his Advice to Young Musicians (1848): “only when the form grows clear to you, will the spirit become so too.” The spirit within Bill’s tunes is undeniable, as is his attention to form. and his music can often even transcend the jazz idiom in which he chose to work. Many of his pieces can be performed “straight” and will stand alone so convincingly, that they work perfectly without even employing either a jazz “feel” or a “pop standard” sensibility. This may be why classical artists such as the Kronos String Quartet, Katia Lebeque, and French pianist extraordinaire Jean-Yves Thibaudet have devoted entire albums, or large segments thereof, to Evans compositions.

Professional musicians have done some fine work in exploring Evans’ compositional designs, but the voluminous detail and in-depth analysis of master pianist-composer Jack Reilly, is by far the most comprehensive work done yet, as evidenced by his “Harmony of Bill Evans, Volume I” (Hal Leonard Corporation, 1993) and the new book you are now reading. Rarely, if ever, have Evans compositions been dissected as they are here, in such an exciting, instructional context. A classical and jazz musician and teacher himself with impressive credentials, Jack’s analyses of Evans favorites like “Only Child”, “My Bells” and later compositions like the lyrical “Laurie” and the exquisite, valedictorian statement “Your Story” are superb. Mr. Reilly illustrates, by taking us through the voicings, as well as four-part reductions, analyses of patterns and clearly annotated commentaries – how and why Bill’s harmonies evolved, how they proceed from the melodic content or vice versa, how he used chromatic regions, modal and scalar devices, figured bass, diatonic alterations and other methods. While he is at it, Mr. Reilly dismantles Evans’ musical “toolbox”, to better see just what’s inside, and how it all works together.

If pianists are patient and take the time to systematically explore the riches of this new study, great vistas for understanding harmonic principles are possible on their own intrinsic merits. But being that this a book about the work of one of the last century’s greatest musicians, one also gleans new revelations on just how Bill Evans the composer was able to create the magic he did.

This is a valuable work that will be studied for years to come. For the serious musician, or just the curious-yet-committed student of theory, it just doesn’t get much better than that.

It’s a simple matter of conviction.

Jan R. Stevens, pianist and creator of

©Jan R. Stevens 2010 All Rights Reserved