(Published by TRO, Distribution Hal Leonard Corp.)

A music book review by Jan Stevens

The Mastery of Bill Evans is a book of transcriptions (done by the extraordinary Pascal Wetzel) that presents a close look at two of Evans’ most beloved compositions: three versions of “Waltz For Debby” and two of “Very Early”. Make no mistake, this is a substantial amount of material to go through and learn from, even if only forty pages. First let’s summarize the contents more precisely:

1.The original as-written solo version (first published in “Bill Evans Piano Solos” in the mid- sixties)
2. Transcription of Evans’ performance that opened the November 1978 radio show “Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland”
3. The May 1971 arrangement from the “Bill Evans Album” , first on Columbia Records, then Sony CD, now discontinued)

VERY EARLY: Bill’s own arrangement as composed for solo piano and (2) a transcription of the June 1970 'live' performance, as recorded on “Montreux II” (First released on CTI , now on Sony)

If you are reading this, it is assumed you’re either a pianist or musician, or possibly a musically-educated layman. That will help, since a vastly more significant appreciation of Bill Evans’ work can be had by understanding some of the theory -- and seeing how it works on paperh-- how he thinks it, how he puts it together. This includes, by definition, not only his extraordinary reworking of “Debby” in A Major, and the two versions of “Early” but also getting inside the mind of a brilliant improviser, and running through the solos with him, so to speak. We see what ideas he develops, how the harmonies connect, what his choices are, and even, at times what he leaves out. As Mark C. Gridley, author of Jazz Styles: History and Analysis, 9/E” so effectively wrote:

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.

An unheard, continuous self-editing occurred while Evans improvised. Evans spared the listener his false starts and discarded ideas. Though he had a creative imagination, Evans never improvised solos that merely strung together ideas at the same rate they popped into his head. The results of these deliberations could be a swinging and exhilarating experience for the listener. However, they reflected less a carefree abandon than the well-honed craftsmanship of a very serious performer working in the manner of a classical composer.

The “exacting deliberation” Gridley refers to is all more apparent if you read music and can play through this material. As well as you think you know Evans, and no matter how long, there are always more surprises. (“Oh, so that’s how he did that!” or “I see that chord is X and not Y”, etc.”) After extensively listening to and playing his music for over thirty-eight years, and seeing him play live in clubs back in the day, I find it still to be true, and this collection only brought it home once again. As with all good transcriptions, pianists will be subject to many “a-ha!” moments – and again, being able to follow the inner voicings and harmony moves in Bill’s playing provides many of these,

I must admit a bias here: “The Bill Evans Album” the Columbia LP (reissued on CD in 1996 and now sadly out-of-print, yet available through a few amazon.com's private sellers) was the second Evans album I ever bought. I played the record over and over in 1971 on my old Koss headphones until it became unplayable from scratchiness, after a few months. I got so far into it, (after buying a new copy of course) that to this day, I can still pretty much sing every solo on that record. (see my complete review of the CD reissue here). By then, I had already learned and played through the original “Waltz For Debby” solo version (in F) from an Evans folio put out by his publishers back then. That version, included in this book, was Bill’s own written- out one which he provided to TRO –and first recorded in 1956. Below is a look at the first twelve bars:

TRO © Copyright 1964,196 and 1966 (copyrights renewed) Folkways Music Publishers, NYC, NY. Used by exclusive permission. All rights reserved.
Excerpt content TRO © 2006 Folkways Music Publisher, Inc. International Copyright Secured. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The piece has been subject to detailed musical analysis elsewhere, so another is beyond the scope of this review. However, in the above excerpt, it is at least worth noting, if nothing else, the elegance of the simple melody --here we go, theory buffs --against the chromatic movement in the bass (beginning in measure 5), alternating between 1st and 3rd inversion, as Evans moves through the cycle of fifths. The original is still pristine, and beautiful, and can stand on it’s own as a finely crafted work, jazz or otherwise.

A reasonable familiarity with this version is necessary in order to appreciate the wistful, yet grand and quite boldly different approach he takes fifteen years later for the head, now in A Major. For example, he uses various voicing techniques-- without disorienting the listener, to approach basic alterations to the well-known original harmonies, as in the b5 voicings on the II [minor] chords (where there used to be straight minor 7ths) . I wish I could provide the subsequent eight bars that follow this upcoming excerpt, wherein the second strain of the melody, Bill arrives at his dominants by way of the half-step above (with the 13th in the middle mostly) , adding a hint of a bluesy-ness to it all. There is much more going on harmonically, as the song develops, that pianists will recognize and be refreshed by. But let’s just look at the first few bars:

TRO © Copyright 1964,19 65 and 1966 (copyrights renewed) Folkways Music Publishers, NYC, NY. Used by exclusive permission. All rights reserved.
Excerpt content TRO © 2006 Folkways Music Publisher, Inc. International Copyright Secured. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For this reviewer, having played that first version and having been immersed in the 1961 Village Vanguard trio recording of it as well – I’d bet few of you can imagine --or maybe you have yourself experienced -- the delightful shock, if you will, upon the first hearing this new, richly rhapsodic A major arrangement on the Columbia album in '71.

After this exposition of the tune, Evans modulates, of course, by whole steps, down to the original ky of F for the solos, as bass and drums enter. Bill’s first solo, on electric piano, (while comping on the acoustic and still in ¾) shows gooed use of space, all while snippets and subtle rhythmic variations on the melody in a playful and capricious way, and it provides great contrast to the opening. After Gomez’ bass solo, Bill makes an aggressive return while the trio swings hard in 4/4. Reading through Bill’s lines and patterns and seeing some of his familiar vocabulary unfold here –like the locked hands rhythms, the flowing triplets against the beat) is exciting, as usual. As quoted previously, Mark Gridley’s assertion: “…an unheard, continuous self-editing occurred while Evans improvised. Evans spared the listener his false starts and discarded ideas”. Wetzel’s accurate transcriptions bear this out, and since we’re reading Evans’ soloing over his own material, perhaps it adds a bit more interest, than might be with a standard. Some folks find some of Bill’s early seventies period uninspired -- and yes, there are some records less successful than others. But as this transcription shows, there is sometimes much more going on during this time than meets the eye (or the ear, as it were)! Pascal Wetzel's work is accurate here (Playing along with the CD, I found only one possible left-hand note wrong, but it can go either way)

The solo version of "Debby" that Bill played on Ms. McPartland’s radio show in 1978 is quite similar to the original, with a few tasteful but definitely not insignificant embellishments (that Bo7/C --a substitutionary dominant, at the cadence is a nice touch). l In the text before each song, Mr. Wetzel also provides a brief but often revealing history of both tunes, sprinkled with some musical highlights to look for. For example, the fact that Bill composed “Very Early” in 1949 as an exercise for his college theory studies is in and of itself, simply astounding, considering its compositional integrity, and this from a then 19- year old. It’s still a mystery why he waited until 1962 to first record it.

The maturity of how the harmonic sequences work makes "Very Early" worthwhile for study*: three groups of sixteen bars each, with two resolutions away from the tonic. It’s also always amazed me how he arranged the ongoing descending thirds embedded within the melody on the second sixteen bars. You’d think he must have had them in mind when first coming up with the melody itself, since they work together so seamlessly -- considering the changing tonalities. The second transcription of this composition is taken from the trio's Montreux II recording from 1970, and as some may recall, Bill noticeably speeds up, as he sometimes did in live prformances in later years. In fact, Wetzel cites a metronome marking of ¼ note =160, then up to 1/4 note = 194! It’s a spirited performance which Wetzel has transcribed here, and challenging to read, but not necessarily one I would have chosen. Bill even plays wrong chords in two bars (and Wetzel shows where they came from) and the performance, even seeing it on staff paper, was rather frenetic, though not without Evans’ consistency in his line construction.

My only complaint about this book is that, like many others of course, there are no numbered bars, so referring to any particular measure(s) is difficult. But all in all, this is a fine folio, though more of a micro-study than some of the other fine transcription books of Bill Evans’ work, in that it’s only two tunes . It is for the serious student of the pianist's work to see how he approached these two of his earliest and perhaps best known originals in some quite diverse ways several over the span of years. For ten dollars and change, it’s a small amount to pay for this close-up look we get inside Bill’s creative methodology.

For further study on several more Evans originals, including extensive and in-depth analysis of some of the later compositions like "T.T.T." and "B Minor Waltz, there's none better than Jack Reilly's critically acclaimed "Harmony of Bill Evans" book, available here, or through Hal Leonard Publishing Co.

*An analysis of the tune (and "Debby" as well, in fact)that goes measure by measure and runs six pages can be found in the special Bill Evans issue of of JAZZ IMPROV, Vol. 3 No.1.

Special thanks to Judy Bell of The Richmond Organization (TRO) in NYC for allowing us to reprint excerpts from both ”Waltz for Debby” and “Very Early".
Her cooperation and ongoing encouragement are greatly appreciated.