Bill Evans and the Fender-Rhodes Piano logo


by Jan Stevens

First off, a categorical statement: to these ears, there has never been anything quite like the sound of Bill Evans on a well- tuned grand piano. That he changed the sound of jazz piano from the mid-fifties on is well documented and inarguable. That being said, let us look at the work done by Evans on that “other” instrument he sometimes used in the seventies, the Fender Rhodes electric piano.

In that decade, the landscape and language of jazz was changed by the proliferation of electric keyboards. Other than the Hammond B3 organ -- whose earliest jazz practitioners included Fats Waller and later Count Basie -- those who played music on a keyboard, always played the piano. Years later, Ray Charles use the Wurlitzer electric piano on “What I Say”. When jazz and “fusion” music of the 1970s is discussed, established pianists such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Josef Zawinul are always mentioned as primary proponents of the Fender-Rhodes. The instrument was hugely popular by mid-decade and it seemed like it was on just about everyone’s records. Pop bands like the Eagles, Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan (who still record with it), Earth Wind & Fire and many more (even the Beatles used it on the “Let It Be” album) all added a new dimension to their sound from it. However, make no mistake: in the seventies, a sizable number of mainstream jazz pianists were utilizing the instrument as well . Surprisingly, these included post-bop musicians such as Cedar Walton ("Mobius"), Tommy Flanagan ("Something Borrowed Something Blue"), Hank Jones ("Rockin' in Rhythm", The Touch), Ahmad Jamal ("Manhattan Serenade")and of course, Bill Evans. For those too young to remember this marvelous instrument, here’s a brief explanation from the website

"The first real full size piano by Harold Rhodes, the Fender-Rhodes Electric Piano was introduced in 1965. It was a 73-note keyboard. The 88-note models were not released until 1970, the same year as the Stage and the Suitcase Pianos were introduced. The 73-note Stage piano it is the most common model. When people talk about "the early unique Fender Rhodes sound" they mostly mean the sound of the old MkI Suitcase piano, even if the Stage models sounds very close to this. The Suitcase Pianos are equipped with a cabinet with a power amp and four speakers and a pre-amp, which is placed above the keyboard, on the namerail. The active amplification from the pre-amp makes the sound fat and solid. Therefore some people also state that the Suitcase sound has more "body" than the sound of the Stage Pianos ( Given the right treatment, they all have the same "bite" or "bark" ). The pre-amp models also has built-in controls for treble and bass and a stereo-tremolo circuit. The Suitcase piano can (of course!) also be connected to external amps and speakers instead of the included ones. The Stage piano can also be equipped with Suitcase pre-amp and speakers, this makes it sound the same as a Suitcase piano.See the Rhodes Supersite here
for more details on this amazing instrument.

Bill came by the Fender- Rhodes earlier than all the others. As Harold Rhodes, the instrument’s inventor explains liner notes for the pianist’s 1970 release “From Left to Right”:

"The ultimate vindication for a lifetime of effort spent in the development of a new musical i instrument is the thrill of hearing it respond to the deft and sensitive touch of such an artist as Bill Evans. I have experienced that thrill in this album. Bill Evans is certainly the musician’s musician; the pianist’s pianist.

I was impressed by the peculiar way in which I first came to know this man. It was at a quiet dinner some years ago, in the home of the well known piano stylist, Eddie Higgins. I was there primarily to hear some of his latest recordings. After about an hour he interrupted the proceedings with the question -- Did I know Bill Evans? I confessed my ignorance, whereupon he announced that he was the fountainhead of all his inspiration.

What followed was certainly the most memorable evening of exposure to pure artistry that I have ever experienced. With this as a background, one can well imagine my feelings when, years later, I received a phone call from this same Bill Evans, asking is he could use one of my instruments for an upcoming album. With this album this album becomes a reality."

The From Left to Right album, it can be argued, is the least “jazz” album of all those Evans recorded. Some have even equated it to a sort of “Muzak” record, but this perhaps is a bit unfair. Yes, it more commercial an offering than almost all the other Evans releases (like the unfortunate 1963 “V.I.P.” Theme” album from 1963). And yes, there are the often saccharine string arrangements behind Bill’s mellow Rhodes right hand and the Steinway left hand. However, there is the laid back, melodic simplicity and soloing on some tunes like Lullaby For Helene and Why Did I Choose You, yet there remains a pianistic integrity, and a cautious maturity in the use of the electric piano. It’s in the phrasing; the way Bill made a melody sing, and the sustaining bell-like quality of the Rhodes just adds to the artistry. Arranger-Composer Michael Leonard (known best for a Broadway show “The Yearling”) took Bill’s actual solo on the bossa- nova track The Dolphin” and scored it for flutes, doubling Evans’ original solo line. The pianist’s touch on this and other tunes, makes this earlier ( and more hollow-sounding) Rhodes sing beautifully, and yet with a certain percussiveness. (The only way to truly appreciate this record is to hear the CD reissue, and some of the tracks without the string arrangements, as well as the alternate takes. It is far more satisfying than the original 1970 release)

Bill’s next record, “The Bill Evans Album”, also featured the electric piano prominently and was his first for Columbia Records. All the selections were Evans’ own compositions, and he won two Grammies for it. (See my review of that album here) Some critics denigrated Bill for playing the Rhodes, calling it ‘gimmicky’ and worse, being that he had such an identifiable touch on the “acoustic” piano, and almost single-handedly pioneered a new approach to the piano’s tonal vocabulary from the late fifties on. Yet, one listen to “Comrade Conrad” on that record, for example, shows Evans being quite attentive to the Rhodes sonorities. Listen to how he subtly moves from piano to the Rhodes during the bass solo. He spaces the chords on the last few bars of Gomez’ solo, sustaining on top and playing staccato on the bottom. The tune alternates 3/4 and 4/4 for each chorus, so when it reaches the 3/4 chorus Bill adds short little two-measure melodic figures, followed by displaced chords in a kind of dreamy dissolve. His voicings are economical here, so he’s obviously using chordal constraints on the electric that he doesn’t on the acoustic. Marty Morrell’s cymbal swishes usher in the outgoing chorus, and the transition back to the Steinway is quite dramatic and just feels so right.

On the album’s reworking of “Waltz For Debby”, Bill starts on the acoustic piano in the key of A major, adding superb newly reworked harmonies to his original conception, until modulating down to F major, where tempo begins, as he reiterates the theme on the Rhodes, using little fragments of it, in short phrases. This change adds new and playful colors to his well-known signature tune.

Others came down hard on Evans by comparing his use of the Rhodes to that of Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul -- three superb jazz pianists who each had a very distinctive Rhodes sound. Each of them is from the generation after Bill, each first played it in groups led by Miles Davis, and each took the Rhodes far more seriously than did Bill.. Each also was far more conscious of the sonic possibilities of the studio and new recording techniques than Evans was. Corea developed a sparkling, percussive, and far more personal style on the Rhodes on such recordings as Light as a Feather and the Return to Forever album on (what was then) Polydor Records. The instrument was (wisely) recorded with a somewhat thinner, more distant and less 'midrange-y' sound than anything Bill did, and Chick’s personal style of Latin-infused, percussive, rhythmic playing was perfect for the Rhodes. In the early seventies, his group, including the Brazilian talents of Airto Moriera and Flora Purim, was doing it’s high energy Spanish-tinged tunes --this was before the harder jazz-rock fusion of RTF.

Herbie Hancock preferred a more mellow, stereo-vibrato sound that enhanced his rich chordal sonorities, often creating beautiful colors and textures, yet within the context of his emerging R&B- funk style. Herbie’s work on the Rhodes was inventive and original, and he recorded extensively on it well into the eighties. Around this time, Joe Zawinul had inaugurated the first edition of Weather Report with fellow Miles alumni Wayne Shorter, and was far more interested in the electronic tonal possibilities of the Rhodes, as well as his pioneering work with early synthesizers such as the ARP 2600 and the Prophet 5. Zawinul added phase shifter, ring modulator, fuzz pedals and other electronic devices -- primitive accessories by today’s standards -- to the Rhodes, creating new tonal possibilities for his electric soundscapes. But none of the the three were playing straight ahead jazz on the Rhodes piano as Evans was, so these comparisons by some critics were basically unfair. But the aforementioned post-bop players like Flanagan and Walton were doing just that on the Rhodes, perhaps at the suggestion of their record companies, or simply because it was just so ubiquitous in those heady days of experimentation and innovation. The results were mixed. Other pianists who were comfortable in both straight ahead jazz as well as funk, like George Duke and Joe Sample (with the Crusaders) also produced some fine work playing the electric piano with their own very distinctive sound.

But why Bill Evans? Let me first explain what he told me when I visited his NJ home in 1978-79. (I was in my mid- twenties at this time, and Bill had purchased a home in my parents home town) We discussed the then-controversial topic of electric keyboards in jazz, and Bill told me that younger pianists like myself “grew up with electric music and were more accustomed to hearing that kind of sound” in rock and rhythm and blues music. He felt it was far more of a natural cultural progression for younger players to want to gravitate toward the newer electric keyboards. He also told me (as he was to say in many interviews) that he liked the Rhodes only occasionally, but considered it only “an auxiliary” to the piano. This was similar to what he told Downbeat magazine in June 1980: “I’m of a certain period, a certain evolution. I hear music differently. I mean, as for me, comparing electric bass with acoustic bass is a sacrilege. Maybe I’m just of another generation. ..[electric piano ] is just limited. You couldn’t put it in the same universe as the acoustic piano.” In the same article, we hear his frustrations in trying to find a decent one at NYC instrument rental shop. Yet despite these misgivings, he recorded with the Rhodes on no less than five studio albums, and a “live” one (Montreaux III).

Evans’ next project for Columbia Records, and with electric piano, was the controversial Living Time. As Bill himself acknowledged, it was pretty much composer- arranger George Russell’s record, with Bill as featured soloist. He had done a few recordings with Russell back in the fifties, and the two remained friends since. Much has been written about the incongruities of Russell’s revolutionary avant-garde musical constructs paired with Evans’ more conservative tonal concept --and how they meshed, or didn’t mesh, as the case may be. With its unconventional groupings of orchestral players, and use of rock rhythms and instrumentation, suffice it to say that it is for many, a difficult album to listen to. It also caused fans of the pianist to write letters to Bill, stating their displeasure, and warning that they would stop buying his albums. (See Pettinger. pp.211-212). Bill alternates between the Rhodes and the Steinway, but generally the keyboards are recorded more distantly in the mix, and though Bill plays well, the performance of both doesn’t merit much comment. It seems that as a performer, Bill Evans on this record comes off as almost subsidiary to the Living Time composition itself.

The next intended recording for Columbia was a January 20, 1973 trio performance in Japan, but the label passed on it, and Evans’ association with Columbia was over. Manager Helen Keane negotiated a new contract with Fantasy Records, which released it as “The Tokyo Concert”. Another live recording, this time at the Village Vanguard (“Since We Met”) then followed, and it wasn’t until the “Symbiosis” album with veteran composer- arranger Claus Ogerman begun in February 1974, that Evans once again returned to the Fender Rhodes.

Symbiosis is abeautiful and vastly overlooked album in Evans’ prolific canon, yet one that needs to be seriously reckoned with. Ogerman, who had worked with Bill on two previous albums in 1963 and in 1965 (Bill Evans With Symphony Orchestra) , composed an adventurous and often hauntingly gorgeousl work in two parts. In the third section of the first movement, working over a slow and gentle jazzy swing, Bill plays long and fast- moving lines on electric piano that catch your ear with their shimmering beauty and complexity. Ogerman writes lush but never maudlin strings (and a few flutes) here in dense, often whole-tone and poly-chordal fashion underneath -- creating a perfect cushion for the pianist’s swirling right-hand lines. The Rhodes fits in well here, as it does sparingly in and out through Symbiosis’ framework. It is often used as punctuation at the end of a written ensemble phrase, or as an ensemble texture. Evans’ choices as to when to use the Rhodes or the Steinway are wise indeed, and not without great sensitivity, integrating seamlessly within the composition. Claus Ogerman as composer-arranger succeeds marvelously here with a work of great harmonic expression and rhythmic interest that showcases Evans’ lyrical expression and his obviously inherent classical strengths, yet within a composition that represents much of what jazz is about. (Ogerman would later do the same for tenor sax virtuoso Michael Brecker for his Cityscape album.) If we consider the aural comparisons to the other albums Bill did with orchestral accompaniment, it is far and away the most superior achievement, and may represent his best use of the electric keyboard in context. “Symbiosis” is far too important to be neglected as often as it has when jazz writers discuss Bill Evans albums. As biographer Keith Shadwick noted: “Evans brings to the work the consummate artistry and sensitivity that occurs when he is stretched and stimulated. His rubato playing in the opening and second movement sometimes alone, sometimes in unison with the strings, is both moving and immensely accomplished in a way that few jazz or classical pianists could have countenanced."

This brings us to Intuition, the 1975 duo album with Eddie Gomez. The Rhodes is now used prominently for solos, and even whole tunes like Bill’s own “Show-Type Tune”. In Peter Pettinger’s excellent Evans biography, his brief discussion of the album misses the mark somewhat, and, it can be argued, his background as a professional classical pianist less familiar with jazz idioms colors his observations regarding Bill and the electric piano. He states:

“The grand piano has developed in parallel with the European classical repertoire that was the source of Evans’s dense harmonic language.”

On the face of it, this is debatable, since in addition to Bill’s formal classical piano education, he also spent many of his formative years playing in in dance bands and small pop groups -- as well as absorbing Bird, Nat Cole, Charlie Parker,Teddy Wilson, George Shearing, Bud Powell et al. As might be expected, Mr. Pettinger seems to be far too stern in his appraisal of the tools Bill used, and the music he was surrounded with, and the fact that Evans spent countless hours studying and playing these styles. In explaining the swirly phased sound of the Rhodes on Intuition, Pettinger is mistaken also in calling it “a trick on the Fender-Rhodes shown to him by engineer Don Cody...” Having owned one myself and used it extensively back on the seventies, I can tell you that what was connected to the instrument was a little device called the Maestro Phase Shifter. The short-lived electronic company Mutron also made one, (pianist George Duke was, in fact an early endorser in their in ads in Downbeat at the time) and offered various electronic “sound boxes” such as the Stereo Chorus. These accoutrements -- the wah-wah pedals and all the rest, were all the rage in those heady days. Rhodes players were hooking up these sound- modifying units all the time. Fantasy engineer Don Cody commented that the phase- shifter was already connected to the Rhodes in the studio from a previous session when recording for Intuition began in November 1974 -- and Bill just went with it. It is the same sound on all tracks every time the Rhodes is played. Less fortunate is the fact that a simple click of the on-off switch on the phase- shifter before a take may have given a different sound to various tunes. But apparently neither the engineer, the artist nor the producer were too concerned about it. Nonetheless, it produced an often thick, syrupy sonority on the recording when combined, as it is, with the Rhodes stereo vibrato effect. The result is sometimes fun, as Bill seems to dart in and out of the left and right channels. The sound seemed to work most effectively on Ellington’s “Blue Serge”, where Evans sustains the tune’s longer notes in the right hand, while comping with the left hand on piano. He phrases this way in his solo too, with great effect. His “Are You All the Things” (a reworking, of course of Kern’s “All The Things You Are”) scampers along swingingly, though Bill’s comping for the bass solos is spare and careful; his touch very light and cautious. Though somewhat disparaging sentiments were sometimes expressed about Bill’s choice of the Rhodes, he thought it all to be “kind of fun”, and although it can be occasionally a distraction, none of it takes away from the almost telepathic camaraderie and musical chemistry of the Evans-Gomez duo. They had been together eight years by the time of this album, and whether Bill is on electric or acoustic piano, their uncanny interplay shows brilliantly throughout this most satisfying session.

-- Jan Stevens is the webmaster of The Bill Evans Webpages, and a professional pianist and piano teacher.

(Our thanks to Mrs. Lisa Vernon for editing and manuscript preparation, and special thanks to Rhodes tech and histortian Mr. Frederik Adlers from Molnlycke, Sweden for his Rhodes expertise.)

(C) Jan Stevens 2003. May not be reproduced electronically or in print without written permission of the author. All Rights Reserved.