When Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue was released in 1959, his listeners were introduced to a young, recently established pianist whose identity at the keyboard was in its own way as individual as Thelonious Monk’s. Bill Evan’s pianism—his dense, impressionistic voicings, his dreamy, introspective moodiness, his singing lyricism—appeared fresh and original. Despite its apparent uniqueness, Evan’s style rooted in the work of Lennie Tristano, Bud Powell, and Horace Silver, as suggested by Evan’s early recordings. The refined harmonic language of George Shearing also contributed to Evans’s stylistic heritage.
Born in 1929, Evans was from Plainfield, New Jersey. As a teenager, he listened to swing and bop, and he occasionally played piano in local bands. Following high school, Evans attended Southeastern Louisiana University with a scholarship for classical piano—an interesting choice of school for a future jazz musician from the Northeast. After Southeastern Louisiana, Evans was drafted, served in the army, then moved to New York in 1956. He attended the Mannes College of Music for a semester and recorded his own albums New Jazz Conceptions (1956) and Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1958).
Evans joined Miles Davies’s sextet in 1958, performing on Davis’s Jazz at the Plaza and the profoundly influential Kind of Blue. As with so many other sidemen, Evans found that his stint with Davis incisively enhanced his visibility and reputation; he was to remain at the forefront of jazz piano for the remainder of his career.
Drastically redefining postbop piano, Evans was praised for the poetic beauty of his playing, which was enhanced by his sensitivity to dynamic shadings. His ballad performances exhibited a rich harmonic vocabulary, often whispered at remarkably soft dynamics levels. On solo piano recordings, Evans brought to the fore sophisticated techniques, frequently reharmonizing the chord progressions with compelling originality. Even Evan’s posture at the piano—hunched over the keyboard, listening intently to each and every note—seemed to symbolize his elusive quest for musical transcendence.
Evans generally avoided working with larger groups, preferring the trio format of piano, bass and drums. Sophisticated listeners heard an unprecedental level of interaction among the members of the group, particularly because of Evan’s uncanny ability to develop long, even phrases that stretched across bar lines and avoided emphasized downbeats. To superficial listeners, Evans’s style was merely pretty, but beneath the elegant veneer were a sensibility and formal control that number among the very best in jazz.
Evans preferred sidemen who could interact with him rather than merely provide accompaniment. His bassists were usually virtuoso soloists in their own right who often played in the upper registers of the instrument.
Setting the standard for future groups, Evans’s landmark trio was formed in 1959. It consisted of an unusually sensitive and coloristic drummer, Paul Motian, and a superb twenty-three-year-old bassist, Scott LaFaro. Evans’s phrases were sometimes separated by dramatic pauses that were themselves punctuated by Motian’s drumming and LaFaro’s countermelodies. With all the members contributing to the musical conversation, the trio frequently broke up the sense of regular metric flow, a key aspect of Evans’s style.
Like many other jazz musicians, Evans wrote numerous compositions, many of which have become jazz standards. He was particularly fond of waltz time (3/4), Which was not often heard in traditional jazz performers, and he composed many jazz waltzes, including the popular “Waltz for...