Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings
As with Shorter's "Ana Maria," this titular background is clouded heavily by personal tragedy. Of Russian ethnicity, Evans' life contains episodes that seem lifted from a Tolstoy novel. His long-time common-law wife Ellaine was unable to bear him the son he so desperately wanted. Evans took up with Nenette Zazarra, whom he eventually marriedbut not before a despondent Ellaine threw herself in front of a train. Evans was on the West Coast at the time, and the unenviable task of identifying the body fell to Keane.
Having read How My Heart Sings, serious listeners can scarcely remain unclouded themselves. How is one to go back and listen to a man who destroyed his marriage playing a whimsical rendition of "I Love My Wife"? And surely the "heartbreak quality" referred to by Gopnik will become overwhelming as one listens to the exquisite "Spartacus Love Theme"with its cascades of melting icicles and breathtaking hummingbird flightsknowing that Evans died a slave to his own habit.
Evans was born in Plainfield, New Jersey in 1929 and began his music studies aged six. Classically trained on piano, he also studied flute and violin as a child. After graduating with a degree in piano performance and teaching from Southeastern Louisiana College (now University) in 1950, he studied composition at Mannes College of Music in New York. After a stint in the Army, he worked in local dance bands and came to the attention of producer Orrin Keepnews at Riverside Records.
Evans' first album was New Jazz Conceptions, recorded in 1956, which featured the first recording of "Waltz For Debby," his single most popular composition. The follow-up release, Everybody Digs Bill Evans, was not recorded for another two years; the always shy and self-deprecating pianist claiming he "had nothing new to say." Evans also began to attract attention in the NYC jazz scene for his original piano sound and fluidity. The book recounts his first real break playing opposite the Modern Jazz Quartet at the Village Vanguard, which became his most frequent live venue.
Evans recalled a seminal moment that was to have a far-reaching effect on his career: "Nobody knew me, of course ... and despite the fact that Milt Jackson gave me a really fine intro ... it was a thunderous din. But I just kept on playing. ... Now one gratifying thing: one night I looked up, opened my eyes while I was playing, and Miles' [Davis] head was at the end of the piano listening."
It is impossible to write about Evans' career without discussing Davis. In 1958 Davis asked Evans to join his group, which featured saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. After touring with the band for less than a year, Evans played on the classic album Kind Of Blue, for which he composed "Blue In Green," now a jazz standard.
But the passage quoted above points to several other of Evans' defining elements. His modesty notwithstanding, the fact is that many people did already know very well who he was. And like any saloon pianist, he consistently demonstrated what Pettinger terms a professional's ability to disregard a less than congenial environment and take care of business. Finally, Pettinger's book, like countless other magazine articles and web sites, includes photos of Evans deeply hunched over the keyboard, eyes shut, lost in his own private worlda visual image seen so frequently as to be almost stereotypical.
Unsurprisingly, being a pianist himself, Pettinger highlights the unique difference between (non-electric) pianists and their wind, string, and percussion playing band mates. While the latter bring their own instruments to a gig, pianists are figurative prisoners of the club (or dance hall, auditorium, school, etc.) at which they perform. Broken keys, pedals, dampers and strings are commonplace, and ordinarily the performers are precluded from even tuning their instrument.
No exception to this rule, Evans often endured out of tune pianos. But in his case, the ramifications went beyond what (for most) is a relatively minor annoyance. In large measure due to his studies of Debussy and Ravel, Evans routinely wowed his fellow musicians with his technical mastery of the foot pedals, which far outstripped anything his non-classically schooled peers had ever encountered. Of course, if the pedals were non-functionalas they all too often werethis key element of sound and style was simply taken away from him. Perhaps the best comparison would be to think of summarily yanking away a guitarist's pick and forcing him/her to pluck with fingernails and strum with fingertips instead.