Luminous Ecstasy: the Music of Bill Evans
Brewing a cosmic sonic chai flavored with richly complex essences distilled from Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, pianist Nat King Cole, Red Garland, Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz, pianist Bill Evans conjured an ambrosial rasa of luminous ecstasy, reverie, and serpentine inventive joy, which proved to be one of the most pervasive expressive sweeps in the history of Western music, transforming not only jazz, but touching just about all other musical forms of our time.
His You Must Believe in Spring album was introduced to me at a seaside home in Maui, and it still evokes the interwoven breezes, moisture and ethereal pink saltiness of the vast Pacific past the currents of Shark Pit.
While in high school, I first heard Bill Evans on Ed Beach's mesmeric radio show broadcasted from Riverside Church in Manhattan, and it sounded like the most beautiful music in the history of the world, as reverent and passionate as Bach himself. The level of concentration and sonic soul wash was palpable.
My first semester of college brought me in touch with the Conversations With Myself album (in an unforgettable setting), which remains perhaps the most astounding among the many musical miracles wrought by this deeply introspective artist. The Alone album is also a favorite of mine, reflecting how Evans voiced his preference for solo piano playing. Myself, I love his trio recordings just as much, of which there has been a growning number due to the existence of previously unreleased live material. Evans always surrounded himself with the finest drummers and acoustic bassists, including Philly Joe Jones, Paul Motian, Larry Bunker, Jack DeJohnette, Marty Morrell, Eliot Zigmund, Joe LaBarbera, Paul Chambers, Scott LaFaro, Chuck Israels, Eddie Gomez, Michael Moore and Marc Johnson.
More so than any other jazz pianist, Evans live-sculpts and metamorphosizes three-dimensionally his piano sound into an instrument seemingly as pliable as an alto saxophone or trumpet. This phenomenon demonstrates how the influence of Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz transcends the related roots of Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano in the pianistic conception of Bill Evans. Even the chords he plays resonate and glisten like a sensual saxophone or burnished brass section, or a string quartet glowing with mystically opiated overtones summoning One Thousand and One Nights from Middle Eastern and South Asian antiquity.
Evans had a penchant for hyperromantic songs, enjoying the challenge of soaring them above perilous cliffs of sentimentality and schmaltz into a divine heavenly abode overflowing with daedal musical substance.
Lee Konitz has a black and white framed photo of Evans on the grand piano in his apartment on West 86 Street in Manhattan where I had the pleasure of playing ragas together with Lee on alto saxophone. I don't recall any other photos in view.
This came about when I was playing the piano for a friend visiting from Korea, and stopped when I noticed she had begun crying, asking her what was wrong. She then startled me by saying that the tears came because my playing of Indian ragas was so beautiful. This unexpected affirmation prompted me to phone Lee, and suggest that we play some alto and piano duets based upon ragas.
Lee invited me over to this West 86th Street apartment in Manhattan that same week. I already knew I was in way over my head, but when we entered his music room with a Steinway grand that evening, I noticed a black and white photograph. It was Bill Evans. Talk about intimidation! Somehow I found the audacity to proceed, and we played ragas for an hour or so until Lee had to check upon his daughter living in Montana where there were threatening fires going on. About my undeveloped piano technique: Lee had to put a mute into his alto bell because his natural volume was overpowering me.
At one point, Konitz instinctively added an additional swara (tone) to a pentatonic raga, which I later discovered is something Indian masters enjoy the freedom of doing with that particular raga if the mood strikes them.
During the year I lived in Maui, I had a part-time job playing a white baby grand Yamaha in an upscale clothing boutique in Kapalua. This included traversing myriad jazz standards by Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, George Gershwin, and many others. What's funny is I had to stop doing this because those songs began going through my head so much it was interfering with my composing, which seemed worlds apart!
Now, I mostly enjoy simply listening to those songs interpreted by my favorite artists. But I must say, on those rare occasions when I stumble upon a piano, and get to play Just Friends or Stella by Starlight, it feels like the tones are melting the keys, and I am in communion with an impossibly profound tradition. Playing ragas is even more intense for me, making it feel like I would have to revamp my entire life to do it properly.
- Michael Robinson, December 2015, Los Angeles
The first two paragraphs above originally appeared here.
© 2015 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).