Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Bill Evans: A Recorded Retrospective

Graduation weekend, June 1976: Rick deSante and Robert Greenberg
Graduation weekend, June 1976: Rick deSante and yours truly


Freshman year college roommates: talk about a crap shoot. You never know whether the individual in charge of pairing you up was having a good day or a bad day; whether he or she had a decent or a rotten sense of humor.

My freshman year pairing (in 1972), knock on wood, was a good one: a fellow public-school guy from New Jersey: Rick deSante, from West Long Branch (Bruce Springsteen territory). We hit it off and remained roommates for three years, until senior year (when, as seniors, we had single rooms).

Rick was (and remains) a tall, blonde guy, one-half Italian (his father), one-half Irish (his mother, whose maiden name was McGillicuddy). Rick played scratch golf and rugby, and majored in chemical engineering, a topic about as far away from music as it is possible to get. Nevertheless, opposites attract; I went to his rugby games, and he was okay with the music I played on my stereo in our room. Rick was someone who, up to the time we met, had never really listened to a note of music. He had never taken a music lesson, never been to a concert (concert music or rock ‘n’ roll); he owned no records and listened to no radio. In no particular order, Rick was about golf, his problem sets (engineering school homework), rugby, and beer (the drinking age in New Jersey was 18 at the time.) (Not wanting its students driving around to bars, the university opened up a “pub” on campus: 35 cents for a pitcher of beer. Rick and I used to go drinking with a short, magnificently foul-mouthed pistol from Da Bronx who lived three doors down from us named Sonia Sotomayor.)

Anyway, finally, to the point. I used to play all sorts of jazz piano on my stereo: Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Phineas Newborn, Jr., Ray Bryant, Thelonious Monk, Ramsey Lewis, etc. But the only pianist my tin-eared roommate ever learned to instantly recognize, and even request was – you guessed it – Bill Evans.

Bill Evans (1929-1980) in 1972
Bill Evans (1929-1980) in 1972, looking just a little silly with that college campus hair

Looking back, I wish I’d been clever enough to ask Rick specifically what it was that set Evans apart from the others, and why he learned to like Bill Evans as much as he did while remaining relatively indifferent to all the other music I played. Since I didn’t ask, I’ll speculate.

There’s a harmonic richness and invention in Evans’ playing that goes beyond anything that preceded him (and which has become the model for pretty much every jazz pianist since). Evans’ use of what are called the “upper chord tones”: ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths; his uncanny chord voicings (the way he built his harmonies); his amazing voice leading (the way he moved from harmony to harmony); and the way his inner voices (the notes in the middle of his chords) came to life with counter melodies of their own created a harmonic richness and melodic life closer to that of Johann Sebastian Bach than your average (and above average) jazz player.

Evans’ solo lines are likewise masterful and disciplined. There’s no sweeping up and down the keyboard for Liszt-like pianistic effect à la Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson; no blinding speed for its own sake as in the playing of McCoy Tyner or Phineas Newborn, Jr.; no repetitive schtick like the constant whole-tone scales in Thelonious Monk’s playing (the pianistic equivalent of such verbal delaying tactics and “umm” and “like”). Rather, each freaking note of Evans’ solo lines seems to count; each note seems to be the only possible note that could be played at the moment it is played. As in the keyboard music of Bach and Mozart, removing but one of Evans’ solo notes would leave a hole large enough for Luciano Pavarotti to wander through.

As a jazz pianist, Evans’ treatment of the piano was, likewise, different. More often than not (present company included), jazz pianists treat the piano like a percussion instrument, sharply accenting certain notes and chords to create the polyrhythmic effect known as swing. Evans could swing like a maniac, but still, his basic treatment of the piano was as a stringed instrument: one that could sing and emote like an operatic soprano or, for that matter, a lovelorn torch singer.

These elements of his playing set him apart from other jazz pianists. It was a style of playing that he came to entirely on his own. In a phrase, no one sounded like Bill Evans. His pianism and music making were sui generis, unique, one-of-a-kind, and that’s why my friend Rick deSante Rick had no trouble identifying him. And because Evans’ playing is so utterly riveting, Rick quickly learned to love it as well.…

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