Thursday, February 28, 2008

How His Heart Sung

My favorite gifts -- to give or to receive – are books and music. This past holiday Ann, and her best friend, Maria, who was visiting us from Sicily, gave me Peter Pettinger’s biography Bill Evans, How My Heart Sings (Paperback; Yale University Press, 2002) and a collection of sheet music and books on theory, including the Bill Evans Fake Book, transcribed and edited by Pascal Wetzel from Evans’ recordings. (A “fake book” gives the melody line and the basic chords, without arrangement, which the musician then has to improvise.)

Between the biography and the fake book I have a greater appreciation of Evans’ musical genius and can understand why he has been called the Chopin of jazz. I highly recommend the biography to anyone who has admired Evans, although you should be aware that as Pettinger was a concert pianist, the biography delves as much into the intricacies and structure of Evans’ music as it does his life.

His life was tragic as he began a heroin habit in an effort to “fit in” when he first played with Miles Davis’ group. This ultimately contributed to his early death at 51. But, oh, his music, the extent of which I was not fully aware until reading the biography and working on the fake book. His compositions are melancholy and ethereal, frequently changing keys and tempo, with unique chord voicings abandoning the root note. This leaves the listener with a feeling about the sound rather than a musical denotation, almost like comparing poetry to a short story. His classical training clearly comes through and one gets a sense of his Slavic heritage as well. As Evans said, “I have always hoped to visit Russia, to feel at first hand the roots of this part of myself.”

Before the gift of Bill Evans Fake Book I was already familiar with his well known “Peri’s Scope” and “Waltz for Debbie,” with the latter being part of my regular repertoire. Here is a wonderful video of Evans playing “Waltz for Debbie,” probably his best known composition:

Delving into the fake book I discovered other gems and my favorite piece now is “Bill’s Hit Tune,” which Evans described as having “a quality of a French movie theme if played slow.” A performance of the piece by Evans is also on You Tube:

Then there is “Comrade Conrad,” with its changing keys and alternating sections of 4/4 and 3/4 time. The soaring “Turn out the Stars” seems to evolve almost on its own accord and as abstract as it might be, it all makes sense. I think this piece reflects his deep classical roots and it might be his masterpiece. I also love his plaintive “Funny Man” and fragile “Time Remembered.”

“Letter to Evan” is one of the few Evans pieces for which he also wrote lyrics. I think of it as a tone poem, beautiful in its simplicity. It was written for his son’s 4th birthday; tragically Bill Evans would be dead only one year later. His son is a musician as well, writing for films. He wrote a poignant essay about his father on the 21st anniversary of his death:

Finally, I love playing the mournful, haunting “We will Meet Again,” which Evans wrote soon after his beloved older brother, Harry, committed suicide. Richard Kimball, a pianist and composer with both classical and jazz backgrounds, skillfully performs an arrangement of that piece:

For the amateur pianist, playing Evans’ work and trying to understand the structure of the music can be intimidating. I take encouragement from Evans’ own definition of jazz: “It’s performing without any really set basis for the lines and the content as such emotionally or, specifically, musically. And to me anybody that makes music using the process that we are used to using in jazz, is playing jazz.” So, I’ll keep trying to play jazz, “music of the moment” as defined by Evans, and hopefully learning with the inspiration of these two gifts, Pettinger’s biography and Wetzel’s transcriptions of Evans’ music.