By Peter Pettinger
Yale, 346 pages (hardcover), $30
Reviewed by Don Rose
It's difficult to find an article anywhere about Bill Evans that doesn't use the word "influential" somewhere in the first two sentences. ("Introspective" is the next most-used adjective.) A poll taken among other pianists in the mid-1980s actually named him as the most influential jazz pianist in history—a ranking that fans of Art Tatum or Bud Powell might take with more than a grain of salt. There is little doubt, however, that he touched thousands and clearly left his mark on important subsequent figures such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett—some only a few years his junior.
Without ever quite making the epic, revolutionary contributions of a James P. Johnson, Earl Hines, Tatum, Powell, Thelonious Monk or Cecil Taylor, he was nevertheless a landmark innovator and unique stylist for most of his 25-year career. He was a pioneer in modal jazz and an inventive genius in harmonics, meter and rhythmic variations. His chordal and melodic sense, classically-based technique and special touch drew widespread admiration and his first trio—with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums—opened new vistas for its uncanny, intuitive, almost extrasensory interplay. It probably changed the conception of the piano trio forever.
In addition to the trio's masterworks, "An Evening at the Village Vanguard" and "Waltz for Debby," Evans' playing underpins some of the greatest jazz records of all time. Most notably there is Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue," to which he contributed both theory and composition, plus Oliver Nelson's " The Blues and the Abstract Truth." He won every conceivable kind of award and recognition, nationally and internationally, from the critics and readers polls of all the jazz publications to seven Grammys—one of them for his remarkable duet with singer Tony Bennett.
He is one of the most thoroughly documented jazz musicians in history, appearing on hundred of discs, from solo piano up to symphony-sized orchestras in addition to films and videos. His music is widely published and his thoughts and theories appear on numerous liner notes, including "Kind of Blue." He was frequently interviewed and reams were written about him long before this interesting but problematic biography, but the strange, still-unexplained contradictions of Evans' life keep him one of the most enigmatic figures in the music.
Here was a true intellectual, scholarly well beyond the fields of classical music and jazz; said to be an accomplished visual artist, knowledgeable in the sciences; quick-witted and often sardonically funny; even a star intramural football player and fraternity president in college. Here was one of the rare white musicians accepted into the highest, innermost circles of black jazzmen—though not, to be sure, without receiving a lot of criticism and crow-Jim potshots. Here was a musician whose rarely compromised music made him a financial as well as critical success—though some write him off as a romantic who didn't swing hard enough and was not deep enough into blues.
Yet a lifetime of drug use and whatever demons underlaid that problem, kept him impoverished (he was once evicted from his home), malnourished and ill—he suffered chronic liver disease and his teeth rotted in his mouth because at the peak of his earning power he claimed he couldn't afford dentistry. From the time he took up drugs while working in the Miles Davis band in 1958, his life was what one friend called a "long suicide" that came to an end one month after his 51st birthday. Oh, well. Charlie Parker didn't make it to 35.
Peter Pettinger, who died just before this book came out, was a British concert pianist and Evans fan of the highest order—some of the writing here borders on worship—but he could draw the lines between great Evans and less than great Evans. When he is examining a recording, analyzing a technique, describing verbally what Evans is doing musically, he can be exquisite. For example:
"With the very first chord he hit his true vein, refuting those piano technicians who maintain that the instrument is incapable of individual expression. There is a way of weighting the touch, distributing the timbre and breathing the approach that says 'listen.' The imagination can manipulate ivory, felt , steel and spruce to sublime ends. Evans called it putting emotion into the piano and he proved that it can be done..."
In another typical passage: "...a new technical trick is introduced consisting of a sort of inverted spread (filling the lower notes of the chord after the melody note is struck). But it is his ravishing use of tone that makes 'Young and Foolish' his first truly lyrical track and one of those that goes deepest; played with muscular strength in the singing it touches the heart."
This biography strings together such close analyses—many highly technical—of every Evans recording session and documented concert and club date with a relatively flat retelling of the available facts about Evans life. We follow the musician from a sketchy childhood in Plainfield, NJ. to his college years, his rather quick and unexplained success in entering the world of jazz music, his work with Davis and the later groups that brought him the international acclaim and success that few jazzmen ever experience.
We get every little personnel change, every time one drummer was sick and another replaced him. We learn who was sitting in the studio during a recording session. We get long passages from existing writings about Evans, some of Evans' own comments and a few original interviews—none of which manages to bring Evans the man, the personality, into clear focus.
He remains a relatively distant figure, despite the sweeping ups and downs of his life—what could be the subject of high drama. It is not for want of research—Pettinger has been painstaking in his digging. He writes well enough, but essentially does not have the story-telling qualities or the psychological insights required of the great biographer.
We are told he began using heroin while working with Davis—possibly under the influence of the great drummer "Philly" Joe Jones—with only a pale, pale hint that it was in part a response to some of the potshots he took as a white in a black band. We are told of Evans depression and withdrawal from playing when LaFaro died soon after the great Vanguard sessions. We are told of the night Evans played with only his left hand because his right arm had been numbed totally by needle shots. We are told of his astonishment and subsequent depression when his live-in lover of a dozen years commits suicide after Evans jilts her to marry another woman who will bear him a child. We are told of his pleasure at actually becoming a father. But all this telling still does not manage to bring Evans to life or examine the contradictions of that life.
Nor does the author put Evans life into any sort of social or historical jazz context. Powell and Lennie Tristano are early on said to be important influences on Evans, but we are told precious little about who they were and what they did that was so important—to music or to Evans. Evans life spans some of the most important decades in the history of jazz, but we get next to nothing about what was going on outside his life or his gigs—what were the musical development crosscurrents? Except for his immediate associates, Evans appears to be working in a musical vacuum.
This does not diminish the book's essential value as a guide to the music of Bill Evans—or as a roadmap of the basic facts of his life. If only we could get to know and understand the man as well as Pettinger does his music.