Bill Evans Interview: An Approach to Improvisation

Posted: February 17, 2013 in Jazz Piano, Music Education, Piano

evansI listened to a rebroadcast of Marian McPartland’s 1979 interview of Jazz Great Bill Evans. I am so happy to have found the link to the interview because there are some comments made by Mr. Evans that are absolutely priceless and incredibly insightful. I am listening to it as I type.  My readers who are jazz musicians will appreciate some of the funny comments made in the interview too.

Marian was surprised to learn that Bill played wedding gigs. He said, “Of course!” somewhat surprised that someone would think he was not out there doing the same things the rest of us do. And in all fairness, I think most of us forget that the top jazz stars were at one time the great unknowns. :)

“Intuition has to lead knowledge but it can’t be out there on its own.”

Bill’s comments resonate with me at this time because I am one month into a four month commitment to take jazz lessons from former University of North Texas Professor Dan Hearle. His bio is at the link.  During his career he has taught untold numbers of jazz students. The fact that I am taking lessons from him should in no way elevate my reputation, anyone can take lessons – you just need to pay the tuition. But Bill Evans’ comments about jazz struck a chord with me, (a b9b13 is you must know!) :)

Bill spoke about the importance of knowing the fundamentals of a piece. How often have I jumped right into a piece and started soloing on the changes, never giving the tune a good fundamental examination. Dan Hearle is right in line with Evans’ comment. There is a melody. There is a chord. There is a scale. “Oh, you mean I am supposed to pay attention to that?” I think.  Bill says that after you have those fundamentals down, you can “move around”, and then he plays a few examples – and of course, I have no idea what he is doing, but even I can grasp the notion of being firmly rooted in the fundamentals of a piece. And I am encouraged, because even an intermediate player can – and seemingly must – learn the fundamentals of the piece.

Bill’s comment finds its way home when he adds that “Intuition without knowledge is out there by itself.” I am listening to the program again so I can get the exact quote. (See below). It was priceless. Improvisation, so says Bill, is 90% knowledge and 10% intuition. If you don’t have the knowledge, the intuition isn’t going to be enough. And Bill really got to know a piece. Marian reminded him that he once said, “I would rather play one song for 24 hours than play 24 tunes in an hour.” Bill laughed in agreement.

“Have a complete picture of the basic structure” before you work from there. Structure is the “abstract, theoretical thing” in a piece. He plays C to its dominant G7, and he is thinking about a pedal point so he can set up the “thing” — and then he plays a bit — “Now again [music plays] now we are going to modulate to E major, now we have to get back to C through its dominant” and so on….

And it is just awesome to sit here listening to Bill explain how he plays. I am LOVING this.

bill-evansI have heard that Bill Evans was  a microscopic player. He knew every nuance of the piece. That is what his music reveals, but it is the PROCESS of moving from the fundamentals to a base of knowledge, then contemplation of the abstractions, and then “moving around”.  The product grows.

Marian said that a lot of musicians really don’t know the pieces they are playing, and Bill agreed and nailed the point with:  “Intuition has to lead knowledge but it can’t be out there on its own.” (That’s the exact quote. I was close!).  “If it’s on its own, you’re going to flounder sooner or later.” Students need to know that, Bill says. “Knowing the problem is 90% of solving it.”

“The problem is to be clear and get down to basic structure.”

Of course, when we listen to one of the jazz greats there isn’t much to prompt us to remember that what we are hearing is based on a strong awareness of the basic structure, the “problem”, and the additive process the artist went through to develop the tune. Sure, I might practice one tune for 24 hours, but Bill Evans – with his level of talent –  is going to get more out of that practice session than I would. But that isn’t really the point, is it? The point is that I will get more out of my music if I follow the same ritual. it might not sound as good as Bill Evans (guaranteed!) but it will sound a whole heck of a lot better than what I doing when I just opened the Real Book and started jamming.

“Get back to the basics.” How many times have we heard that in all types of situations. We get so far down the road – lost, muddled in despair – and someone reminds us, “Get back to the basics. Review the fundamentals.” Sure enough, intuition was out there by itself, and the syncopated rhythms, long miserable lines, the poor voicings are the sounds of floundering, not jazz.

If you’re a jazz pianist, you are already listening to the show. If you’re not, let me tempt you one more time.  It’s a window into the music of Bill Evans – a voice from the past, with good advise for your future. And for a little inspiration from our time, listen to Dan Hearle’s live performance of his new CD, with some insights from other musicians.

  1. Nice post – we are honored to have Dan Haerle on staff here at the Dallas School of Music and the dlp music program. Not only is he a giant in music education (an inaugural member of the jazz educators hall of fame!) but he is a fantastic colleague and an all around great guy. See you this afternoon!

  2. The melody is the essence of the song, people change the lyrics and chord changes all the time, but if you change the tune, you are playing a different song. That being said, you can (of course) improvise on the melody and still be playing the song, but you must first know the melody to play the song.
    I recently heard a Jaco Pastorius interview where he stressed the importance of melody. He said out that many bass players aren’t concerned with the melody because they rarely play it, but for soloing it is of paramount importance. He said (something like) “…it is where you get all your great lines from…”
    Learn the tune first then the structure and then the changes. If you do that, then you’ve got the fundamentals of the song, then you can begin to develop an improvisation, otherwise you are working off an incomplete map.