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Blog // Sounds
April 2, 2012

The Universal Mind Of Bill Evans

Bill Evans was an extraordinary Jazz pianist, composer and arranger. Best known for working with Miles Davis, Evans changed the face of modern Jazz with his approach to harmony and chord composition. In this beautifully put together interview, from 1966, we get some deep and revealing insights into Bill Evans approach to music. The video […]

Bill Evans was an extraordinary Jazz pianist, composer and arranger. Best known for working with Miles Davis, Evans changed the face of modern Jazz with his approach to harmony and chord composition.

In this beautifully put together interview, from 1966, we get some deep and revealing insights into Bill Evans approach to music. The video goes for a little under forty-five minutes and includes clips of Evans playing and an introduction and passing comments from Steve Allen.

In the opening voice over Evans makes the claim for a “universal musical mind.” We could (quite profitably) spend a long time discussing this kind of philosophical idealism. The interesting practical implication of his claim is this; all people really need, in order to “get” music, is exposure, time and education (what Evans calls conditioning) and in some ways the insights of the “lay” person may have as much, or more merit than those of the professional musician.

On Music, Mastery And Being Real

Once Evans starts to talk about the challenges of being a musician, it’s clear why he doesn’t necessarily think the professional is always going to be right. In fact, Evans is quite bold in saying many musicians over-reach, playing things they don’t really understand.

Evans talks about “the problem” which as I understand it, is the problem of how to be a Jazz musician and how to play jazz in a real and masterful way. For Evans, Jazz is not so much a style or genre, as it is a process, a way of approaching composition. For him all spontaneously created music is Jazz, regardless of style or form.

For Evans, the mistake many musicians make (and we could extend this to other creative fields) is they try to approximate the output of somebody else’s creative process, without having mastery of every small and discrete part of the process.

“The person that succeeds in anything has the realistic viewpoint at the beginning in knowing that the problem is large and he has to take it a step at a time and has to enjoy the step by step learning procedure.”

Again and again Evans says it is better to play honest, or simple music than trying to approximate a more complex sound you have not truly mastered and ultimately will be unable to build upon.

On Loving The Process

It’s perhaps not surprising Evans has such a methodical approach since, by his own admission, he came to improvisation relatively late on. He struggled for years to play well without having sheet music in front of him and only developed “expressive ability” by the age of 28.

Still, it’s clear Evans learned to love, or at least value the process of piecing together everything required to become a Jazz musician.

The Self-Taught Musician

Evans sees teaching Jazz (and perhaps music in general) as difficult because many beginners do not want to immerse themselves in chords, theory or existing forms, for fear of being seen as an imitator or unoriginal. He sees this as both naive and an attempt to not address important musical principles.

In fact, Evans implies that most of those who don’t make it fail because they are either impatient, or simply don’t understand the immensity of “the problem.”

For Evans, every Jazz musician is, ultimately self-taught. They may have benefitted from formal education. But, in the end, they must make decisions at every stage of the process, about how they will address “the problem.”

“The thing that you as an artist are ultimately concerned with is how you are handling your materials. Are you able to handle them in any way you want?”

What Is Creative Freedom

Bill Evans’ notion of Jazz freedom is not about playing whatever you want, or playing something no-one has ever played before. Rather, freedom is the ability to honestly and in a real way, draw everything you have mastered into the moment when you play. It’s freedom in a context, working with and against a form and as an honest response based on what you have taught yourself. This freedom does not come from a lack of constraints, but from the consistent and systematic process of learning to spontaneously create music within a context that is actually full of constraints.

What Is Your Problem

I wonder how many of us can really name our big creative problem? Evans had a clear sense of what the Jazz problem was. I’m inclined to think there is a big, existential problem in every creative field not just music, that each creative soul ultimately needs to face.

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