Bill Evans: Interview 1
Interview One: Group Dialogue
The American pianist and composer talks to Les Tomkins between 1965-1976. Two inteviews conducted with his Trio (1966 and 1968).
Source: Jazz Professional
Interview Text or Transcript
Tomkins: A question to start things off— why would you say the trio formula of piano, bass and drums has been used so consistently in jazz?
Tomkins: A question to start things off— why would you say the trio formula of piano, bass and drums has been used so consistently in jazz?
Evans: Well I would say as a pianist that it offers a perfect musical combination of percussion and timbre and bass, plus the piano, which is a sort of lead voice with a harmony or colouristic function. So that you have all the basic musical functions fulfilled and there are no extra voices Therefore, for myself, I feel the freedom to shape something and feel that the fewer people that are responsible for the musical product, the more pure that product can be. That's about where I'm with it, I think.
Israels: I have nothing to add to that, except to say that the answer to that question is: because it sounds good.
Evans: I know that as soon as we've had horn players sit it, it's been fun, depending on who it was— but immediately we change our whole approach it becomes more or less a typical lead-voice-and- rhythm-section-thing. And to get out of that would be kind of difficult. There are so many technical musical things that have to be left behind before you can just relax and play, And like I say, the fewer people responsible for staying together in reference to this thing the freer you can be.
Israels: I thought of a way of doing that. In order to really mix the horn player in, he would have to learn essential second lines, in the same way that I learn an essential bass line, for each of the pieces that we play. And he could become an accompanying voice in that way. On top of that, he would have to be as flexible as we can be with each other.
Evans: I think it could be done. But of course, when I started the idea of trying to get a group together that could have a more free interplay with each other, the problem was such that I thought it would be a lot easier to solve with the trio. Maybe now, if we have a more solid concept of what we're doing, a sympathetic horn player could be added.
Bunker: I don't know if your question meant why piano, bass and drums, as opposed to piano, guitar and clarinet or some other group of instruments. I think, from my viewpoint, that the jazz idiom being what it is, has resolved itself down to piano, bass and drums being what is called the rhythm section. With those three you have a variety and combination of sounds that you can't necessarily achieve with other instruments.
I've heard trios without drums and with guitar, which to me seemed to lack something. Of course, maybe I want to hear the drums in that context. But there would always be harmonic considerations and concessions that would have to be made on the part of both the guitar player and the pianist, in staying out of each other's way— a kind of sameness of sound. It wouldn't seem to be capable of quite the kind of driving, strong kind of swing that you might want sometimes You certainly have to have a bass. And piano, bass and horn somehow seems lacking to me, so I imagine that it's pretty well resolved down to those three instruments. I think it offers each partner the greatest amount of freedom in what he's doing. Because there's enough difference in the sound of the instruments that, if some kind of conflict does happen, it's not that apparent. Whereas, if you have a guitar and a pianist, if they don't play exactly the same notes, it will sound discordant to your ear.
Evans: In other words they function too much the same.
Israels: Another trio instrumentation that I used to like very much was Jimmy Guiffre's original trio, with guitar, bass and clarinet. That seemed to have an equally successful balance of functions in it It was even satisfying to me when he used the trombone instead of the base—but not quite so satisfying as before.
Bunker: There again it's a matter of what the lead voice will be, in the case of his groups. It was his voice. He was dictating pretty much the musical policy that would be followed by the group. Granted each player has freedom within the framework, but he decided the framework in which they would play. And that always has to be done in any trio, whatever the instrumentation. There is one dominant voice. In the case of our group, it's Bill, of course. I know drummers who have bands—the two I can think of right offhand in America are Shelly Manne and Chico Hamilton—who don't have that much to do with what actually goes down.
Israels: They ask somebody else to do it.
Bunker: Either the piano player determines some part of the thing, as far as an arrangement is concerned, or they'll hire arrangers to write material. In the case of Shelly's quintet it’s sometimes necessary, and good—like the pieces that were commissioned from Bill Holman and various other people. But how much can the drummer say—unless he knows an awful lot about music aside from the drums—which most drummers do not.
Evans: And then they would have to do it as a verbal thing. They couldn't do it musically. Which is to me a basic, important thing about our group— that everything has been done through the music. And that’s so important to me, because, as soon as you get outside of it and say "Now the second chorus we're going to play forte for eight measures and then we're going to phrase this, and then we'll go into triplets" and so on— it just has to end up as a pretty false thing, I think.
Bunker: And there would be no exchange of ideas.
Evans: The whole thing here is that everything has developed— and certainly not just through me— because the tunes that we play develop according to how everybody plays. And, on certain occasions, something different will happen, without anyone nodding assent to it. And it becomes part of the performance thereafter. Not m a strict way, but in some general way. We still like to leave everything pretty loose. Like, one time in Stockholm I know on "Round About Midnight' Chuck played such a strong chorus and ended up playing the melody at the end. It seemed superfluous to go back to another melody chorus. So we've been playing it that way ever since where Chuck takes it out, as far as the final melody statement is concerned. And we never mentioned it before this.
Bunker: People are always asking me: "Do you rehearse often?" And we've never had one. It's very difficult to explain to them how it comes about. "How do you know what's going to happen?" You just know. If you play with somebody long enough.
Evans: You're already a musician. And you have a certain experience. We naturally have a sympathy for a similar philosophy in music, I think. We sort of want the same things. Therefore things can happen— the potential is there, And it's not a mysterious thing where you're reaching and groping for something which you know nothing about and diving into an ocean of possibilities. They're real, musical possibilities based on firm musical facts. And there the freedom comes with this group, I think.
Tomkins: And this is the kind of thing you're all striving towards— the result of this feeling for one another?
Evans: I think so. We try to listen as much as possible, and it’s an ultimate musical result— a qualitative thing. We want a better musical result and nothing specific. We all have a feeling for, and respect music fundamentally first. With that responsibility in mind, I think we sort of strive naturally for something which is in a similar direction.
Tomkins: All of you have been involved to some extent or other, with classical music. What bearing has this had on what you're doing in jazz?
Evans: It would be difficult for me to say specifically, except that I've played a lot of classical music and love it, as I love jazz. And any music that you experienced influences you to varying degrees— negatively, positively or whatever. But the amount of time I've spent with classical music I must have learned a lot. Because music is music— the language employed is the same, regardless. Why one thought follows another is the same throughout all music which is valid. Therefore you can learn things which apply to jazz from classical music, which might have no stylistic relationship. They're fundamental, general principles. I know I've been influenced that way— and gladly.
Israels: I think we've all been influenced by the extent of the varieties of musical experience which are available outside of jazz. And I think we've all looked for this kind of variety in our jazz playing. There aren't many other areas in jazz in which you can find the variety that you can outside. It’s been a very strong influence for me, anyway, and I think for Bill and Larry, too.
Evans: The idea is, we're trying to be complete musicians, and jazz is the tool, or whatever, stylistically.
Israels: Jazz is our style really.
Evans: Yes, and you can put all of your musical experience into it, if you approach it right.
Bunker: So many times I hate the term `classical'. Then people say: "Well then, not classical, but `serious' music." And I can't imagine being any more serious about music than we are about ours! I haven't been that involved with classical music, but I've played a lot of contemporary orchestral music, particularly written for motion pictures or television, be it good or bad. I've learned an awful lot about music from it that I would not have learned in jazz. Yet a lot of the appreciation for what goes on here can be applied to jazz Just By having done that, I find myself hungrier to play jazz. It means more to me. And I can bring something beside 'tink- a- ting tink- a- ting, tink- a- ting' four- to- the- bar to the music.
Evans: This is a thing that I've been thinking about for a couple of years: jazz to me is a certain process of making music. It doesn't matter about the style. Instead jazz means a style to people But whether it was written by Stravinsky or Neal Hefti— if it’s written, it’s not jazz to me. It might be an approximation of what has been a jazz performance. But jazz is a 'how' to me. It s performing without any really set basis for the lines and the content as such emotionally or, specifically, musically. And if you sit down and contemplate what you're going to do, and take five hours to write five minutes of music, then it's composed music. Therefore I would put it in the classical or serious, whatever you want to call it, written- music category. So there's composed music and there's jazz. And to me anybody that makes music using the process that we are used to using m jazz, is playing jazz. Chopin or Mozart, or anybody that made music that way at any time was playing jazz as far as I'm concerned.
Tomkins: Instant composition, you might call it.
Evans: Yes and according to the era they lived in, they had their materials and their feelings for music within their culture. But the process involved was the same. It’s to feel within an idiom that you've mastered to a certain extent, so that you can make music happen on the spur of the moment. And a lot of composers, however successful they might be, don't have that facility today. And yet, up to a certain period— I'd say probably the late 1800s— no composer that was worth anything wouldn't be able to do this. They all had an improvising ability, and most of their composing came out of it. But now that's getting to be a lost art.
Bunker: It’s an art, just like a person in literature who may be a great writer is not necessarily an extemporaneous speaker who can get up and propose those same ideas, construct sentences and use syntax and the whole vocabulary of his craft and language, to express it spontaneously. He has to sit and work on it, which to me is the same as a composer of music. Whereas we are extemporaneous performers. We utilise a vocabulary, and an extensive one that we've acquired.
Israels: As I listen to us discuss this, I'm struck by the lack of discussion of the framework that we work in. And, as I discuss our music with for instance orchestral musicians or with people who are very interested in music, but not technically aware of this process that we use— they sometimes get an idea that we don't have any framework.
Evans: Huh that’s funny.
Israels: And I think we kind of owe it to this discussion to make some mention of the fact that we don't entirely improvise.
Evans: Oh, absolutely. It’s impossible, as far as I'm concerned.
Israels: It might be some idea you could get if you would imagine a wire framework for a sculpture, just a wire figure, and three sculptors with a similar point of view, and with a great deal of understanding for each other, all working at the same time in putting clay around this wire form to make a completed sculpture.
Bunker: The skeleton is there and we have a rough idea of what its general form will take, but not down to a fine detail. Because suddenly something will happen in the midst of it, as it’s growing, as it s coming together. We'll say: "No, that should go over here. Take the nose from here and put it around there," or whatever.
Evans: It’s easy for me to separate what is our reference, and what is our extemporaneous performance, because our reference is entirely a theoretical thing practically. And we have a facility within that theoretical framework. Now everything else that happens is loose. Even if it happens the same way for four times, the fifth time it might change. And this is only really, perhaps on opening and closing statements that things get rather you know, similar or the same. But still I want to leave the leeway in my mind entirely to change anything specific that happens in the framework. And the framework that we play on is a very rigid and specific thing and we have to know it just as thoroughly as possible However, it has nothing to do with detail or line or emotion. Really, it lacks any emotion. It’s strictly a technical formula.
Then you put your feelings into it and it becomes an alive thing through the spontaneity of it. I think if a listener isn't aware of the reference and doesn't know how we are relating to it, they're missing the fibre and the strength of the music, whatever it might be And it's a shame I know sophisticated and really outstanding people that can't follow the blues, and don't know where they're at in it, or if somebody's improvising in a much less or maybe a more complex popular song or something that’s a freer vehicle that we might use. That is a shame, because really our freedom is gained from the playing off of it and, say shifting a whole phrase just a beat off of the strict framework gives that idea a particular strength of rhythmic tension, that has everything to do with the music. And if a person isn't aware of these things, he's going to miss a lot of it.
Bunker: Or if it doesn't sound like it’s related to anything or it sounds like they made a mistake and' they got out of it gracefully, which isn't the case.
Evans: It’s not the cloudy, abstract thing that people want to make jazz. So many legit composers that come into screen writing or something when they approximate jazz always make it a fantasy bluesy kind of thing, which is just a phrase after phrase of unrelated jazz sounds, and all that. Which to me is really complete hogwash. Because in order to find this
type of freedom against a strict Framework that everybody is familiar with requires a hell of a lot of digging, because it’s such a simple thing. It’s such an obvious thing. It's much easier to go out into abstraction that relates to nothing, and it’ll sound, in a way, more fascinating at first. But it really hasn't got any meat to it Israels: At certain points, I've had certain kinds of musical pressures on me (not in this group by the way— I'm talking about some other musical experiences) to play music which didn't relate to any framework. And I'm told by .others that I do it very well, in their terms. But I haven't ever had any musical experience in that area that can come within one per cent of giving me the pleasure and satisfaction and emotional involvement— the sense of being really in the music— that I have when I work within the disciplines that we have kind of chosen as our language.
Evans: Same here. I've had a few of those experiences, too, and they've been very successful for what they were.
Bunker: There is a fringe element— the 'new thing' and a lot of, to me, nonsense going on in New York with no discipline, with complete anarchy, insofar as adherence to any rules and the kind of basic, theoretical functions that Bill mentioned. That may comprise five per cent of the jazz that’s going on. But all the other 95 per cent adheres to those principles in some way or the other. However well they may do it is another point, but that’s what they’re doing.
Tomkins: And there is, in fact, as far as you're concerned, more freedom by sticking to the rules.
Evans: There's absolutely a deeper satisfaction and conviction, because after all, we can do whatever we want in music. We have a choice to do another thing and Larry, Chuck and I don't choose to do it. I mean, I'm willing to change in the next minute, if that’s the thing to do. But my experience so far has been that it hasn't given me the satisfaction, even to work in it. There's no way to approach working in a completely abstract art.
Bunker: To me it’s like trying to be an architect, and saying: "All right, I'm going to build a building"— with no cognisance whatsoever of what it’s supposed to be for, where it's going to be built, what the materials are that it's to be built of, what its function will be whether it’s going to have people inside of it doing something or not. It’s like: "Here's the building." Well that’s pointless. To me there's no reason for it to exist— unless all of those things are taken into
account. And if it's done well, then it will be beautiful. It will be related to where it is. I think something like that applies in the jazz also.
Israels: There may be a reason for it to exist for the person who builds it in his mind. But the point is, in terms of our musical experience, as much as we are not immediately concerned with the reaction of the audience while playing, we are all concerned with speaking a musical language which we have learned and which the world has learned through history, in order to be understood. None of us is trying to be misunderstood .
Evans: And it’s an indulgence otherwise. If you go into this philosophy deep enough you get back to: the most perfect artist is the infant in the cradle that’s crying and going through any other natural functions. He's expressing himself with the least prejudice. And this is the thing that these people aim for. They want to get away from civilisation and they don't want to be influenced by anything. This is absolutely impossible And why anyhow? You're saying: "I'm doing this for myself only." I admit I play music for myself first, but it’s still with a dedication to music— not with dedication to myself. And it’s a different thing. As Chuck says I have more respect for a culture that's produced by two thousand years and billions and billions of people than a culture that only spans my own lifetime and experience. I try to get into that and learn from it, and I've found that it’s been a revelation, continually to find more and more in it.
Israels: These total improvising musicians claim to be reaching for human expression. But, in fact, if you look at it from the point of view that we're discussing, what they are achieving by going in this direction is a less than complete human expression. And what we are looking. for is the most complete human expression that we can find, by trying to span as much human experience as we can. Which means that we do not throw away all the things that we, as human beings, have learned about musical communication in the last three or four centuries.
Evans: We try to gather as much of it in essence as possible and apply it to as pure an expression as possible.
Israels: I don't think we're conscious of it in any immediate way. I don't want to give the impression we're thinking about this while we re playing. But it does direct our musical point of view.
Bunker: It underlies what we do.
Evans: Let’s put it this way: I was already well on my way to being a professional musician and was a successful one already before I even began to think or talk about subjects like this And, even now, our conversation about this, I think probably has no direct relationship to our own musical accomplishments or functions It’s only that we're getting outside of ourselves and trying to describe something about our own history and beliefs. But these beliefs are more fundamental than our conversation.
Israels: They have happened to the three of us in a very spontaneous way. This is just naturally the way we feel about music.
Evans: So whatever ambitions you have, or whatever strivings you make, or energy in the direction of accomplishment it comes from something other than a philosophy of music. It's something that we don t know anything about If anybody comes up to us and says: "Should I play jazz?" —this is a funny question, because you couldn't say yes or no because you'd be condemning them to what would be a miserable life, if they're not compelled to do it. Being compelled to it, it’s a sheer pleasure, regardless, because, if it isn't, you go in another direction. But otherwise you couldn't make a decision like that.
Bunker: People have asked me that and I've ended up saying: "If you don't have to— don't. Only do it if there's nothing else for you to do." Because I'm sure it’s been that way with all of usTomkins: It’s a kind of instinct that you can't put your finger on.
Israels: Well, I think we do put our finger on it very well when we get involved in discussing it in an intellectual way like this. But we put our finger on it historically, not on the impulse that creates it.
Evans: You couldn't direct your life that way. You'd go batty very quickly I think— if you tried to direct your life intellectually. At least, that’s what I've found.
Copyright © 1965, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved