Play the video, and listen carefully!
Wait. Have you played the video yet? And if you did, were you listening? I mean really listening? If not, go back and absorb it very carefully with your ears. The man at the piano is Bill Evans. This was recorded in 1964 with fellow Bill Evans Trio members Chuck Israels (bass) and Larry Bunker (drums).
I chose this particular tune to hip my readers to Bill because, even though he didn't write the beautiful ballad "My Foolish Heart", I can think of no one who played it with more feeling. I've tried, and I might get some Evans-esque licks in there, but the study of his harmonic sense and his touch are the subject of volumes. So relaxed, so laid back, so romantic, so impressionist...I've always thought that his music sounds like a Monet looks. Introspective, lush, exposing his soul for the world to hear.
Bill died in 1980, at the age of 51....before I really even knew that jazz existed. I first heard him on that classic of all classic jazz albums, "Kind of Blue" with Miles Davis and that all-star roundup of players. I was immediately drawn to that foggy, soft touch. Listening to him, you just know that he truly cares about that approach to pressing a key so as not to be too harsh, yet not too subdued....the perfect middle ground. Watch the video and pay attention to his hands....note that they don't stray far from one another. He really likes the center of the piano and he gets so much feeling and line from hands that seem to hardly move at all. Small subtle moves in the left hand that are getting the chord structure across, while evoking some dissonance (clash amongst pitches)....the right hand stays close and really disciplined, only occasionally throwing down a lick that borders on "busy". His note choice is astounding yet whimsical all at once.
Nerdy, perhaps, to the point of cool. The glasses, the slick hair. Always hunched over at the piano.....a nod to Beethoven? Always surrounded by the best players. As a bassist myself, I've met most of the bassists of Bill Evans....Chuck Israels, Eddie Gomez, and Marc Johnson. If I could travel back in time, I would plant myself at the Village Vanguard on June 25, 1961 listening to Bill, Scott LaFaro (his bassist, who tragically died 10 days later in a car wreck at age 25), and Paul Motian on drums. Far too young to have met Bill, I feel as if I know him through the hours I have spent listening to albums like "Sunday at the Village Vanguard". He's been gone for over 30 years now, but he's there for you to enjoy, too, through a huge discography, YouTube videos, reminiscences of others, etc. Seek out and savor my favorite pianist, Bill Evans.
David James teaches piano and bass lessons at his studio in Wichita, KS .... aptly named the David James Piano and Bass Studio. "Like" his studio page on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, check out his website at www.djpianobass.com.
Yes, I let inexperienced children play my piano. These days I find it more fascinating than annoying…this activity used to elicit the “Don’t touch my piano, it is not a toy!” response. But I will now stop what I am doing and listen to see what the curiosity of a child may produce. It is often interesting, and as long as they are not beating the instrument in a destructive way, where’s the harm?
Sometimes I will interject when they happen upon something that sounds familiar and I will say “Hey, that sounds like (insert song title here)….can you figure out the rest of it?” As they attempt to do so, they are creating a spatial relationship through their successes and failures. Can you imagine what kind of lubricant that is for the brain?
I can remember along about 5th grade, I made my first attempt at listening to something on the radio and playing it. Does anyone recall “Music Box Dancer” by Frank Mills? Amazingly, it was a piano solo backed by strings and light rock band that made it to #3 on the charts in April of 1979. It was very popular, and I could not help but sit down and plink out my own condensed version of it. I remember I played it at my 5th grade recognition before heading off to middle school. This was certainly an instance where taking my head out of the music book and using my brain was beneficial. I know I had already dabbled with straying from what I read on the page and improvised little embellishments that seemed to sound “better” to me. But this first go at doing the whole thing “by ear” served me well….in fact; it continues to work for me 32 years later as my favorite aspect of music is experimenting at the piano.
Prepare yourself mentally to hear shocking things that make no sense to you, and approach them with an open mind. The world was not exactly prepared for Igor Stravinsky or Charlie Parker, either. So don’t throw a cymbal, or start a riot (see video below) when you encounter the weirdness that will likely ensue.
About the Author
David James teaches piano and bass lessons at his studio...aptly named David James Piano and Bass Studio in Wichita, KS.