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Bill Charlap on Bill Evans

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Bill Charlap Next week, pianist Bill Charlap will begin a series of concerts at New York's 92d Street Y that will show off his versatility and depth. Bill will back singers Ernie Andrews and Freddy Cole (July 17), play an evening of Richard Rodgers songs (July 19), dual with fellow pianist Dick Hyman (July 24), play in a funk-gospel hard-bop style for an Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers tribute (July 25) and lead the Count Basie Orchestra (July 26), featuring tenor saxophonist Frank Wess.

But on Wednesday (July 18), Bill will be taking on the music of pianist Bill Evans. He will be joined by his wife and pianist Renee Rosnes (pronounced REEN-ie) and other artists. Bill, like many jazz fans, has long been fascinated by Evans from a musician's perspective. Which means Bill is looking at Evans' works from a technical standpoint, figuring what makes them tick and giving interpretations his own spin.

During my conversation with Bill earlier this week, we talked about Bill Evans and why the pianist remains both an enigma and a revelation:

JazzWax: Is this the first time that you and Renee have played a Bill Evans tribute together?

Bill Charlap: Yes. Both Renee and I will be featured on piano, but there will be other musicians in quartet and quintet ensembles: Steve Nelson on vibes, Greg Gisbert on trumpet Dave Stryker on guitar, Scott Colley on bass and Joe La Barbera on drums.

JW: Given that the subject is Evans, is there risk of instrumental clutter and overload?

BC: I don't think so. Bill's music will ring through clearly. The full ensemble will be just a portion of the concert. I'll be playing solo piano as well as duets with Renee and Dave Stryker. The major focus will be Bill Evans, the composer, and our interpretations of his original works.

JW: Who is writing the arrangements?

BC: On the solo, trio and quartet performances, there are no arrangements. For the quintet, Renee is writing arrangements and so am I.

JW: Which Evans' originals will be performed?

BC: We'll be performing upward of 14 songs, including Waltz for Debby, Very Early, Orbit, Only Child, Story Line, My Bells, Funkallero, 34 Skidoo, Fun Ride and Your Story.

JW: Is Evans' music daunting to interpret, given his cult-like status among audiences?

BC: To be honest, the romantic view of Bill as a brooding artist is important but it really doesn't have a place in this concert. There will certainly be a Bill Evans flavor and mood to what we're performing, but we're not attempting to sound exactly like Bill. That would be foolish. We're interpreting his original music, and hopefully the audience will have a new, spiritual awareness of his songwriting skills.

JW: How do you explain the duality of Evans—his musical intensity and his obvious fondness for the common man?

BC: Bill reached so far into himself—becoming deeply introspective, if you will—that an opposite outward result occurred. By reaching so deep inside, his music wound up connecting with a wide number of people on a human level. In other words, the music doesn't end up being introspective at all. Bill always kept his audience in mind, no matter what he played.

JW: From your perspective as a musician, how does Evans' music fare?

BC: Bill's music is incredibly challenging and technical. Bill's mind, on an intellectual level, was incredibly deep. As we developed a program for this concert, I found that the strict discipline of Bill's playing was almost like lifting intellectual weights.

JW: How so?

BC: Bill's process of exploring his art wakes up parts of your mind, and you feel yourself grow artistically stronger. With Bill's music, you discover as a musician there are things you grapple with as an improviser that are different than with other artists. Bill was so rich and roving, harmonically, that you are pulled in and you develop new musical and intellectual muscles.

JW: Any revelations?

BC: One of the things about Bill that I feel doesn't get as much focus is that Bill was an incredible linear improviser.

JW: How so?

BC: You come to realize that he's a complete bebop pianist. He's hard-driving and swinging. Bud Powell, Red Garland, Lennie Tristano and Sonny Clark are all in his playing. You also heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in there. Yet Bill managed to find his own way despite these influences by using linear improvisation. He really had a profound grasp of the jazz piano.

JW: In what way?

BC: For all of the focus on the brooding sides of Evans—which are beautiful and important—you see in his repertory that he's a bebop player, for whom single notes are important. The notes he chooses in solos reveal this. When you write down solos of artists, it's singular. It's a voice. With Bill, you certainly can hear his influences, but he also has his own language in his chord voicings and as an improviser.

JW: How does this language play out?

BC: You hear a cognizance of the jazz piano's history and of Bill Evans, the composer, which influences everything he plays, whether it's another composer's music or he's improvising a line. Whatever Bill plays is meticulously related to the harmony and bass line and artistic freedom. Horace Silver is the same way. You can always hear Horace Silver, the composer, and how he improvises in everything he plays. Silver was a major composer.

JW: Do you love hearing Evans' compositions as you're playing them?

BC: Of course. That's one of the great appeals. For example, on a song like Orbit, it's not very busy, melodically, but it's driven by the melody. At the same time, I'm never striving to sound exactly like Bill. 

JW: What is Evans doing technically that is so appealing?

BC: I'm not sure. His love for waltzes is part of it, but so is his swinging time and love of musical drama. I'm touched by all of it. People talk about Bill's chord voicings and space and all of those things. Not playing a lot certainly requires enormous discipline. But Bill also could play a lot, especially later in life.

JW: What was the bottom line for Evans as an artist?

BC: Tony Bennett told me a story about Bill. Near the end of Bill's life, he called Tony from the road. He told Tony, “Truth and beauty is all that matter. Truth and beauty." Somehow, that says it all about Bill. That's his so-called magic sauce. Even when you see Bill play in clips or on DVDs, you immediately recognize his complete devotion to the music. He was always about the music first, not about showing off. All of his efforts were built from the inside out, like Beethoven. It's not piano music with piano tricks. It's about the composer speaking, first and foremost.

JW: Were you too young to see Evans live or meet him?

BC: Yes. I was 13 when Bill died in 1980. But I had the good fortune to study with Jack Reilly in high school. Reilly is perhaps the greatest Bill Evans scholar. Jack was able to show me that Bill developed his language meticulously and contrapuntally. He had complete command of what's possible in modulating sequences, a complete grasp of musical key relationships. 

JW: And yet there's a certain populism about Evans and his work, a common bond with the average person that's rather surprising given his exalted position in jazz.

BC: Yes, I agree. Bill's music is truly humble. But he also was very clear on his intellectual process and place. When you hear Bill talk about himself, he goes out of his way to tell you he wasn't a natural.

JW: In what way?

BC: Bill had to toil really hard to become Bill Evans. His musical language was built with enormous care, a process that became a discipline. He has a complete composer's language. And yet, despite this language, he always sounds like Bill. Everything with him developed from the inside, from Teddy Wilson and Nat Cole to his connection to the great European classical composers, who were a big part of his world.

JW: Which ones?

BC: You hear the Impressionists, like Debussy and Ravel, but you also hear the classicism of Brahms. For example, Brahms' Intermezzo in A Major is a tapestry that's so tightly wrought and surely had an influence on Bill. As a composer, Bill was such a strong song architect of songs that you know his “buildings" never could fall.

JW: What are you six favorite Bill Evans albums?

BC: I love them all, but if you're pinning me down, here goes...
  • Portrait in Jazz (1959)
  • Green Dolphin Street (1959)
  • Interplay (1962)
  • Alone (1968)
  • The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album (1975) and Together Again (1976)
  • The Paris Concert, Editions One and Two (1979)


JazzWax notes: For a list of performances next week and to order tickets to 92Y's Jazz in July concert series in New York, go here.

JazzWax tracks: Not long ago, Bill Charlap recorded a superb album with his mom, vocalist Sandy Stewart, called Love Is Here to Stay. You'll find it here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Bill Charlap accompanying Tony Bennett on The Way You Look Tonight...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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