The Universal Mind of Bill Evans

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I’ve known about Bill Evans a long time, have many if not most of his records, and always preferred his amazing early work for Riverside.  I found the later albums on Fantasy and Verve more conservative and less appealing—kind of like the 1981 Gould Goldberg Variations compared with the stunning 1955 version.  Or the early vs. the later poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson, which I studied in college.

I tried to interview Evans once, in NYC at the Village Vanguard.  He walked slowly, straight ahead and muttered something like “can’t do that right now”  kind of zombie-like……like many ex-heroin addicts, he chose methadone but then started other drugs like coke.  The same could be said of Dexter Gordon, another jazz giant.

I was amazed to discover a TV show called “The Universal Mind of Bill Evans”.  It was from a 1966 Steve Allen show, and Evans was interviewed by his brother, Harry Evans.  Evans has his hair slicked back, wears a coat and tie, and has junkie’s teeth—some of them are missing.

But what he says shows him as a thinking man’s intellectual, an utter original.  He talks about how classical music in Bach and Mozart’s time was more like jazz—it had large open spaces for the performer to improvise, something that was lost later as composers filled up the whole sheet with written notes.  Evans also states at one point that the amateur has a better sense of music than the professional, since the former retains a naivete that the latter loses when constantly involved with music.  Bill also emphasizes that jazz is a process of making music, not style,  a creative process of spontaneity.  That’s probably why the great New Yorker jazz poet Whitney Balliet called jazz “the sound of surprise”.

It’s an amazing program and I urge you to check it out.  I never heard Bill Evans speak and this documentary offers a rare glimpse into his creative conception — and his amazing piano playing.  Also great is Steve Allen’s insights into music.