The Universal Mind of Bill Evans

“I believe that all people are in possession of what might be called a universal musical mind. Any true music speaks with this universal mind to the universal mind in all people. The understanding that results will vary insofar as people have or have not been conditioned to the various styles of music in which the universal mind speak. Consequently often some effort and exposure is necessary in order to understand some of the music coming from a different period or a different culture than that to which the listener has been conditioned. I do not agree that the layman’s opinion is less of a valid judgement of music than that of the professional musician. In fact I would often rely more on the judgement of a sensitive layman than that of a professional since the professional because of his constant involvement with the mechanics of music must fight to preserve the naivety that the layman already possesses.”

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When I started listening to jazz I knew nothing about jazz. I wasn’t up on music theory and I didn’t know the reasons why the players played what they played. I wasn’t sure I could even offer an opinion of what I might like or dislike. I am now aware that Bill Evans followed Duke Ellington in bringing Classical chords into jazz music, particularly influenced by the work of Debussy and Ravel. I have some sense of why Bill Evans was such an important artist. The feeling of being lost in the middle of a terrifyingly new world is something most people will have experienced at some stage in their lives. Usually this is coupled with the fear of exposing your own ignorance by offering true opinions about new and bewildering music. Bill Evans showed me that with a little effort I could offer valid opinions of what I like or dislike. The key words from the above quotation are “sensitive layman”. Evans is not suggesting that anyone with ears is as capable of critiquing a piece of music as well as an expert. We now, however, live in an age where information is available to all who wish to seek it out. To develop our own “universal mind” we must be open to new experiences. We must engage our critical faculties and accept it when we know nothing about a subject.

There are two albums that helped me appreciate what I was missing in not listening to jazz. The first is The Tony Bennett Bill Evans Album which features some of Bennett’s finest vocal work along with a close and intimate performance from Evans. It opens with ‘Young and Foolish’, setting the dreamy, lost love feeling of the album. The power of Bennett’s voice is the first thing that hits you, closely followed by the perfect accompaniment of Evans. ‘When In Rome’ brings a little humour to the table but even then, it is humour in a whistling past the graveyard kind of way. When Tony Bennett recorded with Bill Evans he was deliberately making a move towards doing his purest jazz album to date. This was partially as a result of losing his recording contract and his music falling out of favour with the charts. As is said during Clint Eastwood’s fine documentary on his life:


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“In the second act of Tony Bennett’s career when rock ‘n’ roll came along and swept him out of the limelight, at least in the United States, and he lost his major record deal, I think it freed him to explore things he might not have done otherwise. Under Columbia they insisted on doing pop records and nothing else and so he was able to team up with Bill Evans, the great jazz pianist, and show that he was more serious than people had realised perhaps.”

Tony Bennett, himself, said of the sessions in that same documentary:

“I loved it. He told me, he said leave all your cronies home and let’s just… we recorded in San Francisco with just the engineer and his producer Helen Keane, who was his manager…it was unbelievable. With each song, before we did it, in an hour and fifteen minutes he would figure out everything he wanted to play for me on it and then he’d say “okay I’m ready let’s try one” and do one. And that went on but it was, it was what the public had never heard because what he was playing was unbelievable…He’d such an understanding of, a high level of you know all the greatest musicians, Miles Davis… everybody they just ran to him. They wanted to perform with him.”

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The second album that opened up jazz to me is The Best of Chet Baker Sings, which I imagine has converted many people. Vocal jazz is an easy and rewarding path to loving the genre and Chet Baker’s vocal work is consistently sublime. There is a tragic and bleak quality to his voice that sets his work apart from other singers, helped no doubt by the untimely circumstances of his death. In a similar way to Nick Drake, Chet Baker defines a certain kind of loneliness that makes us feel simultaneously better and worse for experiencing it ourselves. The Best of Chet Baker Sings is probably the best single collection of Chet Baker’s work, even accepting that he recorded many fine instrumentals through his career. Some of the highlights include ‘But Not For Me’, which defines Chet Baker’s way of transforming an otherwise happy tune into a paean to misery and perhaps his most gloriously miserable track ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)’ is an unfathomably gorgeous vocal performance wrapped around a delicate production.

What I learned from both of these albums is that jazz has far more appealing sides to it than at first expected. My impression of the genre was narrow minded and conjured up by some elitist boogeyman that would never allow me entry. In reality here were two albums that let me see a side of the genre that was warm and welcoming. I was surprised that it wasn’t just the vocals I now craved, but everything else too, seeking out every instrumental recorded by Chet Baker, where once only his voice would do. What surprised me most was how much emotion could be expressed through an instrumental. Listen to say ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ from Evans’ masterpiece Portrait In Jazz and be staggered by the depth of feeling. This music can alter your emotional state as much as any vocals. It is this that most appeals to me about jazz; that it is in some meaningful way a pure distillation of our conscious and unconscious selves. It is this ability for any great talent to relate to any given human being that Evans’ speaks of when he discusses his universal mind. If a person is open to the experience then any greatartist should be able to move them.

[youtube[youtube id=”kbxtYqA6ypM” align=”center” autoplay=”no” maxwidth=”702"]Many of my early favourites came through Bill Evans. Miles Davis was obviously featured with Kind of Blue and Cannonball Adderley’s Know What I Mean, both featuring Bill Evans. I quickly warmed to Herbie Hancock’s, loving Empyrean Isles. Thelonious Monk’s not-quite-sloppy playing endeared me to his work, particularly his 1961 album with John Coltrane. On the vocal side of things I adored the work of Mel Torme, particularly It’s a Blue World. ‘The Velvet Fog’ may be the smoothest voice out there. I also became enamoured for the first time with Frank Sinatra whose concept albums In The Wee Small Hours and Only The Lonely became favourites.

[youtube i[youtube id=”Nv2GgV34qIg” align=”center” autoplay=”no” maxwidth=”702"] favourite Bill Evans recording is the appropriately titled Everybody Digs Bill Evans. The album features perhaps Evans’ most beautiful song ‘Peace Piece’ which originally started as an interpretation of ‘Some Other Time’ and transformed into something new. Speaking of emotional resonance, ‘Peace Piece’ might be the peak. It was no surprise that perhaps the greatest actor of his generation Philip Seymour Hoffman featured it in his film Jack Goes Boating. There is something meditative about the performance that speaks to the time in between realizing that you love someone and acting on it. There is some fear in there but excitement too. The album is mostly plaintive in mood,with many glum and beautiful songs, including several solo performances. There is something truly universal about this album, appealing to many who would not otherwise consider listening to jazz.

I have learned a lot from jazz, in particular my capacity to like and dislike a sometimes overpowering genre. To learn that there is something universal in all people willing to make a little effort is pleasing in the extreme. Discovering that it was more my problem of narrow mindedness than it was an inherent snobbery of the genre made my exploring possible. To uncover a treasure trove of new and exciting music that you had previously disregarded is a beautiful thing. The barrier to entry is an artificial one and something which everyone should consider removing at the first chance.

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