Musical Elements of Bill Evans
Playing “On A Clear Day”
The following was written as a “hand-out” for a lecture I presented at the 4th annual Bill Evans Festival held at Bill’s alma mater, Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, LA, USA in February 2005. Non-musicians were invited to attend the class so I tried to steer away from being too technical. That is one of the beauties of Bill’s music. The listener doesn’t need any special musical knowledge to understand these amazing works of art. This analysis of Bill’s music includes the multimedia applications linked at the end of this web page. Users will need the Macromedia Flash Player to use them. You need to purchase the recordings of Bill’s that are mentioned. Purchasing the Hal Leonard publications of transcriptions is necessary for all musicians who want to learn more about Bill’s music. The multimedia materials used in this series of web pages is only intended as an additional enhancement of the learning experience. All sound excerpts included herein are below the quality of the retail recordings and are intended for educational use only. Win Hinkle, May 2005. email firstname.lastname@example.org My rather old web site on Bill Evans can be found at http://www.selu.edu/34skid.
I chose the session topic “Do Transcriptions Really Tell the Story” after learning of so many new collections of Bill Evans transcriptions on the market and my own frustration in attempting to recreate the art of Bill Evans from those transcriptions alone. I put together a CD with all the tunes transcribed in the publication for easy reference. I am a mere bass player, not a jazz pianist, but I do encourage my wife, who can play the instrument, to read as many of these transcriptions as she has the time for because there is something very exciting about hearing the notes that Bill played in your own living room, on a decent piano. After listening to a lot of the recordings and to my wife (who listens to Bill) try to play the transcriptions, I realized that there is just as much (perhaps even more) musical material not captured by traditional music notation. I thought it would be fun as well as educational to point out as many of these “non-written” items as possible in the hope that others and I could understand Bill’s playing and persona a little more.
Will looking at Bill’s music with this musical microscope help you play like Bill Evans? I doubt it and that should not even be considered. What Bill did was so special and individual to Bill it will never be duplicated by another artist. This session should help you understand at least part of the thinking that went on in Bill’s mind before and during the performance of a tune and might enable more concentration in your own avenues of personal musical expression.
Did Bill practice or arrange his performances? No, not in the sense that a song is “arranged” (written in music notation) for a band, or solo piano. Bill had ways of playing solo piano that differed from his trio performing but it wasn’t something that could be called a formal plan. Bill’s left hand playing in solo performances often mirrored the way he performed in trio, leaving lots of space for the bassist, even though not physically present. But, just as in solo performances, Bill’s left hand made a lot of important counterpoint to what was going on in the right hand in solo performances. It behaved similarly in trio performances, often adding a third and fourth line of melodic interest along with the top melody and the bass player’s line.
Bill also had a magnificent touch on the instrument. He had the ability to play the same voicing of a chord in a variety of ways, and bring out a specific spectrum according to his needs at the time. Try playing the voicing at measure 12 and when it repeats at measure 155 on your piano and see if you can duplicate the “sound” Bill makes. Odds are it will take quite a bit of practice to get to Bill’s level.
A lot of Bill Evans listeners would rather listen to Bill play standards rather than his own compositions as they are familiar territory and would seem easier to grasp musically than his own compositions. (This is not necessarily true but the study of Bill’s compositions is beyond the scope of this exercise.) There were many occasions where Bill was asked to play standards that he would not ordinarily have chosen on their own merits. Often standards were requested by producers at recording sessions and Bill rendered them (perhaps in spite of his own misgivings) in surprisingly musical ways. I tend to think that this recording was fairly typical for Bill. The tune was popular at the time and it did hold some interest for him. The transcription book I used is from the “Bill Evans Plays Standards” cited below. This publication says that the recording date was Sept 10, 1968, the Bill Evans Album titled “Bill Evans Alone” on Verve records. All of the tunes on “Alone” utilized alternating key centers.
Probably the single unique gift Bill brought to the standard song was a strict adherence and enhancement of the form, number of measures, sections, etc. The most identifiable of these enhancements was the use of modulation. Modulation not just in a musical theoretical sense, but in playing the song with a scheme involving whole choruses, or playing the first half and the second half of each chorus in closely related keys, usually a third relationship as in this song. It is notable that today’s jazz improvisers do this very rarely if at all – probably because it takes a prodigious amount of talent and knowledge of one’s chosen instrument to do this successfully. Blues, yes. Simple tunes like “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” and “Mack the Knife?” Sure. But a more complex, through-composed song written for a musical or movie takes a thorough knowledge of the tune and the composer’s intent to maintain the form. Did Bill consult the composer? Of course not. He listened to the tune with a critical ear, investigating its form, and the way the composer used melodic material to best advantage. The “stock” or original key of “On A Clear Day” is G. Bill’s contrasting key choice is E-flat. It is simply amazing how Bill wove the melodic material together in these two keys. He did it in such a way as to make the listener almost think that alternating keys was the composer’s intention.
In another tune on this album, “Here’s That Rainy Day” Bill used an approach with 3 key centers, G, B, and E-flat, probably an idea derived from John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Bill recorded and toured with the famous “Kind of Blue” Miles Davis quintet. He later used the same 3-key center scheme for the 1970’s recording of the “Theme From M.A.S.H.”
A short but thorough Bill Evans biography on the web
The Bill Evans Transcription book, “Bill Evans Plays Standards,” Hal Leonard, ISBN 0-7935-7046-8 can be purchased from the following online dealers: http://www.musicexpert.com/1700405.html?dm=10093 http://www.pianospot.com/1702516.html
“On a Clear Day” was composed 1960 By Burton Lane, music and Alan Jay Lerner, lyrics and performed first on the Broadway stage in October 1965, and later in a Paramount movie version in 1970 (sung by Barbara Streisand.)
Broadway Musical Information
Other songs by Burton Lane used by jazz musicians: “How About You,” “That Old Devil Moon,” “Too Late Now,” “You’re My Thrill,” “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life.” Most of Burton Lane’s songs and biographical information can be found on the web at: http://www.songwritershalloffame.org/discog_song_list.asp?exhibitId=71
Hear a vocal recording sung with this link:
“On a Clear Day” in lead sheet format appears in the following currently available jazz fake books:
“On A Clear Day” can be played as a ballad as originally recorded or in the medium tempo, usually favored by jazz players. Bill has it both ways here. The length of the tune is 32, 34, 36, or 38 measures, depending upon how many times the tag figure is repeated. Jazzers usually play it twice for a 32 bar tune. The main theme of the melody is repeated at the beginning of each regular 8-measure phrase in the first statement and recapitulation. The tune is attractive to jazz players because of its free quality and ambiguous length of chorus. The melodic material is simple and repetitive, yet it has intriguing intervals.
In “American Popular Song,” Alec Wilder says the following about this song. “It is a very lyrical, singing song which has the kind of strength and character that needs no harmonic support to satisfy the ear. …One of its most graceful qualities comes from the fact that its ideas are so lyrically interrelated that one is not conscious of the transition from one section to another.” (p. 342) “
Bill was always attracted to lyrical tunes and this quality was also integral to many of his own compositions. Good examples would be “Waltz for Debby,” “Very Early,” “The Two Lonely People,” “Laurie,” and “Turn Out The Stars.”
To the best of my knowledge, this is the only time Bill recorded this song and it is notable that it is part of a solo piano collection. Ambiguities in the song length may have prevented worthy trio performances, should it have been attempted.
I’m sure if you keep listening you will discover even more items that could be listed. There seems to be something new in Bill’s playing every time I listen.
You can download this document as an MS Word file here:
The analysis/study tool with the tune slowed down by 50 percent is found here:
The same analysis tool with 31 presets to see and hear the highlights above is here:
Photos of BEJF4 will be posted here: