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  My rather old web site on Bill Evans can be found at


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.

Bill’s Approach to Standards

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.


  Click on image to purchase.

Attention to Form

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.”


General Information


A short but thorough Bill Evans biography on the web


This song


The Bill Evans Transcription book, “Bill Evans Plays Standards,” Hal Leonard, ISBN 0-7935-7046-8 can be purchased from the following online dealers:



“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


Movie 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:


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:

·        Standards Real Book - Chuck Sher

·        The Real Little Ultimate Jazz Fake Book - Hal Leonard

·        The Ultimate Fake Book - Hal Leonard

·        The Ultimate Jazz Fake Book - Hal Leonard - Herb Wong

·        The Real Jazz Standards Fake Book - Hal Leonard

·        The Best Chord Changes For The Most Requested Standards - Frank Mantooth

·        Champ Champagne 'Real Chord Changes' series - Hal Leonard

·        Just Jazz Real Book - Warner Bros

·        Pocket Changes Volume 1

·        [Old] Real Book Vol. 2

·        [Old] Real Book Vol. 3

·        [Old] Vocal Real Book

·        Satanic Changes

Attached are two lead sheet versions, the most recent from Chuck Sher and an early “illegal” version from a fake book published closer to the composition date.

“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.”

Highlights of This Performance

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. 



  1. Measure 0: The two pick-up eighth notes are played staccato, quite unlike a ballad would normally be played.  The following glissando of A to the F sharp in the melody in Measure 1 is in sharp contrast. This glissando is repeated later and then again in the penultimate and final measures, becoming one of several musical “signatures” of this performance.
  2. Measure 1: The tonic-diminished resolving to tonic harmony in the two half notes in measure 1 is an enhancement to the tune and is not in the original sheet music or in contemporary jazz performances. This little mini progression is often used in tunes like “Misty” and “Spring Is Here” (also performed many times by Bill Evans). [Demonstrate these melodies in same key.]  You can listen to an MP3 file of “Spring Is Here” with the link below.,,3021415,00.html


  1. Measure 5-6: Left hand answers melody in right hand forming start of counterpoint relationship.
  2. Measure 7-8: Second two beats of measure 7 and first two of measure 8 using descending third of melody on single voice bass line.
  3. Measure 8: Freely played 2/4-measure to further emphasize the   rhapsodic initial approach. (See above)
  4. Measures 9-11: Continuation of left hand counterpoint idea.
  5. Measure 12 Abrupt change from rubato intro to monophonic, “locked hands” approach in slow tempo and softer dynamic.


  1. Measure 15-18: Gradual moving away from locked approach to freer left hand, still in restrained tempo and dynamic.
  2. Measure 19: Sudden change back to locked approach.
  3. Measure 21: Melody with no accompaniment in jazz vein, just to make sure you know you are listening to a jazz player.


  1. Measure 20 New melody in left hand.


  1. Measure 22: Second half of measure to start of next.  Locked fourths style to add variety and off-the-beat color.
  2. Measure 27: Completion of first chorus resolving into 4-measure modulation to new key instead of expected G major.
  3. Measure 32: Start of 2-voice jazz solo with typical major seventh swapping with 6th in left hand. Beautiful relaxed swinging jazz feel, an Evans trademark.
  4. Measure 42: Silent downbeat signifying invisible bass player in Bill’s head.
  5. Measure 45-46: Idea stated in first 2 beats of 45 used again in first 2 beats of measure 46 and again in measure 49 in example of rhythmic displacement and a kind of “forced” musical motif.
  6. Measure 48-49: Harmonic displacement started in 48, done again in rhythmic augmentation in 49.
  7. Measure 60-62 Restating a more basic motif, almost returning to the original melody after a lengthy jazz bebop excursion.
  8. Measure 64-67 Gradual, almost imperceptible, modulation back to G major.
  9. Measure 68: Repeating some of the previous bebop material from the E-flat section, now in G, playing in octaves for emphasis helps to make the key change smooth and seamless.
  10. Measures: 76-96 Great example of an extended chordal,“locked hands”, version of the melody.  This major Bill Evans trademark is a more aggressive and rhythmic iteration of a style developed by George Shearing almost 20 years earlier.  Shearing used the style in a relaxed, slow-moving way (with no rhythmic displacements) whereas Bill developed it to an almost automatic way of playing, harmonizing his most complex, bebop improvised lines.  Bill maintains this very difficult manner of playing far into the next 8-measure section, through very complex melodic material and with rhythmic displacements. He continues this breath-taking intensity all the way to measure 96 where he moves to a right hand harmonization with a monophonic off beat figure in the bass line, taking us to measure 100, a two measure modulation (this time) back to E-flat major.  It’s fascinating that Bill did this extemporaneously rather than working it out formally in advance. (See on-line analysis tool, excerpt version)
  11. Measure 102 the start of the next chorus features a fantastic, single line, melodic development section in the upper register while using his famous “stab” or “flicked” accompanying chords in the left hand, adding yet another exciting method to grab the listener.  This Bill Evans trademark was best described by friend Michael Harris as he saw bill play close to a hundred times. “Bill’s hands were actually flicking the chords, were actually flicking chords, like a frog's tongue catching a fly, at once rapid and gentle, seeming to merely brush the tops of the keys as I watched, and yet creating perfect rhythmic concision.”
  12. Measures 105-108 Bill adds rhythmic displacement to the “flicked” chords, creating rhythmic ambiguity for the listener.
  13. Measure 109 moves into solo walking quarter-note tenths in the right hand alone, just to let everyone know where the time is.
  14. Measure 112-114 - a sort of “hick-up” example of left hand rhythmic displacement. Any pianist would need fantastic hand independence to pull this off.
  15. Measure 127- 130 - a sequenced bebop lick leading to a rhythmically displaced tag of the original melody. (See on-line analysis tool.)
  16. Measure 134 plays a melodic harmonization that almost signals the end the tune but surprise - it’s just another 4-bar modulation back to another chorus in G major, which begins, on measure 138.  This time it could be a final chorus as he sticks closer to the melody. (See on-line analysis tool.)


  1. Measure 144 - the bass takes the spotlight as he strikes a low B, then unexpectedly (like he decided at the last minute) moves down to the cellar to a low B flat for a harmony of E7/Bb or E7 flat five, moving to a more out-of-tempo rhapsodic style with the start of the second eight.
  2. Measure 155: Mirrors measure 12, an abrupt, softer slower, “pull-the-plug” re-statement of the song signifying the end is coming. An almost verbatim 8 measure re-capitulation simply repeating the ending figure, each time slowly building melodically and harmonically to a high point at measure 173 and a sort of “musical sigh” in the second half of 173 to the first half of measure 174. (See on-line analysis tool.)
  3. Measure 174-177:  “False” ending on the subdominant chord of F sharp major, a B11 chord, a very common thing to do in jazz. The second half of measure 174 is the melody a half step lower in the key of F sharp at the start of measure 175 – a real surprise.
  4. Measure 178: last measure. A very subtle statement of that glissando melody back to tonic or I chord harmony, an F sharp major seventh chord, ending the tune.  


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: