Bill Evans - swinging for Miles


Bill Evans can’t wait to play in Scotland. St Andrews, Carnoustie – the names trip off his tongue in a way that can only convey genuine enthusiasm. The fact that these are the golf courses forming the leisure part of the trip that brings the former Miles Davis and Mahavishnu Orchestra saxophonist here to guest with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra this weekend shouldn’t create any doubt that this is a serious musical engagement.


Before Evans even reached the rehearsal stage with SNJO he had put hours and hours of preparation into playing the part of featured soloist on SNJO director’s Tommy Smith adaptation of the Beauty and the Beast folk tale, which forms a double header in this weekend’s concerts with Smith’s epic, Biblically-inspired Torah.


“It’s an awesome piece of music,” says Evans down the line from his New York home, “and it’s not the sort of part that you can throw on the music stand and just play. It’s really demanding and I’ve been listening to the computer version of the score at various times of the day, just to get acclimatised to it. The ideal is to get relaxed enough with the chart so that you can express yourself on the improvised passages but you have to try and stay focused on the piece overall at the same time.”


As Evans has worked on his part section by section, emails have been winging their way to Smith’s computer that are perhaps best not repeated here. But the names the composer is being called are only in jest and Evans is genuinely looking forward to playing what is actually a fairly heavily revised version of the work that SNJO premiered with Dave Liebman as soloist back in 2001.


The link with Liebman is fitting since it was Liebman who recommended Evans to Miles Davis when Evans was just out of music college in 1980. The fact that he was the second musician called Bill Evans to play with Davis has been a source both of mirth and frustration ever since.


“I was going to be a pianist originally, so if I’d kept that up and still played with Miles it might have been even more confusing,” says Evans, whose royalties for his own work have often been paid to his late namesake’s estate over the years. “In fact, from the time I started piano lessons at the age of six, I was going to be a jazz piano player right up to the day, six years later, that my mother took me to see the local high school big band.”


Evans’ father, also Bill, was a keen big band fan, so the youngster grew up listening to Benny Goodman, Woody Herman and Stan Kenton albums. The high school concert was expected to confirm his ambitions of playing piano on similar albums or least in similar bands. But when they arrived, the pianist was playing a horrible old upright almost in the wings, struggling to be heard, and when the band’s star soloist, a Charlie Parker devotee, stood up in front of the band and took his first alto saxophone solo, young Bill changed his mind.


“I took one look at that guy and said, Nah, I don’t want to be inaudible and invisible, I want to do tha-a-a-t,” he says. “I got a clarinet the next week and about six months later I was playing the saxophone too.”


It was shortly afterwards, while he and his father were browsing in a record shop, that he became aware of his illustrious namesake and only about nine years later that he followed him into the Miles Davis band.


“I was only twenty-one when I joined Miles,” he says, “and it was quite a leap because the year before I was playing a college recital and then there I was playing with Miles at the Royal Festival Hall and all those well-known venues around the world. But the good thing was, I got to know Miles before we actually played a gig. It wasn’t a baptism of fire because I’d gone over to his house, after Dave Liebman recommended me, and we played together in his basement. Then we went into the studio and I got to hang out with him a lot around New York before going on the road.”


On at least one of these hanging out sessions Davis was a reluctant participant. The trumpeter was making his famous The Man with the Horn-era comeback after an extended sabbatical and was putting a new band together. Evans had already recommended bassist Marcus Miller, an exact contemporary who went on to guide Davis’s later career, and suggested that he and Davis went to a club to check out drummer Billy Cobham’s then-guitarist, Mike Stern.


“Miles did not want to go to that gig,” says Evans emphatically. “But I somehow persuaded him and he said, This guy better be good. Stern was on fire, really exciting, and Miles listened and said, He’s okay, I suppose. But he hired him all the same and told me, I’ll keep asking you to recommend musicians until you screw up. Then when I suggested he listen to John Scofield, he hired him too and said, ‘That’s three for three’ in that way that let you know you were right but warned you not to get let your standards slip.”


The biggest lesson that Evans took from playing with Davis was “be yourself.” As someone who had the luxury of playing whatever he heard in his head and knowing that people would listen, this was easy for Davis to say. But it’s proved sound advice to Evans, whose own output has investigated rap, hip hop and more conventional jazz directions as well as finding a successful communion between bluegrass and jazz in his Soulgrass project with banjo sorcerer Bela Fleck, mandolinist Sam Bush and dobro master Jerry Douglas.


Oddly, perhaps, given that orchestral jazz was such a catalyst in his transition from piano to saxophone, big bands hadn’t featured on Evans’ professional CV until he was invited to play and record with the WDR Big Band in Germany two years ago. A second engagement with the German orchestra in February, added to his admiration for Tommy Smith’s writing and all-round jazz talents, has whetted his appetite for this weekend’s dates with SNJO.


“When you’ve been used to working with a quintet at most, it’s a very different situation, standing there in front of so many players,” he says. “But especially when the band’s good – and knowing Tommy, I’m sure the Scottish guys will be really on top of the music – when you play with all that power behind you, it’s really exciting. I’m really looking forward to it and I know that Tommy’s playing the solo part on the other piece but I really hope we get a chance to play together – on the bandstand as well as the golf course.”


From The Herald, May 19, 2011.


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