Ligeti's Etudes fit the Bill

Milestone Record’s extraordinary 8 CD set Bill Evans Trio the last waltz’ was recorded on eight successive evenings at Keystone Korner in North Beach, San Francisco in September 1980. Just thirty-two different compositions are featured in the nine hours of music, and nine of those are Bill Evans (right) originals.

This is literally music making on the brink. Miles Davis’ Nardis makes five obsessive appearances. Several of these include epic piano solos, and the longest Nardis cut lasts for seven seconds short of twenty minutes. Evans knew he was on the edge, and he wanted to leave his definitive version of Nardis before he went over.

The final Keystone session was on September 8th 1980. Seven days later Evans was dead from the effects of cocaine dependency.

It is a mark of the importance of Bill Evans that Gyorgy Ligeti cited him as one of the influences on his seminal Etudes for solo piano. The other eclectic influences credited by Ligeti are traditional African music, the player-piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow, and the jazz piano writing of Thelonious Monk.

The classical connection comes as no surprise. Recalling his childhood in New Jersey Evans said: “I can remember, for instance, the 78 album of Petruschka which I got early on in high school as a Christmas present – a requested Christmas present. And just about wearing it out, learning it. That was the kind of music that at that time I hadn’t been exposed to, and it was just a tremendous experience to get into that piece. I remember first hearing some of Milhaud’s polytonality and actually a piece that he may not think too much of – it was an early piece called Suite Provençale – which opened me up to certain things.”

Evans went on to a musical scholarship at Southeastern Louisiana College fifty miles outside New Orleans. His studies there included sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven, and works by Debussy, Schumann, Rachmaninov, Ravel Gershwin (the Piano Concerto in F), Milhaud, Khachaturian and Villa-Lobos. His senior recital included a group of Dmitry Kabalevsky’s recently published Preludes. Literature was another passion. He was something of an authority on Thomas Hardy, and his heroes included the visionary18th century artist and poet William Blake.

Bill Evans carried heavy emotional baggage through his 51 years. He played on Miles Davies’ iconoclastic Kind of Blue, and then pretty well defined the jazz trio format. Without a doubt his two greatest trio recordings are Waltz for Debby and Sunday at the Village Vanguard, both recorded live in one day in June 1961 at Seventh Avenue South, New York. These are two of the greatest jazz CD’s ever. No, they are two of the greatest CD’s ever. The trio plays as a totally integrated unit underpinned by the masterly bass playing of Scott LaFaro. Ten days after the recording LaFaro was dead, killed in an automobile smash.

If you don’t know the two Village Vanguard recordings I urge you to buy them. Forget about the fact that this is jazz. This is intimate chamber music making that is up there with the greatest trios like the Beaux Arts and Florestan. These are two recording classics, and they should be in everyone’s collection.

Following LeFaro’s tragically early death Evans spent years trying to put another dream trio together. In those years he produced some fine music, but never attained the heights of his work with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. The solo recordings from this period are worth exploring, including his pioneering work with over-dubbing.

During the 1970’s Bill Evans creative flame burnt less brightly. Many recordings from these years seem to be no more than re-workings of his own compositions and standards. But towards the end of the 70’s a renewed energy and drive emerged, fuelled by working with the younger bass and drums team of Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera.

Those final Keystone sessions revitalise Bill Evans classics like Letter to Evan, Turn Out the Stars, and Waltz for Debby. But that is where we joined this overgrown path…..

Bill Evans would have been seventy-six on August 16th.


Bill Evans' recorded legacy is considerable. The Fantasy catalogue is the best starting point for exploration. The written literature is also comprehensive. Peter Pettinger's 'Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings" is the definitive biography. Keith Shadwick's "Bill Evans, Everything Happens To Me - a musical biography" is more sumptuously produced, but is less scholarly in its approach.

For further exploration of jazz piano as a musical form Robert L. Doerschuk's 'The Giants of Jazz Piano' and Len Lyons' 'The Great Jazz Pianists' are a good starting point.

If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to Improvisation


Pliable said…
Musicircus goes a lot further down the overgrown path of Bill Evans and Ligeti -click through and read it.
Anonymous said…
Love your Evans/Improv pieces

Hi,I knew Bill Evans since 1952 and in 1990 I wrote "THE HARMONY OF BILL EVANS" an in-depth analysis of his compositions. A volume two is finished(1995), but not yet available!!

My essay, " THE EDUCATION OF THE JAZZ MUSICIAN" can be found on the Bbillevans, under the pseudonym, SEAN PETRAHN. It states my thesis on Bill's legacy and jazz music in general. You may find it interesting.

Keep up the great work of blogging!!
Pliable said…
Another fascinating overgrown path that this post opened up. Follow this link to the web site of Bill Evans composer son Evan Evans - who of course was the inspiration for the sublime Letter to Evan.
Anonymous said…
Thank you so much for your fine blog and it's entry about Bill Evans,
which we have just linked right near the top of our main page.

It's still amazing how much impact Evans still has on classical musicians
-- those willing to listen to any "jazz" -- and yet unsurprising. As you
know, Evans redefined European classical influences in jazz, had a degree
in it, and was himself a considerable classical pianist, and continued to
play through Bach, Rachmaninov, Bartok, Chopin and others' works all
though his short life.

Thanks again.

Jan Stevens, webmaster
Unknown said…
Bill was also friendly with Glenn Gould who referred to him admiringly as the Scriabin of jazz. "Wondrous Strange" (I think) mentions that they would talk by phone frequently, late at night. How cool is that?!

From a Gould bulletin board (

"In fact, on a CBC radio program of "August Arts National" series,
dated August 26, 1977, GG played [Evans'] *Symbiosis*.

There is a piece of attached [commentary] on the package of
the disc (Verve 314 523 381-2) saying:

Bill Evans Symbiosis
". . . what tremendous impression it has made
upon me. Symbiosis is very much [my] kind of
music. I have been listening [to it] almost
obsessively. . . . [It has] had a particular influence
upon me over the years."
---Legendary classical-pianist Glenn Gould."

Symbiosis, was recorded in 1974, with an orchestra arranged and conducted (featuring compositions) by Claus Ogerman. At points it has a Latin feel; its slow movement, however, is stunning and stands toe-to-toe with Evans’ other emotive high watermarks. I think the cd is out-of-print now (it appeared briefly in the mid-90s as a German import), but you can download it directly from Verve: While there, why not check out Bill’s criminally underrated “From Left to Right,” too?

Thanks for making the connections, Bob; you are really broadening my ears. Best, Tim

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