Bill Evans is one of the most respected pianists ever in the history of jazz. His influence is undeniable and is touted as such by many of today’s top pianists from Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock to Bill Charlap and Brad Mehldau. Although Evans was a pivotal member of and contributor to Miles Davis’s group in the recording of Davis’ landmark album Kind of Blue, he was equally, if not more influential as a leader himself with his many trios. His albums Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby, both recorded the same Sunday at the Village Vanguard back in 1961 are widely regarded as the best live trio albums ever recorded. So what is it that made Evans such a unique and gifted musician? Some of the answers can be found in the documentary The Universal Mind of Bill Evans.
Filmed in 1966, the heart of the documentary is a one on one conversation that Evans has with his brother Harry Evans, who happened to be a music teacher. Part conversation on ideas and approaches to formulating solos, part straightforward instructional, the documentary is all enlightening. Evans is very clear and concise about his musical approach and really succeeds in drawing the viewer in to glimpse his genius.
The film begins with a voice-over by Evans in which he states one of his philosophy’s about music, which is a direct correlation to Carl Jung’s collective unconsciousness theory:
“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 only insofar as people have or have not been conditioned to the various styles of music in which the universal mind speaks.”
After these opening words by Evans himself and after Allen’s somewhat long-winded introduction, Evans explains his philosophy that musical improvisation isn’t all that new at all. Evans insinuates that music was improvised in classical period music, however given that the only means of recording music back then was in writing, the result is that the music lost it’s improvisational forms.
Evans also defines jazz as eloquently as it has ever been defined:
“Jazz is not so much a style as a process of making music. It’s the process of making one minute’s music in one minute’s time.”
The dialogue then turns towards Evans’ thoughts on the creative process as it pertains to jazz. The educator in Evans also shines through in the film with him playing examples of improvising on a simple theme both melodically and harmonically all the while exemplifying how one can build a solo.
One of the best moments is near the end of the film when Evans’ brother, Harry, tells the story of when Bill stayed a week with him and he hounded Bill to show him some advanced chords and harmonies. Evans apparently declined and although at the time Harry was upset, it wasn’t long before he realized that making such discoveries on your own is one of the sweetest pleasures of music and one in which is pivotal in developing a musicians own sound and voice.
This documentary is essential viewing for an jazz enthusiast.