Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings
by Peter Pettinger
Biographer Peter Pettinger is a pianist himself. Not a jazz musician, but a concert pianist, one who admired Bill Evans greatly and brought to his writing of him a special ability to articulate the nuances of the man’s music. Some would say—and did—that the author’s considerable emphasis on the academic and technical aspects of Evans’s discography came at the expense of a deeper examination of the brilliant artist’s painful and tumultuous life. Fair enough. But for a jazz reader interested in knowing more about the music of one of the most influential jazz pianists in the history of the music, and how Bill Evans’s musical concepts were formed and developed, Pettinger presents a valuable volume.
Nor does he in any way gloss over the personal side of his subject’s life, at the center of which, of course, was his 20-year addiction to drugs.
Bill Evans was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1929. He was classically trained in piano and studied at Southeastern Louisiana University. After moving to New York in 1955, he worked with bandleader and musical theorist George Russell. He joined the Miles Davis Sextet in 1958, awkward, a little uncomfortable, the only white guy in the band, a fact that made him the object of regular heavy ribbing by his bandmates. His time with Miles was profoundly influential on Evans, both musically and personally. While the band was experimenting with modal jazz, Evans began his own experimentation—with heroin. His use of it continued, along with that of methadone and cocaine, for the rest of his consequentially abbreviated life, which ended at the age of just 51 in 1980.
After leaving Miles, Evans’s preferred musical unit was the piano trio, in which he worked almost exclusively for the rest of his life, and which garners most of the author’s attention.
Pettinger, a Brit, never met Bill Evans so lacked the opportunity to draw out of him details of his life and times that might intrigue and even titillate us. Instead, he relied on the pianist’s recorded works and personal history, the result a rewardingly illuminating portrait of the man and his music. Even jazz listeners who consider themselves fans of Evans are likely to discover aspects of him and his life that offer a greater understanding of both. And the author’s personal knowledge of music and of piano playing enable him to share with the reader a greater appreciation of Evans’s pianistic, harmonic and melodic brilliance. To Pettinger’s credit, he does this in a perfectly accessible way.
How My Heart Sings is not the whole story of Bill Evans, nor likely has one yet been written. It is, though, a good start and a good part of his story and should probably be considered required reading for admiring listeners of his music.
Title: Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings
Author: Peter Pettinger
Publisher: Yale University Press, 1998
ISBN: 0300071930, 9780300071931
Length: 346 pages