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THE FENDER-RHODES PIANO
An non-acoustic instrumental approach was the development in 1965 of the Fender Rhodes Piano. Bill Evans released in 1970 his first ‘electric’ album From Left To Right, well before Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul worked on it. Bill Evans playing the electric piano is rather controversial. Some purists disapprove Bill Evans playing the Fender Rhodes piano, whereas he should deny his recognisable touch on the acoustic grand piano with his characteristic chord voicings. On the album he swaps effortlessly back and forth from the acoustic piano to the Fender Rhodes electric piano.
The second release was The Bill Evans Album in 1971, where he plays all his own compositions on acoustic and electric piano with Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morrell on drums. He released the albums Living Time (1972) with George Russell and Symbiosis (1974) with Claus Ogerman where he plays long passages on electric piano. New Conversations (1978) is the third and final recording of his overdubbed solo albums with monologues, dialogues and trialogues alternating between the acoustic and electric piano. Finally on some titles of the duo album Intuition (1978) with Eddie Gomez he plays the Fender Rhodes.
Bill Evans: “I don’t think too much about the electronic thing, except that it’s kind of fun to have it as an alternate voice. Like, I’ve used the Fender- Rhodes piano on a couple of records. I don’t really look on it as a piano— merely an alternate keyboard instrument, that offers a certain kind of sound that’s appropriate sometimes. I find that it’s kind of a refreshing auxiliary to the piano— but I don’t need it, you know. I guess it’s for other people to judge how effective it’s been on my records; I enjoyed it, anyway. I don’t enjoy spending a lot of time with the electric piano. I mean, if I play it for a period of time, then I quickly tire of it, and I want to get back to the acoustic piano.”
(From an interview with Bill Evans in 1972 by Les Tomkins (1930). He is an English journalist, singer and jazz aficionado. He was a freelance contributor of magazines like Melody Maker, Jazz News and Crescendo, interviewing jazz musicians, especially famous Americans visiting England).
From an interview in Jazzwise (Sept 2012) by Brian Priestly from 1972, when Bill Evans was playing one of his Ronnie Scott’s residencies. Brian about the Bill Evans Album (Columbia): “ I notice, playing the new album through very quickly, there’s quite a bit of electric piano.” Bill Evans: “Yeah. It’s kinda fun. I would like to straighten out the fact, because the public certainly loves the sound of the electric piano.
And I think with a lot of the electronic music coming into the scene, and electronic instruments versus acoustic instruments, there’s a lot of confusion about the inherent quality of the electronic instrument as opposed to the acoustic instrument. That is, the Fender bass as opposed to the acoustic bass, and the electric piano as opposed to the acoustic piano, and so forth. I might begin by saying I have only positive feelings about the electric piano, or I wouldn’t have used it. But it, to me, is not even really a piano.
You know, it’ s constructed differently, and it has a really different sound. It functions something like a piano, and it’s fun to use in certain places, and very appropriate and has certain qualities that the piano doesn’t have. But to speak of it in the same breath as having the scope or the depth, as a medium of musical expression, as the acoustic piano would be to make a real big mistake. I think possibly electronic instruments will eventually become very musical and maybe have a greater scope.
But so many people ask me – it seems like, every interview, someone asks me about electric piano, because I’ve used it a few times now and maybe they’re curious and all. But I would like to straighten it out that, from my professional viewpoint, it’s still a very limited instrument. And I think it’s tragic that, because of the fact that acoustic pianos are in miserable condition in many clubs, pianists are forced to use electric pianos. And that the sound is novel and consequently. in the pop field and so on, the electronic instruments are very popular, and it tends to confuse the issue. So that’s all I have to say about that.”
(Brian Priestley, Jazzwise)
“I am interested in other keyboard sounds, but basically I’m an acoustic pianist. I’ve been happy to use the Fender-Rhodes to add a little colour to certain performances but only as an adjunct, he later explained. It’s hard for people to recognize individuals on an electric piano. Because it is an electric instrument, it’s hard for a personality to come through”.
A small part of an interview with Bill Evans by Chris Albertson on the stage of The Jazz Set, 1971.
BILL EVANS PREFERENCE FOR A PARTICULAR BRAND ACOUSTICAL PIANO
|Jazz pianist don’t have many choices when it comes to the piano that’s at a particular gig. There’s a stereotype that says Yamaha is the jazz piano, but there are plenty of Steinway and Baldwin jazz pianists, with some Bsendorfer mixed-in. Bill Evans to Franois Postif (Jazz Hot): “The trumpet player plays on his trumpet, the bassist on his bass, they reach such a knowledge of their own instrument as they are married with them. The pianist however, he discovers every night a new fiance with whom he must come to an agreement”|
“Many clubs pay more attention to their trash cans than the house piano, but I’ve been lucky in this respect and most of the instruments I use are acceptable, though not always in tune.”
Most pianists favor certain grand pianos. Glenn Gould preferred the Steinway and Sviatoslav Richter the Yahama. Oscar Peterson changed from Baldwin to Bsendorfer. Keith Jarrett played the Steinway, Erroll Garner and Dave Brubeck a Baldwin and Bill Evans would became from 1978 a Baldwin artist. The Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz broadcastings for the NPR were recorded in the Baldwin Piano Showroom in New York, where Bill Evans played also a Baldwin grand.
After he was discharged from the army he moved in 1955 to New York City where he rented an appartment and purchased a Knabe grandpiano. The Knabe piano is known in some circles as “a singer’s piano” because of its somewhat more mellow tone than many of its contemporaries. After he left Nenette in 1978 he moved to a Fort Lee apartment where he installed his Chickering and Sons baby grand piano in the living room, which his girlfriend Elaine gave to him. A Baldwin on loan from the company stayed at Nenette’s home. Chickering and Sons was an American piano manufacturer located in Boston, known for producing award winning instruments of superb quality and design.
The company was founded in 1823 by Jonas Chickering and continued to make pianos until 1983. Chickering introduce the one piece, cast iron plate to support the greater string tension of larger grand pianos. It was the largest piano manufacturer in the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century but was surpassed in the 1860s by Steinway. The Chickering name continues to be applied to new pianos today as a brand name of the Baldwin piano. Regarding the Bill Evans comments, his own piano at home was indeed this Chickering grand. He played a bunch of pianos, he recorded Conversations with Myself on a Steinway, another “overdubbing” CD New Conversations was recorded on a Baldwin grand and You Must Believe In Spring on a Yamaha grand.
It was at a time when Yamaha appeared with a slightly longer key length, which facilitated leverage and improved action when playing higher, deeper in towards the fallboard, on the keyboard. Bill Evans experienced moderate swelling in his hands and fingers due to his chronic hepatitis, and the Yamaha with the slightly longer key was less painful to play for him (Look at the cover of the album Symbiosis).
Bill Evans was a left-handed pianist, who had large hands, able to cover easily four-note chords. When playing the piano, his fingers seem hardly move: an impressive economy of performing to serve a perfect legato. At one point in the late 1960s, he was forced to perform at the Village Vanguard playing piano with his left hand alone because he had numbed his right arm by shooting heroin and hit a nerve and temporarily lost the use of his right hand. People has seen performances at which he played all his solo with his left hand. Without a glance at the keyboard you could not hear that he was playing only left-handed.
He reflects also on how his finger position had changed over the years: “When I was younger, I played with flat fingers. when we possess a lot of vitality and we have a lot of energy, this method of playing permits you to use your energy effectively. As I matured technically I noticed that my fingers curled when I played. Is is a more natural position which was used by Mozart, Haydn and especially Bach.” (Interview with Franois Postif, Les Grandes Interviews de Jazz Hot, 1989)
Do you prefer any particular brand of piano?
“I love the old Steinway action. The Steinway action for the last ten or twelve years however has been a great problem. In fact, I tend to avoid those pianos – the newer Steinways. I prefer a Yamaha to a new Steinway. I don’t like an extremely heavy action and I don’t like a slow action. However, you find that if you play any kind of action for a while, unless it’s really really sluggish or something, you just begin to compensate and get used to it and learn how to handle it. But ideally, I like the old Steinways.”
Do you request particular pianos when you play, or do you have to deal with whatever you find?
“We always try to set things up in front. The instructions are that unless it is a proven Steinway, preferably an older proven Steinway, then I would rather have a Yamaha. Of course, in some places, like in Europe, you get German Steinways, which are marvelous. And once I had a wonderful Bsendorfer in London for a few weeks – one of those really large ones with the nine extra keys at the bottom. The action is really different on the Bsendorfer, but you get used to it soon. It’s a more direct kind of feeling – an even feeling; whereas in the old Steinway there is a little break in the action.
If you push the keys half way down on the Steinway, there’s just a little catch in it, and then it goes the rest of the way down. Anyway, that’s where I stand on preferences now. Of course you sometimes hit other make pianos that are good, but they are few and far between. You can get a good Mason & Hamlin; or possibly a good Baldwin, but I don’t think they work as well – especially the big ones.”
(Interview by Michael Spector, Contemporary Keyboard, March 1977).
A small part of an interview with Bill Evans by Mike Hennessey behind the stage at Ronnie Scotts, London. Bill was having something to eat between the sets when this conversation took place. Bill was booked a week before Oscar Peterson at the Scott Club. They managed to get Bsendorfer to bring in Oscars piano a week earlier so that Bill could have the use of it. He was really very delighted withe such fine instrument (Courtesy of Mike Hennessey’s brother Brian).
From an interview with Ronnie Scott (BBC) about another Bill Evans performance in his club.
How did you enjoy your recent engagement at Ronnie Scott’s?
Very much. Especially after the Bsendorfer arrived; the first couple of nights, the piano wasn’t really awful, but it wasn’t tops. But the Bsendorfer is the best of the best, a sure pleasure to work on. In fact, because the piano offered so much more, I found myself, as I was playing, suddenly wanting to try new things— and things I’d fallen into doing the same way, I wanted to do differently. It just served to remind me how much the instrument has to do with the development of how you play music, and how you express it, you know.
The limitations of many an instrument cause me not to get into as much as I could get into. On so many instruments the action is so badly regulated that you’re constantly just being very touchy about trying to make everything sound, if you strike it soft. Not to mention tone— trying to get all the individual tones correct. On a really good piano, you can go from a whisper to a very full sound, and count on whatever you’re doing to speak through the instrument. The Bsendorfer is great— I’d love to have one in my home. (Les Tomkins, 1976)
Francis Paudras from France was a close friend of Bill Evans when visiting Europe. Paudras wrote “The Dance of the Infidels”, a moving jazz memoir about Bud Powell. Bill Evans wrote the foreword and coda of the book. The book served as the basis for Bertrand Tavernier’s film Round Midnight (1986). The second to last concert of the Bill Evans Trio in France was in 1979 in Paris at the Espace Cardin, resulting in two albums: “Bill Evans – Paris Concert, Edition One and Two”, released by Elektra Musician, remastered by Blue Note in 2001. Owner of the Espace was the French fashion designer Pierre Cardin, who opened it in 1970.
The last letter that Francis Paudras received from Bill was from February 16, 1980. It was the request of Bill to send an accompanying letter to the reputable Maison Hanlet (since 1866), the supplier of the Steinway piano. “Dear Steinway friends, I don’t even know your names, the piano has very inspired me, thanks to you. I must confess that I’ve rarely played such a beautiful instrument!” Alexandre Hanlet was so surprised, he had never had such a warm letter, nor from Rubinstein, Richter or Michelangeli.
THE STEINWAY CD 318 OF GLENN GOULD
Bill Evans was Gould’s favourite jazz pianist. His record collection contained seven Evans albums as Conversations with Myself, Symbiosis and Further Conversations with Myself. Glenn Gould’s obsessive quest for the perfect piano was a particular instrument, a Steinway concert grand, known as unit number CD 318 (C to signify its special status as having been put aside for the use of Steinway concert artists, and D, denoting it as the largest that Steinway built). Glenn Gould’s beloved Steinway piano that he used exclusively after 1960 is the instrument that Bill Evans used when he recorded the album Conversations with Myself in 1963 in Webster Hall.
“By the way, Bill is playing Glenn Gould’s piano on that album, the one Glenn kept in New York. When I sent Glenn the test pressing and told him that it was done on his piano, he said “I’ll kill him!” (Gene Lees)
Soon after Bill’s recording Gould finished his recording of Bach’s “D major Partita” on this beloved piano nearby in the the old CBS East 30th Street Studio in Manhattan, a deconsecrated Greek Orthodox church with peerless acoustics. This studio was the venue for many classic sessions including Glenn Gould’s two recordings of the Goldberg Variations. One of the first recordings happened in 1947 when Robert Casadesus recorded a Mozart piano concerto. Miles Davis with Bill Evans on piano recorded here in 1959 the famous Kind of Blue album.
The grand piano CD 318 came to Ottawa’s Library and Archives Canada auditorium in 1983 and was used for the concerts of the Ottawa International Jazz Festival. In the years as the Jazz Festival has staged concerts here, several jazz pianists have played on this CD 318, like Fred Hersch and Brad Mehldau. At a jazz festival concert in 2004, pianist Bill Mays, joked: “I sat down to play a bebop piece on the CD 318 and Bach’s F-major Invention came out.” Nowadays it resides in the Canadian Museum of Civilization and no pianist is playing this famous grand piano.
After hearing a concert of Bill Evans on a Yamaha piano Glenn Gould, the most loyal of Steinway advocates, switched to a Yamaha piano, because the clarity and touch of Evans’ piano style resembled his own. Bill Evans was also impressed by a number of late Yamaha’s and chose on request of Max Gordon a new Yamaha house piano for the Village Vanguard.
THE SPACE-AGE PIANO
Bill Evans unveils his “Space-Age Piano” at the Cafe Au Go Go, 152 Bleeckerstreet in Greenwich Village. Bill Evans came by his new piano, one of only three in existence, during a tour of Sweden. While playing at the Golden Circle Club in Stockholm, he gave the first public performance on a specially designed “space-age” ten-foot concert grand made by George Bolin. Bolin is a Swedish cabinetmaker turned acoustician who has also built guitars for Andres Segovia.
The Bolin piano, a gift from its maker, is strong on innovations. It is made of welded steel, rather than the usual cast iron. The metal frame is mounted so that it can be tilted to provide the best acoustic environment. The sound-board, built after eight years of research, enhances dynamics and offering the player firmer control and a greater balance between keyboard registers. The new piano represents Mr. Bolin’s ultimate desire, to produce an instrument that gives the pianist the sensation of playing “directly on the the strings” as a guitarist would. Bill Evans says: “It is one of the most unbelievable instruments I’ve ever played. I fell in love with it the first time I touched it.” (Robert Shelton in The New York Times, October 12, 1964).
Pianist Roger Evans states on his site the following anecdote about New York born pianist Barbara Holmquest of Swedish descent (1921-2010): “Barbara Holmquests lifelong fascination with pianos led to her performance at New Yorks Town Hall on a new type of instrument which could be ‘tuned’ to a halls acoustics. The piano, created by Georg Bolin of Stockholm, had a striking Scandinavian modern design and was featured at the New York 1964 Worlds Fair. While the piano was in New York, jazz great Bill Evans was performing on it at the Village Vanguard until Holmquests October recital. When the day came to move it to Town Hall, Evans refused to let it go, so Holmquest and her agent had to get a Court Order to get possession of the now cigarette-burned instrument for her evening performance.”
Dan Morgenstern: In this quest, Evans will be aided by what he describes as “one of the most thrilling things that have happened in my career”—a very special gift. At the Golden Circle in Stockholm, Evans performed on a piano built on new structural principles: a 10-foot concert grand designed and built by George Bolin, master cabinetmaker to the Royal Swedish Court. “It was the first public performance on the new piano,” Evans said. “One night, Mr. Bolin came in to hear me and expressed respect for my work, and before I knew it, my wife had negotiated with his representatives for me to be able to use the only such piano in the United States-—it was on exhibit at the Swedish Embassy—for my engagement at the Au Go Go. It is one of only three, I think, in existence in the world right now. And after the engagement, the piano will be mine as a gift. Mr. Bolin dedicated it to me.
“It came at a perfect time, because I didn’t have a piano of my own just then. It is a marvelous instrument— probably the first basic advance in piano building in some 150 years. The metal frame and strings are suspended and attached to the wooden frame by inverted screws, and the sound gets a kind of airy, free feeling that I haven’t found in any other piano. Before this, Bolin was famous as a guitar maker—he made instruments for Segovia and people like that. To build an instrument like this, a man has to be as much of a genius as a great musician.” Such gifts are not given lightly and are an indication of the stature of the recipient as well as of the giver. Whatever music Bill Evans will make on his new piano, one can be certain that it will do honor to the highest standards of the art and craft of music.
Dan Morgenstern, Down Beat, October 1964.
The Bulgarian born pianist Alexis Weissenberg (1929–2012) recorded Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimental and Stravinsky’s Petrushka on the Bolin grand piano. The piano was also used by the Swedish band ABBA to record a number of their hit singles including Mamma Mia, Dancing Queen and Waterloo.
BILL EVANS PIANO TUNER: EUGENE “GENE” MANFRINI
Eugene “Gene” Manfrini (1928-2008), musician and piano expert was Bill Evans piano tuner. Manfrini was blinded in a medical accident when he was 3. At 5, he was enrolled at the Institute for the Education of the Blind, and in his 14 years there learned the piano, violin and organ and became an honor student. Manfrini entered the College, undertaking “general studies,” which the College required in order to prove himself. In February 1949, he was officially admitted. After graduating, Manfrini went back to his high school, took up piano tuning and built his tuning and rebuilding business, later counting clients such as Irving Berlin, Arthur Rubenstein, RCA, Columbia Recording, Frank Loesser, Harold Arlen, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans and Julliard.
Nenette Zazzara, Bill’s wife, remembers the blind piano tuner: “He would come on the subway and Bill or I would fetch him and lead him up the staircase of our small house in Riverdale. Often he would come when Bill was on the road as Bill would call ahead and ask me to have him tune so the piano would be ready to go when he returned. I spoke to him about how well he got around and how he could blind navigate through our house to the piano studio.”
(Personal information from Nenette Zazzara)
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