Listen Magazine Feature
Fitting Jazz into a Classical Box
By Jed Distler
LAST SPRING I visited my old clarinetist friend David Krakauer’s improvisation class at the Manhattan School of Music to observe his students analyze and perform improvised solos they had transcribed from recordings. One clever pianist accomplished his assignment with help from a computer program that could alter tempos without changing the music’s pitch. Apparently the music could also notate itself, albeit with unpredictable results.
I only wish I had these toys some three decades ago during my own student years, when I practiced classical by day, played jazz gigs at night, and listened endlessly to records by Art Tatum and Bill Evans, two of the most influential and revered jazz pianists of their time and beyond. I particularly loved Evans’ unaccompanied solo recording of the Johnny Burke/Jimmy van Heusen standard “Here’s That Rainy Day.” Many critics see a link between Evans’ influential harmonic language and the French Impressionists. To my mind, Evans’ subtle voice leading, rhythmic displacements and skillful keyboard textures tilt more toward Schumann and Brahms. Perhaps it’s the fluid, organic fusion of classical and jazz elements that grabbed me.
In any event, I was struggling to learn “Rainy Day” by ear, and realized that I’d gain better accuracy if I simply bit the bullet and laboriously wrote down what I heard, bar by bar, note by note. Nearly a year, two broken tape decks, at least seven worn out cassettes and umpteen revisions later, I made my way down the steps to the Village Vanguard’s legendary basement to hear Evans. He was on fire, playing with passion and overt virtuosity, galvanized by Philly Joe Jones’ aggressive drumming. After the last amazing set, I gingerly handed Evans my transcription. He graciously accepted it, gave me his contact information, and that was that.
While several Evans books were on the market at that time, few (if any) complete and accurate Tatum solos could be found in sheet music format. That changed in 1979, when the editor of the publishing giant Music Sales decided that an inexperienced, 23-year-old freelance piano player was just the guy to unlock this extraordinary virtuoso’s kitchen secrets for all the world to sightread.
“After all, the music is so wonderful, and what better way to expose classical audiences to the riches of jazz?”
Using my trusty reel-to-reel deck, I taped the selections at 7 1/2 inches per second and played them back half-speed, at 3 3/4, in order to articulate the pianist’s lightning-fast runs and arpeggios. When the audio quality of the original recordings made it difficult to hear certain passages clearly, I attempted to play them myself (easier said than done!), gradually grasping the style, always bearing in mind Tatum’s large hand span. When necessary, I pilfered a similar passage from another Tatum performance of the same song. Years later, when the noted classical pianist Steven Mayer commissioned me to transcribe eleven Tatum recordings for concert use (he eventually recorded them for ASV, and later again for Naxos), he went a little further, specifically requesting that I interpolate certain “licks” from alternate readings into the versions we had agreed upon.
Somehow Evans learned of the Tatum book project and invited me to do the same with his own solos for what would become Bill Evans 4 (TRO Publications). Naturally, I jumped at the chance to work with my hero. TRO’s indefatigable editor, Judy Bell, gave me corrected proofs in Evans’ hand, which I still own. I discovered that Evans’ recommendations sometimes contradicted the recordings, and called him at his Fort Lee, New Jersey apartment, some three months before his untimely death. For two hours we went through three songs, bar by bar, me at the piano, phone nestled between my ear and shoulder. “Okay, Bill, you wrote this chord (plonk), but this (plonk) is what you play. Which do you prefer? (plonk) or (plonk)?”
No less care and attention to detail informed my work on Decca’s Conversations with Bill Evans 17 years later. The idea of a classical artist playing Evans resonated with the label’s producers, and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, a longtime jazz aficionado and Evans fan, was intrigued by the idea. “I got hold of the ‘Turn Out The Stars’ transcription,” says Thibaudet, “and started including it on my recitals as an encore. It never failed to go over well with the audience. One of Bill’s old college music professors came to see me backstage in Louisiana, and was thrilled that his former pupil’s music was being played by a classical pianist. After all, the music is so wonderful, and what better way to expose classical audiences to the riches of jazz?”
Producer Eric Calvi and I pored through Evans’ entire recorded output to come up with a list of selections that might lend themselves well to a classical pianist with a genuine feeling for the idiom—including, as it happened, “Here’s That Rainy Day.” With Thibaudet, we discussed each song point by point, carefully outlining how I would go about transcribing and arranging each song. We wound up with eight essentially note-for-note reproductions transcribed from Evans’ unaccompanied solos, while four were afforded relatively freer treatment, with portions from different recordings of the same tune combined, expanded, or pared down. Reducing Evans’ three overdubbed piano tours-deforce on Alex North’s “Love Theme from Spartacus” was no picnic, especially those extensive, delicate rapid runs at the end.
Indeed, all my hard work went out the window when Thibaudet suddenly began inventing his own lines during the recording session. “It wasn’t planned,” Thibaudet recalls. “I just did it on the spur of the moment, playing all kinds of things based on what Bill originally played.” I wonder if Jean-Yves’ impromptu, in-between renditions of “Tea for Two” and “Take Five” repose in Decca’s vaults. Surely Bill Evans’ gentle spirit hovered over the sessions, nodding in approval.
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.