Where there’s a Bill, there’s a way

Saxophonist Bill Evans performs at the Ashdod jazz festival

 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At the age of 59, one might expect Bill Evans to be something of a product of his pop-rock times. Many jazz musicians of a similar vintage, chosen improvisational art form notwithstanding, imbibed the sounds and vibes of the likes of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley and Led Zeppelin, alongside the gems of such jazz titans as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.
But the veteran American jazz reed man, who is the star turn at the upcoming Super Jazz Ashdod Festival, which will take place in the coastal town on November 26 to 30, says he missed out on all the above commercial sounds.
“In the 1960s and ‘70s I was listening to jazz,” he declares, adding that his infant ears were first opened up by classical music. “I started onpiano when I was six. My father was an accomplished pianist, although an amateur. So he’d show me classical pieces on piano by ear.”
Evans Sr. also pointed the way to his son’s eventual career path.
“My father was into jazz,” Evans recalls. “He was into big bands, like [band leaders] Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman. And my aunt was into [pianist] Ahmad Jamal and [saxophonist] Stan Getz – all the jazz giants of the ’50s.”
The youngster was soon pointed in the direction of his current instrument.
“I wanted to play saxophone after I heard the school jazz band play when I was 10. I told my mother, ‘I want to learn saxophone and stand up and take a solo at the front of the band, like those guys,’” he recounts.
His imagination had been stoked by the guys on the school bandstand, and he quickly began listening to discs by some of the greats of the genre such as Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt and John Coltrane.
The energies put out by that triad of saxophonists and their contemporaries kept the teenager glued to his record player.
“I think that when it comes to jazz at certain levels, you have to be completely absorbed in it. That’s what I did,” he says.
Evans eventually got around to listening to the commercial music of the day, by virtue of the artists he played with as his jazz career burgeoned.
“I didn’t listen to rock music until after I played with Miles Davis and I was playing with [British guitarist] John McLaughlin’s band,” he continues.
The latter refers to the successful fusion ensemble Mahavishnu Orchestra, which incorporated jazz, rock and Indian music. Evans gradually understood what it was that his peers had been raving about.
“I’d say to people, ‘Hey! Have you heard that Genesis record or that Beatles record?’ And they’d say, ‘Where have you been for the last 15 years?’ I started buying records and tapes of all those rock bands, but I wasn’t ready for it before that. I needed to go at my own pace,” he explains.
Mind you, when it came to carving out his own jazz niche, he wasted little time. By the time he was 22, he had teamed up with Miles Davis, a legend in his own time.
“It was pretty amazing for me to play with Miles, and it set the course for my career. It was such a great honor to play with him and to get to know him to the level that I did. I’ve spoken to Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, and they say the same thing.”
It was, in many ways, a curious musical union.
“My relationship with him was particularly interesting. Miles was coming out of retirement [in the early 1980s], and I’d go to see him every day. It was just me and Miles talking about music or walking around New York discussing what we were going to do,” he recounts.
Evans helped to gather what became Davis’s comeback group.
“I got [bass guitarist] Marcus Miller and [guitarist] John Scofield into the band. That was all me because Miles trusted my judgment. I was lucky enough to get to know him away from the bandstand, too. We just got along,” he says.
That, despite the perceived differences between them.
“I’m this white guy from the Midwest, never did drugs, likes to exercise and that sort of thing. And here I am with Miles who, at the time, was doing drugs and coming out of retirement. It was a really crazy combination which seemed to work,” he says.
That may have provided the catalyst for Evans’s career, but he has done things his own way for the past three-plus decades, releasing more than 20 albums as leader and playing with a host of jazz luminaries, such as bassist Ron Carter, Hancock and trumpeter Randy Brecker. He has also mixed it with a bunch of stellar pop and rock acts, including Mick Jagger, Ian Anderson and The Allman Brothers.
Since his childhood “pure jazz” days, Evans has branched out into all kinds of musical directions and today meanders seamlessly between straight-ahead jazz, blues, and even ethnically flavored sounds. He combines keyboard work with his sax blowing and often enhances piano playing slots with some impressive blues vocals. Evans is clearly a man of many parts.
“I’m always inspired to do something that’s different, but that’s okay. That’s part of the curse,” he states, adding that it is very much a matter of just going with the flow rather than as the result of a planned schedule.
“Music chooses me. I can only write and play music that I am inspired to play – the kind of music that makes me want to play or write. The things that have been interesting to me are trying something new and getting excited about it,” he says.
It’s a fair bet that the Ashdod audiences will get pretty excited by Evans’s performances later this week.
The Super Jazz Ashdod Festival takes place November 26 to 30. For tickets and more information:(08) 864- 8585; ashow.co.il