The Universal Mind of Bill Evans

billuniversalJon Brantingham has just put a very good essay up at The Art of Composition. It’s an appraisal of an extended interview with Bill Evans, conducted by his brother Harry in 1966.

The “Universal Mind” thing may sound a bit hippyish, but it just refers to the notion that there is a part of all of us, musicians and listeners alike, that instinctively recognises sincere music.

So learning to make “good music” is about mastering the elements that go together to appeal to that mysterious squodgy part of the subconscious.

For instance, a certain voicing, chord progression, melodic structure, rhythm or instrumentation has an association determined by both the natural characteristics of sound and cultural influences. A musician has to know that it’s a Lydian dominant chord on the II, a minor II-V-I, a descending major 6th arpeggio figure used with variation as a structural motif, an accent on the and-of-two or trumpet and tenor in sixths. And be able to play those things.

On a more profound level, people respond to honesty in music – it’s far more compelling if it feels like genuine communication, rather than a politician’s soundbite.


The practical crux of Bill’s approach is to honestly admit that the problem is large and we are not. He stresses the importance of approaching learning to improvise (or compose) methodically, piece by digestible piece, rather than just poorly approximating the whole thing.

It’s heartening to observe that Bill acknowledged early on that he didn’t have the natural talent some did. Things didn’t come easily to him, but he actually regarded this limitation as an advantage – it meant he was forced to analyse and build something thorough and solid.

He also admits something that chimes with my experience. Performers have a baseline “professional creativity” – the real “magic” doesn’t happen very often and you never know when it’s going to put in an appearance.

Not that I’m comparing myself to Evans, but when I was playing much more regularly than now I felt that maybe 3 out of 20 gigs really went zing. The rest were perfectly decent, but the earth didn’t really move. That’s life – try as you might, you never know when the muse will sit on your head.

He also makes a point that I’ve made often to people who say: “well, I really don’t know much about music, so I can’t comment…” (usually followed by “but…”) Bill valued the opinions of laypersons very highly, often more so than the opinions of experts. He talks in terms of experts having lost their “naivety”. My version is more prosaic: if you’ve got a pair of ears, you’re entitled to an opinion…

Brantingham includes links to the interview itself.

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Posted in e) Rants & Ramblings, i) Reviews
2 comments on “The Universal Mind of Bill Evans
  1. Elias Couto says:

    Eventhough Evans did not see himself as a natural, there was the ability to create ideas. The fact those ideas required more effort do not make it any less significant or valuable. Thanks for sharing your thoughts to the wrold. I find them refreshing.

    • Jason says:

      Oh certainly – for instance, he wrote Very Early very early.
      I think he was referring to the fact that some guys just seemed to arrive on the scene aged six, blowing like veterans. I suppose the “seemed to” bit is significant, of course.
      If I can be bold enough to compare my own experience to his again, coming from a classical background did lead to self-doubt in a jazz milieu. For ages, you didn’t feel authentic somehow.
      Don’t think it’s such an issue these days, with jazz being taught in high academe.
      Thanks for stopping by, Elias.

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