The Set Menu

Here is an episode of a ’60s BBC TV series called Jazz 625 (yeah, our TVs had 625 scan lines at the time and the Beeboid techies came up with that really imaginative name). It’s Bill Evans with his second trio visiting London. Look at 0:16 – the tune is Nardis, and watch bassist Chuck Israels – he only just makes the answering bass riff in time. He obviously didn’t know what the tune was going to be.

So what’s going on here? This is a high-profile national broadcast and Bill (who doesn’t speak to introduce tunes during this show*) seems to just be pulling tunes out of him, erm… whim.

Well, the band certainly knew Bill’s book. In fact, they knew it in all the keys, because on any given night, he might decide to change things up. Old school (as the nuskool kids are fond of saying), and I’ll have more to say about key fluency below. He also had a rather standardised compact repertoire throughout most of his career. He didn’t play wide, he played deep – that is to say, he preferred to explore a dozen or so tunes thoroughly for years, rather than playing a ton of different stuff. (Not that he wouldn’t have been capable of nailing just about anything.)

He certainly felt more at home in certain tunes and tempos, and perhaps there was an eye to marketing as well – he’d often tend to play things that were on albums he’d released, obviously.

He was also in the habit of having a little list of tunes sitting on the piano (you can see it in the video). And the band would have been aware of what was on that. But here’s the thing – it wasn’t a set list as such, more of a menu…


Sir wants everyzing on ze menu? And in zat ordeur? And maybe a waaafer-thin mint?

I’ve worked with set lists and without, and I much prefer to do it without. Having a sort of menu is fine, but you do have to take into account changing moods – yours, the band’s and perhaps most importantly, the audience’s.

It’s generally good to consider set openers and closers, but I feel it goes best if you treat the rest as choices. I don’t mean you should turn gaps between tunes into lengthy onstage debates – or if you do, at least involve the audience in the “what do you want to do next?” banter and make a bit of fun of it.

Some musicians prefer to work with rigid set lists, and that’s fine. And sometimes it’s a really structured and themed gig, so you put a lot into the prep.


But in general, I honestly can’t remember the last time even a strict list didn’t get at least tweaked around on the night. It really is generally treated like a restaurant menu. You don’t eat everything and you choose what you feel like in the moment.

Oh and get key-fluent people. I’ve done gigs where we’ve decided on the fly to follow tune X with tune Y, and quickly noticed that they’re in the same key, so we changed it. These little things matter and in these days of thumbable iRealBooks and such, the only hurdle is your own chops.

Mind you, there’s a lot to be said for the Roman numeral chunk approach to learning tunes. See here for more on that (and another Monty Python reference). I honestly think I must have played Green Dolphin Street in just about every key (singers… I love them to bits) – and without a phone. It’s not a difficult tune to understand and remember structurally, and a good starting point for applying the Roman numeral approach.

* The show was hosted by the late great Humphrey Lyttelton, generally known as a more trad-inclined trumpeter but passionately interested in all styles of jazz. For more on his later fame as a hilariously grumpy panel show chairman see here.


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Posted in c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings
4 comments on “The Set Menu
  1. anentropic says:

    I get back ache just watching him…

    • Jason says:

      Yeah, of course. I’m prone to that myself a bit – not a deliberate imitation, it’s just that sometimes I play with eyes shut and I just naturally drop my head.
      If only back problems were the only ones Bill had…

  2. ADAM COLE says:

    Bill Evans.  There’s a guy that bugs the pee out of me.  He’s like Mozart…I wrestle with him. This is the best writing on Bill I’ve ever read: Your friend,


    • Jason says:

      Bill was one of the early ones I got into that made me realise you don’t have to blister like Oscar Peterson to play jazz piano. I gather they genuinely admired each other, and it’s a bit of a hackneyed comparison (but with some merit) to call Oscar the jazz Liszt and Bill the jazz Chopin.
      On the other hand, it took me many years to get into his approach. There aren’t really any shortcuts. How could there be with a guy who passionately practised tunes as two, three, four, five and even six part chorales?

      The best I’ve ever read about Bill is the biography called How My Heart Sings by Peter Pettinger. Pettinger knows his stuff (he’s a classical pianist), researches and writes well – and did meet the guy and develop a friendship with him. It gushes a little here and there, but that’s forgivable.
      Might be one to bear in mind next birthday when people ask what you want. Always nice to give people ideas beyond “well, I could always do with some new socks”…

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