Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Musical Oddities IV

I saw part of a TV interview with the jazz pianist Bill Evans
from about 1971 in which the interviewer, who I think was Swedish, asked Evans if he had a favorite classical composer. Evans said J.S. Bach. That's what all the jazz musicians say, the interviewer said.

It's easy to dismiss Evans's answer, as the interviewer did, for being too obvious. But far from doing that, I'd like to offer it as a piece of evidence for a theory I've been developing: that the deceased jazz pianist Bill Evans is actually the same person as the deceased classical pianist Glenn Gould. At the least, I see them as two sides of the same coin. There are the superficial resemblances: the severe profiles, the dark slicked-back hair, the studied elusiveness. Evans was born three years before Gould, and died two years before him.

But something about their playing unites them too. Bach was of course the most important composer to Gould. Though their sounds were radically different from one another, Gould and Evans were both committed to a kind of lucid polyphony that mirrored one another while setting them apart from other musicians of their time. Gould said that he was only interested in contrapuntal music; Evans, for his part, solved the limitations of bop by creating a contrapuntal style of group improvisation. Later he went a step further by recording an album in which he by himself was all the multiple voices—breaking the jazz taboo against overdubbing by making a whole album of overdubs—and he recorded it on Gould's favorite piano.

Gould was notoriously indifferent to contemporary music, but public about his admiration for Evans. And I think what happened between Gould's first and last recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations—the bookends of his career—was jazz phrasing; in 1981 he stretched time and hid or hit notes in a way that would not have made sense in 1955. It might not be a stretch to say that what made Gould himself was Evans, and what made Evans himself was Gould.

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