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What I'm Listening To

I often ask people “what are you listening to lately?”

This has been a constant thread in my friendships and conversations ever since my early teen years, when my friends and I would get together all the time to listen to records, discuss, analyze, and share our excitement about them, and sometimes argue passionately with each other about which ones we liked best and why. It was a formative time in my life, and this question “what are you listening to lately?” has stayed with me through a lifetime of friendships and listening.

Here is what I’ve been listening to:

Bill Evans

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Lately, I have been re-discovering my first great love as a musician, the pianist Bill Evans. I think it was Gene Lees who suggested that everyone who loves Bill Evans' music feels like they have a special relationship with him, like he is playing just for them. I am one of those people.

 

There are so many things to love about Bill Evans' playing. For me, above all, it is the tenderness with which he plays a melody. There is a heartbreaking vulnerability to his line.

 

Listen to how he plays the melody I Loves You Porgy from George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess.

As a pianist, I especially love the colors that Bill Evans gets from the instrument. Part of this is in how he produces sound physically at the piano. He had this to say on the topic:

"I played a lot of Bach. And I think it changed my technique. It brought my hands closer to the keyboard, and it brought me to using a lot more of a weight transference thing – without appearing to be moving my hands a great deal. With Bach, one has to play that way in order to get any sense of the music at all."

My Foolish Heart is a great example of this weight technique, and I am in awe of how he makes time stand still when he plays this melody.

This weighting and subtle gradations of touch needed to bring out the different voices in a Bach fugue are especially significant in Bill Evans playing style because of the precise way in which he selects the notes to include in chords, and how the notes are spaced to create "chord voicings." Bill Evans is the master of chord voicings.

 

Here is a video of him playing his beautiful and enigmatic composition Time Remembered at a concert in Norway. I love how the chords go to such unusual and unexpected places.

The musical language of Bill Evans feels to me like a perfect fusion of jazz and classical music, in which the sound worlds of French composers like Satie, Debussy, and Ravel merge with the swinging rhythm and improvised line of jazz pianists like Nat King Cole and Bud Powell. You can hear this blend of influences in the suite he played  In Memory of his Father on the "Live at Town Hall" concert.

Something about Bill Evans that particularly inspires me was the way that he continued to explore and to evolve throughout his career. Towards the end of his life, he frequently performed the Miles Davis song Nardis on his concerts, usually beginning with an extended solo piano improvisation. Hear how different this introduction is each time he performed the work!

Nardis at the Umbria Jazz Festival 1978

Nardis from a live performance in Iowa in 1979

These next four performances of Nardis are from "Turn out the Stars: The Final Village Vanguard Recordings." He played Nardis on each of the four nights, and each time it was different, exciting, and musically adventurous.

Nardis, from Night 1, Final Village Vanguard Recordings

Nardis, from Night 2, Final Village Vanguard Recordings

Nardis, from Night 3, Final Village Vanguard Recordings

Nardis, from Night 4, Final Village Vanguard Recordings

 

I loved Bill Evans playing so much in my younger years, and as a teenager I did everything I could to try to emulate him. I sat at the piano the way that he sat at the piano. I held my hands the way that he held his hands. I transcribed his recordings, studied them, practiced them, took things from the transcriptions and practiced them in every key to try to make them vocabulary elements of my own. I learned a lot from doing this, but I never quite succeeded in making them my own.

Bill Evans said: "I went through a lot of mental pains and anguish about choosing between jazz and classical. I realized that where I functions was where I should be, and where I functioned was in jazz, so that was it."

I went the other way. As a developing classical composer I made a conscious decision to distance myself from Bill Evans because I wanted so badly to sound like him and I needed to find my own voice. I didn't listen to his music for many years, and now I'm listening again, re-discovering with wonder and gratitude this artist who is so close to my heart.

It's nice to be home.

Grigory Sokolov’s gorgeous recording of Bach’s “The Art of Fugue” 

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“The Art of Fugue” (German: Die Kunst der Fuge) was Bach’s last composition. 
He worked on it for the last decade of his life, and he died before completing it.

The entire work is built on one theme, which is presented at the beginning of the piece.

It’s complex music, highly detailed. It has a lot of patterns and beautiful color changes.

Listening to this, I am reminded of something the mathematician and philosopher Leibniz wrote, that "Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.”

I encourage you to just sit quietly with this beautiful music for a few minutes, giving it your full attention. 

I usually listen to one track at a time, maybe two, but usually not much more than that. Don't worry about what you know and what you don’t know about music theory, fugues, etc.

Just open your heart and listen.

In this recording, Sokolov is playing on a modern grand piano. Some people complain that Bach’s keyboard works should never be played on a modern piano, but only on a harpsichord, an organ, or a clavichord (if you can find one!). 

Bach notated this piece on four staves without instrument names. He does not specify what instruments it is written for!

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One theory is that this is “pure music” existing in the mind of the listener. 

The eminent harpsichordist Gustave Leonhardt argues that, since there were other works from that era written in this manner that were intended for harpsichord, therefore “The Art of Fugue” was also intended for harpsichord.

Here is Leonhardt’s recording on harpsichord 

Others disagree, as evidenced by many performances using different instrumentation. Here are a few favorites:

for string quartet - performed by the Emerson Quartet

for early music ensemble - performed by Jordi Savali and Hesperion XX

for orchestra -  performed by Sir Neville Marriner with the orchestra of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

for brass ensemble - performed by the Canadian Brass

for saxophone quartet - performed by the Berlin Saxophone Quartet

for voices - performed by the Netherlands Bach Society

and here is a video of a very moving performance by Glenn Gould of the first fugue, performed on a modern piano

I hope that you enjoy getting to know “The Art of Fugue” and do let me know what you’re listening to!

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