How to Play Jazz Piano Like Bill Evans
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Do you want to play jazz piano like Bill Evans? In this Quick Tip, you’ll learn how Bill Evans approached improvisation on “Autumn Leaves” in his famous 1959 album Portraits In Jazz. We’ll examine his use of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic components, including:
- 8 Left Hand Comp Voicings
- 6 Melodic Improv Techniques
- 2 Rhythmic Impov Techniques
Beginner, intermediate and advanced players will love Evans’ simplistic approach to chord voicings and sweet melodic lines.
Let’s dive in!
First Things First
Before we jump into the analysis of Bill Evans jazz piano improv on this recording, it’s important that you are familiar with the tune itself—including the melody and chord changes. This is the first step in preparation for improvisation on any tune. The best way to achieve the level of familiarity needed is through memorization. Many jazz musicians also practice signing the melody, either with the original lyrics if applicable, or using scat syllables (“dat, doo-dat, dah”). Singing does for your ear what repetition does for your fingers. If you need to review the melody for “Autumn Leaves,” you can cue up this Quick Tip video to 1:15 for a refresher. The notation and video below show the root position diatonic 7th chords for the A section of “Autumn Leaves.”
Next, we’ll look at how Bill Evans approached this progression.
Bill Evans’ Harmonic Approach
After gaining a good handle on the melody and basic chord progression of a tune, the next practical step for a jazz pianist to ask when learning a tune is…
“What chord voicings are most appropriate for my context?”
The answer to this question depends on a number of considerations including the following:
- Instrumentation (solo, duo, trio, combo, big band)
- Tempo (ballad, medium, up-tempo)
- Individual playing level (beginner, intermediate, advanced)
- Personal taste
While Bill Evans certainly had an advanced jazz piano playing level, his selection of chord voicings is extremely simplistic on this tune—primarily just two notes! It is common practice to use different voicings for different applications. Solo piano will generally require a jazz pianist to frequently play the root of the chord along with an additional voicing. On the other hand, jazz pianists favor rootless voicings when accompanied by a bass player. Bill Evan’s context here is a piano trio which influenced his selection. Another factor that influences left hand voicings is tempo. A general principle is—the faster the changes, the simpler the voicing. Since this recording is moving at 200 bmp, Bill Evans has opted to rely mainly on chord shells using guide tones in the left hand.
What are chord shells?
A chord shell is a left hand voicing that contains two or three of the following chord tones—root, 3rd, 7th. Chord shells can be played alone or as the foundation for a more advanced two-hand voicing.
What are guide tones?
The term guide tones refers specifically to the 3rd and 7th in a 7th chord. The guide tones shape a chord’s quality (major 7, dominant 7, minor 7, etc) and also guide its resolution. The guide tones can also be used as a stand-alone chord shell, especially when playing with a double bass player.
The notation and video below show the guide-tone voicings Bill Evans selected to accompany his right hand on this solo.
Now here is a video combining both hands of Bill Evan’s solo and with guide tones supporting the right hand. In the next section, we’ll examine the right hand elements separately.
If you still need to master all your chord shells and guide tones, our Chord Shells & Guide Tone Exercises course is perfect for you. If your looking to gain additional experience applying chord shells and guide tones in sample repertoire situations, then our Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones course is a great resource for you.
Now that you have the harmonic foundation for “Autumn Leaves,” let’s examine some solo considerations.
Bill Evans’ Melodic Approach
In this section, we’re going to breakdown 6 jazz piano melodic solo techniques that Bill Evans used in “Autumn Leaves” that you can apply to your own playing.
1. Chord Outlines
Bills Evans makes prominent use of chord outlines in this solo. The term chord outline describes the use of basic chords for melodic material. This is related to arpeggio (aka “broken chords”), but not synonymous. The difference is that chord outline is generally reserved for melodic applications, whereas arpeggio is used more broadly and can also describe accompaniment patterns. Additionally, chord outline refers to situations where the underlying structure of a line revolves around a basic chord, even when non-chord tones are present. Let’s look at a few examples from Bill Evans solo.
Chord Outline Example 1
In our first example, Bill use a simple E♭triad to improvise an 8th note line over E♭ Major 7. This is an example in which the chord outline is literally an arpeggio.
Chord Outline Example 2
In our second example, Bill outlines a B♭ Major triad over F7. This example begins to demonstrate one nuance in which chord outlines can differ from arpeggios. In this case, the chord being outlined is not the the primary chord. By outlining B♭ Major over F7, Bill creates an “F7sus4” sound (F7sus4= F-B♭-C-E♭).
Chord Outline Example 3
In our third example, Bill outlines a D7 chord while including additional notes as well. Technically speaking, all of the notes are chord tones via chord extension—E♭ is the ♭9 of D7 and the B♭ is the ♭13. However, chord outlines generally draw on three or four note chords and tend to place the chord tones on strong beats. In this example, the notes of D7 are featured most prominently in terms of the meter. The E♭ and the B♭ occur on weak beats and should be interpreted as ornamenting out the D7 outline.
A second jazz piano improv technique used by Bill Evans in this solo is chord enclosure. An enclosure ornaments a chord tone by preceding it with its upper and lower neighbors. Enclosures can be diatonic or chromatic, depending on whether or not the neighbor notes are native to the parent scale for the given chord symbol. For example, in the figure below, the parent scale for C minor 7 is C Dorian (C -D-E♭-F-G-A-B♭). The target note E♭ is enclosed by its upper neighbor (F) and its lower neighbor (D). This is a diatonic enclosure because both neighbor notes are found in C Dorian.
Jazz pianists use enclosures as a fundamental tool to create interesting melodic lines. You can learn to practice and apply enclosures to your playing here.
3. Blue Notes
A third melodic technique Bill Evans draws on is the use of blue notes. In the case of “Autumn Leaves,” the tune has almost an equal number of phrases in B♭ Major as it does the relative minor of G minor. Regardless of whether you prefer to think of the tune in B♭ Major or G minor, the parent scale that Bill Evans uses for much of his solo is B♭ Major. The corresponding Minor Blues Scales is B♭Minor Blues, which Bill uses sparingly to add additional interest to his lines, especially the ♭3. You can construct a B♭ Minor Blues Scale by modifying the major scale as follows: 1-♭3-4-♯ 4-5-♭7.
Here is an example of how Bill Evans tastefully draws on the B♭ Minor Blues Scale over an E♭ Major 7 chord to add melodic interest. (The ♭3 has been notated enharmonically as C♯ since it is resolving upward).
You can explore blues scales further in our Quick Tip titled “Essential Blues Piano Scales: Major & Minor Blues Scale.”
4. Chord Alterations
In addition to blue notes, Bill Evans also adds rich color to his improv over dominant chords through the use of altered dominant extensions. There are four types of dominant alterations: ♭9, ♯9, ♯11 and♭13. In the example below, Bill uses the ♯9 (E♯…written more simply as F ♮) and the ♭13 (B♭) over D7.
For a full explanation of chord alterations, check out our course titled Piano Chord Alterations.
5. Chromatic Approach
Another jazz piano melodic technique that Bill Evans uses in this solo is walking up and walking down to chord tones using a chromatic approach. You’ll notice in both examples below that he also uses faster rhythms as he walks up and walks down to target notes. This combination of chromaticism with rhythmic variety makes this effect extremely appealing to the listener.
In this example, Bill walks-up chromatically to a B♭ over an F7 chord before resolving to the target chord tone A.
In this example over E♭Major 7, Bill walks down chromatically from the 9th of the chord to the 7th which sounds very nice.
A final melodic tool we’ll examine is Bill Evans use of turns. A turn is a quick melodic flourish that begins on a chord tone and moves quickly to its upper and lower neighbor on weak beats. It is common for a turn to return back to the chord tone after the lower neighbor, although this is not always the case. In the example below, Bill strikes the chord tone A, moves to the upper neighbor B ♭, and then substitutes the nearest chord tone (F) in place of the lower neighbor (G) before returning to the A.
In the next section, we’ll look more closely at Bill Evan’s rhythmic devices.
Bill Evans’ Rhythmic Approach
In addition to Bill Evan’s choice of jazz piano harmonic and rhythmic techniques, we also want to look at a couple rhythmic techniques he uses that you can add to your playing right now.
8th Notes & Triplets
8th notes are the most common note value used by jazz musicians to improv over fast tempos. Jazz musicians have several techniques to break up the monotony of 8th note lines including articulation, accents, triplets, turns, long tones, and of course—rests. In “Autumn Leaves,” Bill Evans employs a brilliant rhythmic device in which he takes what would otherwise be an entirely 8th note line and manipulates it by compressing some of the 8th notes into a triplet rhythm beginning with a rest as indicated in the diagram below:
Check out how Bill Evans employs this “8th note to triplet compression” in the following example:
Another rhythmic device that Bill Evans employs in this solo in anticipation. This is the practice of placing an arrival chord tone on the 8th note before the chord arrives. This most commonly occurs on the “and” of beat four. In the example below, Bill Evans lands the note G on the “and” of four and sustains the note.
Bill Evans’ Life and Legacy
William John Evans (1929–1980) of Plainfield, New Jersey began studying piano with his older brother Harry around age 5. Both Harry and Bill played for hire as teenagers in a variety of styles. Bill attended Southeastern Louisiana University on a flute scholarship, studying music theory and piano. He played in the Fifth Army Band from 1951–1954 upon graduation.
Bill moved to New York in 1955 where he studied composition and made connections on the music scene, the most significant of which came in 1958 when he was recruited by Miles Davis. A year later, Davis’ sextet released the legendary Kind of Blue, on which Evans contributed significantly to the conception and writing. Later that year, Evans formed the Bill Evans Trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, releasing Portrait in Jazz.
Evans’ life off the bandstand was often marked by pain and troubled by chemical dependance. The tragic death of LaFaro in a 1961 car accident sent Evans into exile for months. He also suffered the loss of his girlfriend in 1973 and brother Harry in 1979, both having committed suicide. Despite tremendous personal loss, he pioneered a revolutionary approach to jazz piano, known most notably for impressionistic harmonic colors influenced by French composers Debussy and Ravel, and developing his unique style of rootless voicings that have become standard jazz piano vocabulary.
Evans received 7 Grammy awards and 31 nominations and was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1981. Marian McPartland’s interview with Evans in 1978, just two years before his death, provides a glimpse into his aesthetic approach, his harmonic genius and his introspective personality. In 2015, producer Bruce Spiegel released the documentary Bill Evans: Time Remembered .
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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