Monday, March 29, 2010

Bill Evans on creativity and simplicity

Interesting bit of video here--an interview with jazz piano legend Bill Evans that addresses the notions of simplicity and straightforwardness I have been thinking about lately. I've been obsessed with spare prose, and with the perils of overwriting. But of course some writers are very good at working in a dense, complicated mode--are they overwriting?

No, they're not--they are working efficiently within a framework where they know they can achieve clarity. Evans illustrates this on the piano--he demonstrates the "overwritten" version of a complex passage. A pretty neat illustration!

13 comments:

rmellis said...

I love the way he kept talking about approaching musical ideas in a "vague" way -- I'd never thought of it like that. But yeah, the clarity and simplicity of his playing is what makes him great.

Of course, it makes more sense if I translate it all to writing... the jazz all sounded pretty good to me.

William Hammond said...

First of all I would like to express my gratitude to you for a wonderfully informative blog.

This is also a subject I have been preoccupied with of late, although not being a musician I think I am only grasping 60 percent of what Bill Evans is explaining here. Long ago I had a dear friend who was obsessed with the music of Keith Jarrett and he would always be listening to his CDs. Personally, I found some of his 1980s Trio recordings a little difficult in that some standards would go off, so to speak, on a musical journey that lost me and sounded to my ear like a thick soup, this in turn would completely confuse my listening experience and I would always privately think to myself that it's important to be able to keep in sight (or feel) the essence of the song. In the late 1990s,after an illness, Jarrett realised an album of zen-like simplicity called Melody At Night With You. As a musical layman I thought that the album was at the pinnacle of Jarrett's creative powers in that you could emotionally connect with every nuance of the music, and by keeping sight of the framework it loaded the pauses and silences between notes with deeper meaning.

How does this relate to writing? (I have no idea!)Maybe overwriting has nothing to do with things like form/framework but everything to do with the relationship of the words to one another on the page.

Recently I read a wonderful story from a Catholic theologian, Laurence Freeman, relating to intepretation of words - there was a group of students that were having a difficult time with a passage of the Torah. They collectively went to their rabbi and asked for guidance. The rabbi asked them to read the passage and than asked them what they saw on the page?- the black marks of the words against the white page they answered - the rabbi explained that the words contain half the meaning, the other half is in the white spaces between the words.

Maybe overwriting is when the white spaces between the words become a fog.

Thank you again for Ward Six blog

jrlennon said...

Thanks so much! I know that Keith Jarrett album, and to me, it's the sound of complexity, with the complexity removed, if you get my drift. In fact all the best Jarrett stuff, to me, sounds that way--like the Koln concert--it's simple, but the kind of simple you can only achieve once you know what to leave out. And you don't learn that until you've played (or written) for a long time.

It was a great pleasure seeing Jarrett make his comeback.

dylan hicks said...

Great clip! I like a fair amount of busy or showy writing and some comparable piano playing, but I love what Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, and others did in the '50s to reground jazz piano by not playing all they could. Even notey greats like Art Tatum can sometimes sound empty and irritating to me--all flood and no flow.

I wonder what the writing analogy is to Jarrett playing on that ill-tempered piano at the Koln concert. Maybe it's something like Beckett writing in French? (Not, of course, that French is an inferior language; just that his command of it wasn't as great, and that seemed to restrict him productively.) My LP of the Koln Concert is pretty beat up, so I'm not always sure if I'm hearing a so-so piano or LP distortion (plus my ears aren't really so refined).

jrlennon said...

Not Dylan Hicks of Dylan Hicks and the Three Pesos?

dylan hicks said...

Ha, very much so. Did you spend some time in Minneapolis? I greatly enjoyed "Left Hand" and "Castle" by the way, and I pop in here from time to time.

jrlennon said...

Kent Mortimer was the drummer of a band I was in, in Philly, and he took me to see you guys in Mpls one night. I own the "I'd Rather Be On My Bike" single, the one with Baron Von Raschke on the cover!

Anyway, I agree, the piano on that record is not quite right, and that's part of what makes it interesting...and given that Jarrett was improvising, you can imagine that the funky piano affected what he decided to play. Who says that gear isn't important?!!?

dylan hicks said...

Oh, cool. I always liked Kent.

William Hammond said...

I remember seeing the Keith Jarrett Trio in London in the early 90s. It was a tribute concert for Miles Davis. The first hour of the concert you sensed you were hearing something very special, then out of nowhere, Keith threw this huge tantrum because he thought someone in the audience was recording the concert and he threatened end the concert. He didn't, but when he returned to the piano something was lost.
In one of the London papers afterwards a music critic described the first hour as 'an hour that passed in a single breath'and went on to say that the somewhat ugly incident, if anything, heightened the beauty of what went before it. It's like without chaos we will never appreciate peace.

Sasha said...

He seems to be talking less about over-playing/over-writing and more about over-reaching...

So we're supposed to understand one small thing completely? How small is one small thing? Can any complete work be a "small" but completely understood thing? Or can it only be one facet of a work that is completely understood and explored?

I guess my problem is the one he talks about at the end--how does one know when one has succeeded and when one has failed? After all, everything work has a pinch of failure contained within it. It's not as though I'll ever produce a perfect anything and then feel ready to move on to bigger and better...

How good is good enough?

jrlennon said...

Oh boy, talk about unanswerable questions...I don't think you really know if you've succeeded until years later, if ever. And of course work that doesn't contain the seeds of its own failure isn't worth much.

You can think you understand the one small thing completely, and then later realize it was actually a large thing, with smaller things inside it that you never thought to pay attention to.

Pete said...

Great video, thanks for posting. I play piano and guitar, including jazz at one point, and I know exactly what he's talking about. I never thought about it in terms of writing, but that's very interesting.

In music, I know if I'm "succeeding" or not, and I can feel if it's true. I'm not a good enough writer to tell the difference in my writing.

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