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French music reconfigured in the modal jazz of Bill Evans.

Research output: Contribution in Book/Report/ProceedingsChapter (peer-reviewed)


  • Deborah Mawer
Publication date2011
Host publicationJazz Chameleon: 9th Nordic Jazz Conference Proceedings
EditorsJanne Mäkelä
Place of publicationHelsinki
PublisherFinnish Jazz and Pop Archive
Number of pages13
ISBN (Print)978-952-67401-5-7
Original languageEnglish


Twentieth-century French music played a privileged role in the improvisational thinking of the American modal jazz pianist Bill Evans (1929-80). And these loci offer an ideal opportunity for investigating relations between musical types: from parallels, potential intersections, through to specific eclecticisms, which assimilate, adapt and individualize a given source. Implicit are ‘crossings’ and transformations of genre, culture, national identity and time-frame; at issue are the nature and mutability of music materials. I aim to show the richness and significance of these interactions in two case studies: aspects of Kind of Blue (1959) and ‘Peace Piece’ (1958) in connection with Chopin, Ravel and Messiaen. Evans’s parentage and education meant he was exposed to highly varied music: ‘sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven and works by Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Ravel, Gershwin, Villa-Lobos, Khachaturian, [and] Milhaud’ (Pettinger, Bill Evans: My Heart Sings). I argue that in French repertory, particularly, Evans discovered an affinity with, and catalyst for, his improvisational priorities: lyricism, polyphonic lines, a rich harmonic palette of sevenths/ninths, subtle textures, ‘voicings’ and exquisite tone – a vehicle for expressivity and imagination. Conversely, it is intriguing that relatively old French music has ‘lived on’, re-configured ‘chameleon’-like within a new postwar context.

Bibliographic note

See too Portuguese translation: ‘A música Francesca reconfigurado no jazz modal de Bill Evans’, trans. Fausto Borém, Revista Per Musi, 26 (forthcoming 2012).