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How My Heart Sings by Peter Pettinger

Bill Evans, one of the greatest creative musicians of the century, lived only to the age of 51. In the last half of his life, in a triumph of will and the creative impulse, he maintained iron discipline as an artist while he let heroin and cocaine drag him to destruction. His friend Gene Lees called Evans’ death “the slowest suicide in history.” Pettinger’s book weaves together analysis of Evans’ music with facts of his life before and after he became a narcotics addict. An English concert pianist and university music teacher, Pettinger died before the book was published.

The serious listener with a complete Bill Evans collection should set aside a few weeks to read this book, making time for frequent trips to the CD player or turntable. It would require discipline almost as great as Evans’ to ignore the urge to hear the recordings that Pettinger discusses as he tracks Evans’ progress through his brilliant career. Pettinger’s strength as a listener and analyst makes this an essential book about Evans, but is not the ultimate Evans biography. Pettinger does not explore in depth the pianist’s complex personality and his relationships with family, friends and fellow musicians. Still, even his dry recitations of facts and occasional speculation about behavior motives stir anyone who admires Evans’ music and recoils from the pain of the junkie existence he chose in his mid-twenties. There remain important biographical questions about his measured decision to take up heroin; about his experience in the Miles Davis band; about the psychological and spiritual effects of the deaths of bassist Scott LaFaro, his father and brother; about the conflicting influences of his heritage, his upbringing and the values of the bebop life.

This author, however, concentrates on musical development, and his contribution to Evans scholarship is invaluable. Pettinger pays detailed attention to Evans’ improvisational style, particularly to the harmonic genius of his approach to chords and voicings. His discussions and descriptions are musicianly and precise, as in this passage about a private recording made when Evans was 18:

“Already he was able to sustain a string of block chords underneath a newly created top line. Rhythmically, he began to insert broad triplets into a solo, a very personal touch. Harmonically, he kept things simple, departing from the triad to embrace sixths and thirteenths, occasionally adding the slightly more adventurous sharp fourth. In introductions, vocal backings, and solos alike, each component was earnest. For Evans, even at that age, there was no such thing as the glib, ready-made gesture. In the clarity of the thinking, and the simplicity of the material and its presentation, lay a shining promise for the future.”

Only rarely does Pettinger’s precision desert him; pianists may understand a term like “crushed note” (used in describing Evans’ solo on “Cork ën Bib” with Lee Konitz). Most of us civilians need explanation and illustration. Notated musical examples can give even a layman an appreciation for context and structure, but the book has only three. Pettinger pays attention, often detailed, to virtually every record Evans made. The 40-page discography lists 168 LPs, CDs, boxed sets and video tapes and includes obscure sideman dates from his early career. The book is well indexed. There is no bibliography, but the chapter notes provide references.

Pettinger’s picture of Evans the musician is distinct, that of the man less focused. This fine book will be part of the foundation for Evans scholars to come.

Originally Published