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Chopin and Me: When Bill Evans Met Chopin

Here, in advance of our concert at the end of the month called 'Bach to Blues: Jazz Meets the Classics' is an imaginary encounter between the great jazz pianist Bill Evans and the great Classical composer and pianist Frederic Chopin who lived more than a century earlier.


It was in 1980, when I was playing at Keystone Korner in San Francisco that I met Freddie. He was sitting at the bar in a blue velvet suit looking really uncomfortable. Really out of place. Now that I'm no longer around and know a little bit better what's what, I am even more convinced he was actually there, although everybody got very worried about me and God knows they could have been right and the Charlie could have cooked him up just as well. I'd been doing a lot of Charlie, way too much. I kind of knew I was near the end and as it happened I only had about a week more to go. But that's another story.

Anyway, this dude had the accent, the courtly manners. I offered to buy him a drink but he said he was happier with coffee. He was very polite. Complimented me on my piano playing in a strange sort of English. I picked up that he liked my chops but wasn't so keen on what I made with them. I'd just played Like Someone in Love, a standard I've dragged out getting on for 100's of times. I know it so well that it's kind of my own private joke that even Dinah Shore wouldn't recognise it now.

'So it's based on a song' said Freddie (I couldn't really call him Mr Chopin let alone Monsieur Chopin and though he winced when I got familiar like that, he was too polite to correct me). 'Like a folk song perhaps. I often use folk melodies when I improvise. And I even disguise them a little. But you are obviously much better at the art of disguise,' he said, the irony dripping off of him.

I tried to explain it was a little like the painter Miro.

'Freddie, you're a bit too young but this dude Miro, he used to paint buildings and farmland and pictures of things that he loved. And then he just started painting the symbols that meant those things – little shapes and dots and lines.' I think he kind of understood, was kind of intrigued. And as for me, I perked up when he mentioned improvisation. 'But Freddie,' I said, 'you classical musicians don't improvise. You write stuff down.'

'I think, Monsieur Evans, you'll find that you're wrong. I come from a great tradition of improvisors, Mozart, Beethoven... One of my great and consistent sorrows is that I can never quite capture with pen and paper what comes out when I just sit at the piano and play.'

'So why write it down at all then Freddie. Just record it!'

'But exactly Monsieur. I record it – with pen and paper.'

Ah! Game, Set, Match. This tiny man in his blue suit was starting to intrigue me. I used to play his music when I was a kid and I dug it. He was very keen on diminished 7th chords, loads of them. And he was a great experimenter. Did oddball things like crossing his second finger under his third or leaping across the keyboard with – as I was now checking out – tiny hands. He couldn't help it that he was living in the dark ages. What I was really curious about was how he was thinking when he played. Like for me, I'm thinking chords all the time. That's why Like Someone in Love can turn into late Miro! But I suspect Freddie is quite often thinking melody. Folk melody as he'd have it. Come to think of it, he was very keen on folk dances too. The mazurka as I remember. A dance in 3.

'We don't play in 3 I told him. We're kind of 4 square, you see. And all that pulling around of the time. Swing is one thing but the groove has to be really tight. You see Freddie, what you could probably have used is a drummer. You know, keep you honest.'

'But Monsieur Evans, my left hand is my drummer as you put it. My right hand is free but my left hand is a very exacting time keeper.'

I was starting to like this guy. I would have bought him another drink – well coffee - and kept on chatting but we needed to play our next set and when I got back to the bar he was gone. I'm thinking, though that now it's even more likely that I may run into him again.

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