How pianist Brian Dickinson was shaped by Bill Evans

Juno Award-winning pianist and composer Brian Dickinson has been a mainstay on the Canadian jazz scene for close to 40 years.

He has played with the likes of Maria Schneider, Dewey Redman, Donny McCaslin, Bob Mintzer, Randy Brecker and Pat LaBarbera, just to name a few. Dickinson is also an educator, having headed the piano program at Humber College for many years.

His trio recently played at the Jazz Bistro in a tribute concert dedicated to the great Bill Evans, who would have been 90 years old this year.

Dickinson came by JAZZ.FM91 to talk about what made Bill Evans unique, what it was like seeing him in his later years, and why he was such an influence on players like Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.

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Let’s talk a bit about Bill Evans. You always hear about how unique and individual Bill Evans’s approach was. Is there a way that you can tell a non-piano player what made his approach so unique and different?

There’s a few things. He was involved with Miles Davis and the famous Kind of Blue record, and harmonically, they were really into modal jazz, and [in a way that was] different than the way a lot of people think of modal jazz now, like John Coltrane and later groups. They were more into Ravel, Debussy and composers like that. It was a kinder, gentler modal. So, that’s one thing. Rhythmically, he was into a lot of really interesting things, superimposing different rhythms over top of 4/4 and a lot of [other] interesting rhythmic ideas, which really influenced Miles Davis’s rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Ron Carter. He was also a prolific composer. He wrote a lot of beautiful, beautiful tunes. And he really changed [the idea of a trio], giving each member more of their own input. It was no longer the star at the front and two people backing him up. Everyone had more input into the trio format.

When you talk about Ravel and the modal part of his playing, are we talking about having fewer blues elements and more classical elements in the music?

Yeah, perhaps. I’ve read interviews where he said he was always kind of uncomfortable with the blues. There are a few recordings of him playing the blues, but it’s not really the kind of blues playing that you hear with Wynton Kelly, Oscar Peterson or someone like that.

From a technical standpoint, when you think about Oscar Peterson, you think of awesome technique. Is Bill Evans thought of in that same way when it comes to the prowess of his fingers on the keyboard?

Well, there is only one Oscar Peterson. I think when you think about Bill Evans, you think more of his introspective side. There are recordings where he actually really burns it up and you can hear the chops. But you definitely hear a little more control, more introspective.

Why did you choose to put the spotlight on Bill Evans?

I’ve always been influenced by him. I got into him a little late; I was probably 18 when I really got interested in his playing. And then I got to see him twice in Toronto around 1980, shortly before he died.

What was his health and playing like at that time?

His playing was unbelievable. His health — I had no idea. I was so surprised. I mean, those who were close to him knew he wasn’t in very good shape. But he was playing with such vitality. The last year and a half that he was playing, he really went up another few notches. It was quite something to hear.

You’re saying he actually elevated his playing at a time when he wasn’t all that well physically.

There were still the beautiful ballads and introspection, but sometimes he played with a lot more chops. And also, you could hear more advanced harmonic ideas coming into his playing. I read an interview with him once where he talked about how he always knew more harmony, but he was trying to figure out a way to make it swing. It was really interesting as a listener, to hear that last year and a half or so.

When did you think you would pursue music? As an 18-year-old hearing Bill Evans, were you already thinking that this would be your profession moving forward?

I knew I wanted to go into music from a very young age, and jazz was the direction I wanted to go. And then when I heard that, I thought… there’s something going on here.