Gil Evans

Gil Evans by Davide Baroni

Gil Evans (1912 – 1988) was a jazz pianist, arranger, composer and bandleader, active in the United States. He played an important role in the development of cool jazz, modal jazz, free jazz and jazz fusion, and collaborated extensively with Miles Davis.

Between 1941 and 1948, he worked as an arranger for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. Evans’ modest basement apartment behind a New York City Chinese laundry soon became a meeting place for musicians looking to develop new musical styles outside of the dominant bebop of the day. Those present included the leading bebop performer Charlie Parker himself, as well as Gerry Mulligan and John Carisi.

In 1948, Evans, with Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, and others, collaborated on a band book for a nonet. These ensembles, larger than the trio-to-quintet ‘combos,’ but smaller than the ‘big bands’ which were on the brink of becoming economically unviable, allowed the arrangers to have a larger palette of colors by using french horns and tuba. Claude Thornhill had employed hornist John Graas in 1942,and composer-arranger Bob Graettinger had scored for horns and tubas with the Stan Kenton orchestra, but the ‘Kenton sound’ was in the context of a dense orchestral ‘wall of sound’ that Evans avoided. The Davis-led group was booked for a week at the ‘Royal Roost’ as an intermission group on the bill with the Count Basie Orchestra. Capitol Records recorded 12 numbers by the nonet at three sessions in 1949 and 1950. These recordings were reissued on a 1957 Miles Davis LP titled ‘Birth of the Cool.’

Later, while Davis was under contract to Columbia Records, producer George Avakian suggested that he work with any of several arrangers, Miles immediately chose Evans. The three albums that resulted from the resulting collaboration are ‘Miles Ahead’ (1957), ‘Porgy and Bess’ (1958), and ‘Sketches of Spain’ (1960). Another collaboration from this period, ‘Quiet Nights’ (1962) was issued later, against the wishes of Davis, who broke with his then-producer Teo Macero for a time as a result. Although these four records were marketed primarily under Davis’s name (and credited to Miles Davis with Orchestra Under the Direction of Gil Evans), Evans’s contribution was as important as Davis’s. Their work coupled Evans’s classic big band jazz stylings and arrangements with Davis’s solo playing. Evans also contributed behind the scenes to Davis’ classic quintet albums of the 1960s.

The demands of the score for ‘Porgy and Bess’ were legendary, including the very first note for the lead trumpet. The limited time allotted for rehearsals revealed that the ability to read such a challenging score was not consistent among jazz musicians, and there are many audible errors. Yet the recording is now regarded by many as one of the greatest reinterpretations of Gershwin’s music in any musical style, because Evans and Davis were each devoted to going outside the ‘mainstream’ of commercial expectations for jazz musicians. Evans was a great influence on Miles Davis’s interest in ‘non-jazz’ music, especially orchestral music. Unfortunately, Evans’ orchestral scores from the ‘Porgy and Bess’ sessions were incomplete, and Quincy Jones and Gil Goldstein attempted to reconstruct these for Miles Davis’s final 1991 concerts at Montreux, recorded as ‘Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux.’ Davis had relented after years of refusing to revisit this material, but he was clearly ill, recovering from pneumonia, and trumpeter Wallace Roney, who was mentored by Davis, covered many of the challenging passages. Davis died before the release of the album.

From 1957 onwards Evans recorded albums under his own name. Evans knew tubist Bill Barber and trumpeter Louis Mucci from Thornhill’s band, and both were stalwarts in Evans’ early ensembles, with Mucci finding a spot on nearly every pre-1980s Evans recording. Among the featured soloists on these records were Lee Konitz, Jimmy Cleveland, Steve Lacy, Johnny Coles and Cannonball Adderley. In 1965 he arranged the big band tracks on Kenny Burrell’s ‘Guitar Forms’ album.

Evans was explicitly influenced by Spanish composers Manuel De Falla and Joaquín Rodrigo, and by other Latin and Brazilian music, as well as by German expatriate Kurt Weill. His arrangements (many already well known to some listeners from their original cabaret, concert hall or Broadway stage arrangements) revealed aspects of the music in a wholly original way, sometimes in an unexpected contrast to the original atmosphere of the piece, and sometimes taking a dark ballad such as Weill’s ‘Barbara Song’ into an even darker place. The personnel list for ‘The Individualism of Gil Evans’ (1964), not only features Bill Barber and hornists James Buffington and Julius Watkins (along with two others), but each section features the cream of the younger (some more classically trained) musicians who were making their names in jazz.

The presence of four of the most acclaimed young bassists (Richard Evans, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, and Ben Tucker) along with veteran Milt Hinton would ordinarily indicate that each is used individually for separate tracks, but Evans’ scores usually required at least two bassists on any given track, some playing arco (with the bow) and some pizzicato (plucking with fingers, the standard jazz method). These arrangements frequently featured greatly slowed-down tempos with polyrhythmic percussion and no prevailing ‘beat.’ To his by-now standard french horns and tuba, Evans’ scores added alto and bass flutes, double reeds, and harp; orchestral instruments not associated with ‘swing’ bands, providing a larger pallette of orchestral colors, and allowing him to attain the ethereal quality heard in his arrangements during his Thornhill days. He frequently wrote a part for the tenor violin of Harry Lookofsky. Yet, this album featured an orchestral arrangement of ‘Spoonful’ by bluesman Willie Dixon, an early indication of Evans’ breadth and a hint of things to come.

In 1966 he recorded an album with Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto, ‘Look To The Rainbow.’ He was discouraged by the commercial direction Verve Records was taking with the Gilberto sessions, and he went into a period of hiatus. During this period while he was somewhat depressed about the commercial and logistical difficulties of his previous scoring requirements, his wife suggested that he listen to the guitarist Jimi Hendrix. Evans developed a particular interest in the work of the rock guitarist, and gradually built another orchestra in the 1970s, with none of the coloration instruments from his past arrangements. Working in the free jazz and jazz-rock idioms, he gained a new generation of admirers. These ensembles, rarely more than fifteen and frequently smaller, allowed him to make more contributions on keyboards, and with the development of truly portable synthesizers, he began using these to provide additional color.

Hendrix’s 1970 death made impossible a scheduled meeting with Evans to discuss having Hendrix front a big band led by Evans. In 1974, he released an album of his arrangements of music by Hendrix, with guitarist Ryo Kawasaki. From that date on, Evans’ ensembles featured electric guitars and basses, including a notable collaboration with bassist Jaco Pastorius. In contrast to his intricate scores for large ensembles, which usually required precision orchestral playing wrapping around the ‘traditional’ solo ‘break,’ his later arrangements might feature (more or less) unison playing by the entire ensemble, such as on Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing,’ with improvisational touches added throughout by the musicians completely ad libitum. Live recordings demonstrate that entire pieces were collaborative efforts, and Evans can be heard giving cues from the keyboard (behind the band) to guide the band into a new section. Before the 1970s, his keyboard playing was sparse on recordings, because the intricacy of his music required that he conduct, but after the 1970s, he gradually moved from the front of the band back ‘into’ the band.

‘Where Flamingos Fly’ (recorded 1971, released 1981)) demonstrated his ability to contract the most accomplished musicians, with veterans Johnny Coles, Harry Lookofsky, Richard Davis, and Jimmy Knepper, alongside young multi-instrumental phenomenon Howard Johnson, synthesizer player Don Preston (at that time still a member of the Mothers of Invention), and Billy Harper.

In 1983, the Gil Evans Orchestra was booked into the Sweet Basil jazz club in Greenwich Village by jazz producer and Sweet Basil owner Horst Liepolt. This turned out to be a regular Monday night engagement for Evans for nearly five years and also resulted in the release of a number of successful albums by Gil Evans and the Monday Night Orchestra (produced by Horst Liepolt). Evans’ ensemble featured many of the top-call musicians in New York, many of whom were also in the NBC Saturday Night Live Band and there were many conflicts, so their ‘deputies’ for the night might be other world-class musicians. Yet Evans was also known to let newcomers ‘sit in’ occasionally, and the band also performed arrangements by band members, current and past. Stalwarts in this ensemble were Lou Soloff, Marvin Peterson, Tom ‘Bones’ Malone, George Adams, David Sanborn, Hiram Bullock, Mark Eagan, Bill Evans, and Gil Goldstein. In 1987, Evans recorded a live CD with Sting, featuring big band arrangements of songs by and with The Police. In the same spirit of introducing new talent in his bands, he collaborated with Maria Schneider  as an apprentice arranger on this and other final projects.

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