Discover more from Frank Beacham's Journal
Gil Evans, jazz pianist, arranger, composer and bandleader, was born 111 years ago today
Gil Evans and Miles Davis
Gil Evans, jazz pianist, arranger, composer and bandleader, was born 111 years ago today.
Evans played an important role in the development of cool jazz, modal jazz, free jazz and jazz fusion, and collaborated extensively with Miles Davis.
Born in Toronto, Canada, his name was changed early on from Green to Evans — the name of his stepfather. His family moved to Stockton, California where he spent most of his youth. After 1946, he lived and worked primarily in New York City, living for many years at Westbeth Artists Community.
Between 1941 and 1948, Evans worked as an arranger for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. His 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 style of the day. Those present included the leading bebop performer, Charlie Parker, as well as Gerry Mulligan and John Carisi.
In 1948, Evans, with Miles Davis, 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 economic inviability, allowed arrangers to have a larger pallette 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 twelve numbers by the nonet at three sessions in 1949 and 1950. These recordings were reissued on a 1957 Miles Davis LP, Birth of the Cool. Later, while Davis was under contract to Columbia Records, producer George Avakian suggested that Davis work with any of several arrangers.
Davis 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 Davis's interest in "non-jazz" music, especially orchestral music.
Unfortunately, Evans's orchestral scores from the Porgy and Bess sessions were later found to be incomplete (or simply lost), 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. He knew tubist Bill Barber and trumpeter Louis Mucci from Thornhill's band, and both were stalwarts in Evans's 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 LP, Guitar Forms.
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, his wife suggested that he listen to the guitarist Jimi Hendrix. Evans developed a particular interest in the work of the rock guitarist. Evans 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's ensembles featured electric guitars and basses, including a notable collaboration with bassist, Jaco Pastorius.
In April, 1983, the Gil Evans Orchestra was booked into the Sweet Basil jazz club (Greenwich Village, New York) 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.
Evans's 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 Lew Soloff, Marvin Peterson, Tom "Bones" Malone, George Adams (musician), David Sanborn, Hiram Bullock, Mark Eagan, drummer Kenwood Dennard, saxophonist Bill Evans (no relation) 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.
Ryan Truesdell began the Gil Evans Project, which resulted in a 2012 CD, Centennial, featuring previously unrecorded compositions and arrangements. These were produced with the permission of the Gil Evans estate, who gave Truesdell access to these scores and materials.
Miles Evans, Gil's son, also led the Gil Evans Orchestra for a centennial concert at New York's Highline Ballroom, featuring many of the musicians heard in the orchestra during Evans's lifetime.