ANNIVERSARIES: Gil Evans Born 100 Years Ago


Gil Evans, perhaps the second-greatest arranger in jazz after Duke Ellington, was born Ian Ernest Gilmore Green on May 13, 1912 in Toronto, Canada (Evans was his stepfather's name). Though best known for his collaborations with Miles Davis, Evans released many great albums as a bandleader and created a highly influential style that changed the course of jazz history.

Though self-taught, by age 21 Evans was leading a big band that became the house group at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach. Eventually it was fronted and then led by singer Skinnay Ennis, and Claude Thornhill joined Evans in providing arrangements for them. Thornhill then moved to New York to start his own band, and in 1941 invited Evans to New York to write arrangements. Soon Evans's arrangements with their lush, hazy, floating textures defined the Thornhill style.

Though theoretically a swing band, the Thornhill ensemble was one of the most progressive big bands of its time, incorporating not only classical instrumentation and repertoire but also bebop. Evans arranged a number of tunes associated with Charlie Parker for Thornhill, including "Donna Lee," written by Miles Davis, which led to their collaboration.

Evans became the center of a group of jazzmen brainstorming ways to expand their music beyond bebop: Davis, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Tadd Dameron, Johnny Carisi, J.J. Johnson, George Russell, and others. Some of them banded together in a nonet, bigger than the usual bebop ensemble, and thus offering more timbres, but smaller (and thus theoretically more economically viable) than a big band: the typical bebop quintet (trumpet, alto sax, piano, drums, bass) augmented by trombone, French horn, baritone sax, and tuba. Under Davis's name, they played in public in 1948 and recorded 12 tracks (written and/or arranged by Mulligan, Lewis, Evans, Davis, and Carisi) for Capitol in 1949-50, Davis's first studio recordings as a leader. Some of them were released as singles (this was before the LP); they didn't sell, but the new style they revealed -- informed by bebop, but with lusher harmonies and textures, intertwining lines, and often less rhythmically urgent -- proved influential, not least on the West Coast when Mulligan formed his band with Chet Baker. The style became known as Cool Jazz, and eight of the nonet's recordings were retrospectively collected on 10" LP in 1957 as The Birth of the Cool. Eventually, of course, all 12 were compiled, and now we are lucky enough to have them augmented by 11 tracks from the 1948 shows on The Complete Birth of the Cool. While Evans arranged only two of the studio tracks, plus the theme song for the broadcast shows, it was understood that the style had been born in his apartment.

After further burnishing his reputation among the cognoscenti by arranging singer Helen Merrill's 1956 EmArcy album Dream of You, Evans achieved lasting fame through a series of classic Miles Davis albums on which Evans could arrange for larger groups thanks to Columbia's bigger budgets: Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958), and Sketches of Spain (1960). The boost these immensely popular albums gave Evans immediately paid off with work as a leader; Prestige recorded his first album as a leader in 1957. By the standards of jazz, this was rather a late start; Evans was 45 years old at the time.

From this point on, I focus (in chronological order) on Evans's best albums under his own name (not quite everything, but close enough). Over the next two decades, he was not prolific; his complex work was impossible to learn and record quickly, but the budgets needed to do a good job were not often made available. Nor could he keep together, on a regular basis, bands of the size and quality needed for his music; the players who were good enough to handle his tricky charts and subtle enough soloists to shine in their contexts were, needless to say, in too great demand for him to hang onto them. Somehow, though, he managed to produce exquisitely gem-like albums every once in a while.

Gil Evans and Ten (Prestige)

This is the debut album mentioned above.  It marked the first time his spare, self-taught piano style was recorded; more notably, adding soprano saxophone (the great Steve Lacy, well before John Coltrane had popularized the instrument) and bassoon gives new timbres to Evans's arrangements. Soloists include Evans, Lacy, trombonist Jimmy Cleveland, and bassist Paul Chambers. This is Evans at his most lush and ethereal.

The Complete Pacific Jazz Sessions (Blue Note)

This combines the two albums Evans made for the Pacific Jazz label in 1958: New Bottle, Old Wine and Great Jazz Standards. As their titles indicate, Evans reached back into jazz history for most of their repertoire (there's only one Evans-penned track, "La Nevada" (The Snowfall), more muscular in this incarnation than it would become), sometimes all the way to the early days of the genre – "St. Louis Blues," Jelly Roll Morton's "King Porter Stomp," Fats Waller's "Willow Tree," and Biz Beiderbecke's "Davenport Blues" are included. Alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, then a Davis sideman, is often the featured soloist; tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson, Davis-esque trumpeter Johnny Coles, and Lacy also figure prominently.

Out of the Cool (Impulse!)

This 1961 LP is the most indispensible album from Evans's period of precise arrangements. A lengthy, vastly transfigured take on "La Nevada" (The Snowfall) foreshadows his later style. The beautiful, hypnotic "Where Flamingos Fly" (written by John Benson Brooks; Evans first arranged it for the Helen Merrill album) is prototypical Evans, shimmering gently under Jimmy Knepper's solo. Kurt Weill's "Bilbao Song" is heavily arranged, an exemplar of Evans's style in this period. George Russell's blues "Stratusphunk" is also highly arranged, but with more room for improvisation. The original "Sunken Treasure" is a successful experiment in melody-less thematic material, with Coles providing the element of melody in his solo. Left off the original LP was Evans's surprisingly funky take on Horace Silver's "Sister Sadie." (By the way, on the follow-up LP, Into the Hot, none of the tracks were Evans-arranged or led or even included his playing; half were Johnny Carisi originals played by the Gil Evans Orchestra and half were Cecil Taylor compositions played by Taylor's group.)

The Individualism of Gil Evans (Verve)

This 1964 LP not only has some of Evans's richest arrangements -- Weill's "Barbara Song," "Hotel Me" (AKA "Jelly Rolls") -- it also grants Wayne Shorter, Phil Woods, Thad Jones, and Kenny Burrell prominent solos. It's true that what distinguished Evans's music is its rich orchestration, but this is jazz, not classical music; he left room for improvisers, and what a treat it must have been for them to deploy their talents in such beautiful settings. The original LP was vastly augmented for this reissue, the most important addition being the Evans/Davis co-composition "Time of the Barracudas," written for a play production (later, Evans renamed it "General Assembly"). Evans had a four-LP contract with Verve, but only Individualism was issued; at least the bonus tracks, which double its length, give us pretty much all that Evans wanted released.

Evans began a complete turnaround in 1969. He later explained it by telling producer John Snyder, "...all my life I'd been sitting in front of that piano trying to figure out another way to voice a minor seventh chord. For 30 years I was sitting wife said to me, 'You've got calluses on your ass.' ...I was so tired of it, so bored from doing it for so long. It was such a lonesome thing that I decided that I needed adventure, and the only way to get adventure was to get a band together." Therefore, Evans began playing regularly. The problem of the musicians having other demands on their time was taken care of for much of the era by having them play regular Monday night gigs, that being the night when Broadway theaters are dark (many of them worked in pit bands) and the Tuesday-through-Sunday stands in jazz clubs leave a night open. This change in Evans's routine also involved the sound of his music, as he moved to a less precisely notated style and incorporated electric instruments. His concern for timbre remained, however; even when the front-line instruments were playing unisons, they had a unique quality. The final decade of his career was documented only through concert albums.

Blues in Orbit (Enja [originally Ampex])

Recorded at 1969 and '71 sessions, Blues in Orbit must have come as a shock to long-time Evans fans; the opening track, tenor saxophonist Billy Harper's "Thoroughbred," features electric guitar, electric bass, and electric piano, plus drummer Alphonse Mouzon laying down a funky beat and tuba player Howard Johnson braying in an unbridled manner. As if that weren't enough of a jolt, the following track, "Spaced," has some free jazz touches and features guitarist Joe Beck making sounds appropriate to its title.

Where Flamingos Fly (Artists House)

Recorded in 1971, this went unissued until ten years later when it appeared on Ornette Coleman's label (it was later reissued by A&M and then Musical Heritage Society). It offers a fascinating look at the early years of the style which Evans would expand on for the rest of his life. It's interesting to hear how the title track had changed since Out of the Cool. It and Harper's "Love Your Love" are the only arrangements that are completely written out. The band on the two long tracks (Evans's "Zee Zee" and Kenny Dorham's "El Matador") bookending the album was smaller than previous or subsequent groups would be, but the electric instruments (including Evans's first use of synthesizer, played by Don Preston of Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention) fill out the sonic picture. Billy Harper (tenor sax) and Johnny Coles (trumpet) are the solo stars, with Airto Moreira and Flora Purim overdubbed. This is the first on which "Hotel Me" is transformed and retitled "Jelly Rolls"; it would be a mainstay of the band's repertoire for the rest of Evans's life.

Svengali (Atlantic, later Koch)

It was Gerry Mulligan, two decades earlier, who had noted that "Svengali" was an anagram of "Gil Evans." Two superb Billy Harper compositions and a gorgeous "Summertime" are highlights of this 1973 LP, and there are fine solos by Harper, alto saxophonist David Sanborn, and guitarist Ted Dunbar. Listeners who find the less structured live albums of Evans's last decade too meandering will appreciate the greater precision found in these studio recordings of the aforementioned tracks and the brief Evans/Davis tune "Eleven"; listeners not bothered by less structure will enjoy more wild treks through "Blues in Orbit" and "Zee Zee."

Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix (RCA Bluebird)

A voracious listener of broad tastes, Evans was intrigued by the music of Jimi Hendrix; they'd even booked studio time together, but Hendrix's premature death intervened. Finally, in 1974, Evan recorded this legendary album of nine Hendrix tunes for RCA, arranging two songs himself (with half credit on a third) while band members contributed the rest of the charts. Could it really work? On hearing Sanborn intone the melody of "Angel" with gospel fervor, potential misgivings are immediately put to rest. That guitarists John Abercrombie, Ryo Kawasaki, and Keith Loving don't always play like Hendrix is part of the plan; these are mostly jazz transformations of the material, not recreations. Most strikingly, the guitar riff of "Voodoo Chile" is not played by one of the guitarists, but by Howard Johnson on tuba, who plays with such intensity in the instrument's high range that the effect is unforgettable. Even on the grittier, less jazzy tracks, such as "Crosstown Traffic," there's such a bigger, broader sound that comparisons to Hendrix's versions are moot. This is a brilliant album.

There Comes a Time (RCA Bluebird)

The 1976 follow-up also has a Hendrix song, a gorgeous arrangement of "Little Wing" (now also included on the digital versions of Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix), but it's much more of a Gil Evans album, especially with the bonus tracks included on the 1995 BMG France CD. His old arrangements of "King Porter Stomp" and "Joy Spring" are updated, there's a monumental "So Long" with heroic solos by both Harper and Sanborn, along with three much shorter Evans compositions, and -- though there are no arranging credits -- I'm guessing he's also responsible for the epic version of Bobby Troup's "The Meaning of the Blues." Tony Williams is the drummer, though not, paradoxically, on his composition "There Comes a Time." This is a somewhat overlooked album in Evans's output; it shouldn't be. And it should be reissued forthwith!

Priestess (Antilles)

Recorded live in 1977, though not released until six years later, Priestess is a classic late-period album on the strength of the nearly 20-minute title track, a soulful Billy Harper tune (though Harper had left the band by then) featured stirring alto sax solos by David Sanborn and Arthur Blythe.

Lee Konitz/Gil Evans:
Heroes (Verve)
Anti Heroes (Verve)
While peripheral to Evans's legacy, his occasional duo gigs showed that the man who'd characterized his playing as "cheerleader's piano" nonetheless played in a sufficiently personal style that his lack of virtuosity could be overlooked, even enjoyed. These 1980 concert appearances with his old Thornhill and Birth of the Cool collaborator, long out of print, may find Konitz sounding more assured, but Evans's X-ray sketches of the songs' harmonies have their own attractions.

Listen to the Silence: Live at the Public Theater 1980 (Trio ArtUnion)

Originally recorded by the Japanese label King, and eventually issued in the U.S. by Evidence, this is not the best of his '80s work -- the band eventually played more often and its creative focus became keener in later years -- but it's the set that's most easily found, and certainly has its merits.

Live at Sweet Basil, vols. 1 & 2 (King [Japan]/Evidence [U.S.])

Evans's final style receives its most extended and extreme workout on this pair of CDs featuring his Monday Night Orchestra, which been playing every week for nearly a year and a half when these albums (originally double LP sets) were recorded in August 1984. Johnson's trademark tuba take on Voodoo Chile" is at its peak here, in better sound than on the Hendrix LP (he also plays baritone sax and bass clarinet on other tracks). The trumpet stars are Lew Soloff and Hannibal Marvin Peterson, while George Adams on tenor and Chris Hunter on alto get the sax honors. The material includes two other Hendrix tunes, a lengthy Charlie Parker medley, compositions by Charles Mingus, Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk, and Herbie Hancock, and of course a few Evans originals. Everybody really stretches out, with the shambling nature of the arrangements more than compensated for by the ebullient solos and the infectious sense of comfortable camaraderie. And, though they ramble, they're tighter than the group at the Public Theater was. Further King documentation of this band, at December 1986 shows including old collaborator Johnny Coles as a very special guest, can be found on Farewell (on Evidence in the U.S.) and In Memoriam: Bud & Bird (ProJazz in the U.S.); the repertoire's not as classic, though.

Gil Evans & Sting: Last Session (Jazz Door)

The rock musician Sting, a fan of Evans's music, used the Evans band on his Top 10 1987 album Nothing Like the Sun for a cover of Hendrix's "Little Wing," which explains the origin of this bootleg album (AKA Strange Fruit), recorded live at an Italian jazz festival that year. Sting sings throughout on material ranging from the hits of his former band, the Police ("Roxanne," "Tea in the Sahara," "Murder by Numbers"), to Hendrix songs ("Little Wing," of course, and "Experience"), and even Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," along with some of his more recent repertoire ("Consider Me Gone," "Shadows in the Rain") and Tony Williams's "Comes a Time." It's perhaps not the way Gil would have chosen to go out, but it's actually pretty good, and also of interest for including two musicians not normally in the band, saxophonists Branford Marsalis and John Surman. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. Early this month he edited and mixed the recording of his song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach, which can be heard here.