GIL EVANS : the lone arranger
part 3 of the inaugural S & D Joined Up Jazz Festival
in association with Hot Biscuits
by Gary Heywood-Everett
In his book, These Jazzmen Of Our Times, Raymond Horricks records that Gil Evans, the modern jazz arranger, pianist and band leader, was born in 1912 in Toronto to Australian parents but moved to San Francisco where he was obsessed as a child by the sounds of jazz. By the late nineteen and twenties, call and response style was a familiar musical motif heard on the early big band 78s and had become an important part of the Fletcher Henderson and even earlier arrangements from Dixieland onwards. Neverthless, Horricks suggests that artists such as Don Redman and Duke Ellington were changing that by becoming increasingly concerned with the sound as well as the naïve structures of jazz, starting to move the arranger’s art more to centre stage.
Don Redman’s work with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers for example was employing advanced conceptions of harmony, see for example his bizarre and expressionistic work on Chant Of The Weed in 1931 with its strange other-worldly and drug-laden atmosphere. Similarly, and at the same time, Duke Ellington was conducting his own experiments in style with Creole Rhapsody which showed an expressive musical curiosity through the use of exotic and dream-like harmonies drawn from Ravel, Delius and Debussy. The fact that the Ellington piece had almost-classical music ‘movements’ interested Gil Evans as a way of structuring jazz compositions and these pieces amongst others influenced him in his formative years, leaving a lasting impression that would impact on his later arrangements.
Evans (left) began his musical career working with a small home-town band in the thirties, playing keyboard and writing pieces for them, but was quickly headhunted by the Skinnay Ennis Band for whom he played whilst beginning to hone his arranger skills. After that he worked with, and was significantly influenced by, the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, experimenting there with big band arrangements that included woodwinds alongside the usual brass section, in a way that was was to become something of a hallmark of Evans’ work.
As Thornhill’s arranger, Gil Evans became interested in the sort of combination of instruments that were found in a classical orchestra colouring and using the Thornhill musicians as his palette in the forties he added French horns to their sound, although a focal point of the band at that time was the altoist Lee Konitz. It was evident in the sound just how far away Evans was taking jazz from New Orleans and heading towards a different art-form with the 1940 Thornhill band’s track Portrait Of A Guinea Farm with its lush classical overtones and experimental arrangement. At which point one might ask : Is this jazz at all ?
In America, in the those ´roaring forties´, jazz was also developing from within and small-group bebop was branching out, some would say anarchically mutating, from the swing era. Evans was aware of this and knew that bebop as a school of jazz could do little to advance big band arrangements as the musicians associated with the new school were more individually oriented and almost exclusively interested in solo improvising. Evans didn’t wish to follow suit although some British musicians such as Tubby Hayes in the fifties and sixties successfully fused big bands with hard bop. Rather, Evans’ artistic interest was in orchestral arranging and he was convinced that there could be a big band development of equal magnitude to the revolutionary impression bebop was making.
So Evans pushed on with these developments and he, along with the Thornhill orchestra, drew ever closer to the European classical repertoire and how it could relate to modern American music. He looked to pieces from the classics for inspiration and even for possible pieces to arrange and record. The Troubadour by Mussorgsky, recorded by the Claude Thornhill Orchestra in 1947, is an example of this and it certainly sounds like a prelude to his work with Miles Davis on Sketches Of Spain.
In a prospect of moving jazz on from bebop to a West Coast cool style Evans tried to reconnect to the jazz mainstream by working with Charlie Parker on pieces scored for Claude Thornhill. Their version of Donna Lee in 1947 is a sort of homage to a bebop he was leaving behind, but with an arranger’s twist in the tail.
Eventually though, around 1948, Gil Evans found Thornhill’s conventions a little too static for his creative tastes:
‘Everything – melody, harmony, rhythm – was moving at minimum speed,’ he said. ‘The sound hung like a cloud and the band could put you to sleep.’
So he left.
At the same time the Miles Davis sideman often met up with members of Thornhill’s orchestra in Gil Evans house in New York and Horricks suggests that changes in Miles’ music were being made under the influence of Gil Evans, moving Miles away from his work as a bebop musician and ushering in a new phase of small-group music that was eventually to become ‘cool jazz.’ As was the way with Miles, the music was experimental, as shown by the adding in at the recording studio of flutes, tuba and French horn for harmonic and sound effect. Basically, Evans wanted Miles to work with the same dynamics that he had followed with Claude Thornhill’s Orchestra and this he did with the Miles Davis Nonet. When this band played New York’s Royal Roost, the billboard outside the venue included the arrangers name.
‘No-one had done that before, given credit to arrangers,’ writes Berendt in his book The New Jazz, suggesting that the positions of influences and influencers were shifting within the music.
The sidemen in the Miles Davis Nonet at that time were Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz and John Lewis, a very different group of musicians to those around Parker and Gillespie and although this band was intended only to fulfil a two-week club spot, they went on to record in 1949 and 1950 and showed the way away from bebop towards another jazz movement.
They did so with one ear on what Evans had done with the Thornhill orchestra and you can hear this in the tune Moon Dreams, especially in its discordant central statement.
So the Miles Davis Nonet set the foundations for a new jazz sound from the early fifties which some saw as revolutionary.
photo 6 gm Gil Evans was at the core of this and his arrangement of Boplicity re-released in 1957 on The Birth Of The Cool album that some felt qualified Gil Evans as one of jazz’s greatest arranger-composers and led to the rise of the West Coast jazz school underpinned by such bands as the Gerry Mulligan Quartet.
During this period Gil Evans was still writing arrangements for Charlie Parker and backing singers, but these records turned out to be schmaltzy and unsuccessful, appearing in 1953 under the LP title Big Band. They have the Evans’ signature exoticism but tend to squeeze Parker’s artistry in between over-orchestrated strings. This you can hear on Stella By Starlight in which Parker seems to be fighting against the orchestra single-handedly.
A breakthrough came for Gil Evans with his work with Miles Davis on Miles Ahead in 1957, although at the time a number of critics wondered whether the tracks worked as jazz arrangements. The album came about through ‘musical conversations’ between Miles and Gil which turned into a set of short ‘concertos’ for flugal horn and orchestra. Not everything on the album was improvised, in fact a lot of Miles’ solo lines were written, again raising issues of its place in the jazz tradition. The experimental sounds of reeds and woodwinds are clear where they melt into the jazz brass, with five trumpets, three trombones, bass trombone, two french horns and a tuba, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, bass and drums. It has to be said that Evans transformed the Miles Davis sound in orchestral terms, stripping away every trace of the temperamental attack of bebop and laying out a calm, lyrical and almost static musical arc, each musical climax planned and written way in advance. And yet it swings because of the underpinning of Paul Chambers (bass) and Art Taylor (drums). A good example of this is the track My Ship. But again, was this jazz ? What was jazz after ‘Miles Ahead’ ?
For a short time after this album Gil Evans stepped away from jazz and worked on the Broadway musical Jamaica but then came back with Gil Evans And Ten in 1958 with a great line up including Steve Lacy, Lee Konitz, Paul Chambers and Jo Jones.
Again, he was experimenting with sounds-off whilst not standing in the way of individual soloists with whom he had a celebratory attitude. You can hear this on Just One Of Those Thingswith Lacy taking the solos. Later that same year Evans went on to write and arrange for an album under his own name. New Bottle, Old Wine was recorded with an orchestra fronted by Cannonball Adderley. The concept here showed his reverence for jazz traditions with his reinterpretation of standards. Williams in his book The Art of Jazz writes that Evans’ version of Davenport Blues shows his clear knowledge of jazz history although he impishly places Bix Beiderbecke in a discordant and lush setting. Some critics felt that there was too much arrangement on this album and again this raises the question about whether over-arranging leads to a loss of the jazz spirit. See what you think with King Porter Stomp with Cannonball Adderley taking the lead.
Evans was never far from Miles Davis during this period though and returned to him with his arrangements for Porgy And Bess in 1959 and Sketches Of Spain in 1960, pieces hardly ever played live, existing, because of their tight arrangements maybe, only on record.
So, through Gil Evans’ influence there was a definite theoretical movement in jazz (and music in general) away from a chord-based line and soloing towards the sort of modality that you hear in Kind of Blue. Gil Evans wanted to get the feeling of what Berendt called ‘a cloud through sound, pierced by rays of sunshine which struck the listener as on an autumn morning, through the gentle veil of fog.’
In his later periods and with his own bands Gil Evans turned to younger musicians and jazz-fusion sounds, recording in 1964 The Individualism Of Gil Evans and then going on to Look To The Rainbow with Astrud Gilberto in 1966. He set up his own bands in the US and the UK and even had plans to meet and work with Jimi Hendrix but sadly Hendrix died in 1970 before that could happen. Nevertheless, after 1970 he went on to record over twenty more albums under his own name until his death in 1988.
An example from his later work, still looking back and hankering after the Claude Thornhill sound but now with modern instrumentation and technology comes from his 1973 record ‘Svengali’ with Eleven. It captures the drive and creativity of a man who found his own sound and developed it within a lifetime dedicated to jazz.
This article was written by Gary Heywood-Everett, (right) author and a founding member of the Joined up Jazz Journalists.
The Sidetracks & Detours inaugural Annual Joined Up Jazz Celebration in association with Hot Biscuits continues with our next daily post. Billie Holiday: A Poet´s Muse will be a special feature on the jazz and blues singer, currently the subject of a new film and a forthcoming major documentary on BBC2. The article will be presented by Norman Warwick, the owner and editor of Sidetracks & Detours
Don´t forget you can hear Gary and Steve Bewick presenting the Hot Biscuits jazz Programme on www.fc-radio.co.uk
We are grateful to Jazz In Reading, Jazz North and Ribble Valley Jazz And Blues for their kind support and look forward to bringing you further details in the weeks to come of the excellent work they do for the jazz community.