Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Art of Gil Evans

Bandleader Maria Schneider chose a dozen great Gil Evans tracks on a recent post at Having served as Gil's assistant for several years in the Eighties, she definitely could provide a unique perspective on his skills as arranger and re-composer (original composer only rarely) in a career lasting fifty years, from his early work with Claude Thornhill's Orchestra, through famous albums with Miles Davis and on his own, to the final rock/fusion/avant garde work with pick-up orchestras assembled around the world. Ms. Schneider--no mean composer and orchestra boss herself--offered a textbook study in the Art of Creative Arranging a la Evans, as she detailed the ins and outs, the roundabouts and airy astonishments, of each selection.

I wouldn't presume to dispute any of her detailed analysis or personal reminiscence, but I will note that she could easily have chosen another three or four dozen equally memorable pieces. Evans was that major a force even if still surprisingly unprolific, apparently somewhat reticent to record. (He even notoriously failed to save the stacks of sheet music from his classic arrangements, and he almost never asked for a share of any shaped-by-Gil album's royalties, choosing to do contractual piece work instead--which kept him scuffling for bread for much of his working life.) What I can offer is an ordinary listener's perspective...

Like many other fans, my knowledge of Evans' very existence came via the five near-perfect albums released in the late Fifties and early Sixties--the first three with Davis (Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain, all of them standard buys for Kennedy-era college kids), then two by Gil and his orchestra minus Miles (Out of the Cool and The Individualism of Gil Evans). Though some critics fault the Gershwin and Spanish albums as not really "Jazz" enough, I say call it something else then--G'Evanzz with French G sound maybe--and be glad it happened to the world. All the outtakes and false starts and known edits from those Columbia albums (first revealed in Mosaic's Davis-Evans box set) show just how tough it was to get his charts and the performances right--significant information, that, but no listener should allow such arcane stuff to get in the way of simple enjoyment.

The subsequent no-Miles pair presumably required some studio fretting too to achieve their beauty and brilliance--maracas and busy drums, blatting 'bones, fleet sax solos, earthy bass moments, judicious flickerings of harp and guitar, all working to make the orchestra sound (as Miles remarked of Sketches) like "one big guitar," or a sole mournful horn. "La Nevada," "Where Flamingos Fly," "The Bilbao Song," "Stratusphunk," "Time of the Barracudas," "The Barbara Song," "Las Vegas Tango": that extraordinary blend of Jazz and Kurt Weill, a sound he carried over to tunes not by Weill, was a match made in Evans...

Towards the end of my half-decade of discovery, I also sought out the earlier Birth of the Cool sessions as well as Gil's Boppish charts for Thornhill (where he first began working the "cool" sound of French horns and tuba, keening flutes and reeds), piece work for Johnny Mathis, a lovely set with Helen Merrill, several tracks with Kenny Burrell, and his two early Pacific Jazz albums reinventing great Jazz standards.

But Gil then seemed to fade into some sort of obscurity--or maybe self-imposed exile. He shifted his emphasis as bandleader to feature more improvisation and less arranging, so his pick-up bands that played New York and elsewhere during the Seventies and Eighties would investigate Jimi Hendrix tunes, Free Jazz steps outside, fusion excitement and fusion noodling as well, synthesizer overload, and so on, and sometimes go on, excessively. An Evans evening at the Sweet Basil club, for example, might be brilliant, or just as easily boring, as he let his players (all of them first-chair musicians capable of soloing) take charge, which meant that each tune might ramble on for 15 or 20 minutes or more.

I was fortunate to catch an Evans orchestra live in 1985 at the Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen--a first-rate, albeit hurriedly rehearsed English/European band similar in skills and willingness to the groups he could assemble in the States. On the night I was present, I'm fairly certain that reeds greats Billy Harper and John Surman were two of the favored soloists, but what I recall most vividly is the quiet joy Gil radiated just sitting at the piano and gesturing minimally--and how easily one could get caught up in long and winding numbers that probably grew from a late-Mingus chart or a few jotted notes on a lead sheet. That mesmerizing concert lasted for maybe three hours, and it remains a highlight of all my experience of live music.

As Evans grew older and even more ascetically thin, he kept working as called on--a remake of the Merrill album, uncredited assistance to funk-fusioneer Miles, work with rock star Sting, East Coast performances that Maria Schneider possibly assisted (and might one day comment on). Plus two sort-of Gil albums that I actually like a lot, resulting from a near-the-end collaboration with French bandleader Laurent Cugny and his Big Band Lumiere, which produced the little-known releases Rhythm A Ning and Golden Hair.

Using mostly Gil's charts and with Cugny conducting and a fragile Gil providing his usual minimalist piano, the French musicians (plus a couple of ringers like Andy Sheppard and Marilyn Mazur) with almost no rehearsal time played their... culottes... off, giving performances just as freed-up and free-to-drift as other Evans ensembles, but also anchored in solid tempos and tunes like the Monk title track, Mingus's "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" and "Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues," plus in-the-groove Cugny originals "Golden Hair" and "Charlie Mingus's Sound of Love," as well as Gil's own "Zee Zee," "London," and classic "La Nevada."

Mercy, Mr. Gil! Merci, M. Cugny...

Together they made a brief, serendipitous duo too cool and too hot not to be better known in the Gilded Annals of Evans.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this, I share admiration for Gil, what an extraordianire arranger he was. Cheers form Madrid!

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