Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Gil Evans: The Arranger as Re-composer – Part 1

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“He was a mysterious man, as elusive and evanescent as his art. He could be maddeningly absent-minded; yet he could be closely attentive and solicitous, and you never quite knew how much Gil Evans was noticing about you. His childhood is an enigma, and there is even a question about his real name. Tall, lank, professional of mien, he was kind, self-critical, and self-doubting.”
- Gene Lees

“The mind reels at the intricacy of his orchestral and developmental techniques. His scores are so careful, so formally well-constructed, so mindful of tradition, that you feel the originals should be preserved under glass in a Florentine museum.”
- Bill Mathieu [arranger-composer]

“His name is famously an anagram of Svengali and Gil spent much of his career shaping the sounds and musical philosophies of younger musicians. … His peerless voicings are instantly recognizable.”
- Richard Cook

“I bought every one of Louis Armstrong’s records from 1927-1936. … In every one of these three minute records, there’s a magic moment somewhere. Every one of them. I really learned how to handle a song from him. I learned how to love music from him. Because he loved music and he did everything with love and care. So he’s my main influence I think.”
- Gil Evans

Thanks to the Los Angeles Jazz Institute's recent 4-day Jazz festival, May 23-26, 2013, the editorial staff had occasion to re-visit the early work of arranger-composer Gil Evans as it was featured in concerts that were performed as part of tributes to the music of the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, the seminal 1949 Birth of the Cool recordings, and the 1959 Miles Ahead Columbia LP.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be nice to revisit its earlier posting about Gil by combining Parts 1 and 2 into one piece and adding a video tribute to Gil at the end which uses La Nevada, a composition that he wrote for his own orchestra, as the audio track.

In his book, Arranging the Score: Portraits of the Great Arranger, Gene Lees entitles his chapter on arranger-composer Gil Evans – He Fell from a Star.

As far as I was concerned, Gil could have come from anywhere.

I had no idea who he was until he magically appeared in my life one day courtesy of Pacific Jazz’s LP: - New Bottle Old Wine: The Great Jazz Composers Interpreted by Gil Evans and His Orchestra.

The album is a showcase for alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley who offers superb renditions of Gil’s arrangements beginning with St. Louis Blues and concluding with Charlie Parker’s Bird Feathers.

In essence, the eight treatments of Jazz classics on the album represent a salute to the first 25-years or so of Jazz composition and Gil weaves them together into a continuous “suite” through his use of transitional interludes, riffs and vamps.

The Gil Evans and His Orchestra part of the LP title is a bit of a misnomer because as Doug Ramsey explains, Gil “… never had his own full time band. For three decades he did his magical work with specially chosen musicians in studios and concert halls or with his once-a-week band at New York nightclubs.  The evidence of his genius with shimmering vertical harmonies, moving lines, and mysterious voicings is in a body of recordings … .” [p. 415 from Doug’s essay Big Bands and Jazz Composing and Arranging After World War II, in Bill Kirchner, ed., The Oxford Companion to Jazz.

I no sooner had the chance to “digest” my initial “discovery” of Gil when suddenly he appeared to be everywhere present on the Jazz scene, mostly in the form of a series of block-buster Columbia LP’s that featured the trumpet playing of Miles Davis including Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain.

Who was this guy, where did he comes from and why was he “… regarded by many as the most gifted of all Jazz arrangers, but Ellington …?” [Ramsey. Loc cit.].

From a variety of sources, I eventually found out that Gil’s relationship with Miles antedated their Columbia albums by a dozen or so years going back their initial meeting at the 52nd Street clubs that came into existence primarily following World War II.

According to Ted Gioia:

“Evans was little known at the time, even in Jazz circles. His biggest claim to fame, to the extent he enjoyed any, was due to his forward-looking arranging for the Claude Thornhill orchestra.

The Thornhill band was a jumble of contradictions: it was sweet and hot by turns; progressive and nostalgic—both to an extreme; overtly commercial, yet also aspiring to transform jazz into art music. Like Paul Whiteman, Thornhill may have only obscured his place in Jazz history by straddling so many different styles.

Jazz his­torians, not knowing what to do with this range of sounds, prefer to relegate Thornhill to a footnote and dismiss him as a popularizer or some sort of Claude De­bussy of jazz. True, this band was best known for its shimmering, impressionistic sound, exemplified in Thornhill's theme "Snowfall."

But this was only one facet of the Thornhill band. Evans, in particular, brought a harder, bop-oriented edge to the group, contributing solid arrangements of modern jazz pieces such as "Anthropol­ogy," "Donna Lee," and "Yardbird Suite." In due course, these songs would become jazz standards, practice-room fodder for legions of musicians, but at the time Evans was one of the few arrangers interested in translating them into a big band format.

Yet Evans was equally skillful in developing the more contemplative side of the Thornhill band. His later work with Davis would draw on many devices—static harmonies, unusual instruments (for jazz) such as French horn and tuba, rich voicings — refined during his time with Thornhill.

Gerry Mulligan would also con­tribute arrangements to the Thornhill band, and later credited the leader with "having taught me the greatest lesson in dynamics, the art of under-blowing." He de­scribed the Thornhill sound as one of "controlled violence"—perhaps an apt char­acterization of the cool movement as a whole [The History of Jazz, p. 281, paragraphing modified].”

Gil Evans offered more background about his time on the Thornhill band, with Miles on 52nd Street and the Boplicity or Birth of the Cool recordings in the following excerpts taken from his September 1956 interview on  Ben Sidran’s NPR program Talking Jazz:

Gil: Yeah, right, I met Claude Thornhill in Hollywood. I came out there to write some arrangements for this band, Skinny Ennis's band, who was on the Bob Hope show. And I was writing arrangements for that.

Claude had an insurance policy that he was going to cash in, and he couldn't decide whether to go to Tahiti for the rest of his life or go back to New York and start a band. Which he decided to do. So I said to him, "If you ever need an arranger, let me know." So when his chief arranger got drafted, he sent for me. That was in 1941, '42. Then we all got drafted. So when he reorganized back in '46, I was with him again for a while.

But by that time, the scene had changed. The swing band era was over right? He just missed it by that three or four years in the service. He could have scored, but coming back into it again, pop music had come along and rock and roll, and folk and all that. So he had a hard time booking the band. And the band was big.
It was a wonderful workshop for me.

It had three trumpets and two trombones and two French horns and two altos, two tenors, baritone and a separate flute section, right? Three flute players, didn't play anything but flutes. And a tuba. So it was a big nut for him, and he finally had to give it up.

Ben: Was it Claude's idea to include the French horns and the tuba, initially?

Gil: The French horns were his idea, yeah. But the tuba, I got that in there. And the flutes. But the French horns he had quite a while. He had them before the war, too, you know.

He was like a practical joker, in a way. And so a clarinet was out in front of the band playing "Summertime"... I don't know if you ever heard of a clarinet player named Fazola?

Ben: Sure, Irving Fazola.

Gil: Beautiful tone, and oh, no one ever had a more beautiful tone than Fazola. So he's out there playing "Summertime," and Claude signaled to these two guys, and they came up from the audience and sat down and started playing these French horns in sustained harmony underneath him. And nobody in the band knew that was going to happen. Faz couldn't believe it. He looked around.

But the band sounded like horns anyway, even before he got them. It was one of the first bands that played without a vibrato, you know. Be­cause the vibrato had been "in" all the time in jazz, ever since, well, Louis Armstrong, you know, that vibrato.
But then Claude’s band played with no vibrato, and that’s what made it compatible with bebop. Because the bebop players were playing with no vibrato. And they were interested in the impressionistic harmony, you know, that I had used with Claude. Minor ninths and all that.

That's how we got together, really. That's the reason we got together. Because of the fact that there was no vibrato plus the harmonic devel­opment. Because up until that time, with the swing bands, mostly the harmony had been from Fletcher Henderson, really. Where you harmo­nize everything with the major sixth chords and passing tones with a di­minished chord, you know. So that was how things changed with bebop.

Ben: Also, the addition of the French horns and the tuba got the arrange­ments out of the more traditional "sections"—brass section, woodwind section—and made it more of a continuous palette for you.

Gil: Well, when Miles and I got together to do the Capitol record [Birth of the Cool] we just had to figure out how few instruments, and which ones, we could use to cover the harmonic needs of Claude Thornhill's band, you know. Naturally, with a big band like that, you have a lot of doubles. But we just trimmed it down to the six horns. Six horns and three rhythm, and those six horns covered all the harmonic needs that we had. …

Ben: That particular recording very quietly started some sort of revolution in jazz.

Gil: I wasn't even there. You know, I had to go home to see my mother in California, so I wrote that arrangement and gave it to Miles. But we were all so in tune with each other that I didn't have any worries at all. They just played it, and when I heard it, it was as though I had been there.

That's the way it was with all the records I made with Miles, the big band records, too. Because even though the notes were different, and they weren't familiar with the arrangements, they were so familiar with the idiom, you know, that we made those big band records in three three-hour sessions with no rehearsal. Nowadays, that's unheard of, right? You get a hundred hours, now, or more. But we got nine hours to make that thing, with no rehearsals. But the band, the whole band I picked out, they had the idiom under their fingers. So it was possible to do that.

Ben: That band, the "Boplicity" band, came together through a series of informal gatherings at your apartment over a couple of years.

Gil: I rented a room a couple of blocks from 52nd Street, you know. When I got off the train, I got in a cab and I went right to 52nd Street. I didn't have a place to stay. I threw my bag in a check room and I just walked up and down The Street there and met a bunch of my heroes. First night, I met all my heroes! I met Ben [Webster] and Lester [Young], Erroll Garner and Bud Powell, all these people the first night.

So I got a room a couple blocks away, a basement room. Just one big room with a bed and a piano and a record player and a sink. And I left the door open for two years. Just left it open. I never locked it. When I went out, I never locked it. So sometimes I'd come home and I'd meet strangers. And most of the time I met people like Miles and John Lewis and people like that. George Russell.

We talked a lot about harmony. How to get a "sound" out of harmony. Because the harmony has a lot to do with what the music is going to "sound" like. The instruments have their wave form and all that, but the harmony means that you're putting together a group of instruments, and they're going to get their own independent wave form, right? You can't get it any other way except as an ensemble together.

So Miles and I talked about that lots of times. And played chords on the piano. And that's how it happened.

Ben: The "sound" that you did come up with so perfectly suited Miles' sound that it almost seemed like one gesture.

Gil: That's right...

Ben: You talk about the extension of the Thornhill sound. You once said about the Thornhill band that "the band was a reduction to inactivity, a stillness..."

Gil: Oh, it was. That's right.

Ben: And "the sound would hang like a cloud."

Gil: That's right. Oh yeah.

Ben: Part of what you created, then, in the "Boplicity" session is a new approach to jazz, where even with a small group, it wasn't a separate thing, a rhythm section and a horn section, but rather it was a "sound." Almost a studio form before there were studio forms.

Gil: Yeah, right.

Ben: You mention the Miles Ahead big band session. "Boplicity" was re­corded in 1949 ...

Gil: We didn't get together again until '57...” [pp. 16-19]

We found this summation by Bill Kirchner on the significance of these Boplicity or Birth of the Cool recordings in Gene Lees’ chapter on Gil:

“Saxophonist/composer/arranger/author Bill Kirchner, who teaches jazz composition at the New School, wrote in a paper delivered at a conference on Miles Davis held on 8 April 1995, at Washington University in St. Louis, Mis­souri, that the group that grew out of those sessions in Gil's pad was an anomaly: "It recorded only a dozen pieces for Capitol and played in public for a total of two weeks in a nightclub, but its recordings and their influence have been compared to the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Sevens, and to other classics by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Charlie Parker. Though its personnel changed frequently, many of the nonet's members and composer-arrangers became jazz musicians of major stature. Most notable were Davis, trombonists J. J. Johnson and Kai Winding, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, baritone saxophonist and arranger Gerry Mulligan, pianist and arranger John Lewis, pianist Al Haig, drummers Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, and Art Blakey, and arrangers Gil Evans and John Carisi...

"The Birth of the Cool sides were recorded in three sessions on 21 January and 22 April 1949, and on 9 March 1950. Issued initially as single 78s and eventually in various LP collections, these recordings had an enormous impact on musicians and the jazz public. Principally, they have been credited - or blamed, depending on one's point of view - for the subsequent popu­larity of "cool" or "west coast" jazz. Indeed, composer-arrangers such as Mulligan, Shorty Rogers, Marty Paich, and Duane Tatro were inspired by the Birth of the Cool instrumentation and approach.

"A good deal of their music, though, was more aggressive and rhythmic than some critics would lead us to believe - the frequent presence of such impeccably swinging drummers as Shelly Manne and Mel Lewis alone insured that.

"But the Birth of the Cool influence extended far beyond west coast jazz, and frequently appeared in all sorts of unexpected places. In the '50s, east coast composer-arrangers such as Gigi Gryce, Quincy Jones, and Benny Golson produced recordings using this approach, as did traditionalist Dick Gary, who used the style in orchestrating a set of Dixieland warhorses. Thelonious Monk, with arranger Hall Overton, used an almost identical Birth of the Cool instrumentation for his famed 1959 Town Hall concert. The format was proving to have all sorts of possibilities for creative jazz writing.

"Gil Evans spent much of the rest of his career expanding on the innova­tions of his Thornhill and Birth of the Cool scores."

What is generally overlooked is a point made by Max Harrison: that the "cool" did not begin with those nonet sessions. "There has always been cool jazz," …” [pp. 91-92]

Perhaps because my initial involvement with Jazz was in California in the 1950s when the music of the West Coast “cool” school was still very much apparent, I have always had an affinity for its sound or texture.

What I noticed almost immediately about Gil’s writing was it’s appealing texture.

But what is a musical definition of texture which joins with melody, harmony and rhythm [meter] as a fourth building block used to create a musical composition?

Ironically, of these four basic musical atoms, the most indefinable yet the one we first notice is – texture.

Texture is the word that is used to refer to the actual sound of the music. This encompasses the instruments with which it is played; its tonal colors; its dynamics; its sparseness or its complexity.

Texture involves anything to do with the sound experience and it is the word that is used to describe the overall impression that a piece of music creates in our emotional imagination.

Often our first and most lasting impression of a composition is usually based on that work’s texture, even though we are not aware of it. Generally, we receive strong musical impressions from the physical sound of any music and these then determine our emotional reaction to the work.

Beyond the texture or sound of his music and the lasting physical and emotional impact it can create, Gil’s music is also heavily rhythmic – the most visceral and fundamental of all the musical elements.

Music takes place in time and like many great composers, Gil uses rhythms and the relationships between rhythms to express many moods and musical thoughts.

He uses rhythm to provide a primal, instinctive kind of foundation for the other musical thoughts [themes and motifs] to build upon.

This combination of powerful, repetitive rhythmic phrases and the manner in which he textures the sound of his music over them provides many of Gil’s arrangements with a magisterial quality.

Another of Gil’s great skills as a composer is that he never seems to be at a loss for the new rhythms that he needs to create musical interest in his work. He is a master at using the creative tension between unchanging meter and constantly changing rhythms and these rhythmic variations help to produce a vitality in his music.

In his use of melody, Gil’s approach to composing, arranging and orchestrating appears to have much in common with the Classical composers of the late 18th and early 19th century [Mozart & Beethoven as examples] in that he relies on a series of measured and balanced musical phrases as the mainstay of much of his work.

And like these Classical composers, Gil is also careful not to let one musical element overwhelm the others: balance between elements is as important as balance within any one of them.

Gil obviously places a high value on melody in his writing as his original themes or the manner in which he orchestrates the theme of standard tunes have a way of finding themselves into one’s subconscious and staying there a la – “I can’t get this tune out of my head.”

This is in large part because Gil works with melodies to make them easily-remembered short phrases, generally four or eight bars in length and these are often heard in combination with other similar phrases to fashion something akin to a musical mosaic with individual pieces joining together to create a musical whole.

Gil crafts little melodic devices that are wonderful examples of the composer’s art. And he has learned over the years to base his compositions out of the fewest possible melodic building blocks because if there too many melodies, or for that matter, too many rhythms and too many different chords in a piece, the listener can get confused and eventually bored.

And on the subject of chords, the building blocks of harmony, here Gil’s approach involving multi-part harmony is more akin to modern composers such as Debussy, Bartok and Stravinsky than to those of the Classical period.

As Bill Kirchner, Gene Lees and Max Harrison, among others, have noted, the melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and textural elements that are combined to make a “cooler” Jazz have been around since the beginnings of the music itself.

In the December 1958 and February 1960 issues of the original Jazz Monthly magazine, Max Harrison provided a comprehensive and analytical review of Gil Evans’ music and his career dating back to his time with the Claude Thornhill orchestra in the mid-1940s and the Birth of the Cool recordings through the issuance of the Miles Davis collaborations on Columbia and the earliest recordings under Gil’s own name on Pacific Jazz, Verve and Impulse.

These articles were later collected and published in book form under the title A Jazz Retrospect.

We will post Max’s essay from this book in its entirely to form the second part of our visit with Gil Evans, a musician whose “… lack of formal training may be the key to his originality, for he can arrange harmonies that no one else has ever arranged and cluster instrumental groups that no one has ever sectioned before.” [Jack Chambers, Milestones, Vol. 1, p. 95].