© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"An interdependence of modern thought and its expression was needed," says Evans; "if you express new thoughts and ideas in old ways you take the vigour and excitement out of the new thoughts."
- Gil Evans as interviewed by Nat Hentoff
When writing about the music of Gil Evans [1912-1988], the “texture” of his music is often stressed as that quality which makes it so unique and so appealing.
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 the 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.
There’s more on the subject of texture or, if you will, orchestral sonority, and Gil Evans’ approach to it in the following essay by Charles Fox which can be found in Raymond Horricks, These Jazzmen of Our Times, which was published in 1960 by the London Jazz Book Club by arrangement with Victor Gollancz.
This is a remarkably piece of musical analysis by Mr. Fox. It contains many insights, clearly explained in terms that a non-musician can understand, into what made Gil’s approach to arranging unique and his musical textures so appealing.
Mr. Fox’s explanation of the orchestrations and voicings on his collaboration with Miles Davis on the legendary Miles Ahead LP alone is “worth the price of admission,” so to speak.
Interestingly, Mr. Fox’s essay is not referenced in Stephanie Stein Crease’s biography - Gil Evans, Out of the Cool, His Life and Music.
“It is in folk music, I suppose, that one finds the simplest, most direct use of melody and rhythm. Not until later, when the civilizing process has got well under way, does that simplicity become adulterated. Occasionally such adulteration is harmful, but more often it precedes the creation of art-music, richer, more complex and with possibilities of greater scope and expressiveness. That is the way a culture develops, and nothing can bring back our original innocence; the progression from 'wood-notes wild' to Le Sacre is inevitable, even if it takes a thousand years. The beginning, though, is always linear, a single thread of melody. With liturgical music, designed for collective performance, comes the first exploration of form, the discovery of canon and fugue and the logic of counterpoint. At this stage too, although at first very slowly, we get the development of harmony—the clothing of melody. And so on, and so on, through the baroque composers to the nineteenth-century romantics and their exploitation of texture, itself a sophistication of harmony. The movement is one of continual expansion, of technical advances which excite composers to make aesthetic discoveries. Good music remains good, of course, whatever century it gets written in, but for a tradition to stay healthy and to continue throwing up artists of vitality it must keep expanding its boundaries.
To some people this must seem a very pompous way to begin an essay about a modern jazz arranger. In fact it is perfectly relevant. Jazz, as many writers have pointed out already, has passed at comparatively high speed through most of the phases which Western music has experienced over eight or nine centuries. It, too, began as linear folk-song, then became polyphonic, evolving the trumpet-clarinet-trombone formula which endures to this day. When the big bands started taking over from the early improvising groups and jazz performances began to be scored and harmonized, yet another formal pattern was introduced—the antiphonal call-and-response, found in West African chanting as well as in American Negro spirituals.
This antiphonal pattern formed the basis of Fletcher Henderson's orchestration, both for his own band in the 1920s and for Benny Goodman's a decade later; since then the orchestras of Count Basie and Woody Herman, although making much more use of riffs, have perpetuated the convention. The basic pattern is simple enough, a theme tossed from brass to reeds and back again, or a soloist answered by the orchestra; in each case the relationship remains formal and definite. Even an arranger as gifted as Benny Garter has stuck to this formula, although in his case it particularly suited his aesthetic temperament; no jazz arranger has written more exquisitely for saxophones or revealed such an elegant, almost eighteenth-century sense of formality; even so, it must be admitted that Carter has never exploited the full resources of the jazz orchestra.
It was Duke Ellington, and to a lesser degree Don Redman, who first concerned themselves with problems of texture as well as harmony, who bothered about the sound as well as the shape of jazz. Redman, still a greatly undervalued figure in jazz history, was quickly off the mark in the 1920s, writing scores not only for Fletcher Henderson's band but also for Jean Goldkette's and Paul Whiteman's. His real potentialities were revealed, however, a year or so afterwards in the arrangements he devised for McKinney's Cotton Pickers and, later on, for his own band. Such recordings by Don Redman's orchestra as Chant Of The Weed, Hot And Anxious, That Blue-Eyed Baby From Memphis and Got The Jitters—all made between 1931 and 1934—reveal how remarkably advanced Redman's conception of harmony and counterpoint must have been for that time. Chant Of The Weed remains one of the most bizarre and dynamic jazz compositions that I know; it was recorded in October, 1931, nine months after Duke Ellington's Creole Rhapsody, a work which may not have been the first to make an individual soloist subservient to the will of the composer (some of Jelly Roll Morton's compositions probably deserve that honour), but was at least the
most ambitious up to that date.
In Creole Rhapsody Ellington broke away — even if in only a small degree — from the four bar unit traditional to jazz phrasing when he scored a passage in which his trombonists played five bar phrases; yet it has been his harmonic curiosity, already revealed in many earlier compositions, which will probably be regarded as Ellington's major contribution to jazz techniques. In 1934 he recorded the cloudy, almost sombre Rude Interlude, a work which at last gave substance to the comparisons contemporary critics had been drawing between Ellington's use of harmony and that of such composers as Ravel, Delius and Debussy; later on, with his great orchestra of the 1940s, Duke Ellington expanded many of the harmonic and rhythmic discoveries of those early years.
It is surprising that so little should have been added to the work of Ellington and Redman by the men who followed them. There were, admittedly, a few isolated attempts at getting away from conventional jazz instrumentation, mainly by the introduction of flutes, oboes, bassoons and other woodwinds, but all were of minor importance. In Britain during the 1930s the late Reginald Foresythe devised a number of witty and ingenious pieces for a jazz chamber group, while in America, just before the war, Alec Wilder did something very similar, yet the work of these two men made scarcely any impact. And even after the Minton's revolution there was little sign of improvement; the bop pioneers experimented with harmony less, for its own sake than because they needed a more stimulating ground plan for improvisation. Even composers as talented and original as Thelonious Monk and Tadd Dameron, possessing a sophisticated harmonic conception, were largely concerned with melodic invention. But an event in the autumn of 1948 changed the entire scene, acting as a catalyst not only within the United States but also over here in Europe. I refer, of course, to the formation of Miles Davis band, a nine-piece group which played for a fortnight at the Royal Roost on Broadway and subsequently recorded three historic sessions for the Capitol label. [The modern day reference for this music is The Birth of the Cool recordings.]
The Miles Davis sessions (the last of which actually took place in ,1950) have been analysed and discussed at great length already; I need do little more than reiterate that they ushered in a new era of small-group jazz, bringing to the music a fresh sound and a much more ambitious conception of texture. And as well as using trumpet, trombone, alto and baritone saxes, piano, bass and drums, the band included a french horn and a tuba; it was the first time that these two instruments had been incorporated within a specifically jazz group, although for some years they had been exploited very skilfully by the arrangers with Claude Thornhill's orchestra, one of the most interesting dance bands of the 1940s.
The link with Thornhill's band is significant, for not only were several of the musicians taking part in the Capitol sessions members or ex-members of that orchestra but the Miles Davis band had been planned at a series of meetings held in the apartment of Gil Evans, Thornhill's chief arranger. At that time Evans was thirty-six, a surprisingly mature age for a man just about to revolutionize jazz orchestration, although in no other art-form would it seem at all odd. In a way it was typical of Evans that he should have remained so stubbornly in the background before producing this tour de force. The same thing was to happen again between 1950 and 1957, the years which preceded his score for the "Miles Ahead" LP, when Evans worked at many tasks — "act music, vaudeville, night clubs", as well as orchestrating for radio and TV. He also occupied his time reading musical history, biographies of composers and music criticism and listening to records; he was filling in, as he put it later, "the gaps in my musical development", gaps which sprang from the fact— the surprising fact—that he had never received a proper musical education. "I've always learned through practical work," Evans told Nat Hentoff in 1957. "I started in music with a little band that could play the music as soon as I'd write it." This empirical method has been shared by at least two other distinguished jazz composers—Duke Ellington and Tadd Dameron. They, along with Evans, can boast, like so many of the pioneers of jazz, that no academicians ever defined for them what was possible and what impossible.
At this stage a few biographical details seem needed in order to bring Gil Evans into perspective. Born in Toronto, Canada, on May 13, 1912, of Australian parents, he was christened Ian Ernest Tilmore Green but later took the surname of his step-father. After living in British Columbia and in the state of Washington, he spent his youth in Stockton, a town about 70 miles inland from San Francisco. There he listened to jazz and popular music on records and over the radio. Already he was fascinated by sounds: "When I was a kid," he told Nat Hentoff, "I could tell what kind of car was coming with my back turned."
Later on it was the sound of Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden, of Duke Ellington's band, McKinney's Cotton Pickers and Don Redman's orchestra which absorbed him and must have influenced the scores that he wrote for his own little band, a group which flourished between 1933 and 1938 and in which he played rhythm piano. Skinnay Ennis took over this band in 1938 but Evans continued to arrange for it, and in that way he met Claude Thornhill, another of Ennis' arrangers. When Thornhill left, in 1939, to form his own orchestra, Evans recalls that he was already scoring trombones in with woodwinds. "I haunted Claude," says Evans, "until he hired me as an arranger in 1941." That same year Thornhill added french horns, the first bandleader to do such a thing. Even before that, however, the band had begun to sound "like a french horn band, the trombones and trumpets playing in derby hats without vibrato". The horns were blended with brass and reeds in various combinations, so that the conventional sound of these sections was either eliminated or transformed.
"A characteristic voicing for the Thornhill band," recalls Evans, "was a french horn lead, one and sometimes two french horns playing in unison or a duet. . . . The clarinet doubled the melody, also playing lead. Below were two altos, a tenor and a baritone or two altos and two tenors. The reed section sometimes went very low with the saxes, being forced to play in a sub-tone and very soft." Later on, in 1947, after Thornhill had been in the navy and Evans in the army, John Barber was added on tuba, the instrument not being used rhythmically but as part of the melodic voicing.
This was the sound which formed the basis of Gil Evans' subsequent experiments, a sound which—Evans is very firm on this point—Thornhill evolved by himself. Evans maintains that his own influence operated only through his use of the Thornhill orchestra as an instrument. "I did more or less match up with the sound of the different movements by people like Lester, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in which I was interested. It was their rhythmic and harmonic revolutions that had influenced me." Jazz musicians, as Evans saw the situation, had reached a point when they needed to achieve a more subtle, more mature pattern of ensemble playing than the simple unison work which went on in between solos in most small bop groups; a pattern of scoring was wanted which could be used for big as well as small bands. "An interdependence of modern thought and its expression was needed," says Evans; "if you express new thoughts and ideas in old ways you take the vigour and excitement out of the new thoughts."
It must have been around this time that Evans became friendly with Charlie Parker, even sharing rooms with him for a year or so. He scored three of Parker's pieces —Anthropology, Donna Lee and Yardbird Suite—for the Thornhill orchestra and in the initial and closing statements of theme, typically enough, he carefully respected the original voicing of the Parker group, scoring for brass in unison and octaves, rather as he did a decade later when he voiced horn and muted trumpet in unison at the start and end of Bird Feathers. Already, of course, Evans was writing quite revolutionary passages—particularly for the brasses (somehow he has rarely entrusted reeds of any kind with his best ideas); in Robbins Nest, for example, he constructed a melodic line for the brasses with contours like those in a Charlie Parker solo. But scores like these were not completely representative of the Thornhill orchestra.
By 1948 the static quality which always lurked inside Thornhill’s conception of sound had begun to oppress Evans. "Everything—melody, harmony, rhythm—was moving at a minimum speed. The sound hung like a cloud." It was necessary, once this sound had been created, to make certain changes within it, to make personal use of the harmonies, to get more movement in the melody, to use more dynamics, more syncopation, more speeding up and contrasting of rhythms. Thornhill, however, wanted the minimum of activity: "I think he would have had the band hold a chord for a hundred bars," declares Evans, "if it had been possible." Eventually the sound became too bleak and sombre—"The band could put you to sleep"—and in 1948 Evans left Thornhill.
The discoveries which Gil Evans had made during his years with Claude Thornhill’s orchestra were ready to be put to good use by the Miles Davis band. "Miles," says Evans, "had liked some of what Gerry Mulligan and I had written for Claude. The instrumentation for the Miles session was caused by the fact that this was the smallest number of instruments that could get the sound and still express all the harmonies the Thornhill band used." Of the nine pieces in the band six were wind instruments; these could be used in many different ways—as a single voice (one-part writing, so to speak) or in a variety of elaborate combinations. "If the trombone played a high second part to the trumpet, for instance," explained Evans, "there would be more intensity because he'd find it hard to play the notes. But you have to work these things out. I never know until I can hear it."
These were the kind of subtleties which could be achieved by this group, made up of men who were completely in sympathy with one another's musical aims. Gerry Mulligan co-operated with Evans in working out a voicing and both men, together with John Lewis, prepared arrangements for the group. Three of those written by Evans—Boplicity, a theme which Miles Davis composed under the pseudonym of 'Cleo Henry', and two ballads, Moon Dreams and Darn That Dream, the last-named a setting for the singer, Kenny Hagood—were eventually recorded by the band; a fourth— Why Do I Love You?, another setting for Kenny Hagood—was privately recorded during a concert at the Royal Roost.
Max Harrison writing in Jazz Monthly has described Moon Dreams, a sombre, opaque performance, as "almost the group's tribute to its exemplar, Claude Thornhill. It has the briefest solo passages and is a study in slow-moving harmonies and subtle changes of texture that has a rare austere beauty." Harrison also borrowed from painting an excellent term for a particular effect that Evans exploited here and in many later scores; I refer to his use of odd, disjointed fragments of phrase, seemingly disparate yet making up a significant whole, achieving, as Harrison puts it, "a unique pointilliste effect".
Another typical Evans touch is the way the baritone sax and french horn are voiced together at one point, like a shadow edged with brightness. But it is Boplicity which Andre Hodeir has acclaimed as "enough to make Gil Evans qualify as one of jazz's greatest arranger-composers". A creation very much of its decade—in the best sense of that term, its contours suggest a solo by Parker or Gillespie. The textures constantly shift and unfold, while at the same time there is a remarkable atmosphere of relaxation about the performance, despite the care and precision which have gone into it. This "inter-penetration of instrumentation and harmony", to use Hodeir's phrase, foreshadowed the masterly work in "Miles Ahead".
There was also a breakaway from the rigid structure still obsessing jazz in the way Evans made the last phrase of his theme spill over into the following chorus, and, during the second chorus, in the way he spread the first part of the bridge over six bars (instead of four). But it is the texture of this performance which is probably its most satisfying aspect, the way in which each eight bars of the final chorus is scored for a different instrumentation, the way in which the french horn is used to create a dissonant effect, a dissonance arising from timbre rather than harmony.
These recordings by the Miles Davis band are usually regarded as marking the beginning of the 'cool' era and leading to such phenomena of the immediate past as 'West Coast jazz' and (although this is happily still with us) the music of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Both these developments, however, exploited the contrapuntal achievements of the Davis band rather than its employment of harmony and textures. In fact nothing very much during the next seven years could be said to reflect Gil Evans' influence in a direct sense; even he himself did very little work in the jazz field. "As for jazz dates," he says, "one reason I didn't do much was that nobody asked me." In other ways, though, he was quite active, working in New York as a free-lance arranger. As well as doing radio and TV orchestrations, he wrote scores for Pearl Bailey, Billy Butterfield, Polly Bergen, Tony Bennett, Benny Goodman, Gerry Mulligan, Helen Merrill, Peggy Lee and many other artists, some for in-person performances, others for recordings. The latter included at least a couple of sessions for Billy Butterfield (one on London, another on Victor) and Helen Merrill's EmArcy LP "Dream Of You" (notable for Evans' excellent, but seldom-heard, scoring for strings). He also directed the orchestra and arranged the music for a Claire Hogan session in 1950 (London) and for three tracks—Easy To Love, It Might As Well Be Spring and Love, Your Magic Spell Is Everywhere —of a Johnny Mathis LP (Fontana). Evans is particularly good at writing settings for singers; never content to provide a discreet accompaniment, he completely surrounds the voice, framing it in the same way that he will frame a jazz soloist like Miles Davis or Cannonball Adderley.
"I also did some writing," Evans recalls, "for Lucy Reed on Fantasy and Marcy Lutes on Decca and I did one arrangement for the Teddy Charles Tentet Album on Atlantic and a couple on a Hal McKusick Victor album." The Teddy Charles item, You Go To My Head, was recorded in 1956 and issued in Britain on the London label; an exceptionally interesting example of Evans' work, it was performed by Teddy Charles (vibes), Art Farmer (trumpet), Gigi Gryce (alto sax), J. R. Monterose (tenor sax), George Barrow (baritone sax), Don Butterfield (tuba), Jimmy Raney (guitar), Mai Waldron (piano), Teddy Kotick (bass) and Joe Harris (drums). It contains typical examples of Evans' scoring, including the achievement of vertical depth in voicing—the alto sax, vibes and muted trumpet at the top countering the baritone sax and tuba down below. The performance is slow and translucent, with an eerie quality added by the octave jump which the muted trumpet makes for bars six to eight (and subsequently for bars fourteen to sixteen) of the first chorus. The brilliant—and rather staccato—paraphrase in the penultimate chorus includes a brief quotation from Ballad In Blue, the Hoagy Carmichael composition.
This also seems the place to mention three arrangements which Evans wrote in 1953 for a Clef session by Charlie Parker; the titles were If I Love Again, Old Folks and In The Still Of The Night, and Parker was backed by the Dave Lambert Singers (for whom Dave Lambert wrote his own arrangements) as well as french horn, clarinet, oboe, flute, bassoon and rhythm section. These are probably the least individual and least successful pieces of writing that Evans has done. Perhaps the division of work between two arrangers threw him out of his stride; more probably, however, the trouble arose from a lack of pre-arranged routine between Parker and the two groups accompanying him.
Just before "Miles Ahead" (Columbia, issued in England on Fontana) was recorded, in the spring of 1957, Nat Hentoff—at that time on the New York staff of Down Beat—interviewed Gil Evans for that magazine. The resulting two-piece article, the only one so far, with the exception of an essay in French by Andre Hodeir, to deal with this musician's career and work, has provided many of the quotations included in these pages. Bearing in mind the fact that Evans must at that time have already completed his score for "Miles Ahead", it is interesting to read his comments upon his own work up to that point. "There were some sections on records I'd done that I liked," he told Hentoff, "but I didn't like any of them as entities. I'm still developing my own personal sense of form. . . . Until recently I hadn't done much composing of originals because the paths I follow hadn't led towards it. ... I was interested in the language. I did a good bit of work. Maybe 16 bars in a pop song. I'd take my own chorus, so to speak. And I would always stay pretty close to the melodic line."
According to George Avakian's note on its sleeve, "Miles Ahead" started as a series of discussions between Davis and Gil Evans, "out of which grew the basic conception (largely Miles'). . . ." The record takes the form of a set of short 'concertos' (to use that term in its loosest sense) for flugelhorn and an eighteen-piece orchestra, the latter an expanded version of the ensemble used on the 1949 Capitol sessions. Quite how much of the solo line was actually improvised on the spot it is difficult to tell. The fact that so much of the work is built upon a scalar rather than a chordal basis suggests that at least many of the sections which have Davis alternating with or playing above the orchestra were carefully planned in advance, and that perhaps only those parts where the flugelhorn is heard above bass and drums come at all near being improvised. Not that it matters very much. The important thing is the quality of imagination which both soloist and orchestrator have brought to the occasion.
Certainly the structure of some of the tracks is more complex than one suspects at first hearing, for there is a deceptive simplicity about Evans’ methods. In Miles Ahead, for example, he adapts the theme—an original by himself and Miles Davis— sensitively but quite severely. There is no formal statement, occupying a certain bar-length, and then the elaboration or paraphrase of that theme within a similar bar-length; not only are we taken well away from the A-A-B-A convention of the pop-song and the security of the twelve-bar blues, but Evans applies his audacity as an arranger to the theme itself—its structure and duration—as well as to its instrumental clothing. Davis himself, reminding me at times of Clark Terry [as he does also in I Don't Want To Be Kissed], shows once again his fondness for contrasting three-note phrases with two-note ones; in fact, quite a lot of the time Davis is virtually playing 3/4 against the orchestra's 4/4. The other track to depart considerably from a normal jazz structure is Blues For Pablo, a conflict between a Spanish-type minor theme and a blues theme in the major. Once again structural lengths are varied, once again Evans displays his superb feeling for dynamics.
The remaining items on the LP, although not quite so remarkable in their thematic structure, display the same exciting variety of timbre and rhythm. Reeds and woodwinds mingle with brass, trombones play counter-melodies against french-horn chords, trumpets shout, then suddenly disappear into mutes. The texture, the sound of the music, changes constantly, whether it is in the way harmonies begin to gather, almost menacingly, at the start of My Ship, or arc perpetually being suggested by the glancing relationship between the solo flugelhorn and the ranging lines of brass and woodwinds. The use of a flugelhorn instead of a trumpet, incidentally, results in much more depth and fullness within the solo part. There is particularly vivacious scoring for brasses in Springsville, an original by Johnny Carisi, which also contains, towards its end, a typical example of the way Evans will elaborate even a simple point; in the downward phrase presaging the composition's close, Evans uses one of the root-notes of the scale as a starting-place for a tangential scale, which presently returns to a note lower down the original scale.
There is virtuosity, too, in Evans’ use of rhythms in The Maids of Cadiz and My Ship, performances which both move at an exceptionally slow pace. The theme of The Maids of Cadiz is taken at about half the normal tempo, the bass-player being forced to double-stop to keep in rapport with the melody line; the scoring, too, is unusually economical, using the minimum number of instruments, the orchestra often tingeing the background rather than supplying an accompaniment. The rhythmic diversity which goes on here— sections splitting into 4/4 and 2/4, the bass playing 2/4 while the drums stay in 4/4—is repeated in My Ship (a Kurt Weill tune) where the treatment is slower and more leisurely. Near the end of this track occurs a slightly pious, hymn-like passage, perhaps the nearest Evans ever gets to the sugar-coated harmonies of many contemporary jazz arrangers.
Ahmad Jamal's New Rhumba is treated in a fairly traditional manner, although the reiterated two-bar riff turns up each time in a fresh instrumental disguise and Miles Davis' solo moves into 4/4 time before ending up as a rhumba again. The Meaning of The Blues (it’s harmonic progression very close to that of My Funny Valentine) seems underpinned by harmony more than any of the other tracks, more so than J. J. Johnson's Lament which follows it and is similar in mood and tempo. Here Evans shows his fondness for using semi-tone progressions, succeeded by whole-tone ones. Dave Brubeck's The Duke, its lilting, mobile theme contrasting with the sensual texture of the middle-eight, is treated rather as Ellington himself might have orchestrated it, although the use of tuba is a very individual Evans touch. There are hints of Ellington, too, in I Don't Wanna Be Kissed, ending with a flag-waving climax in which Davis reaches for—and doesn't quite hit—a series of high notes.
These similarities with Ellington's music spring, of course, out of more than coincidence. It has even been suggested that Gil Evans took over the Ellington technique where Duke left it in the 1940s, and certainly he has adopted many of Ellington's devices. The one which seems most obvious is the concerto-type structure which Ellington evolved in the mid-1930s as a vehicle for showing off the talents of such soloists as Cootie Williams, Barney Bigard, Lawrence Brown and Rex Stewart.
Not only has Evans done something rather similar in "Miles Ahead", he has also used it as the basis for two subsequent LPs, although not with quite the same exclusiveness and tenacity. Ellington's conception, despite its wonderful use of textures, is much more antiphonic than anything Evans does and it also strives most of the time for a simple, swinging rhythm.
Evans seems more intent upon the creation of lyricism; for him, one suspects, the rhythmic structure is used as a diversion rather than a necessity, although this does not mean that his work lacks impetus or vitality. All this is perhaps a long-winded way of saying that Ellington has developed sound and texture mainly in order to reinforce and enhance the jazz he habitually plays, while Evans, on the other hand, tends to use the jazz idiom as a vehicle for his experiments with sound. He establishes, one might say, a periphery of sound which acts as a container for his ideas, across which melodic lines are stretched, and which is disturbed by rhythmic devices.
What he is striving for, perhaps, is a musical equivalent to James Joyce's theory of epiphanies, the awareness of an entire context of association and meaning existing within one clear image or (in the case of music) within one pattern or web of sound. It is not a case of Eliot's vase which moves in stillness so much as action that has frozen into sound. This preoccupation may be reflected in the fact that Evans’ work has largely been upon the plane of re-composition, the conversion of an existing tune into what is virtually a new and often much more exciting orchestral reality. It is, after all, a perfectly legitimate method of composing, analogous to the way a European composer uses folk-tunes or devises variations upon a predecessor's theme. In a way, too, although only partly so, it comes close to the genius of a great translator, Pope imposing the formality of eighteenth-century England upon Homer's epic, Urquhart delivering Rabelais into Elizabethan prose, Pound making Chinese poetry new for our own century.
The LPs which Gil Evans has made since "Miles Ahead" are less ambitious, although two of them must be ranked close to that remarkable achievement. The least important is "Jamaica Jazz", eight tunes from the Broadway musical, "Jamaica", written by Harold Arlen and arranged by Gil Evans for the solo talents of Don Elliott, who plays mellophone, vibes, bongos, trumpet and marimba, and the conga drummer, Candido. Harold Arlen, of course, is a popular composer who appeals particularly to jazz musicians and aficionados', songs like Stormy Weather, Blues in The Night and Happiness Is Just A Thing Called Joe all contain something of the character if not the form of the blues. Even some of the tunes on this record—most of them Caribbean in idiom, of course—possess this quality, notably Ain't It The Truth and What Good Does It Do?
There are many delightful touches—the use of bassoon and french horn to set a gay mood in Little Biscuit, the voicing for three horns and bass-clarinet in the relaxed Savanna, the cascading horns and intermittent finger cymbal heard at the start of What Good Does It Do?—but these are what we have come to expect from Gil Evans.
"Gil Evans and Ten" (Prestige, issued in England on Esquire), the LP which Evans recorded in September and October of 1957, turned out to be a much more free-swinging affair than anything he had produced before. Evans himself played piano on the sessions, revealing himself to be in that tradition of 'composer pianists' which also includes musicians like George Wallington and Tadd Dameron —interesting, competent, but far from wizardly. Although he had played at various times with the Thornhill band and had worked, during the 1950s, with Gerry Mulligan at Basin Street and with Nick Stabulas in a Greenwich Village club, this was Evans' debut as a pianist on record. The other musicians taking part were John Carisi and Jake Koven (trumpets), Jimmy Cleveland (trombone), Bart Varsalona (bass-trombone), Willie Ruff (french horn), Steve Lacy (soprano sax), Lee Konitz (masquerading under the anagram, 'Zeke Tolin') (alto sax), Dave Kurtzer (bassoon), Paul Chambers (bass) and Jo Jones (drums).
The material comprised three 'standards'—Remember, Just One Of Those Things (introduced by a piano quote from "Peter and the Wolf") and Nobody's Heart, the last-named "one of the last things Rodgers and Hart wrote together"; a Gil Evans original, Jambangle; Big Stuff, a song from Leonard Bernstein's score for the ballet, Fancy Free; Tadd Dameron's If You Could See Me Now; and the New Orleans murder ballad, Ella Speed, which Leadbelly used to sing. Once again the performances are marked by swift changes of tempo, by a subtle mixing of textures and by intricate and brilliant scoring for the brasses, notably towards the close of Just One Of Those Things—otherwise a string of fairly extrovert solos—and in Ella Speed, Evans scores an audacious sequence of brass phrases near the close of the latter which is almost identical with a passage on a recording of Sweet
Georgia Brown (a tune with similar harmonies to Ella Speed] by Kent Harian's orchestra (Oriole); so typical is the phrasing of Evans' work that it must be counted possible that he was also responsible for the Harian arrangement.
"New Bottle, Old Wine" (World Pacific, issued in England on Vogue), recorded in April and May of 1958, set out to re-interpret a number of themes which have taken their place in jazz history. For these sessions Evans used a thirteen-piece orchestra, which included himself on piano, and Julian 'Cannonball’ Adderley as featured soloist. This, for a start, ensured that the LP would sound very different from "Miles Ahead", for Adderley is a fiery, somewhat mercurial performer, a follower of Charlie Parker and a musician possessing a very different approach from the quiet, reticent style of Miles Davis. So it was that, lacking Davis' detached poise but contributing an impetuosity of his own, Adderley helped to make this a vehement, swinging set of performances.
Nevertheless the sound and general pattern of Evans' arrangements remain the dominating feature of the record. In St. Louis Blues he constantly shifts the rhythmic structure, and during the chorus following the doubling-up of the tempo, when the ensemble plays a 'response figure', the voicing of this figure changes every time—beginning with tuba and trombones in parallel, then the sound brightening and the octaves widening as trombones are succeeded by trumpets, trumpets by muted trumpets. King Porter Stomp uses syncopation freely at the beginning and ends with a rousing chorus scored in exactly the same fashion as that on Fletcher Henderson's 1933 recording of the tune (and on Benny Goodman's a couple of years later). The treatment of Willow Tree is delicate and gentle, Evans' piano playing suggesting something of Fats Waller's style; on the other hand an element of parody enters into Struttin’ With Some Barbecue, its opening theme— originally stated by Armstrong's imperious trumpet—performed upon the tuba. Lester Leaps In begins with a flurry of brass, a passionate shout reminiscent of the old—and the greatest—Count Basie orchestra. Thelonious Monk's 'Round About Midnight, fittingly enough, is meditative and introspective, full of exquisite scoring for trombones and horns with the tuba underneath, the kind of scoring that Whitney Balliett has referred to as "port and velvet". A flute, echoed by trombones, introduces a version of Manteca that seems in many ways more sensitive and more dramatic than Dizzy Gillespie's own treatment of the theme; when the brasses begin to lash out, the scoring often sounds similar to that in New Rhumba. Charlie Parker's Bird Feathers, the concluding item, retains at its beginning and its end the high, thin unison voicing which was used by Parker's own group, played here, however, on horn and muted trumpet. The staccato paraphrase of Parker's theme and his solo style—stated, for quite a bit of the time, by trombones in lower register—forms a link with the arrangements which Evans wrote for Thornhill back in the 1940s. But in between those recordings of Anthropology, Donna Lee and Yardbird Suite and this version of Bird Feathers stretch years that have seen Gil Evans advance from virtual apprenticeship to a complete mastery of his idiom.
Evans subsequently has collaborated with Miles Davis on a further LP—a selection of tunes from Porgy and Bess; Miles Davis himself, interviewed by Nat Hentoff for The Jazz Review in the autumn of 1958, had some comments to make about it, comments that are especially pertinent to Evans' use of scales (instead of chords) on "Miles Ahead" and in other scores. "When Gil wrote the arrangement of I Loves You Porgy," said Miles Davis, "he only wrote a scale for me to play. No chords. And that other passage with just two chords gives you a lot more freedom and space to hear things. I've been listening to Khachaturian carefully for six months now and the thing that intrigues me are all those different scales he uses. . . . All chords, after all, are relative to scales and certain chords make certain scales. You go this way, you can go on forever. You don't have to worry about changes and you can do more with the line. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically inventive you are.
When you're based on chords, you know at the end of 32 bars that the chords have run out and there's nothing to do but repeat what you've just done—with variations. I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional string of chords, and a return to emphasis on melodic rather than harmonic variation. There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them."
This, of course, solves one old problem in jazz—how to get the music away from the repetitive pattern of theme and variations—only to pose a new one: How can you have free improvisation upon scales and yet avoid dissonance?
In addition there is bound to be, except in the work of the most brilliant musicians, a slackening of formal boundaries which could quickly lead to sloppiness. Gil Evans, of course, has found solutions to both these problems, but he happens to be an outstandingly gifted arranger; it is doubtful if many other jazz musicians could exploit the scalar method quite so successfully. But that, like a lot of other things, remains to be seen.
At the present moment Gil Evans is certainly the most intriguing figure in the whole field of jazz composition and arrangement. What his future line of development will be, it is difficult to guess. He may, as he intimated to Nat HentofF back in 1957, begin writing more original material, perhaps even venture into more extended forms of composition. In that case he could drift away from jazz and get closer to concert music. Judged by his last few recordings, however, such a possibility seems unlikely. In any case, the gap between jazz and concert music is wider than the content and form of a work; the method of performance constitutes the biggest difference. "Miles Ahead", for example, could only be interpreted by a jazz musician like Miles Davis and have its arrangements performed by jazz musicians; symphony players would be unable to achieve the relaxation, to get the peculiar kind of tonal colouring—partly an aspect of personality—and the particular rhythmic phrasing which seem inseparable from jazz. When all this is remembered, it can be seen that, even at his most static, Evans remains essentially a composer who writes for jazz musicians. Remember Gerry Mulligan's comment: "Gil Evans is the one arranger I've ever played for who can really notate a thing the way a soloist would blow it." If Evans' main preoccupation is the creation of an overall sound, then that sound is a very personalized one, designed for performance by particular musicians. Here he comes very close to Duke Ellington, who has always composed with specific musicians in mind.
Like Duke Ellington, too, Gil Evans tends to shy away from pigeon-holing and the analysis of his music. He is too absorbed with the present to worry much about how he will be writing in ten years' time—even if he knew. Some of his own words make about the most suitable conclusion to this essay: "This being mentioned is a disadvantage as well as an advantage," he told Nat Hentoff. "It kind of establishes one as an elder statesman before one feels like one. I don't enjoy being called a granddaddy when I'm still active, still learning, still writing. . . . Being an elder statesman may be all right for someone who doesn't want to establish new landmarks. But it's not my groove."”