“He is perhaps the only great writer in Jazz history who has always tended to work as an arranger of the work of others and rarely as a composer of his own material.”
- Leonard Feather
Evans’s originality does not require original compositions for its demonstration. His arrangements of other people’s compositions simply sparkle with his individualism; they overflow with invention. …
His tastes have been unencumbered by convention or bias, and his career has been almost untouched by self-promotion or self-aggrandizement.
And he has managed, on his own terms and at his own pace, to produce a body of work that holds its own proud place in Jazz.”
- Jack Chambers
“He knows what can be done, what the possibilities are.”
- Miles Davis
For someone who was virtually unknown to the general public for most of his career, Gil Evans certainly didn’t escape the attention of Max Harrison as the following, exhaustive retrospective of Evans’ music will attest.
In his essay, Max explores in greater detail the concept of Gil’s arranging skills serving as a basis for re-composition.
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles is proud to share Max Harrison’s narrative with it’s readers as it is a model of thoughtful analysis about one of Jazz’s largely unrecognized Giants.
© -Max Harrison/Jazz Monthly Magazine, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“There has always been cool jazz. Far from being a new development of the 19505, this vein of expression, wherein the improviser 'distances' himself from the musical material, goes back almost to the beginning. The clarinetists Leon Roppolo of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and Johnny O'Donnell of the Georgians, two bands that recorded in 1922, both avoided the conventions of 'hot' playing, as did other prominent jazzmen of that decade like Bix Beiderbecke and his associate Frankie Trumbauer. Much recorded by the
school of the late 19205 follows a similar approach to expression, and this is true of several prominent figures of the 19308 such as Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson, and particularly Lester Young, whose links with the official 'cool' movement are acknowledged. The free jazz of the 19605, also, had its 'cool' exponents like John Tchicai and John Carter. New York
The comparatively reticent expression of such players was at a disadvantage in the early years, when jazz was heard mainly in noisy dancehalls and cabarets, and attempts at an orchestral extension of their work suffered for a related reason. The large bands of Fletcher Henderson, Jimmy Lunceford and many others spent most of their days touring, and this imposed various kinds of standardization, not least upon instrumentation: a leader playing one-night stands, perhaps with long distances to travel between them, could scarcely appear with a different personnel, repertoire and instrumentation at each. Despite their undoubted—if somewhat overrated—contribution to jazz, the swing bands, once established, stood in the way of further orchestral developments. These could only resume when the bands came off the road and orchestral jazz was created by ad hoc groups assembled mainly, if not exclusively, for recording purposes. Such conditions allowed far more varied instrumentation than hitherto, a wider choice of repertoire—which no longer had to be orientated to a dancing public, and the application of more diverse techniques of writing. Missing from much of this later music is that feeling of integration which can only be achieved when a group of men play the same repertoire together over a long period, but in compensation the studio players' superior executive skills allowed more adventurous scores to be attempted.
As usual when such changes occur, the shift of emphasis had begun earlier than is generally assumed, and in an unexpected place. At first, Claude Thornhill's band had sounded rather like that of Glenn Miller (!), but he showed it was possible, with fairly discreet additions to a conventional dance band instrumentation, like French horn and tuba, and with devices such as having the reed section play without vibrato, to produce a strikingly fresh sound. This change, however, was not merely for the sake of novelty, which would be of little musical interest, but was a step towards expressing modes of feeling different from, perhaps even opposed to, those of the swing bands. Snowfall, a rather static composition of Thornhill's, confirms this, but, although he always insisted it was the leader who created this sound, it was Gil Evans who knew what to do with it. As Evans said, the sound "hung like a cloud" (Quoted in Nat Hentoff, ‘Birth of the Cool,’ Down Beat, May 2nd and 16th, 1957), which implies extreme relaxation; upon this background he imposed movement, and part of the exceptional effect of the best Thornhill recordings arises from an ambiguity between the energy of the music's gesture and the passivity of its basic tonal quality.
This is perhaps most evident in The old castle (This is incorrectly labeled The troubadour on all issues), originally a fairly simple keyboard piece by Mussorgsky, which in Evans's hands tells of a world rich and strange, full of subtle, elusive feelings; indeed, Steve Lacy, who played a later vintage of Evans's music, said "Sometimes, when things jelled, I felt true moments of ecstasy, and recently a friend of mine who worked with the Thornhill band in the 19408 when Gil was principal writer said that some nights the sound of the band around him moved him to tears" (Jazz review, September, 1959). It is remarkable that this was done with what fundamentally was still a dance band instrumentation, yet Evans's work, like many seemingly radical departures, had a sound traditional basis, and he took certain cues from Duke Ellington, whose Koko he appositely quotes in Thornhill's Arab dance. As Andre’ Hodeir said (Andre’ Hodier, Toward Jazz, New York, 1962), as far as scoring for a conventionally-instrumentated swing band was concerned, Ellington was so far ahead of his contemporaries that for many years there was no question of the underlying principles of his writing influencing them. When Evans began orchestrating along basically similar lines (though always with greater and more varied flexibility) it was not surprising, therefore, that the fact went unrecognized.
In his finest Thornhill scores, Evans, instead of blankly contrasting the brass and reed sections like
in his arrangements for Benny Goodman in the 19305, blends them in an almost infinite variety of ways. With such pieces as his evocative treatment of La paloma we find the craft of dance band arranging transformed virtually into an art of re-composition, for Evans quite drastically re-orders the components of each piece. In some cases, such as the extremely original writing behind and after the expressionless singing on Sorta kinda, the result almost seems a deliberate mockery of swing band conventions, so considerably does it improve on the standardized scoring which then prevailed in most other places. Henderson
That standardization reached such a point that we normally listen to swing records—and
's band is a good example—only for the improvised solos, not for the ensemble scoring. But the orchestral idiom Evans worked out with Thornhill is of such distinction that the opposite is the case, and although the ensemble writing on, say, the performances of Charlie Parker themes is amazingly inventive and quite unlike anything else being done in the 19405, the soloists, with the exceptions of the guitarist Barry Galbraith on Anthropology and Donna Lee and the trumpeter Red Rodney in Yardbird suite, contribute nothing that is relevant. The best 'improvising' on these pieces, and on Robbins nest (despite an allusion to Kreisler's Caprice Viennois), occurs in Evans's orchestral passages, where he comments on the themes more creatively than any of the bandsmen, playing con' the ensemble just as a composer would. These sections are, indeed, a remarkable anticipation of George Russell's later assertions that “A Jazz writer is an improviser, too" (Sleeve note of George Russell, Jazz Workshop, American RCA LPM2534), and that the finest jazz composition "might even sound more intuitive than a purely improvised solo" (6). The point is underlined by comparing Evans's account of Yardbird suite with the bland arrangement of this piece Gerry Mulligan wrote for Gene Krupa, but Evans's best Thornhill moments come with the long Donna Lee introduction and the still more remarkable coda, which condenses some of the introductory material with real daring. Russell also said that a jazz composer might "write an idea that will sound so improvised it might influence improvisers to play something they have never played before" (George Russell: ‘Where Do We Go From Here? In The Jazz World by Dom Henderson , 1960). This is exactly what happened, though not inside the Thornhill band with its generally inadequate soloists. Cerulli, New York
Inevitably, many jazz musicians became interested in what Evans was doing, and prominent among them was Miles Davis, then a member of Parker's Quintet. Except in a few slow pieces like Embraceable you or Don't blame me, where he managed quite satisfactory improvisations, this trumpeter found the hectic complexity and furious aggression of bop uncongenial, and it is not surprising he was attracted to that music's opposite in the jazz of the late 19405. Eventually he decided, in Evans's words, that "he wanted to play his idiom with that kind of sound" (Hentoff, Ibid.), and the result was a band which, if it fulfilled scarcely any public engagements, made three historic recording sessions for the Capitol label in 1949 and '50. The story of that band and those sessions has been told many times and need not be repeated here, although it is useful to have Evans's confirmation that "the idea of Miles's band ... came from Claude's band in the sound sense. Miles liked some of what Gerry [Mulligan] and I had written" (Hentoff, Ibid.). In the course of discussions between
, Evans, Mulligan, John Lewis and others it was decided that what they needed was a medium-sized group that besides having the cool, restrained Thornhill sound would combine chamber music intimacy with much of the variety of texture possible to a full jazz orchestra. The instrumentation was: trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, alto and baritone saxophones, piano, bass, percussion, and, again according to Evans, this choice was decided by its being "the smallest number of instruments that could get the sound and still express all the harmonies Thornhill used" (Hentoff, Ibid). Although subject to various changes, the personnel was selected with care so as to ensure all participants were sympathetic to the musical aims of this unusual enterprise. That the leaders were not completely clear about those objectives, however, was shown by the fact that they considered giving their alto chair to the highly unsuitable Sonny Stitt (This little-known detail is given in Leonard Feather, Jazz – an Exciting Story of Jazz Today, Los Angeles, 1959), a Parker disciple, instead of to the far more apt Lee Konitz, who did in fact get it. The final choices were, indeed, excellent, and the music had a unity which must always be rare in jazz. Davis
Nearly all the studio performances will repay detailed study, and they were supplemented years later by the appearance on an obscure Italian label (Miles Davis, Pre-Birth of the Cool, Italian Cicala BLJ8003; the relevant scores are, of course, by Gil Evans, not Bill Evans, as given on the sleeve) of recordings of 1948 broadcasts from the Royal Roost, where the band played briefly in New York; luckily, these include items not done for Capitol, such as Lewis's S'ilvousplait, Evans's Why do I love you?, alternative versions of his Moondreams, etc. The group's musical approach has been subject to repeated analysis because it represented the first viable alternative to bop, although, still following the Thornhill precedent, its importance lay in an ensemble style, not solo playing. Several of the pieces—Move, Venus de Milo, Budo—were mainly vehicles for improvisation, yet it was more significant that the sounds of all instruments were fused in a texture whose parts moved with a supple fluidity that contrasted with the hard, bright, darting lines of bop. The harmonic vocabulary was quite advanced for the jazz )f that time, but the constantly shifting pastel sounds were chiefly the result of orchestration which took some of Evans's procedures with the Thornhill band to their logical conclusion. With trombone, baritone saxophone and tuba, the instrumentation might seem to place undue emphasis on the bottom register, yet, although this obviously does account for the repertoire's dark tone, the absence of a tenor saxophone's rich voice helps to keep the characteristic veiled textures from becoming too cloudy. Further, so far as one can tell without seeing the scores, the most dissonant note in any chord is usually given to the French horn, the softest-voiced of the wind instruments present, and this helped deflect the music's astringency, contributed to the air of remoteness and mystery which it retains even in the most obviously 'exciting' up-tempo moments.
Undoubtedly the most original piece the band recorded was John Carisi's
, a modal blues which stands high among the recorded classics of jazz. But Evans's contributions run it close, and in Moon-dreams the very brevity of the solo passages, by Konitz and Mulligan, emphasize that this is an essentially orchestral conception, in fact a study of slow-moving harmonies crossed with subtle changes of texture. Its sonorous gravity is relieved by a passage wherein the horns ascend and then peel off, leaving Konitz sustaining a high, thin note which contrasts almost dramatically with the full, deep chords that soon engulf it. In the quiet final sequence, against long-sustained harmonies, the horns play odd, disjointed little fragments of phrases which create a pointilliste effect. This passage, which is more effective in the broadcast versions than on the studio recording, is reminiscent of the fragmentary brass phrases under high tremolo strings in Variation II of Strauss's Don Quixote or of the tiny oboe and clarinet phrases snickering around the brass in Variation IV. Strauss also provides a precedent for the melodic independence of Evans's tuba writing, although the climate of feeling the latter projects is far more rarefied in this case, the final vibrant stillness of Moondreams suggesting it to be the ensemble's tribute to their exemplar, Claude Thornhill. Israel
It can scarcely need adding that this score is no mere 'arrangement' of a 'song', but is in the tradition of 'compositions for band', like Beiderbecke's Krazy kat or Thelonious Monk's original version of Epistrophy. All the pieces Davis recorded at these sessions, in fact, are set out as continually developing entities (note the skillfully varied thematic recapitulation of Move), and Evans's other main contribution, Boplicity, is in this respect among the most interesting.
Of all these themes, this seems most perfectly suited to the ensemble's rich yet unadorned sonority, and its atmosphere of trancelike relaxed intensity is somehow heightened by the way at the close of the opening chorus the melody flows on into the first bar of the next, so that Mulligan's baritone saxophone passage starts only in the second bar—a small but delightful metrical surprise. Also noteworthy is the bridge of this second chorus. The first half consists of six bars instead of the expected four and the two main voices start an octave apart before spiraling off into counterpoint; the second half is of four bars and
's trumpet most tellingly alludes to the preceding phrase; the final eight bars of this chorus present an interesting variant of the main thematic phrase. The last chorus offers still more variety, with each eight-bar segment treated differently. The first is an exceptionally fine duet between Davis and the ensemble, while in the second he is accompanied only by the rhythm section; the third is a piano solo by Lewis, and the gradually diminishing tonal weight of these twenty-four bars is balanced by the final eight bars' restatement of the chief thematic phrase—which at the same time answers the variant that occupied the same place in the preceding chorus. Davis
If Why do I love you? is a far less perfect score this is because it has to accommodate Kenny Hagood's singing, but the final chorus still consists of a strikingly oblique restatement of—or rather allusion to—the original melody, another of Evans's written 'improvisations'.
Even if this music's commercial failure was unavoidable—and the band's library included several more excellent pieces unmentioned above, such as Lewis's Rouge, Mulligan's Rocker and George Wallington's Godchild— it still might have been expected, in view of its wealth of new resources, to affect other jazzmen. This it scarcely did at all. Echoes may be caught on the J. J. Johnson date of several years later which recorded Lewis's Sketch I, but as this had Lewis at the piano, and as both he and the trombonist had been in the Capitol group, this may be considered a direct descendant. A similar comment obviously applies to the Mulligan 1951 session which used two baritone saxophones, and to his later Tentet recordings. Almost .the only examples of indirect influence are a few virtually forgotten Shorty
Rogers pieces such as Wail of two cities and Baklava bridge, and some Hal McKusick items discussed on another page. The jazz community, in fact, turned aside, as so often, from an area of potentially major growth, and the error was confirmed by the jazz press of that time, which disliked the Capitol titles because of their refusal to sink into some convenient pigeonhole. Altogether, people began to forget about Gil Evans: his brilliance had been made obvious, but several years passed before anyone was reminded of the fact.
Not that Evans was concerned. True, he did little recording work, but that was because he refused to write for less than the musicians' union standard fee—a trait unlikely to endear him to the artist and repertoire departments of certain companies. But he scored music for radio and tv, for nightclub acts and for what was left of vaudeville. Such records as he did arrange were mainly backgrounds for rather obscure singers like Marcy Lutes, Helen Merrill and Lucy Reed, though he did write a subtly evanescent, hauntingly memorable re-composition of You go to my head for Teddy Charles's Tentet LP, and, later still, Blues for Pablo and Jambangle for Hal McKusick. For the rest, Evans, a self-taught musician—though he insists that "everybody who ever gave me a moment of beauty, significance, excitement has been a teacher" (Quoted in the sleeve note of Gil Evans, Great Jazz Standards, American Pacific Jazz 28) —filled gaps in his education, "reading music history, biographies of composers, articles on criticism, and listening to records" (Hentoff, Ibid). There were other reasons for his relative non-participation in jazz at that time. As he said, "I have a kind of direction of my own .. . my interest in jazz, pop and sound in various combinations has dictated what I would do at various times. At different times, one of the three has been stronger" (Hentoff, Ibid.). Such an attitude would obviously prevent Evans from being a member of any self-conscious and organized movement in music for any length of time, and it may be added that he has never been overly concerned with the 'importance' of his writing, as a lot of it has been done not so much as personal expression as in pursuance of further knowledge through learning in a practical way.
One is not surprised to find, therefore, that he writes slowly through a conscientious desire to avoid clichés: "I have more craft and speed than I sometimes want to admit. I want to avoid getting into a rut. I can't keep doing the same thing over and over. I'm not a craftsman in the same sense as a lot of writers I hear who do commercial and jazz work. They have a wonderful ability with the details of their craft. The details are all authentic, but, when it's over, you realize that the whole is less than the sum of the parts" (Hentoff, Ibid). Because his writing is so individual, Evans has always found it necessary to rehearse his scores personally, and desirable to work with musicians of his own choosing. Mulligan comments on this: "Gil is the one arranger I've played who can really notate a thing the way a soloist would blow [play] it. ... For example, the down-beats don't always fall on the down-beats in a solo, and he makes a note of that. It makes for a more complicated notation, but, because what he writes is melodic and makes sense, it's not hard to play. The notation makes the parts look harder than they are, but Gil can work with a band, can sing to them what he wants, and begets it out of them" (Hentoff, Ibid.). It remains as difficult, however, to obtain an exact description of Evans's rehearsal and recording processes as it was of Ellington's. "No, no, it's more mysterious than that" protested Steve Lacy when, talking to him in
during the mid-1960s, the present writer probed with a series of technical questions. "You get so carried away by the feeling of his music that you lose sight of the details" (Jazz Monthly, March, 1966). In a sort of confirmation of this, Mulligan said that what attracted Charlie Parker to Evans's music was the exploratory stance it adopted. Later he wanted to play some of Evans's scores but, says the latter, "by the time he was ready to use me I wasn't ready to write for him. I was going through another period of learning by then" (Nat Hentoff, Ibid.) London
Fortunately, he was ready for some more jazz by 1957, when Miles Davis decided to make an orchestral LP. Considering the lyrical fragility of the trumpeter's best work up till then, Miles Ahead may have seemed an unproductive idea, but what he wanted was to explore further the lines opened up by the Capitol sessions, especially as nobody else had troubled. Boplicity, in particular, had already demonstrated the perfect understanding between Davis and Evans, and the latter's collaboration was clearly essential. They decided to record ten pieces: John Carisi's Springsville, The maids of Cadiz, by Delibes,
Dave Brubeck's The Duke, My ship by Kurt Weill, Davis's Miles ahead, Blues for Pablo by Evans, Ahmad Jamal's new rumba, The meaning of the blues by Bobby Troup, J.J.Johnson's Lament and a rather inconsequential Spina/Elliott standard called I don't wanna be kissed. Evans scored these as a series of miniature concertos for , but fused them together in a continuous aural fresco whose connective resonance and authority gain strength with each addition. It sometimes is hard to isolate where one piece ends and another starts, but this principle of merging performances, discovered apparently during work on Miles Ahead, was taken further on subsequent LPs, eventually leading to a fusing of all other elements in his music. Davis
Evans devised an interesting extension of the Capitol sessions' instrumentation, a telling variant of that used by Thornhill: apart from Davis, who played flugelhorn, there were five trumpets, three tenor trombones, bass trombone, two French horns, tuba, two clarinets doubling flutes, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, string bass and percussion. These are treated largely as a body of individual players, and the chords are composed of the most varied tone-colors, which are dealt with according to their natural intensity, some being allowed greater prominence than others. In this respect one is reminded of Schoenberg's Funf Orchesterstucke Op. 16, especially No. 2, and it indicates the development of Evans's musical language that whereas Moondreams is reminiscent of aspects of Richard Strauss, here one thinks of Schoenberg. Miles Ahead has received so much attention elsewhere (For example, Andre’ Hodier, see note 4; Charles Fox: ‘Experiment with Texture’ in Jazzmen of Our Time, edited by Robert Horricks, London, 1959; Max Harrison, “Miles Davis – A Reappraisal’ in This is Jazz, edited by Kenneth Williamson, London, 1960) that comment on separate movements is unnecessary, though the scoring's effect is often that of light imprisoned in a bright mineral cave, its refinement such that at times the music flickers deliciously between existence and non-existence. No matter how involved the textures, though, it always is possible to discover unifying factors as an altogether remarkable ear is in control, ruthlessly—and almost completely—eliminating clichés. Complaints that these Davis/Evans collaborations produced un-rhythmic music were due to faulty hearing, and the widely quoted metaphorical description of the textures as "port and velvet" (Whitney Balliett, The Sound of Surprise, New York, 1959) is inept. Despite its richness, the orchestral fabric is constantly on the move, horizontally and vertically; it is unfortunate that some listeners cannot hear music's pulse unless it is stated as a series of loud bangs. The introverted mood of several panels in the Miles Ahead fresco had been anticipated by Ellington pieces such as Blue serge, and the underlying clarity of Evans's constructions is revealed by setting this version of Blues for Pablo beside the one earlier recorded by a Hal McKusick small group. Both preserve the same relationships between themes, tempos, degrees of textural density, etc., and form an amusing comment on the notion that Evans provided
merely with vague impressionistic backgrounds. Davis
In fact, and even though one may object to the show business mentality which lies behind the phrase, he had made the most remarkable comeback in jazz history. Soon his imitators were demonstrating how inimitable his methods were, some of the worst examples being Ernie Wilkins's scores for the Map of Jimmy Cleveland LP (American Mercury MG20442) and certain Bill Matthieu pieces for Stan Kenton's band, especially Willow weep for me, The meaning of the blues (both with Rolf Ericson assuming the Miles Davis role) and Django (All on American Creative World ST1049). All these simply fit together various elements learnt—by rote, as it were—from Evans, whereas his scores are developing musical organisms which establish and proceed from premises of their own.
Further collaborations with
followed. Some, like the Quiet Nights disc, exposed the partnership's weaknesses, and Evans's boring re-write of the first movement of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. was a strange miscalculation. So, too, was the bogus flamenco of Saeta and Solea, although these were solo vehicles for Davis in which Evans had little part. The last three items are on the Sketches of Spain LP, but an altogether finer expression of Evans's taste for Iberian music is Lotus land, a track on the Guitar Forms record that he made with Kenny Burrell (American Verve MGV8612). However, before either Quiet Nights or Sketches of Spain came Porgy and Bess, which contains, at least in potential, the finest music Davis and Evans recorded together. Davis
Of course, in its original form Gershwin's opera takes up an entire evening, but the excerpts Evans and Davis selected are put together in such a way as to summarize the drama's several aspects. They show, also, that the original music has deeper roots than Gershwin's detractors concede—deeper, perhaps, than he himself knew. On certain items, such as Prayer or My man's gone now, occurs some of the most eloquent playing Davis ever recorded, and though Evans frequently sets dark, massed sonorities against the trumpeter's passionate self-communing, there is some exquisite scoring, too, as in Fishermen, strawberry and devil crab or Here comes the honey man. Hear, also,
's re-reading of It ain't necessarily so, whose meaningful obliqueness is set oil by staccato French horn chords—Evans for once using a conventional device. Davis
Although the Porgy and Bess LP contains magnificent jazz—and one plays some tracks over and over, as if to savor a rare essence—the performances left even more to be desired than those of Miles Ahead. One cannot be sure about such things without seeing the scores (and it is a perpetual handicap to the proper musicological study of jazz that scores are never obtainable), but one of the musicians who played on the Porgy and Bess dates shortly afterwards said the following in a private communication to the present writer:
"The crux of the matter is that Gil, on both sets of dates, did not rehearse carefully enough, as is evident already on Miles Ahead. I believe this is mostly the result of the unfortunate conditions under which American recording is done. It is too costly for any project of more than average difficulty to be done well, unless the music in question is rehearsed before the date (which is illegal according to union rules), or has been previously performed.
"Under these, to say the least, less than ideal circumstances, both Miles and Gil have a too relaxed attitude about accomplishing the tasks they set themselves. In pieces which are scored as sensitively and as intricately as Gil's, it's a shame to let the performances cancel out half of their effectiveness. Many details of scoring simply could not be—or at least were not—touched upon in the sessions I was on. Some things were left undone which I would not have let go.
"But, as I've indicated, the blame lies more with the conditions than the people. And I suppose one could say that it is remarkable that both LPs are as good as they are. If Gil were a better conductor it would also help: he sometimes confused the players. On the other hand, he is quite patient—perhaps too much so for his own good—and very pleasant to work for. Whatever excellence these recordings possess I would attribute (aside from Gil's own magnificent scores, of course) primarily to the supreme abilities of some of the leading players, like Ernie Royal [trumpet], Bill Barber [tuba], the very fine reed men (on all manner of flutes and bass clarinets), and in general the respect which all of us, despite what I've said above, have for Gil Evans."
Such problems were considerable, yet Evans solved them with alacrity—indeed as soon as he began making records under his own name instead of in partnership with
. One or two items on his first, Gil Evans plus Ten (Several Evans LPs have been given misleading new titles on reissue. …), such as Remember or Nobody's heart, may appear to continue the line of ballad scores he wrote for Thornhill, as if he were recapitulating before going on to something new, but in fact the material ranged from Ella Speed, associated with the folksinger Huddie Leadbetter, to Tadd Dameron's If you could see me now. A commitment to the present is enriched by a sense of the past, and this marked the beginning of a personal reassessment of the jazz repertoire, and from his next record, New Bottle Old Wine, onwards Evans turned his back on non-jazz themes. The latter disc conducts a miniature history of jazz, running from W. C. Handy's St Louis blues to Bird feathers by Charlie Parker, but Evans makes all eight compositions his own while paradoxically preserving their original extremely diverse characters; by a further paradox, he appears to give his chief soloist complete freedom while clearly remaining in control of every bar. That soloist is 'Cannonball' Adderley, a minor disciple of Parker, and so this LP gives a hint of what might have happened if Evans had been able to work with the great altoist himself. In the event, several others, including the trombonist Frank Rehak in Strutting with some barbeque and Chuck Wayne, the guitarist, on Lester leaps in, outclass Adderley, and Evans's writing provides so stimulating and enriching a commentary as almost to swamp them all. Davis
Certainly it is untrue to assert, as some writers have, that he needs a soloist to focus his processes around. In St Louis blues, though Adderley appears to hold the centre of the stage, the shifting, tirelessly inventive background is of such fascination, what with Evans's characteristic reshaping of the themes, his alterations to the harmony, and such details as the independent guitar or tuba lines, that the listener soon finds himself attending not to the soloist but to the 'accompaniment'. And in King Porter stomp, also, how much further Evans goes in such matters than, say, Henderson in his arrangement of this piece for Goodman's band: to speak of variations on the themes would be too formal a description of a process so free, and here again we have written 'improvisations' in exactly the sense that George Russell meant (6). The same is true of all the other tracks, which teem with interest and range from the quietly luminous sensitivity of Fats Waller's
tree to the violent assertion of Dizzy Gillespie's Willow , whose virtuoso brass writing the players throw of! with such apparently casual ferocity. Manteca
On Evans's next LP, Great Jazz Standards, the soloists got closer to holding their own. Johnny Coles has a beautiful trumpet solo in Bix Beiderbecke's
blues, as does Steve Lacy, on soprano saxophone, in Monk's Straight, no chaser. Yet Budd Johnson does better still, his rounded clarinet phrases contrasting with the abrupt whole-tone lines of Don Redman's Chant of the weed, the solid 4/4 of his tenor saxophone solo on Evans's Theme being excellently set off by complex brass figures. To how much better advantage does Johnson appear in these surroundings, or on Evans's Out of the Cool record, than in the dreary 'mainstream' sessions (For example, Budd Johnston, Blues a la Mode, American Felstead Davenport FAJ7007) which usually are this neglected musician's lot! Evans can use these and other soloists in pieces which are far removed from their normal style or period—e.g. Coles on Davenport blues—without any incongruity because the material is so transformed, the vision so strong as to unify everything. His orchestration of Straight, no chaser is far more to the point, though also far more elaborate, particularly the final ensemble, than previous attempts, by Hall Overton and others (For instance Monk at Town Hall, American Riverside RLP-12-300), to score Monk themes, and throughout this LP the level of invention, yet again, is amazingly high, above all in the lengthy and very searching treatment of John Lewis's Django. Hear, too, the ensemble textures in Ballad of the sad young men—massive yet without any hint of inflexibility. It is the same on the next record, Out of the Cool, which contains, for example, a hypnotically prolonged When flamingoes fly, whose acute melancholy is etherealized, dissolved. Such pieces well accord with Claude Levi-Strauss's view of music as ‘a machine for the suppression of time' (Claude Levi-Strauss, Le Cru et le Cuit, Paris, 1974), and embody a more authentically modern sensibility than a lot of more overtly dissonant jazz.
From this point on there is a striking loosening-up of Evans's music, comparable only to that undergone by George Russell's work after he began to make his Sextet discs for the
Riverside label. Consider, for instance, the much freer treatment of the background riff in Summertime on the Svengali LP in comparison with the earlier version on the Porgy and Bess disc. No longer is Evans concerned with mathematical symmetry or balanced repetition, but rather, it seems, with a reflection of the mysterious complexity of the forms of nature, in particular nature's love of analogy instead of repetition. The lyrical tenor saxophone 'solos' by Wayne Shorter in Barbara story on The Individualism of Gil Evans two-LP set or by Billy Harper in the Ampex General assembly are only single threads in textures which now defy both description and analysis; the music is a seamless web in which lines cross and re-cross, glowing, opalescent colours come and go in inexhaustible combinations. Hear, for example, the magically woven fabric of Hotel me on the Individualism set, the exquisite beauty of even the tiniest details of the Ampex Proclamation. On these later recordings identification between the music and the individual performers is so complete that, especially in deep, multi-voiced ensembles like those of Concorde, it is impossible to guess where writing stops and improvisation begins. There is an extraordinary reconciliation, or rather a shifting balance between freedom and control whose philosophical implications go beyond jazz, beyond music.
At this stage each Evans record is 'untypical' because he sets himself different objectives every time. But despite this constant renewal, there are still lines of continuity. Thus Joe Beck, guitarist on the Ampex date, occupies a position midway between horns and rhythm section like that of Ray Crawford in Out of the Cool or Barry Galbraith on the Russell/McKusick LPs. In fact this music increasingly happens on several levels at once, recalling the multiplicity of events in Charles Ives's works. For instance on Las Vegas tango, a gravely serene piece from the Individualism set, things happen close up, in sharp focus, others take place in the middle distance, some murmur far away on the horizon, and the exactness of Evans's aural imagination is such that we can hear it all, every note, every vibration, carrying significance. Yet one gains the impression that he feels music, like other forms of truth, should never be immediately understood, that there should always remain some further element to be revealed. Note the gradual, almost reluctant, disclosure of the melodies of La
and nevada song, or the way the theme of Joy spring is not heard until right at the end. Bilbao
These endings, many of which fade, like beautiful sunsets, as we look at them, in turn suggest by their very inconclusiveness that Evans, again like Ives, has an Emersonian dislike of the spiritual inactivity which comes from the belief that one possesses a truth in its final form. It is tempting, to think that in achieving the lyrical resignation of Flute song or the alert tranquility of Barbara story Evans uses sounds rather as Mallarme uses words—as mirrors that focus light from a hundred different angles on to his precise meaning. But they remain symbols of meaning rather than the meaning itself, and much is left to the imagination. If the listener is unwilling, or, worse still, unable, to exercise this faculty then he will soon be left behind.
Jazz Monthly, December 1958 and February 1960”