I have always been a huge admirer of Gil Evans. I was fortunate to hear his polyglot big bands on European tours in the 80’s and caught one of his famed, mildly chaotic Monday night gigs at the sadly defunct Sweet Basil in New York also in the 80’s.

More recently I attended a sold-out performance of Gil Evans’s classic 1957 Miles Ahead charts, the first of his legendary big band collaborations with Miles Davis. While very familiar with the recordings nothing prepared me for the experience of hearing Gil’s arrangements- released with the permission of Gil’s family and superbly played by a crack ensemble of UK jazz musicians. Most notably Gil’s trademark interest in placing instruments at the lower end of the orchestral range much higher up in the mix- flutes below trombones, the tuba playing a prominent role in the melody with the reed section providing a sound layer underneath. And the sheer freshness and immediacy of the arrangements more than 60 years after the recordings were waxed.

Gil remains exactly how he lived, both an enigmatic and hugely influential figure within jazz and 20th century music more widely. Best known for orchestrating his close friend Miles Davis’s historic large scale recordings, far less known for his arrangements for other musicians and for his own recordings.

I have recently been reading a new and very welcome full scale biography, Gil Evans: Out of the Cool: His Life & Music by Stephanie Stein Crease which I can highly recommend. It covers Gil’s early and little known career in California writing and arranging for band leaders at the height of the big band era in the 30’s and 40’s. Through to his move to New York and the networks of influence, largely unheralded that he exerted on bebop and post-bop musicians in the 1940’s and 50’s.

Gil Evans – Out of the cool, His life and music

Leaving aside the reflected recognition linked to his long association with Miles, it was only in the last two decades of his life that Gil began to tour and record more frequently with his own large ensembles.

 Gil was a very private, highly engaging, and somewhat mysterious figure. Lionized within the jazz world from the moment he appeared in New York with almost no interest in self-promotion, much to the chagrin of his two wives who struggled to act as his manager, and latterly to Maxine Gordon, Dexter’s widow who managed Gil over the last couple of decades of his life. Gil’s rehearsal bands and occasional live performances in the 50’s and 60’s always attracted the cream of New York jazz modernists eager to learn from Gil even if the pay was below scale or non-existent. Gil’s enduring influence, from the legendary and short lived Birth of the Cool sessions in 1949 is still felt particularly in subsequent generations of large ensemble composers and band leaders such as Mike Gibbs, John Warren, Kenny Wheeler, and Maria Schneider who worked closely with Gil over his final years and whose remarkable large scale compositions continue to reflect his influence.

The Gil Evans Orchestra – Out of the cool

In trying to describe Gil’s uniqueness I would highlight the following themes;

  • Gil’s natural milieu was the large ensemble. Like Duke Ellington he wrote for particular players quite a few of whom stayed with him over many years.
  • Despite their age difference Gil maintained a very close friendship with Miles Davis enduring for more than 40 years. While in background, nature, profile and interest in personal wealth Gil and Miles could not have been more different they shared a musical passion and an absolute commitment to continuously stretching their musical boundaries. Towards the end of his life Miles described Gil as his greatest friend.
  • Gil’s bands often appeared to be minimally led, even chaotic. This would be to under-estimate him (and them). All his recordings and most of his performances were based on carefully crafted scores. He was very happy to give time for a particular vibe to gel or for an improvisation to take its full course before gently nudging the band back to the written score. It was this “sound of surprise” that made listening to Gil’s orchestra so compelling. The Monday night sessions at Sweet Basil’s would often feature the same tunes- but always played in a totally different way.
  • While self-taught in music Gil was open throughout his life to the widest range of musical and philosophical influences. He hero worshipped Louis Armstrong (not the smartest thing to do in the 60’s & 70’s!), was massively influenced by Jimi Hendrix and always regretted that their plans to record together were never fulfilled and was a serious student of late 19th and 20 century modernist composers. Careful listening to his recorded works of the 50’s and 60’s reveal as an example the influence of Debussy, while never departing too far from one of his major jazz influences-Charlie Parker with whom he had a close friendship.
  • Gil was a reluctant pianist and performer. It was only from the 1970’s that he felt comfortable featuring his own piano playing in live performances. He was also very reluctant to accept commissions and collaborations from big name musicians and film makers such as David Bowie, Robbie Robertson, Mick Jagger, Nicholas Roeg and Sting which would have guaranteed him financial security for many years. He also consistently refused numerous offers to arrange to write or arrange “commercial” music. But then Gil was totally uninterested in financial security.
  • One of the contributory reasons to Gil’s lifetime financial insecurity was his interest in re-imaging jazz standards-which only produced a single arranger fee with no income accruing for composer credits. Many of his contributions to other musicians, particularly to Miles Davis went un-credited and therefore unpaid.

Miles Ahead

I’ll leave the final words to the great trumpeter and long time Gil Evans collaborator Lew Soloff,

“What Gil liked to do was to think of the person. He didn’t think of the tuba he thought of Howard Johnson. He didn’t think of a saxophone sound, he thought of George Adams. And that’s the way you hear it. He didn’t want you to play like a machine or a perfect band playing a chart; that wasn’t what he was after at all. He was after the particular people that he hired to sing this thing together in their own very individual manner”.

The Playlist

My playlist features a short selection of Gil’s work, mainly but not exclusively under his own name from the mid-50’s through to his final years. I also include tracks from composers and arrangers who were among the many to be influenced by Gil Evans. Look out for Mike Gibbs’s homage to Gil’s classic Las Vegas Tango.