Award-winning Gil Evans Biography is as Complex and Perceptive as his Music
Gil Evans (b.1912-d.1988) was a legendary jazz composer, arranger, and band leader active to the end, but he will always be remembered for his Miles Davis collaborations: Birth of the Cool, Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain, Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall, and Quiet Nights. Author Stephanie Stein Crease sheds new light on Evans' on/off relationship with Miles, telling of the many injustices Evans suffered with regard to payment and publishing rights. For instance, it turns out Evans was a huge creative force behind Miles' masterful Filles de Kilimanjaro (which explains a lot about its lush sonic characteristics,) though he never received any credit or compensation. This seems to have been sort of a final straw for Evans, preventing further joint ventures. Miles often referred to Gil as his best friend. It's no wonder Miles had so few.
Stein Crease examines in loving detail Evans' early work with dance bands during the Depression, his enlistment as an army band leader, his defining years as arranger for big band leader Claude Thornhill, his groundbreaking contributions to the seminal New York City jazz scene, helping to define Cool jazz, his Hollywood soundtrack arrangements, and his final live series at Sweet Basil. She writes with an authoritative and deeply affectionate voice, pulling together a wealth of research, including recently discovered personal letters and other material, exclusive interviews with his friends and fellow musicians, and deep analysis of written musical scores. It is fitting that the author of such a book should not only read music, but at the advanced level required to comprehend orchestral scores.
Gil Evans was truly a "musician's musician," and so it would seem is Stephanie Stein Crease. Her writing is itself quite musical, and takes into consideration Evans' place in the large scheme of music history; take for instance her description of tracks from Miles Ahead, "Delibes' "Maids of Cadiz" is treated counter to the feverish Carmenesque interpretation it usually receives and is slowed down to a sensual stasis. The other balladsàevoke a palpable yearning quality, one that would run through a good deal of Evans' and Davis' work in the future." Later, she calls his reworking of Porgy and Bess "a marvel of post-bop modern jazz arranging," explaining that "Gil created a cohesive new story that, despite its lack of plotted narrative, retained and even intensified the pathos of Gershwin's originalùan extended meditation on love and loss." In her analysis of Sketches of Spain, Stein Crease cross-references Evans' long-standing fascination with Spanish composers. Manuel de Falla was an especially important inspiration at the time.
Often, when people think of Gil Evans, they think of a guy who brought new sounds to jazz through meticulously written scores. Stein Crease shows this isn't really the case. Though his arrangements were undoubtedly intentional, he actually achieved his unique sonorities by blending certain specifics with pure improvisation. Gil Evans' personal style was very recognizable, but equally evident was the individual creative expression of his superior musicians. In this way, Evans can be seen as reviving one of jazz music's core attributes. Like Duke Ellington, Evans wrote parts with specific musicians in mind, knowing when best to let them loose. Throughout, Stein Crease does a great job of showing just how Evans achieved this balance. Her appraisal of his late Sweet Basil sessions can be applied to all his work, "The band's performances transcended any notions about what jazz is or is not, a familiar refrain with respect to Gil's music, even in the days of Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain. The music had no boundaries, Gil concocted his own late-twentieth-century impressionismàspontaneous and bursting with life."
Though Evans was entirely self-taught, his one-of-a-kind approach to small group and big band arranging attracted many famous "learned" musicians. This "musical magnetism" spanned his entire life. Stein Crease reminds readers that Evan's conception inspired not only Miles Davis, but also Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Kenny Burrell, Lee Konitz, Lew Soloff, Steve Lacy, Wallace Roney, even Betty Davis, David Bowie, Robbie Robertson, Sting, and Quincy Jones. And those are just some of the people who played with him, not to mention everyone who continues to benefit from his imaginative body of work.
Some readers will be surprised to learn Jimi Hendrix was a big fan of Evans' music. He and Evans had agreed to make a collaborative recording together--along the lines of the Davis/Evans projects--and much of the groundwork was laid. Tragically, this was shortly before Hendrix's fatal drug overdose. Music fans will forever mourn this missed opportunity.
Since arrangers are typically "work-for-hire" and do not receive any residual rights, the commercial success of the Miles projects did very little for Evans financially. The acclaim, however, did afford him a steady workshop orchestra in the late 1950s. Steve Lacy, who played soprano sax with him, recalls, "these were very exciting arrangements and played by some of the best musicians in New York, who at the time could be coerced into coming and rehearsing for nothing because the music was so good. Of course there were standards too, but mostly I remember those classical things. Indian music, classical music, jazzùit was all just music to him, really." Lacy remembers feeling like a paint color in the palette of a great artist, "I'd never felt that before, and not much since then. It was a unique experience, to be a strand of colorùthere's no more you, there is just it."
The book also delves into Evans' family life, introducing readers to his two sons: Noah Evans, who often ran sound for his dad's gigs, and Miles Evans, who is a jazz trumpeter as befits someone named after you-know-who. The text is supplemented by striking photographs, useful endnotes, bibliography, discography, and index. The only way to make this historical record more complete would be the inclusion of CDs and orchestra charts.
Gil Evans: Out of the Cool won the 2002 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, was nominated for the Jazz Journalists Association's Best Jazz Book 2002, and was a finalist for the Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research. It also received universal praise from music and book critics. Highly recommended reading for all jazz fans.
-David Seymour is a freelance jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.