That Timeless Gil Evans Sound

Just like Miles Davis, Gil Evans’s timeless arrangements charted the course of jazz during the 20th century, influencing big bands to bebop to cool and beyond.

Ian Ernest Gilmore (Gil) Evans was born May 13, 1912 in Toronto. His family moved to Stockton, California, during his youth, where he was raised until relocating to New York in his twenties. The early part of his career was spent arranging for swing dance bands in Orange County during the Great Depression.

But it was his work in New York City that helped change the face and sound of modern jazz. Evans’s first major work as an arranger was for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra between 1941 and 1948. Thornhill’s approach to arranging on such works as Snowfall exerted a major influence on the young arranger/orchestrator.

Evans first collaborated with Miles Davis on Birth of the Cool in 1949. It was a piano-less nonet, featuring the famous tuba and french horn sound that became Evans’s trademark mixture of musical textures and colors. His most famous work with Miles came later, though, after Miles was signed to Columbia Records by George Avakian. Out of this came a series of priceless gems: Miles AheadSketches of SpainPorgy and Bess, and Quiet NightsThe musical partnership of these two musical geniuses was incredibly fruitful, leaving the jazz world with evergreen classics. It also earned Evans the respect and admiration of generations of musicians, .

Evans didn’t take many commercial jobs, in the way that Nelson Riddle, Marty Paich, Pete Rugalo, or Ray Ellis did. For one thing, Evans always took his time and was a perfectionist in the studio. Miles Davis once remarked thatSketches of Spain was the hardest album he ever recorded. The charts Evans arranged for Porgy and Bess were notoriously difficult for even the most seasoned of jazz players; Quiet Nights was never really finished.

The “Gil Evans Sound,” if there was one, was not a simply wall of horns as used by Buddy Rich or Stan Kenton’s bands. Evans chose a much lighter brush to paint tonal colors and textures with tubas, french horns, and flutes. Miles loved Evans for this sound because it perfectly mirrored Miles’s more minimal approach to improvisation. They strove for fewer notes, resulting in greater transparency.

In the eleven tracks on this week’s Rhythm Planet playlist, we feature his work with Miles Davis; a chart he wrote for Astrud Gilberto in 1966; Into the Hot, featuring avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor; and “Time of the Barracudas,” featuring a brilliant tenor solo by Wayne Shorter. Gil Evans also recorded quite a few songs by Jimi Hendrix in the 1970s and 1980s. Plans were in the making to record an album with Hendrix as soloist, but the rock icon died before that could happen.

Gil Evans passed away on March 20, 1988 at the age of 75. His musical legacy is being perpetuated by a number of new arrangers, including Maria Schneider, who studied with Evans; Ryan Truesdell, who unearthed unrecorded Evans treasures on his 2013 centennial tribute to Evans: Centennial–Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans, as well as a terrific new live album, Lines of Color: The Gil Evans Project Live; other arrangers like Vince Mendoza share Evans’s minimalist bent and tonal palette in his beautiful orchestral work Epiphany. I recommend getting, besides the music on this playlist, the Complete Columbia Studio Records. It is a must for anybody even remotely interested in modern jazz and its lush beauties.

For anyone interested in learning more about the genius of Gil Evans, there is also a biography, Out of the Cool, His Life and Musicauthored by Stephanie Stein Crease.





Tom Schnabel