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   Gil Evans
Gil Evans Ken Burns

JAZZ A Film By Ken Burns

Gil Evans


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Green, Ian Ernest Gilmore (1912-1988) Arranger, composer, pianist, and bandleader 

NPR's Morning Edition: Gil Evans
Tom Vitale presents a profile of the great arranger and pianist Gil Evans, who worked with artists as diverse as Miles Davis and Astrid Gilberto throughout his stellar career.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)

A self-taught musician, Gil Evans led his own band in Stockton, California, from 1933 to 1938. When the singer Skinnay Ennis then took over the band, Evans stayed on as arranger. In 1941, he joined Claude Thornhill's group in the same capacity, contributing in 1946-7 such outstanding arrangements as Anthropology, Donna Lee, Yardbird Suite, and Robbins' Nest. In these works and others of the same period, Evans used two french horns and a tuba (in addition to the standard swing era big-band instrumentation); this, along with a restrained vibrato in the saxophones and brass, produced a rich, dark-textured, "cool" orchestral sound, anticipated only by Duke Ellington and Eddie Sauter. Emphasizing ensemble over improvised solo, Evans's scores for Thornhill were far from being straightforward arrangements — they were in essence "recompositions" and "orchestral improvisations" on the original materials (for example, lines of Charlie Parker's popular songs and classical works such as Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition).

From 1948 to 1950, Evans contributed prominently to Miles Davis' nonet recordings for Capitol (later issued as the LP Birth of the Cool). In his memorable scores Boplicity and Moon Dreams, Evans captured the essential sound and texture of the Thornhill band with a smaller ensemble. Oddly, his work for both Davis and Thornhill was ignored by critics and jazz audiences alike. After a period of relative obscurity, during which he worked in radio and television, Evans returned to jazz with three notable albums, all written for and featuring Davis: Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1959), and Sketches of Spain (1960). In these, as well as New Bottle, Old Wine (1958), Evans extended his earlier orchestral concepts to larger instrumental forces (up to 20), often achieving a distinctive synthesis of varied timbral mixtures in which opaque, almost cluster-like voicings alternate with rich polyphonic textures, the whole being couched in an advanced harmonic language.

From the early 1960s, Evans made several attempts to form permanent orchestras, but these were unable to establish themselves, although they occasionally produced such excellent recordings as The Individualism of Gil Evans (1963-4), Blues in Orbit (1969-71), and Priestess (1977). He also turned increasingly to composition, writing such notable works as Flute Song, Las Vegas Tango, Proclamation, Variations on The Misery, Anita's Dance, and (in collaboration with Miles Davis) Hotel Me and General Assembly. Later Evans incorporated electrified instruments (piano, bass guitar, synthesizer, etc.) into his ensembles and tended to leave more space for solo improvisation in his arrangements and compositions. This led to a considerable loosening of his style in both form and texture compared with the more compact structures and veiled sonorities of his earlier arrangements. Even so, the temper of his work remained moody, poignant, and introverted, as was reflected in his predilection for pieces in minor keys. Although he was at first influenced by the middle-period works of Duke Ellington, Evans developed a style wholly his own, memorable especially for its richly chromatic, though always tonally oriented, harmonic language and its seemingly inexhaustible variety of timbral blendings; no mere coloristic effects, these are often the very substance of his art, providing imaginative frameworks for his soloists in ways equaled in the history of jazz only by Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, and Mingus. Even in his most elaborate scores Evans succeeded in preserving the essential spontaneity and improvisatory nature of jazz, achieving a rare symbiosis between composed and improvised elements.