Gil Evans Orchestra in concert this week. Recorded in Lugano, Switzerland on March 5, 1986 by RSI Rete Due.
When you hear that Gil Evans has been considered one of the greatest orchestrators in Jazz, all you have to do is put on a copy of Birth Of The Cool and it all becomes clear that this distinction is no exaggeration.
Best known for his work with Miles Davis, played an important role in the development of cool jazz, modal jazz, free jazz, and jazz fusion. Between 1941 and 1948, Evans worked as an arranger for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. Even then, early in his career, his arrangements were such a challenge to musicians that bassist Bill Crow recalled that bandleader Thornhill would bring out Evans’s arrangements “when he wanted to punish the band.” Evans’ modest basement apartment behind a New York City Chinese laundry soon became a meeting place for musicians looking to develop new musical styles outside of the dominant bebop style of the day. Those present included the leading bebop performer, Charlie Parker, as well as Gerry Mulligan and John Carisi. In 1948, Evans, with Miles Davis, Mulligan, and others, collaborated on a band book for a nonet. These ensembles, larger than the trio-to-quintet “combos”, but smaller than the “big bands” which were on the brink of economic unviability, allowed arrangers to have a larger palette of colors by using French horns and tuba. Claude Thornhill had employed hornist John Graas in 1942, and composer-arranger Bob Graettinger had scored for horns and tubas with the Stan Kenton orchestra, but the “Kenton sound” was in the context of a dense orchestral wall of sound that Evans avoided.
The Miles Davis-led group was booked for a week at the “Royal Roost” as an intermission group on the bill with the Count Basie Orchestra. Capitol Records recorded 12 numbers by the nonet at three sessions in 1949 and 1950. These recordings were reissued on a 1957 Miles Davis LP titled Birth of the Cool.
Later, while Davis was under contract with Columbia Records, producer George Avakian suggested that Davis could work with any of several arrangers. Davis immediately chose Evans. The three albums that resulted from the collaboration are Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958), and Sketches of Spain (1960). Another collaboration from this period, Quiet Nights (1962) was issued later, against the wishes of Davis, who broke with his then-producer Teo Macero for a time as a result. Although these four records were marketed primarily under Davis’s name (and credited to Miles Davis with Orchestra Under the Direction of Gil Evans), Evans’s contribution was as important as Davis’s. Their work coupled Evans’s classic big band jazz stylings and arrangements with Davis’s solo playing. Evans also contributed behind the scenes to Davis’ classic quintet albums of the 1960s.
From 1984 until his death on 20 March 1988, Evans and his Monday Night Orchestra played weekly at the Sweet Basil club in New York, and the atmosphere at their performances can be relived via, Live At Sweet Basil, Vol. 1 & 2 (1984), and Bud And Bird (1986), the latter winning his one-and-only Grammy Award, for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Big Band. He also scored the soundtracks for Absolute Beginners and The Color Of Money.
Henry Lowther, a trumpeter in Evans’ band during his later years, said, “Gil was an absolutely lovely man. He was modest and unassuming, but he was terribly disorganised and a chaotic bandleader…although there’s no doubt in my mind that Gil was the most important writer in jazz history after Duke Ellington.”
For a reminder or for an introduction, here is that broadcast from Lugano on March 5,1986 with The Gil Evans Orchestra.