Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Individualism of Gil Evans

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Born with the Victorian-sounding name Ian Ernest Gilmore Green, and first marketed by major record labels in the 1960’s as a middle-aged hipster in a business suit, Gil Evans … was a unique American artist who rebelled against stereotypes of class and race. Born in Canada of Australian parentage in 1912, Evans was raised mainly in California.   He seemed to live with a spirit that was marked by the Californian dream in its purest form: to create the impossible in everyday life, through means that are both peaceful and sensual. It was this humble fire, expressed through an unpretentious demeanor and relentless musical curiosity, which fueled Evans' works and won him the respect of such younger rebels of the 1940’s Jazz scene as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan and Max Roach.”
- Eliot Bratton

I wanted to spend time doing blog features about some of my favorite recordings and The Individualism of Gil Evans [Verve 833 804-2] certainly ranks high on that list.

As Richard Cook and Brian Morton observe in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.: “Evans’ name is famously an anagram of Svengali and Gil spent much of his career shaping the sounds and musical philosophies of younger musicians. … His peerless voicings are instantly recognizable.”

Beginning with New Bottle, Old Wine with its very revealing subtitle - “The Great Jazz Composers Interpreted by Gil Evans - and continuing with his orchestrations for Miles Davis on their Columbia epochal associations including Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess, my repeated listening to Gil’s arrangements revealed a relaxed sophistication, use of very simple materials, and lots of open measures and other forms of space that created a texture in his music that was unlike any other that I’d ever heard before - and with the rare exception - since.

“Texture” joins with melody, harmony and rhythm [meter] as a fourth building block used to create a musical composition? Ironically, of the four basic musical atoms, the most indefinable yet the one we first notice is – “texture.”

“Texture” is the word that is used to refer to the actual sound of the music. This encompasses the instruments with which it is played; its tonal colors; its dynamics; its sparseness or its complexity.

Texture involves anything to do with the sound experience and it is the word that is used to describe the overall impression that a piece of music creates in our emotional imagination.

Often our first and most lasting impression of a composition is usually based on that work’s texture, even though we are not aware of it. Generally, we receive strong musical impressions from the physical sound of any music and these then determine our emotional reaction to the work.

By the time of its issuance in 1964 The Individualism of Gil Evans represented a major step away from the close Columbia collaboration that Gil had formed with Miles and a major step into his own music on Verve [and later Impulse!] which allowed the sonority [texture] of Evans’ arrangements to become even more pronounced.

As Stephanie Stein Crease explains in her definitive biography Gil Evans Out of the Cool: His Life and Music:

“ … Gil held his own first recording session for Verve with Creed Taylor as producer in September 1963. Gil lucked out with Taylor (founder of the Impulse! label and producer of Out of the Cool). Arriving at Verve not long before, Taylor made an immediate splash as producer of the first wildly successful bossa nova records (with Stan Getz, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Joao and Astrud Gilberto), including "The Girl from Ipanema." Verve gave Taylor carte blanche, which he passed along to Gil. Gil was allowed the number of musicians and recording time he wanted. He was even able to record some sketches on studio time—an unheard-of luxury for a composer/arranger. Gil was also allowed to record one or two pieces at a time, whenever he had something ready, instead of conceiving of an entire album beforehand. Taylor was confident that an album would eventually materialize if he gave Gil free reign.

At the first session, Gil recorded two of his own compositions, "Flute Song" and "El Toreador," It wasn't until April 1964 that he recorded another two arrangements; then, in the following six months he recorded six new arrangements for large ensembles and several sketches with a quartet. The resulting album became The Individualism of Gil Evans, released in late 1964.

The album contains some of Gil's best music on record. Selections include Kurt Weill's "The Barbara Song" and four Evans originals: "Las Vegas Tango," "Flute Song," "Hotel Me," and "El Toreador." Several of the musicians, including Johnny Coles, Steve Lacy, Al Block, Jimmy Cleveland, Tony Studd, Bill Barber, Elvin Jones, and Paul Chambers, played on all the sessions, preserving a consistency in the textures, mood, and overall sound. Other stellar personnel—Eric Dolphy on various woodwinds, Wayne Shorter on tenor, Phil Woods on alto, and Kenny Burrell on guitar—were on hand for some sessions and recorded with Gil for the first time. Gil plays piano on every track, and his performance, particularly on "The Barbara Song," functions as an indicator of his conceptual direction. On the Weill song, the mood is full of pathos, with Wayne Shorter's tenor sax taking up the cry. "El Toreador," built on one chord, sounds like a development of one of the Barracuda cues; Johnny Coles's plaintive trumpet is the foremost voice, cutting through the rumblings of the low brass and three acoustic basses and a whirring tremolo in the high reeds.

The musicianship on all the Verve sessions is of the highest order. The musicians dig deeply into the music, both as soloists and as ensemble players. Again there is an Ellingtonian parallel; the musical personalities are so strong on these recordings that horn voicings and ensemble passages are characterized by the collective sound of the people playing them.”

And here are excerpts from Gene Lees’ original liner notes to  The Individualism of Gil Evans:

“The gifted young composer, arranger, and critic Bill Mathieu once wrote of Gil Evans: "The mind reels at the intricacy of his orchestral and developmental techniques. His scores are so careful, so formally well-constructed, so mindful of tradition that you feel the originals should be preserved under glass in a Florentine museum."

Mathieu's feelings about Evans are not unusual. Without doubt the most individualistic and personal jazz composer since Duke Ellington, Evans is held in near-reverence by a wide range of composers, arrangers, instrumentalists, and critics. This feeling is only intensified by the fact that he is a rather inaccessible man — not unfriendly, or anti-social; just politely, quietly inaccessible — whose output has been small, and all of it is indeed remarkable.

What is it that makes Evans' work unique? This is impossible to say in mere words, but with your indulgence, I'm going to try to clarify some of it. What I want to say is not for the professional musician but the layman; the pros are invited to skip the new few paragraphs.

Every "song" is built of two primary components: its melody and its harmony. Rhythm is the third major factor, but I want to confine myself to the first two.

As the melody is played, a certain sequence of chords occurs beneath it. Now the bottom note of these chords sets up a sort of melody of its own. This is referred to as the "bass line" and it has great importance to the texture and flavor of the music. As a first step to the appreciation of Gil Evans, try not hearing the melody but listening to the bass line on some of these tracks.

Between the bass note and the melody note fall the other notes of the chord. You can put them down in a slap-dash fashion, so that you've got merely chords occurring in sequence like a line of telephone poles holding up the wire of melody; or you can link the inner notes of one chord to the inner notes of the next one, setting up still other melodies within the music. These new lines are called the "inner voices" of the harmonization. How well he handles inner voices is one of the measures of a composer's or an arranger's writing skill.

Gil's handling of them is often astonishing. His original melody, his bass line, and his inner lines are always exquisite. The result is that one of Gil's scores is faintly analogous to a crossword puzzle: it can be "read" both vertically (up through the chords) or horizontally in the form of ihe various melodies he sets up. Heard both ways simultaneously, his music can be breathtaking.

That's part of it.

Another and important part is his use of unusual instrumentations. Evans has virtually abandoned the standard jazz instrumentation of trumpets - trombones - saxes. He uses flutes, oboes, English horns (the standard classical woodwinds), along with French horns and a few of the conventional jazz instruments to extend the scope of the jazz orchestra. Evans was one of the first to use French horns in jazz, in the days when he was chief arranger for the celebrated Claude Thornhill orchestra. Not only does Gil use "non-jazz" instruments (usually played by jazz players, however), but he puts them together in startling ways, to create unearthly and fresh lovely sounds.

Finally, there's his sense of form, of logical construction. Everything he writes builds to sound and aesthetically satisfying climaxes, beautifully developing the previously-stated material. I know of no one in jazz with a more highly-developed sense of form than Gil Evans.

Yet, with all his gifts, Gil is oddly down-to-earth about his music. Once, when I told him that some people were having trouble deciding whether an album he had done with Miles Davis was classical music or jazz, he said, "That's a merchandiser's problem, not mine." Another time he said, "I write popular music." What he meant, of course, is that he wanted no part of pointless debates about musical categorizations; that he was making no claims on behalf of his music; and that since that music grew out of the traditions of American popular music, he was content to call it that.

On another occasion he said, "I'm just an arranger" This comment I reject. Even when Gil is working with other people's thematic material, what he does to it constitutes composition. …

To say that this album has been long-awaited is no cliche. It is the first Gil Evans recording in three years. "I stayed away from music for two years!' he said. "I wanted to look around and see what was happening in the world outside of music."

Welcome back.

We've missed you.”

The following video montage has on offer the Nothing Like You track from The Individualism of Gil Evans.

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