Gil Evans — Out of the Cool: His Life and Music is a quiet celebration of an ingenious musical innovator.
Jazz innovators don’t always kick in the door to the future like some steroid-crazed Rambo blazing away with the latest weapons of mass cultural destruction. More typically they’re ordinary Joes who have reconsidered or rearranged the relationship of the form’s basic elements: rhythm, harmony or melody.
With arranger and bandleader Gil Evans, it was harmonic color, the juxtaposition of sounds on sounds. Evans was a self-taught arranger who modeled his early work on the swing era’s “sweet” polished dance orchestras of the West Coast, and on the work of impressionistic European composers such as Ravel and Debussy. In his writing for horns, he was particularly interested in the blending of woodwinds with brass instruments, seeking to take advantage of the precise intonation of their low-register, vibratoless possibilities, rather than their hard swinging capabilities. In these arrangements, full of dynamic excursions, the ensemble sound took precedence over soloists’ contributions.
With the advent of bebop in the early 1940s, Evans, who relocated from California to Manhattan in ’46, sought ways to integrate his highly structured concept with the new music. Improvisation was the staple of the beboppers’ cuisine. A simple, often borrowed melody served as introduction to a series of solo helpings that were the essence of the hasty puddings of bop compositions.
Like a hip Commodore Perry bringing together the west and the east, Evans, in his scores of “Anthropology” and “Yardbird Suite,” two of Charlie Parker’s tunes, left ample room for fiery solos within his cool, polished orchestrations.
Eventually he formed an alliance with Miles Davis. And, in spite of Evans’ many innovations, the only stuff most folks know he has on the shelf are his 1950-60s midcareer collaborations with Davis such as Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess. Miles, the so-called Prince of Darkness, at his most romantic.
Davis, despite his bopper beginnings, had an enduring interest in the possibilities of arranged harmonies, and the subtly and sonority of textures layered against timbres, particularly in the middle and lower register, the range of his musical strength.
The Evans-Davis merger was another of those miraculous jazz pairings: think Ellington-Strayhorn, Gillespie-Parker, Coleman-Cherry. Think of the way Lester Young cushioned and amen-ed Billie Holiday’s plaintive cries. Evans’ orchestrations provide similar support for Miles’ equally profound confessions and poignant entreaties.
There continue, however, to be latter day scholastic-critical skirmishes between post-armistice holdouts sniping at one another across territory long ago declared secure. Devotees, past and present, so solid in the bebop pocket they pack wax in their ears and lash themselves to the mast of Bird’s modes and ways so as not to be tempted by the enchanting sirenlike harmonies and so-called nonjazz sounds Evans created. Does it swing? they ask. Is it too European or academic? Too far from jazz’s traditional blues root? Too white to be right?
Evans did not dash himself against the main or Third Stream’s rocks in despair over such questions, nor did he surrender to pop enticements. Instead, with the patience of Penelope weaving a never-completed robe of varied colors, he bided his time. He produced for his own groups a series of arrangements on tunes from as sundry a bunch as Tadd Dameron, Charles Mingus, Leadbelly, Jimi Hendrix, Willie Dixon, Chopin, George Russell and George Gershwin. All featured the exhilarating harmonies and lush luster of a cloth merchant’s sampler of chromatic swatches.
The criticisms that Evans incorporated methods and conventions from “nonjazz” sources are rendered moot by the strength of the musical and emotional artifacts of his collaborations with Davis. If there were ever cases of the ends justifying the means Sketches of Spain, Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess are the evidence. Recordings under his name, including Out of the Cool and Blues in Orbit, also admirably hold their own, and confirm his standing as one of the more imaginative and inventive arrangers in jazz history.
At the time of Evans’ death at 76, his sonic colors were continuing to expand. His music had taken on an edgy, bristling immediacy. His time had become even more elastic. It was snap, crackle and pop to the very end.
Gil Evans — Out of the Cool: His Life and Music is very much a musical biography. There is still a book to be written on Evans the man. Stephanie Stein Crease, however, has served her musical research well. The writing is serviceable, though it does not leap off the page. The biggest plus is that her insights and explanations regarding Evans’ music will motivate you to go back to give it another well-deserved and much-rewarded listen.
Detroit poet and playwright Bill Harris writes about jazz and other passions for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].