Gil Evans Biography

Ian Ernest Gilmore Green, 13 May 1912, Toronto, Canada, d. 20 March 1988, Cuernavaca, Mexico. Although self-taught, Evans became extraordinarily proficient as a pianist and composer, though his greatest talent lay in his abilities as an arranger. He formed his first band in 1933 in California, where he was raised. He wrote most of the arrangements, a duty he retained when the band was later fronted by popular singer Skinnay Ennis. Up to this point Evans’ work had followed the orthodox line demanded of commercial dance bands, but his musical ambitions lay in other areas. A long stint as chief arranger for Claude Thornhill during the 40s gave him the opportunity he needed to explore different sounds and unusual textures. Thornhill’s predilection for soft and slowly shifting pastel patterns as a background for his delicate piano proved to be an interesting workshop for Evans, who would always remark on this experience as being influential upon his later work. Towards the end of his stay with Thornhill, Evans was writing for very large ensembles, creating intense moody music. However, by this time, he was eager to try something new, feeling that the music he was required to write for the band was becoming too static and sombre.

During this same period, Gerry Mulligan was a member of the Thornhill band and was also writing arrangements. Both he and Evans had become fascinated by the developments of the radical new beboppers such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, and in 1948 the two men embarked upon a series of arrangements for Davis’ nine-piece band. These records, subsequently released under the generic title Birth Of The Cool, proved very influential in the 50s. Despite the quality of the material Evans was creating at this point in his career, he did not meet with much commercial or critical success. His own recordings during the 50s were all fine albums, but they seemed to miss out on critical favour. New Bottles, Old Wine (featuring some blistering playing from Cannonball Adderley) was the best example. Towards the end of the 50s Evans again worked with Davis, together they created a batch of landmark albums such as Miles Ahead, Porgy And Bess and Sketches Of Spain. His arrangements for Davis was a highly effective amalgam of the concepts developed during his Thornhill period and the needs of the increasingly restrained trumpet style Davis was adopting. Evans’ use in these and later arrangements for his own band of such instruments as tubas and bass trombones broadened the range of orchestral colours at his disposal and helped him to create a highly distinctive sound and style. Davis was in no doubt as to the importance of Evans in making these recordings work so well. Out Of The Cool was another excellent album, again under his own name, but it was further uncredited work with Davies that paid the bills. His work on Kenny Burrell’s Guitar Forms in 1964 was another important step in Evan’s career.

As with many other gifted arrangers and composers, Evans’ real need was for a permanent band for the expression of his ideas, but this proved difficult to achieve. Such groups as he did form were in existence for only short periods, although some, fortunately, made records of his seminal works. He continued to write throughout the 60s, composing many extended works, often uncertain if they would ever be performed. However, in the early 70s he was able to form a band which played regularly and the music showed his ready absorption of ideas and devices from the current pop music scene. After a number of international tours during the 70s, his work became more widely known and his stature rose accordingly. So too did his popularity when it became apparent to audiences that his was not esoteric music but was readily accessible and showed a marked respect for the great traditions of earlier jazz.

By the late 70s, the music Evans was writing had developed a harder edge than hitherto; he was making extensive use of electronics and once again was happily absorbing aspects of pop. In particular, he arranged and recorded several Jimi Hendrix compositions. He had closely followed his career since the late 60s and became hugely impressed by Hendrix the composer. Evans’ creativity showed no signs of diminishing as the 80s dawned and he continued a punishing round of concert tours, record sessions, radio and television appearances, all the while writing more new material for his band. One of his final commissions was with Sting, arranging a fine version of Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’.

One of the outstanding arrangers and composers in jazz, Evans was particularly adept at creating complex scores which held at their core a simple and readily understandable concept. Throughout his career, his writing showed his profound respect for the needs of jazz musicians to make their own musical statements within an otherwise formally conceived and structured work. Perhaps this is why so many notable musicians - including Steve Lacy, Elvin Jones, Lew Soloff, George Adams, Ron Carter and David Sanborn - were happy to play in his bands over the years. As a result Evans’ work, even at its most sophisticated, maintained an enviable feeling of freedom and spontaneity that few other arrangers of his calibre were able to achieve.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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