Gil Evans: Absolute Master

Jazz arrangers are rarely stars unless they are also composers and high-profile instrumentalists. Most notable arrangers—Duke Ellington, Carla Bley, Sun Ra, Thad Jones—are soloists, composers, or band leaders. Gil Evans, although a keyboard player, composer, and band leader, has earned a permanent place in jazz because of his skills as an arranger.

Director Julien Temple picked Evans to do the score for the musical Absolute Beginners. The elegant Evans touch is evident in the title song and “That’s Motivation” by David Bowie, “Killer Blow,” sung by Sade, and “Selling Out,” sung by Slim Gaillard (the composer of “Flat Foot Floogie” and other novelty favorites). The movie also features a treat not on the soundtrack album—a vocal rendition of Miles Davis’s classic “So What.”

The movie acknowledges Evans. The opening series of still photos includes one of Evans and Miles Davis taken in the late ’50s. When main character Colin pulls an album from the fridge (yes, really), you can just barely see that it’s Evans’s Out of the Cool. (Does Colin keep Into the Hot in the oven?) And on the back of the soundtrack cover there’s a little banner reading “Svengali,” the anagrammatic Evans nickname that’s the title for one of his albums.

Gil Evans
Gil Evans, 1978 (Carol Friedman)
Evans’s only previous soundtrack work was “Jupiter Suite” (jazzed-up Mozart) for Insignificance. He enjoyed working on Absolute Beginners. “Julien Temple is a very talented man,” he says. “He can write out a page describing a scene or character and give it to a songwriter, and it always comes out great.” Temple got Evans and the other composers started on the music about a year before he even started shooting—a familiar procedure for the director, who makes rock videos.

Evans’s next soundtrack will be for The Color of Money, a sequel to The Hustler. Robbie “The Band” Robertson is writing blues songs; Evans is arranging them. “Of course, they’re always in a hurry,” says Evans. “I have to have it by the first of August, and I’ll be spending the first three weeks in July with my band in Europe. I’ll have to take a keyboard along and work in the hotel room, but that’ll be nice.”

Although his band plays every Monday at Sweet Basil’s in New York (“that’s my big night”), most Evans concerts and recordings happen in Europe and Japan. Soon he’ll make an album for Japan’s King Records; it will be available here only as an import. New York City, once the jazz capital of the world, doesn’t even have a jazz radio station now, Evans told me. “You can’t expect people to want to hear jazz if they’ve never heard it,” according to Evans.

When Evans began his career, jazz enjoyed a much wider popularity. As an arranger for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra in the 1940s, Evans adapted ideas of Fletcher Henderson and other big band arrangers, combined them with those of his favorite orchestral composers (mostly impressionists, plus a couple of wild cards like Alban Berg) and added ideas of his own to create a unique and complex sound.

Evans’s ruminative nocturnes for the Thornhill band were not only artistically successful; the music was also popular with college audiences because the tempos were so slow that time seemed to stand still, giving dancers an excuse to cling together. (Evans’s current music, electrified and often free form, is danceable in an ’80s way.) Evans’s trademarks—difficult, subtle orchestration; unusual voicings such as French horn plus muted trumpet; surface calm with busy undercurrents—created the Thornhill sound.

Evans refined his concepts further in collaborations with Miles Davis. Davis’s The Complete Birth of the Cool, Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall 1961, Quiet Nights, and Sketches of Spain preserve some of the most beautiful of all jazz. Evans provided perfect settings for Davis’s trumpet—now tragic and fragile, suddenly fiery and reckless. His arrangements left vast spaces for soloists to explore, often using simple scales in place of chord changes.

As a leader, Evans is mainly supportive. On albums like Out of the Cool and The Individualism of Gil Evans, the ensemble takes the spotlight while Evans, in the background, plays “cheerleader piano.” When his groups improvise collectively, the sound can resemble a sonic avalanche. But Evans, or another group member, will eventually come along to pull things together.

Evans has always showcased strong soloists. He’s worked with saxophonists Steve Lacy, Phil Woods, George Adams, Arthur Blythe, and David Sanborn; trumpeters Hannibal Marvin Peterson, John Coles, and Lew Soloff; drummers Tony Williams and Elvin Jones; guitarist Kenny Burrell; French horn player Sharon Freeman; and synthesizer wizard Don Preston.

Evans doesn’t fear the unconventional. He made jazz history by featuring the relentlessly percussive pianist Cecil Taylor on an early ’60s LP, Into the Hot. And in a 1983 concert, the New England Conservatory Medium Rare Big Band performed music by Evans and Anthony Braxton.

Over the last few years, Evans has demonstrated his versatility and eclecticism. A good example is Little Wing, recorded live in Germany in 1978. This LP consists of the title cut by Jimi Hendrix, an Evans favorite; Jackie McLean’s “Dr. Jackle,” a breakneck bop tune; and “The Meaning of the Blues,” a chestnut updated via the diaphanous, snail’s-pace treatment. Priestess, a 1983 Grammy nominee, and Blues in Orbit (a 1981 release) also offer fairly current glimpses of Gil.

The most remarkable thing about Gil Evans remains his talent—its breadth, consistency, and longevity. Over the phone recently, he pointed out that his friend, collaborator, and neighbor Miles Davis was turning 60. “And I’ve just entered my 75th year,” he said. “Time marches on.” But Gil Evans, with French horns and flutes, saxophones and synthesizers, can make it hang still in the air.

Southline, June 4, 1986

A personal note: When the movie Absolute Beginners was released, I used it as an excuse to interview one of my heroes, the great jazz arranger, composer, and bandleader Gil Evans. I didn’t go through a publicist or record label. I just called New York City information. He was listed in the phone book, as it turned out. He was reluctant to be interviewed. But I was so persistent (in a friendly way) that, after a few calls, he finally agreed. He was very kind, and invited me to Sweet Basil some time when his band was playing. “You’ll be my guest,” he said. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to come up to New York before he died—two years later.

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