Gil Evans was arguably the most important arranger to come out of jazz since the end of World War II. His use of instruments like French horn and tuba in his orchestras created a quietly forceful sound that was seminal in the cool jazz movement. His collaborations with Miles Davis produced some of the trumpeter’s greatest music and his own bands from the Seventies on were a pioneering force in jazz-rock. He is still cited as an influence by top jazz composers today.
Evans began his career in the 1940’s arranging for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. Then he became part of a group with Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, John Lewis, Miles Davis and others that worked on developing an alternative to the heated experiments of bebop. The recordings that came out of those meetings came out under Davis’ name as The Birth Of The Cool. This is Evans’ arrangement of “Moon Dreams” from those sessions.
After that Evans and Davis continued to work together for several years on Davis’ Columbia recordings. The highlights of their collaboration were the 1950s’ albums Miles Ahead, Sketches Of Spain and Porgy And Bess though Evans would continue to be a background presence in Davis’ work well into the 60s’. This is a TV broadcast of Evans conducting Davis and an orchestra in some of Miles Ahead.
In the late 50’s Evans began arranging for other artists like Helen Merrill and Kenny Burrell and recording with his own orchestras. Albums like Out Of The Cool and Pacific Standard Time had a sense of mystery and drama unique for their time. This is Out Of The Cool’s “Where Flamingos Fly” featuring Jimmy Knepper on trombone.
In the 1970s’ Evans put together a large group for playing live that used younger musicians like Howard Johnson, David Sanborn and Billy Harper alongside older hands and utilized rock and electronic sounds of the day. In this format he established a long standing Monday night residency at the Sweet Basil club in New York. At one point he was to collaborate with Jimi Hendrix on an album but Hendrix’s death ended that idea, although Evans would eventually record an album of his music.
Evans continued to work until his death in 1988. His music was a great influence on composers who came after him, like Michael Gibbs, Darcy James Argue and Maria Schneider who actually worked as a copyist for him. Composer Ryan Truesdell has taken his Evans love to the point of recording two CDs so far of unreleased Evans arrangements. Gil Evans’ influence is still being heard long after his death.
Here is the Evans Orchestra in 1974 playing “Thoroughbred”. The woman with Evans at the beginning is his wife, Anita. Howard Johnson on tuba and Billy Harper on tenor are among the soloists.