The Gil Evans Orchestra, The Legacy Continues.

Written by | Magazine, Summer 2019

Early in January 1949, the first of three sessions took place that would eventually result in one of the most seminal recordings in the history of jazz, The Birth of the Cool. Interestingly enough the full album was not released until close on seven years after the final session in March 1950. Prior to this tracks from the sessions were released as two pairs of singles, “Israel” and “Boplicity” were doubled together and Capitol released eight of the tracks on a 10″ record titled Classics in Jazz—Miles Davis (H-459). In 1957. The album as we know it today was released in 1957. While this album is attributed to the Miles Davis Nonet, the idea and musical concept originated with Gil Evans.

Editors Note: This article is an abridged version of the article that appears in the Summer 2019 edition of the Jazz In Europe Magazine. The Magazine is available here. 

By 1947 Gil Evans had moved to New York where he resided in a basement apartment behind a Chinese Laundry just three blocks away from 52nd Street. By this time Gil Evans had gained a reputation for his innovative arrangements of bebop tunes for the Claude Thornhill orchestra and his apartment had soon become a meeting place for musicians looking to develop new musical styles outside of the dominant bebop style of the day. Among those present at these gatherings were Charlie Parker, as well as Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, George Russell and John Carisi. These meetings hosted by Evans touched on subjects such as instrumental textures, improvisation and the future of jazz. Drawing inspiration from the European impressionist composers a new group was proposed to explore these ideas and concepts.

Evans originally considered using Charlie Parker for the project however he eventually moved away from this idea. The reason for this move according to Nat Hentoff who wrote in his article “The Birth of the Cool.” published in Downbeat Magazine (May 2, 1957) was that “Evans felt that Parker was too dedicated to his own solo voice and not an ensemble sound that Evans was hoping to tap into.” In the Summer of 1947, Evans met with Miles Davis and the two decided that Miles would lead the project and the band that take the name the Miles Davis Nonet. The members of the band would be drawn from the musicians at the discussion group. According to Miles Evans, Gil Evans son and current leader of the Gil Evans Orchestra, The Birth of The Cool project was without a doubt Gil’s idea and being the humble man he had no problem allowing the project to carry Miles Davis’s name as the leader.

This album was not only a true turning point in jazz history it also served to put Gil Evans on the map as one of the most innovative composers and arrangers of the time.

When looking at the Gil Evans legacy the term sound innovator consistently comes to the forefront. So what was it that made Gil Evans a sound innovator? One of the first and most obvious aspects was his use of instrumentation that was uncommon to say the least in the jazz vocabulary of the time. There were not that many jazz arrangers around at the time that could deploy french horns, tuba, bassoon, oboe, and harp in such a convincing manner. However, this was not the only aspect, even when Evans was limited to more conventional instrumentation he was able to create refreshingly colourful harmonic textures from his ensembles. Harmonically Evans use of controlled dissonance is one of the defining factors of his writing. While he was often working with fairly standard harmonic progressions his voicing and in particular his voice leading created a unique sound pallet.

When preparing this article I had the pleasure of speaking at length with Miles Evans about his father’s legacy and a great deal more. Speaking of the Gil Evans legacy, Miles said “One of the most exceptional things about my father was his ability to consistently innovate new styles, whether it was in the late forties with Birth of the Cool. The Fifties and Sixties with the classic Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain and Quiet Nights recordings or through to the late ’60s with the jazz-rock fusion recordings such as the Ampex album. Also, he was a master collaborator, he had this amazing ability to find the most incredible musicians to perform his work and I believe that this was one of his main strengths.”

I wanted to explore this aspect of innovation further with Miles. When I look back at those impromptu gatherings at his Manhattan apartment in the late forties and the accounts of what was discussed I wondered if being innovative for Gil was a goal in itself or whether it was more the case that he wrote what he heard and this just happened to be highly innovative. Miles replied “Well, good question, I’m not a hundred percent sure if my father was focused on innovation as an end in its self. The feeling I got from him was that he was not looking to write something innovative, he just wrote what he heard although I have to say he was a very analytical person and he was never worried about crossing the boundaries of convention.”

There is no doubt that the Columbia recordings with Miles Davis catapulted Gil Evans into the mainstream consciousness however it was also during this time that Evans released two albums under his own name on the Impulse label “Out of the Cool” and “Into the Hot”. The first of these two albums were recorded after a six-week stint at the Jazz Gallery club in New York City. The album featured largely the same line-up that played the live gig’s however with the addition of Elvin Jones who played the percussion and shared the drum chair with Charlie Persip. The second of these two albums “Into the Hot” was a slight departure from Out of the Cool and featured a large ensemble under the direction of John Carisi and a septet with the Cecil Taylor Unit.

With these two albums, Evans was clearly moving towards greater freedom in his compositions and arrangements where the line between composition and improvisation became even further blurred. While commercially the albums were overshadowed by the success of the Miles Davis recordings they received strong reviews by the critics. The Penguin Guide to Jazz selected “Out of the Cool” as part of its suggested “Core Collection”, calling it “Evans masterpiece under his own name and one of the best examples of jazz orchestration since the early Ellington bands”.

Moving forward to 2018 and Miles has again brought the band together to record a series of albums under the Title “Hidden Treasures”. The first in the series was released last year and focused on the repertoire from those Sweet Basil concerts. Miles explained that this series of recordings has been produced to remind everybody of this special time in history. Volume one in the series features compositions that the Orchestra played live in the late 70s and early 80s. The following albums in the series are “The Classics,” featuring modern renderings of Evans’ original arrangements, including “My Ship,” and “The Meaning of the Blues”.

“When Noah (Miles’ brother and producer and engineer of the Hidden Treasures recordings. -ed) and I were looking at the second album in the series we really wanted to include Dave Sanborn. Dave and my father were close and we thought it would be nice to include him in the project. When we were discussing it, Dave seemed really keen to do “My Ship”. Also, Alex Foster who has been with the band now for many years wanted to do “The Meaning of the Blues” so before we knew it the concept became “Hidden Treasures – The Classics,”. As yet we’ve not locked in all of the material but it will include two George Russell compositions such as “Blues in Orbit” and “Stratusphunk” and “Aos Pes Da Cruz” that I just love from the Quiet Nights album. We’ve already recorded some of the material but we have time. The album is not due for release until mid-2020.”

The third album in the series is something completely different and will be based on a number of recordings from a core of musicians who worked with the band under my father, some alive and some that are no longer with us. The album features music that was largely written by my mother but had never been released. The plan is to take these original recordings that already exist and overdub the current band to expand the arrangements. At the time of writing, there was no firm date set for the release of Volume 3.

While these three albums are already locked in and scheduled it’s clear that all three tend to look back. I was interested to know what Miles has planed for moving the band forward. “Well it’s nice to be able to present the people with some things they remember and enjoy but beyond these three records it’s time for us to really celebrate and innovate and really do the amazing stuff, or at least give it a shot, that my Father and Miles showed us by going out on a limb, being yourself and trying to do something innovative and interesting.”

With that said, it’s clear that under Miles Evans, the Gil Evans legacy is in good hands.

Volume 1 (Monday Nights) of the Gil Evans Orchestra’s “Hidden Treasures” trilogy is now available via Deko Music on CD, Vinyl and all major streaming platforms. You can order the CD or Vinyl here.

More about the Gil Evans Orchestra can be found on the Gil Evans Website.

Last modified: August 12, 2019