Published in Jazz Improv, V. 4, No. 1 (12/2002)
Castles Made of Sound: The Story of Gil Evans, by Larry Hicock. ISBN: 0-306-80945-1. Hardcover. Retail List: $25.00. 306 pages. B&W photos. Published 2002 by Da Capo Press.
Review by Virginia A. Schaefer
In 1987, Larry Hicock wrote to Gil Evans asking his help on a documentary film of Evans’s current work. When Evans died before giving his reply, Hicock decided that a book would be the best medium to pay tribute to Gil Evans. Hick conducted extensive interviews with Evans’s colleagues and family, which form the core of Castles Made of Sound. This engaging and well-organized biography conveys the author’s admiration for Evans as a musician and as a person. In the introduction, Hicock states his intention to give an “informal” rather than a “critical” account.
Inevitably, this book prompts comparison with Gil Evans: Out of the Cool by Stephanie Stein Crease, published less than a year earlier. Out of the Cool is somewhat more critical and includes more musical analysis and more detail about Evans’s early and middle career. Castles Made of Sound concentrates on Evans’s late career (mid-60s on), particularly his European tours and recordings, and includes many quotations from musicians active today.
Soon after his birth in 1912 in Toronto, Gil Evans started moving around with his adventurous and musically inclined mother while she changed jobs and husbands. He became self-reliant at a young age. In the early 1920s, they settled in Stockton, California, on the fringe of an affluent neighborhood. Evans studied piano, and as a teenager he started borrowing his better-off friends’ Louis Armstrong records. Hearing the Duke Ellington orchestra play in San Francisco solidified his commitment to a career in jazz.
Evans formed a dance band that played at local parties and events, and he applied the arranging skills he learned by arduously copying records and radio broadcasts. His arrangements, influenced by the work of Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and the Casa Loma Orchestra, went over well with audiences. He enrolled in a local college but quit to concentrate on performing.
Evans’ band seemed posed for greater things when Benny Goodman helped get them signed by the MCA booking agency and land a recording contract with Victor. However, Evans’ perfectionism prevented him, against his players’ wishes, from letting the band record, because their performance had not reached the quality of Goodman’s band. The result was no recording or wider exposure, and MCA brought in singer Skinnay Ennis to front and nominally lead the group. In 1938, the group was hired by Bob Hope to provide musical background for his new radio show, a big hit.
Ennis hired respected vocal arranger Claude Thornhill, who had a unique sound that used atypical instrumentation, heavy on clarinets and including French horns, often in high registers. Thornhill’s work excited Evans and became a pivotal influence on his work. Thornhill’s influence was a source for Evans’s development of his characteristic voicings, with widely spaced dissonant clusters that seem to fill in with overtones.
Thornhill soon moved on to start his own orchestra, and in 1941 he hired Evans to help with arranging duties. After completing his service playing bass drum in an Army marching band, in 1946 Evans went to New York and resumed work with the reconstituted Thornhill orchestra, for which he wrote most of the arrangements. The Thornhill band was known as one of the most exciting in New York for those searching for innovation in large-group jazz. Composer and historian Gunther Schuller admired Evans’s merging of melodic lines from bebop with “extraordinarily advanced harmonies and voice leadings”. Max Roach said that Evans “had the approval of every musician”, including Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, and Benny Carter. In 1948, Evans left the Thornhill band to concentrate on composition in a more modern and personal vein.
In the late 40s, Evans lived in a basement apartment near the jazz-club center of 52nd Street. He opened his home to any jazz musician who wanted to drop by and share ideas, work, relax, or even live for a while. Visitors included composer George Russell, guitarist Barry Galbraith, and Charlie Parker, who stayed with Evans on and off while coping with work and emotional issues. Evans gained a reputation as an easy-going and spiritual soul, who cared only for music and his musician colleagues.
Evans began a working and personal relationship with Miles Davis. In 1948, Evans and Gerry Mulligan formed a nine-piece group to feature Davis as soloist; other members included Davis, Lee Konitz, Max Roach, and trombonist J.J. Johnson. Dubbed the Miles Davis Nonet, the group played Evans’s arrangements, influenced by the Thornhill band style and tailored to individual players. The group also played arrangements by Mulligan and other members, including Davis, who composed “Boplicity” with Evans. Davis organized the group and obtained bookings. Hicock praises the group’s seemingly opposed qualities of quiet (or “cool”) but intense, swinging but largely composed. The Nonet recorded some material but, at the time, could find no record company interest.
In 1949, Evans married a woman who was supportive of his work and took on management of his business affairs. He moved with her to a more comfortable apartment and became largely disengaged from active jazz work until 1956. In addition to his wife’s earnings, Evans lived on commercial odd jobs. Evans was not the only jazz musician for whom work was becoming harder to find, with the dispersal of the 52nd Street bebop scene on top of the demise of the big dance bands. However, he did turn down some jobs that didn’t interest him, and he was late finishing some contracts because of his procrastination and excessive attention to detail. The occasional jazz projects of this period included arranging three orchestral pieces for a 1953 Charlie Parker recording with orchestra.
Mid-Career Work with Mile Davis and On His Own
As the 1950s progressed, critics and some of the jazz-listening public turned toward the “cool” style of Stan Kenton and Dave Brubeck. In 1957, newly-receptive Capitol Records released the LP Birth of the Cool, consisting of the Miles Davis Nonet material recorded in 1949. Its success attracted Columbia Records, which had recently released the successful Davis album Round Midnight. Columbia contacted to make a series of LPs featuring Davis solos with Evans orchestral arrangements. Produced by George Avakian, the first of the series was Miles Ahead, in which Evans skillfully unified diverse jazz material, Broadway, and the classics, while unobtrusively highlighting Davis’s solos. The demanding work challenged Davis and the orchestra and, further complicated by the new stereophonic technology, the recording took more studio time and editing than usual.
The second of the series was Porgy and Bess, which capitalized on a revival of the Gershwin opera. Evans’s role went beyond arranging and into reinterpretation and included his own composition “Gone”. The last major Davis-Evans recording was Sketches of Spain, in which Evans arranged and expanded on contemporary Spanish classical music. The music’s flamenco character and concerto form made an ideal setting for Miles Davis’s expressive style and brooding persona, and the LP was a strong seller.
Evans made two other recordings with Davis, both of them with smaller groups. Columbia released the thrown-together, Brazilian-flavored Quiet Nights over the objections of both musicians. Time of the Barracuda, an Evans score for a soon-forgotten film, used Davis and his new rhythm section, which included the young pianist Herbie Hancock, who was strongly impressed by Evans’s work and his supportive personality.
In the late 50s and early 60s, Evans also recorded several works without Davis. At the Jazz Gallery in Greenwich Village he worked out arrangements for Out of the Cool, including “Sunken Treasure” and “Where Flamingos Fly”, which Hancock calls “grand, elegant pieces”. Hicock calls The Individualism of Gil Evans his “tour de force” as “arranger, composer, orchestrator, bandleader, and recording artist”. Individualism included trumpeter Thad Jones, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. The wide-ranging contents included “Hotel Me”, an Evans composition inspired by bluesman Muddy Waters, and an arrangement of John Lewis’s fugal “Concorde”.
New Family and an Active Late Career
Soon after Evans’s first marriage ended in 1960, he met Anita Cooper, a young social worker with involvement in jazz. They married and had two sons, Noah and Miles. Intensely involved with family life, Evans entered another period of relative inactivity as bandleader and recording artist, which lasted from 1965 to 1969. His wife’s inheritance helped tide them over while he worked on a variety of behind-the-scenes projects. Evans provided the arrangements to back guitarist Kenny Burrell on an album, and he also worked with Brazilian singer Astrid Gilberto.
Gil Evans remained close to Miles Davis and his music, although his involvement was largely invisible to the public, collaborating on arrangements and offering general support. Evans’s name did not appear on any of those recordings (such as E.S.P. of 1965), by his own choice or at least agreement. However, he did receive some compensation from Davis and occasionally from Columbia. Hicock quotes Anita Evans, “Miles would give him money... It was always unbelievable to me, the positions they assumed in terms of the money”.
Hicock contends that Evans had a natural affinity for the “counterculture” of the late 1960s and 70s. He switched from alcohol to marijuana as his customary relaxant, and he started wearing longer hair and more youthful dress as he aged. Changes in personal style weren’t uncommon then, particularly for artists, but Evans seemed to be particularly attuned to the spirit of the time, as “a nonconformist, an idealist, a left-leaning pacifist, and a nonmaterialist”.
Inspired by a performance by Charles Mingus and band, in 1968 Evans formed a new twelve-piece edition of the Gil Evans Orchestra, which he continued to work with, sometimes in modified or expanded form, the rest of his life. A 1969 Guggenheim Fellowship helped him afford to launch the new group, and Miles Davis helped Evans get some gigs. While remaining as exacting as ever about the sound he wanted from the players, Evans started letting the players decide which player soloed and for how long. This approach required the players’ patience, careful listening, and willingness to play more spontaneously than most other large jazz ensembles allowed.
The increasingly sophisticated rock music of the time attracted Evans. In 1968 he worked on the Miles Davis quintet album Filles de Kilimanjaro. The piece “Mademoiselle Mabry” was based on a Jimi Hendrix song, “The Wind Cries Mary”. Hendrix and Evans had a mutual respect, and at the time of Hendrix’s death in 1970, they were discussed a collaborative recording project. (In 1974, Evans recorded Gil Evans Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix, which included “Castles Made of Sand”, presumably the source for the book title.)
As Miles Davis developed an electrified fusion jazz, starting in 1969 with Bitches Brew, Gil Evans began to use the Fender Rhodes electric piano with his orchestra and to incorporate more rock elements, such a rhythm and phrasing. In the early 1970s, Evans obtained one of the newly invented Moog synthesizers to use for composition, at first for scoring and later for performing. Evans acknowledged the difficulties of mixing acoustic and electric or electronic instruments. The acoustic players’ need to compete with the volume and frequencies of the electric instruments was a caused of players’ frustration with the tendency for the group to collectively increase volume to the point of being unbearable.
As musicians, many of them young, passed through his orchestra, Evans’s reputation as a musical and spiritual mentor grew. Members and guest players included saxophonists Billy Harper and David Sanborn, trombonist Dave Bargeron, and keyboard player Gil Goldstein, who said “I learned a lot of things about playing, just from playing with him, that I feel I wouldn’t have got in any other situation”.
In the 70s and 80s, the Orchestra made some recordings in the U.S. and Europe. Hicock calls the 1973 Svengali “one of the best jazz recordings of the decade”. In the early 1970s, the Gil Evans Orchestra started playing concerts in Europe and Japan, where audiences and institutional support for jazz were more plentiful than in the U.S. In 1986, Evans collaborated with French bandleader Laurent Cugny on an extensive European concert tour that involved both their groups. (Cugny also published a biography of Evans, and Hicock recommends his Evans discography, available on the Web.) During that trip, Evans also made a duo recording with saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy.
In 1983, the Orchestra started playing on Monday nights at the Greenwich Village club Sweet Basil. That became a regular gig, drawing large enthusiastic audiences, and in 1986 they made a two-volume recording. The same year, Evans performed and recorded with rock singer and bassist Sting in New York. In 1987, even though in fragile health, he celebrated his 75th birthday by performing a big concert with his Orchestra in London, and also performed with the Orchestra at the Montreal Jazz Festival
Gil Evans was musically active up to a short time before his death in Mexico
in 1988. The Gil Evans Orchestra carried on, managed by Anita Evans with son
Miles playing trumpet and son Noah doing sound engineering. The group continues
to perform today.