Difficult to say exactly where it all began. Miles Davis and Gil Evans worked together on the series of pieces that became known as The Birth Of The Cool. In 1949 and 1950 a group of New York musicians had gathered around Gil Evans to talk about music and the future of jazz. Out of that came some recordings with the band eventually called The Miles Davis Nonet. Gil Evans’ previous experience came from working with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. Thornhill’s band was a remarkable group, completely unlike other bands of the time and the influence of it on musicians of the time was pervasive. Evans had a free hand and arranged a whole series of unusual pieces that developed its own sound with the use of unusual instruments such as the French horns and tuba. He arranged music by composers like Mussorgsky, Falla, Parker’s ‘Anthropology’ and ‘Yardbird Suite’. Even now the influence of the Thornhill band is under rated.
Miles was clear what he admired about Evans. ‘I used to write and send Gil my scores for evaluation. Gil used to say they were good but cluttered up with too many notes. I used to think you had to use lots of notes and stuff to be writing. Now I’ve learnt enough about writing not to write. I just let Gil write. I give him an outline of what I want and he finishes it. I can even call him up on the phone and tell him what I got in mind, and when I see the score it is exactly what I wanted. Nobody but Gil could think for me that way.’
So what did Gil Evans see in Davis? ‘Everybody up until that time came out of Louis Armstrong. Maybe out of somebody else – like Roy Eldridge came out of Louis Armstrong and then Dizzy came out of Roy but it was all basically like that. Miles loved the trumpet but he didn’t like ‘trumpet’ trumpet, you know. And so he had just to start with no tone, no sound whatsoever at first. That first record he made ‘Now’s the Time,’ it’s just a skeleton tone that he uses. He gradually filled it with flesh and blood, from hearing other people that he liked – like Clark Terry, Harry James, Freddie Webster especially and it all went into the funnel and came out his sound. He didn’t even realise it. One night he was playing at the Village Vanguard, and we were sitting around during intermission and I said, ‘Miles, it just occurred to me. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought of it or not, but you’re the first person to change the tone of the trumpet since Louis Armstrong’ which he was.’
Enter George Avakian of Columbia records, one of the great unsung heroes of jazz. It was Avakian who signed Miles to Columbia. His next strategy was to suggest to Miles that he should work with a large ensemble. They settled on Gunther Schuller and Gil Evans to write the music. Avakian was not the usual producer; he had worked with John Cage and he was interested in the blending of jazz and classical music. Avakian also admired the music of the Miles Davis Nonet. He wanted to introduce Miles to a wider audience and to do that he wanted to place Miles in a large ensemble setting. Davis was happy with the idea and it was he who suggested Gil to write and arrange.
Gil Evans did not have a high opinion of himself as a composer. He was probably right. The jazz critic Max Harrison said that what Evans could do was to recompose. ‘Evans embodies the paradox of a man with real creative power of great imaginative resource, who was unable to produce an original theme. he could, as it were, make the sturdiest oak trees tower above us, yet he had to be given an acorn first, once this had set his imagination going, the Invention mysteriously overflowed……..it seemed to matter little whether his found object was a beautiful melody or a piece of commonplace figuration. Disconcertingly complete transformation would take place, turning the banal into the magical, uncovering relationships between passages of music that had seemed to be of utterly different character…….Recomposition amounts to a piece being deconstructed and its elements being reassembled at a higher level of integration so that the whole takes on new and more complex meanings.’
Gil started with three compositions that already existed: ‘Springsville’ by John Carisi, which Carisi had arranged for his own group; Delibes’s ‘Maids of Cadiz,’ which Gil had arranged for Thornhill but which was never recorded; and his own ‘Blues for Pablo’ which takes its first theme from Falla’s ‘Three-Cornered Hat’.
All this material was completely revised. He went on to use Ahmad Jamal’s composition ‘New Rhumba’ orchestrating Jamal’s trio version for Miles and the ensemble, including the original Jamal solo. The remaining pieces were, by Dave Brubeck, Kurt Weill, and J. J. Johnson. Miles composed the title track, ‘Miles Ahead,’ It was Gil who thought of the whole album as a suite and he wrote linking sections to join each piece. Another innovation on ‘Miles Ahead’ was the use of overdubs. This enabled Evans to work with the nineteen musicians to get the music right so that Miles could come in later to record his contributions.
Most of the musicians chosen for the orchestra had jazz experience. Gil wrote their names at the head of each piece of music so that he was writing for Bernie Glow rather than a trumpet. Gil drove the musicians hard: some of them complained about the difficulties of the music and the fact that Gil did not seem to appreciate the difficulties of playing a brass instrument for long periods.
The musical textures conjured by Evans shift and change as you try to identify how they are achieved. Davis uses a flugelhorn which fits with mature rounded sound that Evans was achieving.
‘Springsville’, by John Carisi is faster than the composer’s earlier recording. Delibes’s ‘Maids of Cadiz’ is slowed right down increasing its sensuality. The other ballads—Kurt Weill’s ‘My Ship’, J. J. Johnson’s ‘Lament,’ and Bobby Troup’s ‘The Meaning of the Blues’—evoke qualities of sadness.
Porgy and Bess
George Avakian had left Columbia and it was his successor Calvin Lampley who suggested recording an album of Porgy and Bess. There was a film and a stage show around at the time. Frances Taylor, Miles current woman friend, had worked on the stage show. Davis was not keen on the project . Eventually he changed his mind and claimed a few years later that it was his idea!
Gil completely reconstructed Porgy and Bess changing the order of the story from a narrative and musical point of view. Gil’s version opens with the dark ‘Buzzard Song,’ which sets a tone for the entire album in real contrast to Gershwin’s opener, ‘Lullaby/Summertime.’
‘Bess, You Is My Woman Now’ is now the second song. Gil reinforces his own version by fusing together various melodies, fragments, and incidental motifs. ‘I Got Plenty of Nuttin’ ‘ is almost left out, just used as the bridge the introduction to ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’. Gil included one composition of his own, ‘Gone’, a fast piece with solos by Miles and Philly Joe Jones. It is a contrast to Gershwin’s ‘Gone, Gone, Gone,’ ‘Prayer is introduced by a tremolo. ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ has tremolos, glissandos, and wild swoops and musical yells.
The sonorities are varied. The tuba is sometimes doubled with bass, or played over a chorus of three flutes, one an alto. The four trombones fire off chords. Flutes and trombones often play together, the inner voices filling themselves in with the overtones emanating from the low brass. Miles himself uses an arsenal of sounds—open flugelhorn, muted trumpet; Sometimes he joins the orchestra to play lead.
Steve Lacy who worked with Evans around that time commented: ‘For Gil there were no departments in music. Gil painted with his players. I felt like a colour—a ribbon in this great spectrum. I’d never felt that before, and not much since then. It was a unique experience, to be a strand of colour—there’s no more you, there is just it.’
The whole album had a dark almost menacing quality. In spite of that it was the kind of album that went beyond jazz. People who did not particularly like jazz were buying it. George Avakian’s initial strategy had been realised. People were starting to buy Miles ‘albums whether they liked jazz or not. Porgy and Bess was the biggest-selling Miles Davis album (one hundred thousand before the reissues on compact disc) until the release of Davis’ Bitches Brew in 1971, which sold four hundred thousand copies.
Although the music was successful commercially there was some critical resistance to what Evans and Davis were attempting. The resistance came to a head with Sketches of Spain. Many writers did not quite know how to categorise it and so pointed out that they did not think that it was jazz.
Sketches Of Spain
Sketches of Spain is probably the most remarkable of the three albums. It was the most difficult to record. They used fifteen three hour sessions. Miles Davis produces the most profound work of his career; Evans creates music that is original, subtle, empathetic and imbued with the spirit of another culture.
‘We hadn’t intended to make a Spanish album,’ Gil Evans explained. ‘We were just going to do the ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ by Rodrigo. A friend of Miles gave him the only album in existence with that piece. He brought it back to New York and I copied the music off the record because there was no score. By the time we did that, we began to listen to other folk music, music played in clubs in Spain, where you could hear the glasses crashing and the guitars playing along, not paying any attention to all the racket. So we learned a lot from that and it ended up being a Spanish album. The Rodrigo, the melody, is so beautiful. It’s such a strong song. I was so thrilled with that.’
Miles and Gil just used the second movement of the piece, the ‘Adagio,’ with a new middle section composed by Gil. The rest of the album consisted of ‘Will o’ the Wisp’ an excerpt from Falla’s ballet ‘El Amor Brujo’, and three compositions by Evans, inspired by flamenco music and South American folk music.
The intensity of the album soars with ‘Saeta’ and ‘Solea.’ ‘Saeta,’one of the oldest types of Andalusian religious music, is sung on Good Friday by a woman standing on her balcony ‘aiming’ her anguished song at an image of the crucified Christ being carried in the street procession below.
Evans’ ‘Saeta,’ begins with a bassoon then the street band is halted and Davis enters to play the remarkable solo, Davis starts with flamenco and moves towards blues rather than jazz, the music somehow becomes a Spanish blues. Davis is more subjective, personal; he is alone and improvises with a passion that is at least equal to the most intense passage in any of his other records.
The album’s finale is Evans’s ‘Solea’ which based on the traditional flamenco form. It is a song of sorrow or loneliness—a blues. The three-piece percussion: Jimmy Cobb uses the brushes; Elvin Jones and Jose Mangual create a tapestry of shakers, tambourines, and drum rolls. Gradually the music swells and half way through a new theme emerges. Miles’ remarkable solo is imperious, majestic, full of sorrow and completely faithful to the soul of flamenco. The difficulty of expressing joy and sadness was commented on by Miles
‘Now that was the hardest thing for me to do on Sketches of Spain: to play the parts on the trumpet where someone was supposed to be singing, especially when it was ad-libbed, like most of the time. . . . What really made it so hard to do was that I could only do it once or twice. If you do a song like that three or four times you lose that feeling you want to get there. . . .What I found I had to do in Sketches was to read the score a couple of times, listen to it a couple of times more, then play it. For me, it was just about knowing what it is, and then I could play it. . . . After we finished working on Sketches of Spain, I didn’t have nothing inside of me. I was drained of all emotion and I didn’t want to hear that music after I got through playing all that hard shit. Gil said, ‘Let’s go listen to the tapes.’
I said, ‘You go listen to the tapes.’
There were other collaborations principally ‘Quiet Nights’ which did not work as well. Miles Davis thought that it should not have been released. He was so angry that he refused to work with producer Teo Macero for the next four years. There was still the hope that Gil and Miles would get together and produce more. Columbia wanted them to; the jazz world wanted them to. There were rumours that they were going to do something around an opera, ‘Tosca’, sadly all just rumours.