Gil Evans-Out of the Cool
Stephanie Stein Crease
A Cappella Books
A new, welcome book on the life of the great arranger and musical ideologist Gil Evans provides a portrayal of a multi-faceted man, both professionally and personally.
While magazine articles and items found in the writings about other musicians have given us thumbnail snippets of the life of this quiet, non-self-promoter, Gil Evans: Out of the Cool, His Life and Music (A Cappella Books, 384 pages) by Stephanie Stein Crease, brings together — and then some. It provides insight from Gil's associates, wives and Gil himself, bundling the days of this important American musical figure into an interesting and well-researched package.
It shows Gil as the beginning arranger; as organizer; as disorganized organizer; struggling against the conventions of the recording industry; finding early artistic success and building a reputation; being overlooked; periods of success; times forgotten and frazzled; and finally, in the last years, being able to join his artistic vision with more popular acclaim. That acclaim is growing and becoming more understood even now, as musicologists continue to digest the total spectrum of his life's work.
The book documents each stage of his life, capably noting all the important people he touched and played with, and all the styles from the unusual voicings of Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool to freer, fusion music including the works of Jimi Hendrix and collaborations with people like Sting.
It depicts Evans' frustration with the business of music, but also others' frustration with him, including wives who didn't always appreciate his turning down lucrative jobs because they weren't what he wanted to be involved in, artistically. That can be viewed as both noble and foolish, if his family members suffer as a result. (After all, plenty of well-regarded arrangers took TV and jingle jobs to keep the cash flowing).
Crease presents it all succinctly, and without judgment — a good thing. An obvious admirer of Evans' music, when she writes of the many important recordings and concerts, she includes, along with the appropriate praise, commentary from critics who did not like, or downplayed, the work. Good journalism.
Another good thing is that in discussing individual music and recordings, they are aptly described and placed in the appropriate context, but there is not over-analysis of the pieces title-by title or recording-by-recording. Some biographers' efforts to do that to the extreme not only fall embarrassingly flat but are a colossal bore.
She presents all the stages of his development — from leading his first band on the West Coast to regional success, to his reputation-building days with schlock singer Skinnay Ennis and the well-regarded Claude Thornhill Orchestra, and on to bigger and better things. In addition to excerpts from past published interviews, Crease has the benefit of letters written by Evans to friends that provide interesting insight throughout the book.
Naturally, his deep friendship and association with Miles Davis, and their legendary recordings together, receive a lot of play, but it isn't just rehash. Its presentation is appealing and there are worthy revelations. And not just about the well-known things like Sketches of Spain, but also works that were included on other Davis albums right through the 1980s.
It's interesting to note how many times though the years there were reports of Miles and Gil getting back into the studio to do some kind of major work — only to have it not come to fruition. It's more interesting to see in-house communications from Columbia record executives fretting about the issue, all on edge and jumpy about how to get them back working. (Record company officials being largely considered parasitic weasels, isn't it perversely fun to think that many of the rumors may have been deliberately started by Miles — maybe even Gil — to rattle some cages at Columbia?)
It's also worthy of note how interested Evans was in the Miles-Gil-Hendrix collaboration that really did reach the brink of becoming a reality, derailed by the untimely death of the great guitarist.
Gil Evans is a great figure in American music and that conclusion is supported by Crease's extensive research. It's nice to see. It brings to light his idiosyncrasies, of which there were more than a few, and his unique way of dealing with people, situations and music.
When it's all boiled down, Evans, like most musical geniuses (a title bestowed by Miles) shows a roving spirit and a probing desire to create new sounds, investigate new territories, and not be pigeon-holed into one space. It's not much more complicated than that. Like his advice to a new member of the Gil Evans Orchestra who didn't know when he was supposed to solo: If you feel like playing, stand up and play; if you don't, stay seated.
The book is a solid documentation about a good man and an important musical figure. In Crease's very last paragraph, she gives a succinct summery: "Gil Evans forever transformed the palette of jazz instrumentation and left us with an entirely new sound world. In it, he fine-tuned myriad versions of resonant cry — at times haunting, at times joyous — he sought to express through his music."