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Ryan Truesdell: The Gil Evans Project

Victor L. Schermer By

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More on the Project and AristShare

AAJ: So where does the whole Gil Evans Project stand right now? You post periodic updates on ArtistShare, but sum it all up for us.

RT: Right now, we are raising money through ArtistShare, and trying to get the word out. We're setting up a recording celebrating the Gil Evans Centennial, and will be releasing it in May, 2012. I've been working out a schedule for the recording session and figuring out what tunes we're going to play. I'm trying to select the best of the best, over the full span of his career from the 1930s through the 1980s. We'll do the recording this August (2011) and release on Gil's 100th birthday, May 13, 2012. On ArtistShare, you can sign up, donate to the cause, and tune in on the work in progress. You can participate at various levels, and everyone gets to see the whole process in depth and detail, all through the website,

In addition, there's a lot of Gil's material that was recorded but hasn't been performed since it was first recorded, like his work with Kenny Burrell, Astrud Gilberto and some of the Thornhill, in addition to his own recordings. So part of what I'm doing is getting that music in shape so it can be performed again. We just did a concert a week ago at the Jazz Standard in New York, recreating the music of Out of the Cool (Impulse!, 1960). We did a concert of the Thornhill music with Phil Woods, Frank Kimbrough and Andy Bey. We did the things Gil did with Cannonball Adderley, with musicians from Eastman in March. And I have some additional performances lined up. I want to take this incredible music to colleges and concert venues, and expose a whole new generation to the music of Gil Evans.

AAJ: What percentage of the music you found has never been recorded?

RT: It's hard to say because, for example, when I went through some of the manuscripts with the Evans family, I would find recorded pieces, like "Buzzard's Song," from Porgy and Bess with Miles, but two or three different versions of it, because Gil was always revising and modifying. Howard Johnson told me they played some these arrangements at rehearsals, but never played them again. If you count those, I would say the unrecorded material constitutes close to 40 percent of the totality of what we found so far. There is a smaller percentage of material that has never been heard in any form, like some Gil Evans original compositions, which accounts for a great deal of the material that will be represented on the Gil Evans Centennial Project recording.

Gil Evans' Musical Legacy

AAJ: The new material may then shed light on various aspects of Gil Evans' approach.

RT: Absolutely. And the CD we're making is not going to focus on just one period. We'll include things that date back to both early and later Thornhill, as well as work Gil did for a few vocalists as well has for his own bands. I even found music he wrote for large wind ensembles of 25 musicians, including timpani, vibraphone, marimba, bassoons, contrabassoons, and double-reeds. My hope is that this recording will introduce a new generation to a whole new side of Gil—one that has been overshadowed by the music he did for Miles—while also sharing these new, never- before-heard works with the die-hard Gil lovers.

AAJ: Of the several biographies on Evans, are there any that you would especially recommend?

RT: There are two biographies that I like a lot. There's one by Larry Hicock where he approaches Gil's history through the recordings he did throughout his career [Castles Made of Sound: The Story of Gil Evans (Da Capo, 2002)]. It's a good intro into Gil's history. For me, the best biography is Out of the Cool by Stephanie Stein Crease (Chicago Review Press, 2003). It's beautifully written, and it includes a lot of great detail on Gil's history. She spent a lot of time interviewing and researching and finding little snippets. For example, there are beautiful letters that Gil wrote to his friends while he was in the army. The whole book really gives you insight into Gil the person.

AAJ: The concept of "cool" is often associated with Gil Evans among others, yet there is something unique about his work, and it's hard to identify his musical influences. Can you say more about this?

RT: I think a lot of his music manifests his own personality, but there were strong influences from classical music, especially the French impressionists like Ravel and Debussy. Also, Claude Thornhill was very influential on Gil. Claude shared Gil's interest in classical music, and he was a classically trained pianist, I believe. When Gil started working for Claude's band, Claude had already established the use of the clarinet, the non-vibrato approach, French horns, and so on. What Gil did was to take the Thornhill sound and add his own approach. Gil added the tuba and a flute section, for example. The more I study the Thornhill years, the more I'm finding that the music that Gil wrote later in his life, with which we're all familiar, was derived in one way or another from his work with Thornhill. The Thornhill band was his "workshop": a place to try things out, experiment with colors and harmonies and the like.

AAJ: One of the fascinating stories was that, according to Charlie Parker, J.J. Johnson, and some others, they all would go over to Evans' apartment to listen to his recordings of Stravinsky and the other modernists. Those gatherings evidently had a big influence on jazz at the time.

RT: Absolutely. Of course, that was after the Thornhill era, when Gil was living on 55th Street. The story goes that Gil was the only one of them who had a library card, so Gil would get recordings of modern classical and world music from the library, and they'd all listen to them. Gil's apartment at that time gave musicians like John Lewis, George Russell, Johnny Carisi, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Gerry Mulligan—all who had great compositional minds—a chance to discuss the music and workshop their ideas. That was how The Birth of the Cool recording came about. They were discussing ways to get the sound of the Thornhill Orchestra with the fewest possible instruments.

On a side note, everyone knows Gil did two arrangements for that record, "Boplicity" and "Moon Dreams," but people might not know that "Moon Dreams" was actually an adaptation of an arrangement Gil did for the Thornhill band a few years earlier. This version was never recorded until the Dutch Jazz Orchestra did it in 2003-4. I got the chance to perform it with the Eastman students in New York this past March. It's an incredibly beautiful arrangement, and fascinating to compare the two versions.

AAJ: So where did Evans evolve musically after the 1950s?

RT: Gil went through many periods during his career. He went from the Thornhill arrangements, which were very structured (in some cases even writing out the solos) to gradually letting go and experimenting with just an outline and seeing what the musicians and the mood of the moment led to. One pivotal moment was the Out of the Cool record from 1960. There was a real change in his writing, where he began to blur the line between composition and improvisation. A good example is "La Nevada," where he wrote maybe 12 or 16 bars, and the rest of the track, which is almost 16 minutes long, was set up at the recording studio.

And then you have The Individualism of Gil Evans, which is one of my favorites because of its perfect balance of written control and freedom. And then you move into the 1970s and '80s, when his arrangements centered more around the soloists and their improvisations. So the overall arc of his writing was moving towards less structure and more spontaneity.

AAJ: One of the musicians who did the Miles Davis recordings arranged by Evans said that Evans' sensitivity and awareness of what he wanted from the music was so precise that he, as an instrumentalist, felt more like a "sound" than a person. It was meant as a compliment to Evans' acuity. But you're suggesting that later on, Evans let the musicians express themselves more. What comes as a surprise is that Evans wrote for a number of rock groups. He worked with such luminaries as Jimi Hendrix and Sting, as well as fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius. Given his "cool" approach, it's difficult to think of him doing that.

RT: Gil was always on the forefront of music and overall interested in sound more than a specific style or genre. Hendrix, Sting, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Lee Konitz, and all the people Gil worked with from the beginning until his death, they all had one thing in common: an individual sound. He was so fascinated by sound, and constantly searching for and discovering any new sounds he could. He was one of the first to get a Moog synthesizer and all the electronic stuff. He was into everything. He listened to Indian music, classical music, rock 'n' roll, everything! Somebody asked me what Gil would be doing if he was alive today, and one could only imagine he would be working with rappers or maybe Lady Gaga; who knows?

AAJ: That emphasis on sound as such is rare. It can be found in composers like Messiaen, who was constantly absorbing everything he heard and putting it in his music. That was true of Evans as well, and partly explains his finely tuned band arrangements that are immediately recognizable as his own.

So, now, to sum up, what would you say has been Gil Evans' lasting legacy and contribution to jazz, above and beyond the landmark albums with Miles Davis?

RT: Man, what a question! I think that, from the standpoint of a composer, Gil had the perfect balance of everything that makes music great. He had the perfect balance of classical and jazz—with harmony, a linear writing approach, improvisation, color, sound, the whole works. He just seemed to have that magic balance of all the elements. He proved that large ensemble music doesn't have to be stuck in the big band idiom as such, that you can make sounds and color within a large ensemble and still make it sound intimate. He could make 16 instruments sound like one, or he'd make nine instruments sound like 20. I'm guessing people would probably say that his contribution was orchestration. But there's more to it than that. It's the balance of taking all the elements of music, mixing it together with Gil's personality and own musical mind, and creating a great beauty within an ensemble.

AAJ: A couple of final questions. First, and very importantly, what would you like the Gil Evans Project to accomplish for the music, the musicians, and the historiography of jazz?

RT: My main purpose is to show the true Gil Evans and everything he did. As you said earlier, when people think of Gil Evans, they immediately think of those four records he did with Miles Davis, especially Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess. But that only represents a short time in the middle of his career. It's important to look at what he did before he got there, and what he accomplished afterwards. For example, that Lucy Reed record that I mentioned earlier—it's a beautiful record with a very unique instrumentation, but very few people are familiar with it. I want to change that. I want to have Gil's music performed again in a way that honors him and how he intended it to be performed, bringing his music into the lives of the present generation. The goal is to celebrate Gil for who he was and the sheer beauty and genius he brought to his arranging, composing, and music as a whole.

AAJ: It's a great service you're doing in that respect. The greatness of what Gil Evans did is quite evident, yet we know so little of it.

RT: Exactly; Gil is a little bit of a mystery. I love that feeling of discovery when I find some new piece he wrote in the 1940s and find, for example, quotes from classical music—like Ravel, Berg, and so on. These newly discovered works all show developmental indications that I now see influenced everything we know of his work. It also teaches us about Gil as a person through his music. I hope that the Gil Evans Project has a long life beyond this CD, and that we keep on performing his music for years to come.

AAJ: It may also awaken and inspire the creativity of current musicians to new heights such as he achieved.

RT: I really hope so. I just love this project, and the Evans family is terrific, and it's an honor to be involved in all of this.


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