it’s early 1976.  i would be interviewing for Down Beat one of the  great heroes of this music in his loft apartment in the former Western Electric laboratory and warehouse in the Far West Village called Westbeth.  (the “Beth part is for Bethune St.)  Gil Evans lives here with his family, wife Anita and sons Noah and Miles, the former named for a naval officer of note; the latter for a navigator of other notes.  i am all atwitter.

the shy Evans braces himself for this rare encounter –he did not grant interviews often– with cigarettes giving off a distinct aroma of burning electrical wire, and a blue haze.  i mention this because the interview does not get referenced in the otherwise complete bio by Stephanie Stein Crease.  i recently broached the subject with Anita who said that a lot was lost in that haze.  my editors, however, thought it important enough to make it a cover story, an honor to its veteran subject and its neophyte author.  (you may find it at, or or by Googling me.)

the three of us rambled through years of history: the early arrangements for Claude Thonhill, the equally seminal “Birth of the Cool” sessions, his own big bands, the standards albums, the Miles Davis orchestrations, and on into the early experiments with electric and electronics, the rock innovations, and finally the music of Jimi Hendrix, “Svengali,” and beyond.

in a breathtakingly compleat week in May 2012 in the Apple, Gil Evans was celebrated on the Centenary of his birth.  there were no fewer then four nights, three sets each. at Jazz Standard, and a reunion concert at the High Line Ballroom.

the Standard’s Orchestras –yes there were a smattering of strings– performed four periods in Gil’s multifarious career: the Claude Thornhill Band, the 1950′s band which recorded “New Bottle Old Wine” –one veteran musician asked “don’t you love that title?”– and others which were re-workings of jazz standards the Evans way; the third night was dedicated to “The Individualism of Gil Evans.”  the final evening featured the arrangements for vocalists Helen Merrill and Astrud Gilberto.  all were immaculately researched, transcribed and arranged by Ryan Truesdell, a truly masterful undertaking, discovering new charts as he dug.  they were given loving treatment with the encouragement and cooperation of the Evans family.

if there was an omission it might have been the Impulse! years’ “Out of the Cool,” and “Into The Hot” with the classic “La Nevada.” more on that later.

i missed the opening night at the Standard, but i spoke to Gil’s last assistant, Maria Schneider, who was so enthralled that she broke from her usual articulate demeanor.  ”it was “[epithet] fantastic.  i nearly [epithet] my pants.”  that from the usually demure multi-award winning composer, arranger and bandleader.

personally, i do not have a fav Gil Evans period; they each had their particular compositional genius.  but i can understand Schneider’s enthusiasm as Gil’s early period with the Thornhill organization was quietly unique.  he was one of Thornhill’s phalanx of arrangers which included a teenaged Gerry Muliigan as well.  they were to reunite for the “Birth of the Cool.”  i continue to use the Evans chart of Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology” as an example of “Rhythm” changes and as a transition from Swing to Bop in my classes.

i could wax romantically about the Gil Evans mystique, as i did in the heavily edited Down Beat piece, but we must move on to the performances.


the recordings which were celebrated were “New Bottle Old Wine” and “Great Jazz Standards.”  as in all Evans recordings each has its own personality not unlike the wine alluded to.  the pair had been reissued as a Blue Note double LP “Pacific Standard Time” decades ago.  Gil told me that he purposefully chose tunes from artists and genres which would challenge both him and the listener.  the soloists were his contemporaries such as Cannonball Adderley, on Jelly Roll’s Kiing Poter Stomp, which remained in the band’s book later with Davd Sanborn as soloist, Don Redman’s Chant of the Weed, Lil Hardiin Armstrong’s Struttin’ With Some Barbecue, Louis’ solo vehicle on Joe King Oliver’s Davenport Blues, Broadway pop fare Cole Porter’s Just One of Those ThingsNobody’s Heart, Charlie Parker’s bebop Bird Feathers, a medley of Lester Young’s Lester Leaps In, Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight and Dizzy Gillespie’s and Chano Pozos’s Manteca, and the recent;ly uncovered premiere, a full band arrangement of Look To The Rainboiw.  only the rhythm section backed Astrud Gilberto on the vocalist’s recording with Gil.  Wendy Gillis was the vocalist here.  as Truesdell tells it seems the band members didn’t make the original session.

always aural color.  it’s what gave Gil Evans’ arrangements their uniqueness.  he incorporated and featured tubas, French horns, bass trombones and baritone saxes in his sections and as solo instruments.  almost commonplace now thanks to him.

at Jazz Standard there were solos from the reeds: Steve Wilson and Dave Pietro tenor and alto saxes, and alto and tenor flutes, and Scott Robinson baritone sax and bass clarinet.

Greg Gisbert’s trumpet solo on Davenport drew cheers.  it was Johnny Coles on the original Evans recording.

the rhythm section of Frank Kimbrough, whose leaning pose at the piano belied the difficulty of Gil’s single note phrases,  Frank Vignola, guitar, whom i caught studying the parts when i arrived.  he told me later that “this stuff is tough, man.”  Lewis Nash’s drums, key written parts of Evans’ charts, powered the band.

and then there was Rufus Reid!  the veteran bassist was not merely a part of the rhythm section.  what with Gil’s writing he added tops not bottoms to the ensemble.


the personnel changed slightly for “The Individualism of Gil Evans.”  Robinson’s bari sax was out; a bassoon and two French horns were in.  added was a new instrument to me, a tenor violin.  tuned like a normal violin only an octave lower, it was closer in size to a cello.  it was difficult to find Truesdell said.  but find it he did.  ”maybe i’ll use it sometime again,” he mused.


the selections were all from the new CD by Ryan Truesdell and the Gil Evans Centennial Project (Artists House).  it has a long-winded, but descriptive title: “Ryan Truesdell Presents Centennial, Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans.”  the 10 tracks are all presented here for the first time.  some were sketches others full blown arrangements just unrecorded for one reason or another, principally because the writer considered them beneath his high standards.  proof in this case being in the hearing even Evans’ “unworthiness” is better than most others’ best.

had i not heard Punjab at the Standard [see below] prior to hearing the CD version i would have picked it as the most impressive find.  but the reworking of Look To The Rainbow, the title of the Evans arranged Astrud Gllberto LP, similarly exposed at the club is my pick for the most beautiful chart.  with Luciana Souza on vocals Evans’ underneath-it-all harmonies are just breathtaking.  and it’s in my favorite sequenced spot on the CD, a ballad as a closer.  mixing a reworking of the rhythmic patterns, a bossa beat by the drums –Gil’s intention– and its original waltz from the Broadway show, “Finian’s Rainbow,” by the bass –Truesdell’s idea?– and you have everything you need for the perfect confection.

the orchestra listed some three dozen players not all necessarily playing at the same time.  there were,  however, multiple horns and bassoons.  it had to be Truesdell’s “eureka” moment when he discovered the Gil Evans lead sheets, not unlike Gunther Schuller’s when he found Charles Mingus’ “Epitaph,” or someone discovering Stravinsky scribbles.

another bauble is Who’ll Buy My Violets a quietly reworked Cuban tune by José Padilla with English lyrics by Ray Goetz.  this gem is so beautifully orchestrated that it is unimaginable Gil consideed it secondary.

[after appearances in Rochester and Umbia the Centennial Project Orchestra will be at the Newport Jazz Festival Sun., Aug. 5, 2012.]

at the Standard Night 3 the orchestra opened with a shuffle-rhythm-ned Spoonful.  solos were from piano, horn and alto sax.  but the feature here is the infectious repetitive rhythmic pattern, an Evans-ian signature a la La Nevada.

El Toreador was, as you might imagine, Spanish-tinged.  John Lewis’s Concorde, taken from an M.J.Q. LP of the same name, was faithful to the rondo in which it was written.

the concluding Punjab, which opens the CD, was for me clearly the feature of the set.  with added tabla and Kimbrough playing inside the piano there was a decisive air of India.  the tenor violin solo added to the aural color.


the personnel listed some 22 musicians.  Noah told me that he called an additional 14 or more, “but they were otherwise occupied.”

Noah’s email explained why La Nevada, my hands-down favorite Gil Evans, was not included. “[at rehearsal] i scratched it as it was too ambitious.  [i] had it as the opener so it had to be great. [i.e., perfect.]”

he went on to write that the “whole idea was to do the band from post ’60s electric band.”  but he also wanted to incorporate a wider program with what he calls the GEO, Gil Evans Orchestra.

the Ballroom was a packed SRO madhouse of Evans fans and musicians.  some GEO alums “couldn’t be turned away,” said Noah.  as you would expect it ran into overtime.

it was a GEO dreamband.  from the Trinity Church “surprise” recording which became “Svengali” [see below] through Monday nights at Sweet Basil.  most turned out, and they came to play.

“Svengali” –the title is an anagram of “Gil Evans” by Gerry Mulligan– was the Jimi Hendrix album.  it was recorded at Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan.  i wandered into the church that afternoon unsuspecting.  the echo made it almost impossible to discern the  instruments, especially the electric ones.  i was told that it was not originally intended to be an LP.  Gil had asked some of us if what we heard was good enough to release.  the echo seemed to add flavor to the event.  after all it was Hendrix.

i arrived at the High Line about halfway through from Clem DeRosa’s Memorial at St. Peter’s.   it was like being temporally transported to Sweet Basil, Trinity Church and beyond.  Paul Schaffer was the m.c.; Noah the host; Miles led the band, or tried to [see personnel below], through 16 screaming selections which included soloists like Howard Johnson, tuba and baritone sax, Jimmy Cobb, drums, Lew Soloff and Jon Faddis, trumpet, Delmore Brorwn and Gil Goldstein, keyboards, Airto, and Gerry Gonzales, percussion, Chris Hunter, alto sax.  and those are just the people i saw and heard solo.


Miles Evans leads GEO @ High Line (photos courtesy High Line Ballroom)

the rest of the band were Billy Harper, tenor, Alex Foster, alto, John Clark, French horn, Bob Stewart, tuba, Tom “Bones” Malone, Dave Bargeron, Dave Taylor and Conrad Herwig, trombone, Mark Egan and Will Lee, ebg, Kenwood Denard and Bruce Ditmas, drums.  and an old friend on guitar Ryo Kawasaki, who flew in from his home in Estonia for the occasion.  ”i couldn’t miss this one more time for Gil,” he told me over lunch later in the week.

le tout ensemble GEO @ High Line

i remember the young percussionist Sue Evans being constantly asked if she were Gil’s relative.  she finally gave up and took to saying, “yes.  i’m his mother!”  it was that kind of band.





When: TUES., JUNE 12,11 am.



When: WED., JUNE 20, 4-6pm

Tix: MEMBERS: $60; GA: $100.



- © arnold jay smith

May 2012


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