Castles Made of Sound: The Story of Gil Evans
By Larry Hicock
DaCapo, 2002, 306 pages, $25
reviewed by Don Rose
What's in a name? Gil Evans wasn't really his, though that's the one recognized by musicians and fans around the globe. Ian Ernest Gilmore Green was born to a British mother and perhaps—the full history is murky—an Australian father in Toronto in 1912. He grew up mainly with his nomadic, often-married, often liasoned mother, whose fifth husband was named Evans—the one Gil adopted largely for professional purposes, but didn't make legal for half a century. Gerry Mulligan turned it into a perfect anagram: Svengali, lovingly reflecting the near hypnotic effect this Canadian-born perfectionist had on those around him.
What we have here, however, by any other name, is one of the greatest composer-arrangers in the history of jazz—whose own career spanned much of the history of the music itself. It's a name that belongs right up there with Ellington, Morton, Mingus and Monk.
The musical landmarks of Evans's life have become landmarks in the history of the music as well: composer-arranger for the remarkable Claude Thornhill band of the mid-1940s; same for many of the Miles Davis nonet sessions that came to be known as "The Birth of the Cool;" creator of the later orchestral sessions with Davis that encompassed "Sketches of Spain" among others; for his own landmark large ensemble album "Out of the Cool;" uncredited spiritual and musical guide in bringing together the unique Davis quintet of the mid-1960s with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter; a founder, along with Gunther Schuller, of "third stream" music, blending strains of classical and jazz, and an innovator of later fusions of jazz and rock, though never, ever, for purely commercial purposes.
An interesting pianist as well, influenced by Bud Powell, though he never considered his pianistics much more than "cheerleading," he worked for and with an immense variety of groups. They ranged in size from duets —notably with Lee Konitz and with Steve Lacy—to vast, seemingly ungainly ensembles, all over the world. Where Ellington had his one, continuing, essential band (however much the personnel changed through the years) Evans didn't have a group he could call his own until he was about fifty.
He did, however, assemble many and had many others assembled for him, whether for recording dates or concert tours. His original dance band, formed in 1933, was ultimately turned over to its vocalist Skinnay Ennis. He remained its arranger, a role he later shared with Thornhill, as the band experienced popular success and wound up backing the Bob Hope radio show—a gig later assumed by Stan Kenton.
But though the groups seemed to change drastically, he had long associations with several instrumentalists who went on to develop major reputations or become leaders in their own right; tenormen Billy Harper and George Adams, altoists Arthur Blythe and David Sanborn, trumpeters Marvin Hannibal Peterson and Lew Soloff are only a few.
Evans's longest lived band—albeit with regularly changing personnel—turned out to be the group he led on Monday nights at the New York club Sweet Basil. The gig lasted through most of the 1980s—right up to his death in '88, and actually continues today under his son, trumpeter Miles Evans.
He is, of course, inextricably linked to Davis historically, musically and psychologically: he was a virtual amulet for the great trumpeter-innovator. Davis wanted to have him around certain recording sessions where he played no official role as arranger, composer or instrumentalist, but was seemingly a kind of doctor, consultant or perhaps a good-luck charm.
Evans's career path took twists and turns but was always on the musical move; in some ways he exceeds even Davis as an innovator. He was open to and encouraged the late-1950s-early 1960s avant garde—exemplified by, say, Cecil Taylor—at a time Davis was sneering at the movement. (One of the albums released under Evans's name, in fact, was the work of Taylor and John Carisi, with no musical contributions whatever by the eponymous maestro.)
He was open to and quick to incorporate rock elements into his work, to the applause of many and the chagrin of others. He was fascinated by Jimi Hendrix and planned to work with the guitarist who died prematurely; the singer Sting was similarly fascinated by Evans, who knew the singer's work, and eventually the pair worked together live and in the studio.
Almost from the very beginning, Evans's strength was color and sonority: achieving delicious new sounds, rich voicings and dazzling harmonies, frequently through the introduction of instruments not typically associated with jazz. With the Thornhill band it was French horns and tubas—later carried over to the Davis nonet. He became the first major jazzman to feature the electric piano and the synthesizer in his works, as well as snapping up the then-unusual percussion sounds of Airto Moreira. He long insisted that Davis's primary contribution to the music was the introduction of the first new trumpet timbre after Louis Armstrong.
Author Larry Hicock, here described as a writer and producer who has been a songwriter and worked in broadcasting, is a fellow Canadian who has done an excellent job of bringing together the many strands of Evans's career and, through diligent, broad-based interviewing, has managed to capture much of the seemingly ephemeral, sometimes contradictory, totally laid-back, improvisatory personality of this musical giant. (He has also completed a documentary on Evans for National Public Radio.)
Along with the linear history of Evans and his works—beginning with his childhood and first dance band, formed in 1933—there emerges the portrait of an artist so wrapped in his work that he seems to care little for credit, let alone compensation, for his masterly work. Time and again he is beaten out of fees and authorial or related credit for compositions, arrangements and other efforts. His great buddy Davis is often a culprit here, but it never seems to disturb Evans or their symbiotic relationship. (I, for one, never knew until this book that Evans played a significant role with the Davis-Shorter-Hancock band noted above.)
There was always in him the legendary hipster-bohemian disdain of money, commercialism or commercial success—sometimes actually to the detriment of his family—and a perennial internal pledge never to sell out, even though he took on commercial enterprises including film work. Whatever the setting, however, whatever the group, whether arranging his own compositions or orchestrating or arranging the works of others, he was somehow able to put his own strong, identifiable mark on the work, as a run through his lengthy but scattered discography will show.
There was also something chaotically instinctual to the man. Harper, the excellent tenor player and composer, tells here of casually greeting Evans—an idol he had never met before—on the street one day and introducing himself. Without so much as hearing a note the man played, Evans invited him to a recording session that began the long collaboration between the two. Other musicians tell similar tales. "Just come over and we'll work you in" Evans seems to be saying again and again, switching and adding personnel and sounds to his later bands in an almost haphazard fashion.
The book contains several rich descriptions of the unusual improvisatory style of Evans's orchestral leadership—a look here, a gesture there, a shrug, the casual wave of a hand that put the bands through their paces in an almost intuitive style. This seemingly casual approach stands in sharp contrast to other descriptions of his intense perfectionism, working at times for hours on a single brief phrase or voicing. On the other hand, Hicock is fair and objective in his assessments.
There are problems with the great large-ensemble collaborations with Davis—"Sketches," "Miles Ahead" and Porgy and Bess"—stemming from Evans's shortcomings as a conductor. Hicock diligently gives us the discographical information on almost all Evans's recording dates along with a decent commentary. You may not share every evaluation, but there's little here that can be called puffery.
What strikes this reader most pungently, however, is the unanimous aura of love, respect, honor and adoration of Gil Evans—the man and his music—that permeates the book. It's not just an author infatuated with his subject; it is the man and the musician who emerges from the many long and generous quotes recorded by the author from among more than 60 musicians and peers who were interviewed here. Svengali lives!