Composer’s Spotlight: Gil Evans

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Whenever one is asked to define jazz, it is tempting to define jazz by great jazz improvisers, Bird, Trane, Hawk, Brecker, and countless others; yet such a view would seem to be shortsighted.  Developing out of Western harmony and African rhythms, jazz reached the peak of its popularity in the 1920s and ‘30s with the advent of the jazz orchestra, known know as the big band. In this genre, many great arrangers and composers borrowed from the classical tradition, ushering in a tradition of extended forms, orchestration, and solo sections that helped to shape the sound of jazz for years to come.


Born in Toronto, Canada, on May 13, 1912, Gil Evans is one of the most influential composers/arrangers of the modern jazz era.  After spending his youth in Stockton, California, Evans obtained his first major arranging gig with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra in 1941, which led him to move to New York City, where he would become an instrumental leader of the post-bop movement in jazz.

In the late ‘40s, Evans began hosting salons at his apartment behind a Chinese laundry, near 52nd street. During these salons, musicians discussed the future directions of jazz, and such ideas as Impressionistic harmony, orchestration, tempos, and melodic considerations. This series of salons eventually led to the creation of the Miles Davis Nonet, for which Evans arranged. Along with cool jazz pioneers Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz, Davis and Evans created the foundation for a new movement of jazz that laid the harmonic and orchestrational foundations for modern jazz composition. The project culminated with the 1949 recording Birth of the Cool.

Birth of the Cool was the first of many collaborations between Evans and Davis. During the ‘50s, Evans worked behind the scenes on Davis’ Quintet albums, including Kind of Blue and ‘Round Midnight. Officially, Evans led the orchestras on the albums Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain, and Quiet Nights. In 1966, Evans collaborated with Astrud Gilberto on the album Look to the Rainbow, but was discouraged by the commercial focus on the record.

After a brief hiatus, Evans became fascinated with the music of Jimi Hendrix. While there was discussion of Evans arranging a big band that would back Hendrix, Hendrix’s death in 1970 destroyed that possibility. Nevertheless, Evans released an album of Hendrix’s music in 1975.

Evans had a standing gig at the Sweet Basil jazz club in Greenwich Village in New York City from 1983-1988 and released a number of albums with that band. 1986 saw Evans composing film music, for The Color of Money and Absolute Beginners. In 1987, Evans recorded a live album with Sting, featuring big band arrangements of songs by The Police. Evans was inducted into the Downbeat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1986, and also won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Performance, Big Band, during the same year. Evans died on March 20, 1988, in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Centennial, an album of Evans’ previously unrecorded compositions, was released in 2012.

Compositional Style

Influenced by Spanish composers Manuel De Falla and Joaquin Rodrigo, Brazilian music, and Kurt Weill, Evans is known as one of the greatest orchestrators to ever live. During his earlier period, he would often use multiple bassists, tuba, French horn, and other unusual instruments to add a darker timbre to many of his works. Additionally, the use of orchestral woodwinds, including flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and bass clarinet, added a unique timbre to Evans’s arrangements in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  The video below, featuring Evans’ arrangement of Kurt Weill’s “My Ship,” has a thoroughly analyzed piano reduction of the score and is quite useful for aspiring arrangers and composers.

During his later period, Evans began to allow for the use of more synthesizers and guitars, and also began allowing for more improvisation in his charts. Instead of large voicings and harmonized counterpoint lines, Evans began to favor more usage of unison lines in his music.

Gil Evans was, along with his close friend and colleague Miles Davis, one of the truly instrumental voices in direction of post-bop jazz. A brilliant orchestrator who was never afraid to take chances, Evans left us some of the greatest jazz scores ever written.


          February 10, 2018