The decline of the big band was belabored and cartoonish; it kept coming back long after it seemed to have drawn its last breath. World War II is what really did it in, since the gas and rubber shortages prevented large groups from going on the road. But once the big band no longer played dance music, it morphed into some strange, decadent forms–Stan Kenton’s small municipalities with five trombones, for instance, or intellectual ensembles like Boyd Raeburn’s that magnified bebop’s hustled rhythms and tricky harmonies.
One tradition that survived in altered form was that of the mood arranger, who went from scoring music for big bands to orchestrating tone poems for individual jazz artists. That role was honed to perfection by Gil Evans in his collaborations with trumpet-player Miles Davis between 1957 and 1968–an often-misunderstood body of work chronicled in a six-CD box set called Miles Davis and Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Recordings, released this month. Deluxe, semiclassical, and exotic, a hydroponic creature of the recording studio, this music can’t be understood simply as jazz. It’s a lot more complicated than that.
Gil Evans got his start in the early 1930s arranging for a band in Stockton, Calif., which later made theme and incidental music for Bob Hope’s radio show. He could have gone the way of Henry Mancini, a dance-band jazz pianist who realized that there would always be more money in Hollywood. But instead, he walked the tightrope between commercial and art music. His keenest influence was another composer, Claude Thornhill, who hired Evans to do extra arrangements for his band. The music from that period was slow and haunting, moving like someone trying not to sweat on a boiling day. It had no vibrato and a lot of French horn, which would be combined with clarinets or tubas in odd, hothouse-flower voicings.
Davis, on the other hand, had been through small-group bebop in the ‘40s, and found it too intense and inward; as he noted in his autobiography, he was struggling to find a way to make bop sound “sweet.” When he convened a nonet with Evans and Gerry Mulligan’s help in 1948, and recorded the music which would later be released as Birth of the Cool, he was blending bebop with a reduced vision of Claude Thornhill’s instrumentation. This new sound prefigured white, California cool jazz, but so had Billy Strayhorn’s arrangements for Duke Ellington through the ‘40s, and so had Lester Young’s diaphanous tenor saxophone playing with Count Basie even earlier. Davis always insisted that “cool jazz” was as much (if not more) African-American as white music; likewise, he never had any problem understanding that jazz was a form of pop.
T he duality of high art and mass sensibility is at the heart of Miles Davis and Gil Evans. The three records at the core of the set–Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain–are music of fantasy, of dreaming. The drums, usually so central to jazz, are for the most part rendered useless by the intricately accented horn charts within the 19-piece ensemble sound. The orchestra gathers around the soloist, rather than the soloist trying to ride the waves of the orchestra, and every move is keyed to Davis’ sighing sensibility. But the most impressive moments, oddly enough, are Davis’ tremulous theme readings, laid down as mere suggestions, like soft, wet clay.
Evans’ arrangements were plotted like wily preparations for a siege. In the first 12 measures of “Sound01 - Bob-aithopia.asf,” from Miles Ahead, the contents of a rising counterpoint behind Davis’ melody keep mutating: French horn and trumpet give way to oboe, which slides back into trumpets, and the progression into the fourth measure, with nothing but the treble of muted trumpets in unison, feels like an airplane taking off. (Its power as an organic whole is no accident: Miles Ahead was recorded in bits and pieces, and “The Meaning of the Blues” was the only full, unspliced ensemble performance on the album.) “Sound02 - Bob-house_of_beauty.asf,” from Porgy, has a brushed drum pattern underneath that keeps shifting its emphasis from the first and third beats to the second and fourth, constantly renewing a stirring chill. Sketches sets up processional rhythms and rich, slow-motion harmonies behind Davis, and then slyly extends trickles of harp or flute from the rest of the mass. It is music of painstaking care, and the box set, with its alternate takes (including 10 different takes and portions of “Springsville,” from Ahead) gives you an idea of how Davis managed to protect an inchoate, subconscious quality in his trumpet playing, session after session.
The records were received as instant masterpieces, in breathless appreciations that couldn’t begin to take in the complex way that Miles and Gil had at once gone more commercial than Benny Goodman and yet created some of the most deeply vulnerable American music around. But they didn’t transform jazz. Few musicians followed Evans’ lead, though fragments of his sound wash up here and there. His timbral combinations and unlikely harmonies surface in the work of avant-garde jazz composers Butch Morris and Franz Koglmann, as well as that of Maria Schneider, a composer and band leader who was Evans’ assistant for three years before his death in 1988. But since it’s mainly jazz educators and historians who grasp the significance of Evans, you hear his music most often being played by repertory bands. One of the most famous pieces of music ever to have emerged out of Sketches of Spain isn’t jazz at all. It’s Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” with its flamenco rhythm and cavernous studio sound.
It’s puzzling how midcult, how kitschy, some of this music sounds today. A quick check into the sounds of its era reveals what the set’s 198 pages of liner notes don’t–that 1959, the year Sketches of Spain was recorded, was also the year The Soul of Spain by the mood orchestra 101 Strings hit the Top 40. Living-room exoticism was in. Nearly every major label at the time had its own Spanish “mood” act. MGM’s was Jose Greco; ABC-Paramount’s was Montoya (with his “fiery Spanish gypsy guitars”); countless LPs promised genuine bullfight music. Sketches, which some have taken as the high point of Evans and Davis’ collaboration, was also another chapter in a mass-market gambit.
T here are several differences between the 101 Strings album and Sketches of Spain. Solos have no place in true mood music; they’re too unsettling and risky. And Evans and Davis’ calculated rhythmic displacement is a major jazz metaphor, one that more commercial composers would never try to attain. On the other hand, the music on Miles and Gil is more about sustaining a mood–and less about forward motion–than most of what we’d call jazz.
The real point of mood-music albums, though, is to let them work on you. Phil Schaap, the reissue producer and editor for Miles Davis and Gil Evans, has made a fitting gesture toward that end: He has provided a 6.5-second “pause track” on each CD, so that you can reflect on what you’ve just heard. He writes that it’s the first time he’s added such a track. Music that conjures up a sense of suspended time and a still, suburban afterglow seems a perfect occasion for its debut.