Gil Evans is the subject of a recent biography titled Gil Evans-Out of the Cool: His Life and Music, by Stephanie Stein Crease, a longtime contributor to The New York Times, Downbeat, JAZZIZ and other publications. As the arranger on what are generally considered to be Miles Davis’ best albums (1958′s Porgy and Bess, 1959′s Sketches of Spain and 1961′s Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall), and as someone whose career spans the era from the big bands of the 1940s to bop to the jazz rock fusion era of the 1970s (he and Jimi Hendrix were planning an album together, just before Hendrix went off to the big Fender guitar factory in the sky), Evans’ biography is long overdue.
The arrangements he did with Miles Davis and his own solo albums from the late 1950s and early 1960s have been endlessly imitated–there’s a direct link from them to 1960s film and TV soundtracks such as the Pink Panther and Peter Gunn theme songs (probably better known today as one of the Blues Brothers’ main themes) all the way to tunes such as the Door’s “Light My Fire” (which directly borrows an Evans melody) and the repetitive modal vamping of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”.
But Evans himself is such a troubling (and troubled) figure–he refused any work he didn’t find artistically satisfying, which helped ensure that he starved. He didn’t use a lawyer to negotiate his contracts. In his later years, he looked like Timothy Leary’s stand-in, (which was appropriate considering his drug use) often wearing a ridiculous looking hippie headband. He died virtually broke, and subsisted on grants such as the Guggenheim Fellowship, and his live gigs (where he also had to meet the payroll for a jazz orchestra that often numbered 20 or more musicians).
Is it a perfect book? Personally, I would have preferred to read more about Evans’ musical techniques, and where they derive from–perhaps in an appendix written by a musical scholar, or even a musician who worked with Evans. And Crease never really considers if Evans prodigious recreational drug use contributed to the apparent lack of ambition of his later years. Also, questions of art and commerce (is it right for a man raising two children in Manhattan to be so selective about work, and only chose projects that met his artistic standards?)
Still, for anybody who has heard the lush orchestral dreamscapes that Evans’ built for Miles Davis, or his own experiments in arranging on his solo albums (the most famous of which was the source of Crease’s title), Out of the Cool may be the closest they’ll come to understanding the man who created them.