Monday, May 18, 2009

Gil Evans and the Magic Moment

I discovered two of my heroes, Steve Lacy and Gil Evans, at one fell swoop at age 18 when I bought a reissue of Gil's first album as leader, Gil Evans & Ten. I've loved Gil's music ever since, from the highly detailed charts he created for Miles Davis in the late fifties and early sixties, to the loose, improvising big band he had late in his career. Evans had many strengths, but one of them was the knack for creating the magic moment that would lift the music to another plane.

Gil spoke on several occasions about his debt to Louis Armstrong. In a 1986 interview with Ben Sidran, he said, "I bought every one of his records from 1927 till around 1936.... In every one of those three-minute records, there's a magic moment somewhere. Every one of them." And he's right. No matter how lame the song, how clunky the rhythm section, how corny the arrangement, Louis was always able to lift it to another level, even if only for a moment.

Gil apparently learned this lesson well. Of course, many of his great recordings don't need the magic moment, because they are incredible from beginning to end. But when they weren't, Gil could make something magical happen. An unlikely example is the main title theme from the movie The Color of Money. I don't know how much Evans contributed to this film's music (his name is barely to be found on the soundtrack album), but the exact moment he took over the arranging of the main title is apparent. 45 seconds in, the trendy (mid-1980's style), ordinary music we have heard so far takes a darker turn. The real magic moment comes about 10 seconds later, when an ominous bass clarinet riff, a trombone lip trill, and a tightly muted trumpet solo occur simultaneously. It's an unexpected combination of sounds that only someone of Evans' genius could have conceived.

Often, especially in later years, the magic moment manifested itself by Evans simply knowing which soloist to point to. Listen to "Half Man, Half Cookie," from Bud & Bird from 1986. This comes from the period in which Evans' band played at Sweet Basil every Monday night. He encouraged his band members to contribute to the book, so that they would have plenty of different material to play. Saxophonist Bill Evans wrote "Half Man, Half Cookie," a big-band funk piece that is competent rather than outstanding. That is, until guest star Johnny Coles, an Evans associate for years, steps up to solo about two-thirds of the way through the piece. The atmosphere instantly changes, becomes more mysterious and unpredictable. Coles, of course, deserves much of the credit for raising the musical level, but Evans chose to have him on hand and knew just when to add him to the mix.

Like I said, most of Gil Evans' music was all magic. But when it wasn't, he could make that magic moment happen.

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