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Artist’s Choice: Ryan Truesdell on the Hidden Gems of Gil Evans

A master of orchestral surprise

Ryan Truesdell
Gil Evans, circa 1960

Many listeners’ knowledge of Gil Evans begins and ends with his collaborations with Miles Davis. With 25 years of music on either side of those historic albums, there is a wealth of Evans’ genius that is often overlooked. By delving into his music from before and after those seminal collaborations, including material for other artists, we can more fully appreciate the scope of his composing and arranging style. I hope these “hidden gems” inspire you to explore more of Gil Evans’ remarkable discography.

Claude Thornhill & His Orchestra

“Hang Out the Stars in Indiana” (Evans, arranger)
The Transcription Performances 1947 (HEP, 1999)

Evans was a master at utilizing the element of surprise. I love how he has the band play a whole chorus by itself, slightly re-harmonizing each A section, adding a little more chromatic dissonance as the tune progresses. After two minutes, when you are convinced this is an instrumental arrangement, Evans surprises you with a modulation that brings in the vocalist.

The Teddy Charles Tentet

“You Go to My Head” (Evans, arranger)
The Teddy Charles Tentet (Atlantic, 1956)

It is remarkable how every moment of this arrangement seems fresh and new, given how economic Evans is with his writing. The instrumentation is so spare: five horns (trumpet, alto, tenor, bari, tuba) and five rhythm (vibes, guitar, piano, bass, drums), yet at times you could swear there’s a big band playing. He shifts the orchestration every few measures, and there is hardly a moment without some melodic or secondary line driving the composition onward.

Helen Merrill

“He Was Too Good to Me” (Evans, arranger)
Dream of You (EmArcy, 1957)

This was the first album Evans wrote charts for in its entirety, and one of the only recorded instances of his writing for strings. At that time, strings in jazz were mostly used as “pads” (long, held-out chords outlining the harmony), but Evans treats them very differently. He has them in closed voicings moving linearly, creating a forward momentum within the inner workings of the arrangement. It’s also worth noting that, in his quest to create unique orchestral colors, Evans arranged this for tenor violin, three violas and cello.

Marcy Lutes

“Cheek to Cheek” (Evans, arranger)
Debut (Decca, 1957)

The first four rubato chords just scream “Gil Evans.” The rest of the arrangement showcases Evans’ voice from this period perfectly-swinging, quirky, harmonically adventurous-and creates a wonderful backdrop for Lutes’ voice. Notice the similarities between the ending of this arrangement and that of Evans’ arrangement for “Springsville” from Miles Ahead. I love hearing examples of how he adapted and developed his own ideas. It gives us a glimpse into his creative process.

Gerry Mulligan Sextet

“La plus que lente” (Evans, arranger)
The Fabulous Gerry Mulligan Sextet: Complete Studio Sessions 1955-1956 (Fresh Sound, 2006)

I like how Evans gives this piece a tango feel-compare it to Debussy’s original waltz-and how he passes the melody around to different instruments throughout the arrangement. This is a good example of Evans’ use of triads, and how moving them in parallel or contrary motion to the lead voice creates a wonderful linear flow. This piece is particularly special to me since it’s the only recording of my teacher Bob Brookmeyer playing one of Evans’ arrangements.

Lucy Reed

“A Trout, No Doubt” (Evans, arranger)
This Is Lucy Reed (Fantasy, 1957)

One of the fascinating things about this track is the instrumentation: two woodwinds (alto flute and bassoon), tenor violin, trombone, bass trombone and rhythm section. It’s a seemingly motley crew, yet in Evans’ hands it’s capable of unusual colors and a surprisingly big sound. This arrangement is also a great example of how Evans can make something extraordinary out of an otherwise frivolous pop song. The ending is perfect: the same 12-tone row he later used for the opening of “The Meaning of the Blues” on Miles Ahead (borrowed from Berg’s Violin Concerto), with a slightly augmented quote of “The Sailor’s Hornpipe” in the piano.

Astrud Gilberto

“I Will Wait for You” (Evans, arranger)
Look to the Rainbow (Verve, 1966)

This arrangement is just stunning. Evans places each phrase so intentionally, rarely starting or landing on the downbeat, and this creates some ambiguity with the time, giving the arrangement a floating, dreamlike quality. The climax of the chart is when trumpeter Johnny Coles comes in and Evans sets up his solo with a spectacular modulation. It gets me every time. Modulation is such a powerful tool, one that is tragically underutilized by modern composer-arrangers.

Ryan Truesdell is a celebrated composer, arranger and copyist based in New York. He is best known as the leader of the Gil Evans Project, a Grammy-winning repertory ensemble whose latest release is the live album Lines of Color (ArtistShare). Originally Published