Miles Davis and Gil Evans: Complete Columbia Studio Recordings

©Laurence Svirchev

Now approaching their fifth decennial, the principle studio collaborations of Gil Evans and Miles Davis (Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain) are among the important works of art of the twentieth century. Columbia has released six CDs documenting the sessions, including alternate and rehearsal takes into one historically complete document. The collection has two principal strengths: it provides definitive CD sound, perhaps as close as it will get for a recording done at the beginning of the high-fidelity/tape-manipulation era. Secondly, the set documents the complex rehearsal and artistic process of making a body of music which transfigured the jazz concepts of the time.

Critical reviews of these collaborations have tended to ignore the innovations of Evans’ arrangements, so it is worthwhile examining some of the musical devices used to paint the aural landscape over which Miles Davis makes uncanny emotional statements.

This aural landscape is characterized firstly by tension-release cycles created by sustained chords, drone, and tremolo; secondly by the use of instrumentation (French horns, clarinet, oboes, harp, alto and bass clarinet, and bass trombone) not normally found in the standard jazz orchestra; and thirdly by unorthodox orchestral voicings and rhythms. Evans audaciously deleted two jazz icons from the orchestra: piano and the saxophone section. In making these conscious choices, Evans completely changed the tone-center jazz ears were used to. Hearing things a new way and moving from the sacrosanct to the profane has always been one of the principal attributes of American jazz and seemed second nature to Gil Evans.

The first disc, Miles Ahead (Miles + 19), is a ten-song set organized as a suite with transitional bridges between the songs and is the most jazz-inflected of the major albums.

The second collaboration, Porgy and Bess, is taken from the 1935 Gershwin brothers opera score of the same name. Evans’ version abstracts the score, changes the order of the songs, combines themes, and even brings in one of his own compositions (Gone) as a showcase for drummer Philly Joe Jones.

Prayer (Oh, Doctor Jesus) makes for a gut-wrenching emotional experience. The aria was originally written for six songs sung simultaneously during a hurricane scene. Evans orchestrates the composition as two clearly distinct sections. In the first, trombones and bass clarinet play a-synchronous tremolos which continue through the whole section, setting up a sustained dynamic tension. On top of these tremolos, seven call-and-response variations between Davis (flugelhorn) and the Orchestra are played. Davis plays variations of a scale with the orchestra varying voicings and fanfares.

When the tension is finally released at the end of a fanfare, the orchestra moves into the second section, a vamp which Davis solos over. The bottom of the vamp is unison playing by tuba and arco bass. Trombone, alto reed, French horn, and trumpet sections enter, setting up an almost unbearable tension. An orchestral crescendo marked by cymbal splashes and a wailing trombone begins the resolution; the decrescendo occurs as if the hurricane is subsiding.

Sketches of Spain marks the apogee of the Gil Evans-Miles Davis orchestral studio collaborations. It is also the most musically important one since Evans takes an American music form, jazz improvisation, and transforms it into an international hybrid. Evans was not the first to do this but no one prior to him had gone as far abroad as provinces of Madrid and Andalucia, much less to Peru, to find inspiration for jazz improvisation.

Evans’ composition Saeta (“Arrow of Song”) is perhaps the king-piece of the three collaborations. The story line portrays an Easter-time processional band stopping in the street while a woman sings of the passion of Christ from a balcony. The saeta, with its heart-rending and piercing Arabic overtones is a song-form that strikes to the core of the Andalucian soul. Evans again uses tremolo drone to set up tension, but here the arrangement is considerably simplified. A field drum rides over the drone, imparting an impatient martial rhythm while a cantabile Miles Davis plays the role of the woman’s voice.

The lean orchestration provides Davis with the background for what I believe is his greatest recorded solo. His trumpet provokes the lonely keening of a mother’s forlornness at the tortured death of her son. But even on the solitude of the execution ground, the horn sounds out an emotion of stolid dignity. Davis’ sound is strong, bright, radiant, and leaves the body and soul trembling. In his autobiography, Miles Davis stated that after recording Sketches of Spain he was completely exhausted by the effort and had to rest for months.

The set also includes Quiet Nights, a nice try at Brazilian themes, all but forgotten by Evans and Davis by the time it was published. It is a mediocre work, and given the brilliance of their other creations, we can easily forgive Evans and Davis for the lapse

The studio recordings of Gil Evans and Miles Davis are recognized as works of genius. But does buying six CDs when the essentials are on three albums make sense? The answer is “yes” for collectors of complete editions, music scholars, and those who enjoy the sometimes funnystudio banter (“Oh man, do we have to run through this again?”) recorded during rehearsals..

Authors Note: This essay was inspired by and dedicated to the memory of my mentor John ‘Smiling Jack’ Kelley, Society of Jesus. He taught thousands of young men to think critically.

Updated for Misterioso, this review was originally published in 5/ Magazine, Seattle, 1997.

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