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Still Miles Ahead

'The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings' documents the unparalleled partnership of Miles Davis and Gil Evans and the friendship that nurtured it.

September 01, 1996|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

In the long, colorful history of jazz, a history filled with odd alliances and unusual collaborations, Miles Davis and Gil Evans were among the most unlikely of musical partners.

Davis, the trumpeter: compact, stylish and self-possessed, for many the very image of the charismatic jazzman, never hesitant to bluntly express his candid opinions in a peculiarly raspy-toned voice (a sound so different from the dark, introspective quality of the music emanating from his horn).

Gil Evans, the arranger: tall, fair-haired and gangly, an eccentric, self-taught Canadian with a constantly curious mind, searching for elusive combinations of never-before-heard-of sounds, 13 years Davis' senior and a musical father figure to a generation of emerging jazzmen.

The Davis-Evans connection--an intimate friendship, actually--began with their collaboration (along with Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis and others) on the classic "Birth of the Cool" sessions in 1949-50. The recordings, which featured a nine-piece band with an unusual instrumentation that included French horn and tuba, were not especially successful in a commercial sense, but the music's subtle textures, dissonant harmonies and laid-back manner had an impact upon composers and arrangers that lasted for decades.

Joined by a comparable creative view, Davis and Evans remained close (Evans' son, Miles, was named after Davis) until the arranger's death from peritonitis in 1988. Davis was devastated by the passing of the man he considered his "best friend."

"A person is lucky if he's got one Gil Evans in his life," Davis recalled in his informative autobiography ("Miles," written with Quincy Troupe, published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster), "someone close enough to you to pull your coattail when something's going wrong. Because who knows what I would have done or become if I hadn't had someone like Gil to remind me?"

Their work found its greatest fruition in the period between 1957 and 1960, when three landmark recordings--"Miles Ahead," "Porgy and Bess" and "Sketches of Spain"--forever preserved the vital importance of the pair's creative collaboration.

And now that work is the centerpiece of "Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings," a six-CD boxed set from Columbia that will be in record stores Tuesday. The set, which has been the subject of nearly a year of announced release dates and subsequent postponements, includes the three primary recordings, the less well received "Quiet Nights" ("If it had been left up to me and Gil," Davis wrote, "we would have just let it stay in the tape vaults"); music for a Laurence Harvey play, "The Time of the Barracudas"; and two discs devoted to alternate takes, edits and rehearsals (see review, Page 77).

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The music in the boxed set represents the creative high point of a relationship that began around 1947, when Evans sought out Davis for a copy of the trumpeter's now-familiar bebop line, "Donna Lee." Evans was writing for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, a popular '40s dance band that was producing some surprisingly provocative music (primarily the result of arrangements by Evans and Mulligan and the alto saxophone work of Lee Konitz). And he was already known as something of an offbeat character.

"Gil and I hit it off right away," wrote Davis. "Here was this tall, thin, white guy from Canada who was hipper than hip. I mean, I didn't know any white people like him.

"When I first met him, he used to come to listen to 'Bird' when I was in the band. He'd come in with a whole bag of 'horseradishes'--that's what we used to call radishes--that he'd be eating with salt. I was used to black folks back in East St. Louis walking into places with a bag full of barbecued pig snout sandwiches and taking them out and eating them right there. But bringing 'horseradishes' to nightclubs and eating them out of a bag with salt, and a white boy? Man, he was something else."

The Davis-Evans personal connection became closer in the late '40s, when Evans' small, dark apartment (where "you didn't know whether it was night or day," Davis wrote) on Manhattan's West 55th Street became a kind of funky salon, a gathering place for some of the most adventurous, envelope-stretching jazz musicians of the time--Mulligan, Lewis, John Carisi, composer George Russell, singer Blossom Dearie, composer John Benson Brooks and others, including on occasion Charlie "Bird" Parker.

The "Birth of the Cool" ensemble was a direct product of the musical dialogues that took place in Evans' apartment. And his role in those dialogues was crucial.

"Gil was like a mother hen to all of us," continued Davis in his autobiography. "He cooled everything out because he was so cool. And we loved being around him because he taught us so much, about caring for people and about music. . . ."

But musically the Davis-Evans connection dimmed somewhat in the early '50s.

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