Gil Evans: Jazzing Up Jimi

Evans gave Hendrix's music an orchestral workout

July 18, 1974
Gil Evans
Gil Evans
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

NEW YORK – Ian Ernest Gilmore Green, who somewhere along his professional way changed his name to Gil Evans, led a 12-piece band on the West Coast for eight years in the Thirties, and there he was the other Saturday night fronting another band at Carnegie Hall.

And playing an all-Jimi Hendrix program, no less.

Four decades later Gil Evans still has his ears open, doing something nobody had thought of, rendering a master rock improviser's work in a compatible jazz/rock fusion, something much more than tacking a few glamorous rock riffs onto your basic big-band frame. Evans is also recording his treatment of Hendrix's work for RCA Records and looks set to advance, and make a genuine case for, a jazz/rock merger.

"Just before Jimi died we were talking about doing a session together," recalled Evans during a break in recording the Hendrix album in RCA's studio B. "Alan Douglas [record label and production company boss] was involved with Jimi and came up with the idea of an album where Jimi would just play guitar and have an orchestra built around him – my job. We were to get together on the Monday – after the Friday he died.

"I've always listened to popular music," says Evans, who was musical director for Bob Hope's NBC radio show in the 1940s. "But there was more to it than that with Jimi Hendrix. He was a singer, he was a guitar player, he was also a poet. A very, very great guitar player. Stop and think about Hendrix's guitar work, about how difficult it was and is to play a guitar that way – the use, the correct use, of all that electronics – and yet for him it was a natural way.

"He was so very good, so very often, and I feel that at his death he was finally really getting it all together. He had developed his voice along with the guitar and was about ready to show it.

"I hear he felt very shy about his voice. Ed Cramer [Hendrix's recording engineer] told me that when he first began recording, he wouldn't let anyone see him singing. He'd turn his back on the rest of the studio in his booth."

According to Evans, it was no simple thing to translate the Hendrix guitar artistry into the ensemble form. "The main problem is the inflection, getting that correct, which is something that goes with translating anybody's songs, not just Jimi's. Sometimes you have to change the inflection or the rhythmic pattern to make it work for the bigger ensemble. It's like storytelling. What I do is to try and keep Jimi in mind when arranging. Sometimes I would listen to the record and ignore the sheet music, phrase it the way he did it, although where an individual soloist is involved, you have to let him go his way. But when I wrote out the ensemble passages I would take Jimi's way into consideration."

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Jimi Hendrix

To prepare for his Hendrix concert and album, Evans (who never met Hendrix face to face) immersed himself in Hendrix albums. "Including 12 bootleg albums somebody lent me – Hendrix in Europe, in Berkeley and so on. It really adds up to an impressive catalog."

Evans's Carnegie Hall concert, part of the New York Jazz Repertory Company's 1974 season, was not entirely satisfactory to him: It allowed him to add more musicians to his permanent nucleus – now 19 – but to have only four rehearsals. The current Evans orchestra is packed with synthesizers, French horns, tubas (Evans pioneered the tuba as solo instrument in jazz when he worked for the avant-garde swing band of Claude Thornhill and later with Miles Davis) and a lot, a whole lot, of percussion. It's "all electric," he says, and then recalls the time in the 1940s when they recorded the whole Thornhill band with just one mike – "except for soloists. But I'm a believer in keeping up with technology."

The band currently playing Jimi's music is a young one – "mainly post-1945," says Evans's wife, Anita – and has many associations with the rock genre. Tom Malone, for instance, who plays 14 instruments, has played with Frank Zappa, Ten Wheel Drive, Blood, Sweat and Tears and even James Brown. Saxophonist Dave Sanborn has associations with Paul Butterfield, the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble and Stevie Wonder; French horn player Peter Gordon – with Blood, Sweat and Tears, Mongo Santamaria, and Tito Puente; percussionist Susan Evans – with Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, and Blood, Sweat and Tears. Most of the rest come from the jazz world and mainly the avantgarde experimental side of town. It is Gil Evans's job to channel all these forces, keep down the surging enthusiasm in some cases, and hold it together.

When you inquire of the 62-year-old Evans what else in the current rock scene he digs, he says, "I have a hard time trying to think of somebody who isn't Stevie Wonder. Especially the last three albums – something happened to him. He just took off."

Evans's position in jazz as an arranger is secure. He is one of a select few (Duke Ellington was another) who are instantly recognizable from their sound. Toronto-born of Australian parents, Evans led his own band in Stockton, California, when he was 21. From there he worked with big bands, small groups and singers, composed film scores, conducted orchestras in Berlin and Tokyo . . . and kept his ears open.

About injecting rock into his arrangements, Evans admits: "It's the contemporary rhythm and sound, to a degree. It's just automatically incorporated into anybody that works in contemporary music, which I always have. You shouldn't try to force it but as long as the rhythm and the music fit, it's OK. The main thing I look for in music is spirit. Living spirit."

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