- James Hall: Why is Gil Evans such an important figure in jazz history? As a composer, how would you
describe his legacy?
Ryan Truesdell: Gil is an important figure in history because he approaches composition from a completely different direction from anyone else. There's Duke Ellington, who had a very individual voice and approach, but Gil took it in a different direction and blended the classical and jazz influences together. You know, he was primarily self-taught, and so most of his musical and compositional training came from copying records, or copying things off the radio or studying scores of 20th-century classical composers. He was copying records of Fletcher Henderson and the Casa Loma Orchestra, and he was looking at all of the classical composers too like, Ravel, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev. So if you look at Gil's early stuff for the Claude Thornhill band, he was integrating this classical world into jazz, not approaching it as a vertical sonority, but approaching things very linearly. For instance, in “Moon Dreams,” the classic Miles Davis Birth of the Cool arrangement, he actually quotes Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. You can also take it a step further: a lot of Gil's music was triadic, but then he would add this one other note to the triad to throw off the whole thing and launch it off ... a lot of times he would do a minor-major chord, but he would put the major 7th in the bottom, and the root on top, so he creates this minor 9th with nothing supporting it; it's this open chord but it has that dissonance, and it would create his own little sonic palette.
- JH: What about form?
RT: Formally it was fairly structured. He stuck to song form in a lot of his arrangements--he was primarily an arranger--and would really pay homage to the composition. There were a few extensions and he might change things around like in tunes in the 30's he would switch around the verse and chorus. But I think what's interesting in terms of form is that he would have very few thematic devices per tune. Nowadays when you hear a composition, it seems like there's a lot of information coming at you at once. With Gil's stuff - and what makes it so understandable and attractive to people that listen to it - you really only have four or five chunks of information that Gil develops. He'll take a line, like some bebop-ish kind of line, and harmonize it for the band but split it up into fours, so he'll do it for four bars, then drum solo for four bars, then he brings it back and puts all of them together, or he'll use part of it as an ending, and it's always perfect the way he does it, but it's also really recognizable and understandable.
- JH: What's your connection to Gil? Gil died when you were very young, right?
RT: Yeah, when I was eight. My attraction to Gil came as a composer. I spent time studying Duke Ellington, then I got into the Maria Schneider/Bob Brookmeyer realm, and through that music I got hooked into Gil. My very first Gil Evans record was Gil Evans and Miles Davis' Porgy and Bess, and the only reason I bought it was that I liked the album cover. I was going through the bin and was like "Oh, that looks cool, I'll check that out" and with the first notes of “Buzzard Song” I was totally hooked.
- JH: When was that?
RT: Oh gosh, it was... early high school.
- JH: What attracted you to Gil's music, and how did this project come about?
RT: I was attracted to Gil's use of color, and that intriguing inner-voice work. You know, the thing that I love is even today I can listen to a record of Gil's and still hear something new. He's got that ability to hide things in there.
Anyway, I was searching out his music and a lot of it isn't available, and if it is a lot of it is transcriptions, and not Gil's originals. So I was working with Maria Schneider and then I met people that worked with Gil, like Howard Johnson, Gil Goldstein, and then eventually I met the family and they gave me access to this music, and that's how the whole thing kind of came to be.
- JH: Did you do any arranging of Gil’s music?
RT: I tried to do as little to the music as possible. My whole goal in this is that every note, every instrument that you hear was Gil's intention. In some cases, there are inconsistencies in the scores: one person has B natural, one has B flat, and so I was kind of using my knowledge of Gil's music to figure out which note was the mistake. There were a few instances where Gil would re-orchestrate or re-do these arrangements throughout his life and a lot of times he would do them on the original sketch, so he would erase things, and re-write them. So my goal at this point was to get the most authentic, original version of it. I would sometimes have to copy things from eraser marks. I haven't done any arranging. If anything, there might not have been a drum part and I'd have to write it in.
The Gil Evans Project will be released on May 13, 2012, Gil Evans' 100th Birthday. Check it out at gilevansproject.com.