New Rhumba: Miles Davis & Gil Evans

Miles Davis plays New Rhumba with his quintet and the Gil Evans Orchestra.

Miles Ahead

Miles Davis’ “Miles Ahead” disc included “New Rhumba”. Click the image to hear more of this music.

Between 1941 and 1948, Gil Evans worked as an arranger for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. Evans’ modest basement apartment behind a New York City Chinese laundry soon became a meeting place for musicians looking to develop new musical styles outside of the dominant bebop style of the day. Those present included the leading bebop performer, Charlie Parker, as well as Gerry Mulligan and John Carisi. In 1948, Evans, with Miles Davis, Mulligan, and others, collaborated on a band book for a nonet. These ensembles, larger than the trio-to-quintet “combos”, but smaller than the “big bands” which were on the brink of economic inviability, allowed arrangers to have a larger pallette of colors by using French horns and tuba. Claude Thornhill had employed hornist John Graas in 1942, and composer-arranger Bob Graettinger had scored for horns and tubas with the Stan Kenton orchestra, but the “Kenton sound” was in the context of a dense orchestral wall of sound that Evans avoided.

The Davis-led group was booked for a week at the “Royal Roost” as an intermission group on the bill with the Count Basie Orchestra. Capitol Records recorded 12 numbers by the nonet at three sessions in 1949 and 1950. These recordings were reissued on a 1957 Miles Davis LP titled Birth of the Cool.

Later, while Davis was under contract with Columbia Records, producer George Avakian suggested that Davis could work with any of several arrangers. Davis immediately chose Evans. The three albums that resulted from the collaboration are Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958), and Sketches of Spain (1960). Another collaboration from this period, Quiet Nights (1962) was issued later, against the wishes of Davis, who broke with his then-producer Teo Macero for a time as a result. Although these four records were marketed primarily under Davis’s name (and credited to Miles Davis with Orchestra Under the Direction of Gil Evans), Evans’s contribution was as important as Davis’s. Their work coupled Evans’s classic big band jazz stylings and arrangements with Davis’s solo playing. Evans also contributed behind the scenes to Davis’ classic quintet albums of the 1960s.

The demands of the score for Porgy and Bess were legendary, including the very first note for the lead trumpet. The limited time allotted for rehearsals revealed that the ability to read such a challenging score was not consistent among jazz musicians, and there are many audible errors. Yet the recording is now regarded by many as one of the greatest reinterpretations of Gershwin’s music in any musical style, because Evans and Davis were each devoted to going outside the “mainstream” of commercial expectations for jazz musicians. Evans was a great influence on Davis’s interest in “non-jazz” music, especially orchestral music. Unfortunately, Evans’s orchestral scores from the Porgy and Bess sessions were later found to be incomplete (or simply lost), and Quincy Jones and Gil Goldstein attempted to reconstruct these for Miles Davis’s final 1991 concerts at Montreux, recorded as Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux. Davis had relented after years of refusing to revisit this material, but he was clearly ill, recovering from pneumonia, and trumpeter Wallace Roney, who was mentored by Davis, covered many of the challenging passages. Davis died before the release of the album.

Miles Davis, his legendary sextet and the Gill Evans orchestra. The “Sound of Miles Davis” was filmed on April 2, 1959 and originally aired July 21, 1960 as an episode of “The Robert Herridge Theater”, a program devoted to the arts that was broadcast by CBS TV. New Rhumba composed by pianist and Miles Davis favorite Ahmad Jamal is performed by Miles and his rhythm section and the The Gil Evans Orchestra. Paul Chamber on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums.

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