Miles Evans: Two-Part Harmony
Trumpeter Miles Evans, like saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, has faced the plus/minus of being the son of a jazz iconin this case, legendary composer/arranger/bandleader Gil Evans. But if Ravi's exposure to his father was cut short by the saxophonist's too-early demise in 1967, just shy of the youngster's second birthday, Miles had the opportunity to grow up with his dadeven playing in Gil's bands beginning in the early 1980s on albums like Live at Sweet Basil, Vols. 1 & 2 (Evidence, 1984).
Like Ravi, Miles has struggled with coming up under the large shadow of his father, whose recordings with another legend, trumpeter Miles Davis, remain touchstones for both nascent and expert jazz fans today. But by focusing on the instrument of his namesake, Miles Evans has more easily come from under the shadow of his father, as opposed to Ravi, who chose to play the same instrument as his dad, rendering comparisonsif more than a little unfair and unfoundedsomewhat inevitable.
As a trumpeter, Miles Evans has forged his own career, collaborating with everyone from drummer Bob Moses and trumpeter Lew Soloff to producer/composer Quincy Jones and guitarist Ray Russell. But he's never forgotten his roots and, as musical director of The Gil Evans Orchestra, he remains committed to both his own voice and the memory of his late, great father.
All About Jazz: Your dad would have turned 100 years old in May. Tell me about The Centennial Celebration you had in tribute.
Miles Evans: Well, it was really a blast to do. What originally happened was I had gotten in touch with a promoter and a very well-respected musician who had previously played with Gil. He agreed to perform with The Gil Evans Orchestra for Gil's 100th birthday. We were going to do it at a very large venue but his schedule became too hectic and we had to cancel the international concerts we'd also planned. My brother Noah said, "Hey, let's do a gig in New York," so he and others came up with the Highline Ballroom. We then got together these fantastic musicians who had played with Gil Evans over the years. It was an amazing tribute and we had a lot of fun.
AAJ: Who were the musicians?
ME: They were musicians that had played with Gil in the '60s, '70s and '80s. Very special musicians like [baritone saxophonist/tubaist] Howard Johnson, [trumpeter] Jon Faddis, [trombonist] Dave Bargeron, [trumpeter] Lew Soloff, [saxophonist] Chris Hunter, [saxophonist] Billy Harper, [keyboardist] Gil Goldstein, [bassist] Mark Egan, [tubaist] Bob Stewart, [French hornist] John Clark and others. [Guitarist] Ryo Kawasaki even came all the way from Estonia. He used to play with Gil back in the '70s.
There were other great musicians that didn't actually play with Gil but played with The Gil Evans Orchestra under my direction, like Kenwood Dennard. He'd been The Gil Evans Orchestra drummer for years. Also, there were musicians who played with my band on the West Coast, like Oz Noy, for example. He's a phenomenal guitarist. We had this guy that I love, Matthew Garrison. He's a young and talented bassist who played a beautiful version of "Voodoo Child." All those musicians really mean a lot to us.
AAJ: I understand you granted [composer/conductor] Ryan Truesdell permission to work with some of your father's archived compositions.
ME: Yes, Ryan did an excellent job researching my father's work and presenting more than one period of his music as well. It resulted in sharing the great Gil Evans' music with more and more people. I prefer to innovate music, not unlike the way Gil and Miles Davis did, so I wanted someone else to do the older periods of my father's music and it turned out to be Ryan; I could tell that he was talented. I felt that the music should be heard because it's unbelievably greatlike "Barbara's Song," for example. I had a very strong feeling about Ryan and that's why I picked him to present the music.
AAJ: Will you collaborate with Ryan in the future?
ME: You never know. Maybe we will collaborate.
AAJ: Your dad changed the fabric of jazz. How will you continue that legacy?
ME: It's very difficult. As a kid, I asked my father, "How did you become a sound innovator?" And he said, "Well, I took a little of this, a little of that, a little of this, put it all together in a funnel, and it came out as me." Of course it's not easy to become a great innovator like Gil Evans, Miles Davis, [pianist] Duke Ellington, [saxophonists] John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Lester Young, or [trumpeter] Louis Armstrong, to name just a few, but I can still go for it, work on it, and see if the magic happens.
AAJ: Speaking of magic, what was it like growing up in your musical household?
ME: It was unique, with my father there listening to all kinds of music, whether it was Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Frank Zappa,Sly and The Family Stone. Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel or other musicians who came in with projects that they wanted my father to hear. There were times that people were over at our apartment, but my father could be very private, so he would be alone a lot as well. One of my earliest memories was when I was three years old; my father was saying to me "I have to work now." He'd be sitting there at the piano working, playing these beautiful chords and I'd be there silently, just watching him enjoying it as he worked.
AAJ: Your mother, Anita, told me that your father would sit at the piano for weeks on end just playing a chord. Do you remember that?
ME: Yes I do, and he would practice different voicings. I also remember the music with more chords. It was incredible, the way he came up with those voicings, not having sequencers, emulators and samples around. He had to imagine it all, like what a French horn would sound like on one of the voices or perhaps an oboe, a flute or a bass clarinet on other parts of the chord. What an amazing imagination he had.
AAJ: Your brother, Noah, told me that he thought all kids traveled the world with their father and became roadies at age seven. What did you think?
ME: I remember enjoying it and having such a blast. When I was five, turning six, I went to Europe. Six, turning sevenJapan. Then eight, turning nine, in Europe again. What a life lesson. It was so incredible to be there, seeing those cities and hearing those fabulous concerts.
AAJ: Apparently he wrote you into the contract and wouldn't go on tour unless you were written in; is that true?
ME: Yes, for the most part. What an amazing dad, I was so lucky. The band members took us under their wings too, so at times it was like having 18 dads.
AAJ: Tell me more about playing music with your father.
ME: When I was about 13, we would sit in my room and I'd be playing trumpet and he'd be playing the melodicaeither jazz or classical. I had started out much later than most kids, as my dad didn't believe in forcing me to play an instrument. He didn't want me to hate it and never play again once I got older. To start too young, is sometimes to end young. He'd either point out the chords or talk about phrasing. Later on he talked about timbre, the overtone series and much more.
AAJ: So, he was like a mentor too?
ME: Without a doubt. Then at age 17, I got my professional start when I went to London with him. He was touring with an all English orchestra and I sat in with them. From then on I continued playing with him and afterwards, with [bassist] Jaco Pastorius and others.
AAJ: Did you have an opportunity to know Miles Davis?
ME: Absolutely. I'd go to his place in the '70s, on 77th Street between Riverside and West End, and hang out with him and my father. I took some trumpet lessons with him in the '80s. During one of the lessons, Miles pulled out some music, which was pretty fascinating and difficult, and said (in a gruff voice), "Just play the notes, don't worry about the rhythm." He'd advise me to clap out the rhythm separately, then I'd sing the notes. Afterward, I'd sing the notes with the rhythm. When I went back to the music, I'd really know how to play it. It was a great lesson that made things much easier. It was really cool listening to his point of view.
AAJ: What was his point of view?
ME: It's really hard to sum it up but basically you have to really know where the note is. You have to hear it, whether in your head or out of your head but you have to be sure, in order to nail it. If you don't, you won't be able to put the right pressure on your lips or have the right speed, with air, to produce the note in a really beautiful way. That was an amazing help.
AAJ: Your father had a basement apartment on 55th Street in NewYork, behind a Chinese laundromat. A lot of innovative music was happening there at that time. I want to know more about that; I'd also like to know what's happening in your basement.
ME: My father had that amazing period, when so many talented musicians came to his apartment, like Miles Davis, [saxophonist] Gerry Mulligan, [composer] George Russell, and other greats. They'd talk about music sometimes for hours and come up with interesting ideas. Apparently the doors were always unlocked, so musicians could drop in at any time and create. It was like a musical crash pad.
Though it was before my time, I know some of the stories, and what an unbelievable brewing place it was for music. In '49, Birth of the Cool (Capitol, 1956) came to fruition, which gave the world a new sound to music. Gil and Miles continued to create with Miles Ahead (Columbia, 1957), Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960), Porgy and Bess (Columbia, 1958), Quiet Nights (Columbia, 1962), and Live at Carnegie Hall (Columbia, 1961). Nothing like that had been done before. Those records are loved, played and performed and are still selling to this day.
And what continues to happen in my basement is what my father talked to me about. I'm listening to a lot of great music whether it's jazz, R&B, classical, funk or pop. I'm mixing that all together and working on coming up with something amazing and innovative.
AAJ: What's coming up on your musical menu?
ME: I'm working on it right now. I'll be flying to Los Angeles and working in the studio, and once it's done you'll see what will be brewing. There'll be [bassist] Darryl Jones, [saxophonist] Bob Sheppard, [keyboardist] Mitchel Forman, a really awesome backup singer for the Rolling Stones, Bernard Fowler, and Steve Ferrone, who is an incredible drummer who's now playing for Tom Petty. These musicians are unique and, guaranteed, the music will be too.
AAJ: What about the future of The Gil Evans Orchestra?
ME: The Gil Evans Orchestra has a bright future, with upcoming concerts in New York and elsewhere. We'll produce and perform great music, continuing the legacy with a fresh innovation. You'll see.
Ray Russell, Goodbye Svengali (Cuneiform, 2006)
Gil Evans, 75th Birthday Concert (BBC Music, 2001)
Lew Soloff, Rainbow Mountains (32Jazz, 2000)
Gil Evans Orchestra, A Tribute to Gil (Soul Note, 1997)
Bob Moses, Time Stood Still (Grammavision, 1993)
Gil Evans, Live at Sweet Basil, Vols. 1 & 2 (Evidence, 1984)