A good arranger
is a good architect
The great and controversial Beat Generation
novelist, William S. Burroughs, who was not known as a
music fan, once said something to the effect
that writing about music is like dancing about architecture.
Well, OK, Bill, bless your departed soul, it's a witty and provocative epigraph, but I
disagree. The understanding of a work of art -- in our present circumstance, jazz -- has
to do with immediacy in its time, a certain popular element, reliance upon the foundation
of tradition, and, of course, some core of value that will allow it to live beyond its
contemporaneity and survive as an element in the continuum of art, no matter the genre.
And, sometimes, that means somes tweaking. Many of our enduring writers have had fine
editors. The Ernest Hemingway/F. Scott Fitzgerald/Thomas Wolfe stable of editor Maxwell
Perkins comes to mind. Perkins made art out of the chaotic manuscripts of the troubled
Wolfe and so we all now know that native truth that you can't go home again. Perkins
nurtured the careers of Hemingway and Fitzgerald to the point of wet-nursing, yet his name
doesn't appear on the covers of their many fine and widely-read volumes.
Music has its counterparts. They are called arrangers. And one of the most important in
the past 50 years has been Gil Evans, who snuck quietly into the popular consciousness
when he helped to bring into being the revolutionary nonet led by Miles Davis that
produced "Birth Of The Cool," an album that opened the door to a less frantic
kind of jazz than be-bop, though it was by no means exclusionary. The record opened a new
channel for jazz.
Afterward, Evans forged a longstanding partnership with Miles and produced some of the
most challenging jazz of its day -- and our day as well.
There are "Miles Ahead" (Columbia, 1957), "Porgy and Bess" (Columbia,
1958) and "Sketches of Spain" (Columbia, 1959), as the most obvious of his
achievements. But he had a side that shunned record label budgets and he kept busy by
arranging for live-gigging bands that persist to this day.
He was unafraid of new influences -- electronica, for example -- and there is a legendary
story going around in music circles that he had planned an album with Jimi Hendrix before
Hendrix died in 1970. That is a story I am inclined to believe, having heard many of
Evans's probing arrangements. In fact, I regret that the project was never accomplished,
because Hendrix, despite his hard rock credentials, and, having mastered the blues, was on
a freight train barrelling straight for jazz at the time he died.
So, architecture? I think it is more a matter of archi-texture. Evans was the man
responsible for eccentric instrumentation in many of the famous Miles recordings and he
was able to work with that artist, a notoriously difficult man, but consummate artist. As
was Gil Evans.
So, with all due deference to William Burroughs, if the tune is an Evans arrangement, I'll
dance about architecture all night long.