Going beyond modal harmony with Gil Evans’ “Las Vegas Tango”

Hey Improvisers,

As revered as the composer arranger Gil Evans is in some ways, his true role in the development of modal jazz is usually unrecognized. Let’s put it another way: when we hear someone credit Miles Davis with inventing or developing modal jazz, we could easily substitute Gil’s name for Miles’s. (Or, at the very least, give them co-credit.)

Yes, it’s true that Davis popularized modal jazz, mainly through his amazing 1959 album Kind Of Blue. There were examples of modal jazz going back to Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall performance of “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which I personally heard Max Roach cite as the real beginning of modal jazz. But Kind Of Blue was the catalyst that brought modal jazz into the mainstream and Davis deserves credit for influencing generations of modal improvisers, in both jazz and rock, ever since.

But who taught Miles himself how to play modally?

Gil Evans.. that’s who.

Miles and Gil were best friends, and Gil would borrow 20th century modal recordings from the New York City Public Library which he would share with Davis. Together, they would listen to modal compositions by such composers as Ravel and Khachaturian, along with folk music and what we would now refer to as “world music.”

Indeed, the first time that Miles Davis improvised modally was when he played Evans’ arrangement of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy,” for their Porgy and Bess album. Miles was surprised to see that Evans hadn’t written any chord changes for the trumpet solo, just a scale. When Miles asked him about this, Gil told him to just play the notes of the scale when improvising.

In short, Gil Evans influenced Miles Davis to play modal jazz.

Perhaps Gil Evans’ own modal masterpiece is his composition “Las Vegas Tango,” which appeared on his 1964 album The Individualism of Gil Evans.”

The sheet music to “Las Vegas Tango,” which you’ll find in both The Gil Evans Collection and in The Real Book, Vol. 1, uses only two chords: Em7 and Am7. But wow – what an amazing sound he gets out of his band!

We often talk about modal jazz in terms of what scales and modes to use while improvising. But the real hero of this “Las Vegas Tango” is the orchestration, and the feeling with which the musicians bring to the performance.

Gil uses modal voicings which are derived from the underlying modes. Modal voicing provide us with creative ways to structure our harmonies which may differ greatly from traditional ways of voicing chords. For example, instead of thinking, “I need to include the 3rd and 7th and then work from there,” modal thinking can focus more on the intervals between the notes of a voicing, and can be influenced by how the intervals themselves stack up.

For Em7, for instance, we might say, “Let’s start with a low E in the bass, and then play a B above it, since a perfect 5th has a very resonant effect. Then we can put in a cluster of 2nds, such as D, E, F#, and G above that, for a “crunch” or, perhaps, to evoke bells or chimes. Then, we can end with a high B above that, for a high “descant-like” sound.

On “Las Vegas Tango,” Gil even goes beyond modal voicing by occasionally adding a couple of notes out of the key. He’ll take a voicing similar to the one I‘ve outlined above, and he’ll add a high Eb and Bb as well. These are notes that lie outside of the traditional harmony, but give a unique sound and, in this case, can produce overtones or “resultant tones” that we can hear, although no instrument is actually playing them.

If we listen closely, we can hear overtones throughout some of the ensemble passages in “Las Vegas Tango,” just as a young Miles Davis heard in Evan’s arrangement of “Robbin’s Nest” for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, which was one of the pieces that first attracted him to Gil’s musicianship.

Here’s “Las Vegas Tango” as played by The Gil Evans Orchestra:

And here are some ideas for playing it as a solo jazz piano piece:

Las Vegas Tango: Journey Through The Real Book #206

I hope you enjoy this excursion into the modal and “beyond modal” sound universe of Gil Evans!

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”


Learn the 5 Essential Left Hand Techniques with my free ebook: Left Hand Techniques for Jazz Piano
You’ll also get my weekly jazz newsletter with practice tips and inspiration

Leave a Comment

Sign up for Blog Updates