The Gil Evans Centennial Album: A Major Moment in Jazz History
Conductor/arranger Ryan Truesdell launched the Gil Evans Project last year to commemorate the centennial of the most cinematic composer in the history of jazz. To date, Truesdell has staged a series of commemorative big band concerts as well as releasing the album Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans. Given access to the Evans family archive, Truesdell unearthed numerous unrecorded works, ten of which are included here: three compositions and seven arrangements. As history, it’s a fascinating look at the development and crystallization of Evans’ visionary style. As a work of art, it’s classic Gil Evans: deep, rich and relentlessly intense, a titanic achievement and a major moment in jazz history, on par with the discovery of Charles Mingus’ Epitaph. It trivializes any consideration of where this album might stand on a “best albums of the year” list: this is music for eternity.
Evans was the personification of noir. His lush, epic charts refuse to cede defeat even as the shadows creep in – or sweep in, which is more often the case. His influence cannot be understated, although, strange as it may seem, he remains an underrated composer: his best work ranks with Shostakovich, or Ellington, both composers he resembles, often simultaneously. The mammoth orchestra here, totaling 36 musicians, rises to a herculean challenge: some of the playing here is so brilliant as to be career-defining. The high-water marks here are the original works. The first previously unreleased piece, Punjab, was originally intended to be released on the legendary 1964 lp The Individualism of Gil Evans but for some reason never made the cut (maybe because it’s almost fifteen minutes long). The sonics could only be Evans, a spectrum reaching from the darkest depths to the most ethereal highs. The composition hauntingly blends Middle Eastern and Indian themes with energetically jazz and blues-based interludes, a characteristic roller-coaster ride from Dan Weiss’ hypnotic tabla introduction, to screaming woodwind cadenzas, menacing low brass portents and suspensefully whispery washes, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson’s long, allusively modal, spiraling solo accented by Frank Kimbrough’s apprehensively twinkling piano and the devastatingly direct drums of Lewis Nash. As usual, the soloists are interpolated within the framework of the whole: in many cases Evans creates the illusion that there is interplay between the chart, or at least part of the orchestra, and the soloist.
The work that Truesdell – one of the world’s leading Evans scholars – ranks as the composer’s magnum opus is the nineteen-minute-plus triptych Waltz/Variation on the Misery/So Long. Although versions of these pieces were released separately in the 60s, the arrangement for the three pieces together is from an unrecorded 1971 Berlin concert and it is as massive as Evans ever got (which says a lot). Vibraphonist Joe Locke turns in the performance of a lifetime injecting luridly macabre phrases, alternately stealthy and breathtakingly frantic, over ominous cumulo-nimbus backdrops, murderously mysterious climbs from the depths and incessantly terse, shifting voices within the orchestra. Wilson follows with an equally astonishing, memorable solo, riddled with microtones like a bullet-spattered getaway car. The angst is inescapable, notwithstanding Beethovenesque brass luminosity, a warmly soulful Marshall Gilkes trombone solo, Evans’ signature light/dark contrasts everywhere and an ending that is completely the opposite of everything that foreshadows it.
An equally noir if slightly shorter track here, with a previously unreleased arrangement from that 1971 concert, is Kurt Weill’s Barbara Song. Evans recorded this on the Individualism lp with a band only two-thirds the size of the ensemble here and the result is a mighty, surrealistically chilling, absolutely transcendent sweep. Locke again dazzles and ripples in a centerstage role, this time providing illumination over the sometimes distant, sometimes imminent sturm und drang driven by Nash’s succinct insistence and the lurking bass trombone of George Flynn.
Most of us know The Maids of Cadiz from the Miles Ahead album; the version here dates back seven years earlier to 1950 and Evans’ tenure in Claude Thornhill’s big band. It’s a revealing glimpse of Evans at work in a similar context, it’s almost twice as long and seems about fifty times as big. It’s amazing how Evans would go from the exuberantly ornate tango-jazz of this chart to the plushness – not to mention the terseness – of his version for Miles Davis. This one features prominent, portentous bass from Jay Anderson, a vividly nocturnal Kimbrough solo and a warm, absolutely gorgeous solo out by trumpeter Greg Gisbert.
A handful of tracks also portray Evans the working musician and his approach to some of the more pedestrian fare that paid his rent. How About You, a jaunty, dixieland-flavored Thornhill-era track, shows how he was employing alternate voicings throughout the orchestra just as cleverly as he would later in his career, not to mention the demands those charts made on the musicians. The closing cut, Look to the Rainbow – with vocals by Luciana Souza – first comes across as a relatively generic samba-pop song…but wait til the lush, bittersweet crescendo kicks in as the song winds up! And Evans’ own early 50s composition Dancing on a Great Big Rainbow – which somehow evaded making it onto vinyl despite being in the catalog of three of its era’s most popular big bands – seems a prototype for how he’d take a song from its upbeat origins and transform it into something completely different. This one grows wings but does the opposite of taking flight.
There are two other vocal numbers here, both of them absolutely Lynchian. Smoking My Sad Cigarette, sung with equal parts sadness and sass by Kate McGarry, features a pillowy arrangement that finally morphs into a swaying blues. The oldest track here, Beg Your Pardon, dates from 1946; Wendy Gilles sings it and absolutely knocks it out of the park with her coy, split-second, spot-on melismas. And Who’ll Buy My Violets, a ballad from the Thornhill era, is arguably the most Lynchian track here, Kimbrough doing an unexpected Floyd Cramer impersonation as the orchestra swells behind him and imbues what seems on the surface to be an innocuous pop melody with morose gravitas.
The sonic quality of the album is extraordinary: the care and attention to close-miking and minute detail is meticulous. Although nothing beats the vinyl warmth of a vintage Gil Evans record, this is the most sonically gorgeous digital recording of Evans’ work ever made. Kudos to engineer James Farber and the rest of the orchestra: flutists Henrik Heide and Jesse Han; oboeists Jennifer Christen and Sarah Lewis; bassoonists Ben Baron, Michael Rabinowitz and Alden Banta; multi-reedmen Dave Pietro, Donny McCaslin, Scott Robinson, Brian Landrus and Charles Pillow; horn players Adam Unsworth, David Peel and John Craig Hubbard; trumpeters Augie Haas and Laurie Frink; trombonist Ryan Keberle; tuba player Marcus Rojas; guitarists James Chirillo and Romero Lubambo, percussionist Mike Truesdell and tenor violinist Dave Eggar. It would take a book to give due credit for what they’ve accomplished here.
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