The Gil Evans Project at the Jazz Standard This Week: Major Moment in NYC Music History
Isn’t it a good feeling to be witness to history – and be aware enough to realize in the moment that it’s something you’ll take with you for the rest of your life? Like Wadada Leo Smith’s stand earlier this month in Brooklyn, the Gil Evans Project‘s ongoing weeklong residency at the Jazz Standard is an important moment in New York jazz history. Last night, midway through the big band’s first set, conductor Ryan Truesdell received the Jazz Journalists’ Association’s awards for best album of 2012 and for best big band. Truesdell had known about this for a few days but clearly, the impact hadn’t sunk in. He searched for a place in front of the band that wasn’t covered in scores. “I’m all discombobulated up here,” he groused. If that’s discombobulation, the rest of us are in trouble.
Throughout the week, Truesdell – one of the world’s most passionate and insightful Evans scholars – has been focusing on different parts of the iconic composer/arranger’s life. This evening’s centerpieces were works from the 1964 album The Individualism of Gil Evans. “It changed my life,” Truesdell explained, and no doubt there were others in the crowd who shared that feeling: practically fifty years later, the pull of its dark, burnished colors is no less magnetic. He and the band repeat the program – no doubt with plenty of surprises – tonight, and then revisit Evans’ and Miles Davis’ Porgy and Bess on Sunday to wind up the week with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Needless to say, reservations are recommended.
Rather than playing the whole album all the way through, the ensemble teased the crowd, alternating numbers from it along with some unexpected treats. This set’s highest point of many was a slow, towering, ornate, angst-fueled ballad that Truesdell had just recently discovered among Evans’ papers, a fragment simply titled Blues, which was getting its world premiere. You don’t expect a fragment to turn into fifteen minutes of lingering, resonant intensity, but that’s what this one was. Blues in this case meant pianist Frank Kimbrough’s big block chords leading up to a characteristically rich cloud of sound big enough to block out the sun. Alto saxophonist Dave Pietro made his way carefully and moodily through a modally-fueled solo before trombonist Marshall Gilkes went in a more trad, upbeat direction. When the piece threatened to collapse under its own weight at one point, Kimbrough was there in a split second with an absolutely creepy upper-register riff; and then they were back on track.
They’d opened with a deliciously fluid, resonant take on Nothing Like You, if anything more fully fleshed out than the tiptoeing swing of the album version, Kimbrough scampering and then turning the spotlight over to Tom Christensen’s hard-hitting tenor sax. Truesdell acknowledged that the version of John Lewis’ Concorde on that album is one of the most difficult pieces to play in the entire jazz repertoire, but the group was up for it. “We have the best tuba and bass trombone players in the universe,” Truesdell bragged, and Marcus Rojas and George Flynn held up, digging into the groove as the cha-cha built to a dazzling, fugal exchange of licks percolating through the group as the song reached final altitude. Meaning of the Blues took the Miles Ahead arrangement and expanded on it, a lush, slow forest fire lit up further by another pair of methodical, minutely intuitive Gilkes and Pietro solos, drummer Lewis Nash weaving subtly back and forth between time signatures as the piece shifted from somber to animated and back. They closed the set with an arrangement of Greensleeves – which Evans had originally written for Kenny Burrell in 1965 – taking the world’s most innocuous melody and made noir folk out of it, Kimbrough leading the way this time with a distant menace.
It’s not easy to keep track of everybody in this band, considering that Truesdell had contracted for 34 players for the week. Contributors to this scary/beautiful evening included but were not limited to trumpeters Greg Gisbert, Augie Haas and Laurie Frink; saxophonists Alden Banta; Steve Wilson and Donny McCaslin; french horn players Adam Unsworth and David Peel, Lois Martin on viola and Jay Anderson on bass.
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