Allegra Levy seems to be shooting for a franchise on heartbreak. For anybody who’s been blindsided – and let’s be honest, who hasn’t – she sings your life back to you.
She’s an anomaly in the vocal jazz world, a strong original songwriter who’d rather sing her own material than standards from decades ago. Her low-key, moody 2014 debut album Lonely City captured the downside of romance against a purist, trad backdrop. Her new album Cities Between Us – streaming at Spotify – swings harder and has more optimism, but there’s no evading the darkness in her writing.
Her lyrics are uncommonly smart, full of striking imagery and a pervasive angst. As all first-rate jazz vocalists do, she sings in character, word by word, line by line: you would think that other jazz singers would have a similarly meticulous, emotionally attuned approach, but unfortunately most of them don’t. You can tell that she’s listened to Sarah Vaughan – her low register is stronger here than on the debut album – and Ella Fitzgerald, but she doesn’t sound like either of them. Her distinctive, unadorned mezzo-soprano is on the soft and misty side. She’s playing the album release show tonight, April 8 at 7:30 PM at Club Bonafide on 52nd Street. The trains are as much of a mess this weekend as they’ve been in decades, but serendipitously, the 4 and 6 trains are running, meaning that if you’re on those lines or can get to them, you’ll have no problem getting to the show. Cover is $15.
Levy wears her heart on her sleeve. What do we know about her? She’s in her twenties, New York born and raised, very bright, and not shallow. Closeness and relationships are very important to her. She finally found one – in Hong Kong, during a long-running money gig. If the album is to be believed, she left the boyfriend behind, at least for awhile. But while this is a very personal album, it’s not couplecore -or singlecore, if such thing exists, ugh. Levy’s narrative transcends the backstory. Cherry Tree, the catchy midtempo swing tune that opens the album, sets the stage: its melodic allusions to Walking in a Winter Wonderland are apt.
Does your bark recall
Every time you had a scrape or fall?
…this winter blows my confidence
Colors faded and I lost my defense…
Tenor saxophonist Stephen Riley, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Billy Drummond all get terse, low-key solos, which also sets the stage in the sense that this is a band effort rather than a singer with a backing unit.
Like Dorian Devins, Levy likes to pen her own lyrics to well-known jazz tunes. Carmen Staaf’s soft-soled, bar’s-about-to-close piano pairs with Levy’s tender, wounded delivery in her take of Duke Jordan’s Lullaby of the Orient: Levy really nails the surrealism of returning to Manhattan after being out of the country for awhile. Missing her boo, she heads down to Chinatown for solace: “Back home feels much too small, when I hear the whole world call.” The way she lets the song’s final line resonate, with just a tinge of vibrato, will give you chills.
Staaf’s lingering, broodingly modal chords contrast with Kirk Knuffke’s fluttering cornet and Riley’s balmy lines in another midtempo swing number, I Shouldn’t Tell You: “I shouldn’t lean so hard against you when I need someone else to care.”
The real classic here is the jaunty bolero-swing tune Misery Makes the Music, a jazz counterpart to Elisa Peimer’s similarly witty folk-rock tune, Good Song. Levy could always write a good song when she was disconsolate, but now she’s worried about losing her edge now that she’s happy: “What’s a song without some bite?” That perfectly capsulizes the appeal of her music.
Yesterdays has an insistent, upbeat swing and a lot of dynamics from Levy, from a handful of Vaughan-like dips and an enigmatically scatted solo with an unexpected joke snuck in toward the end. With its bright New Orleans-flavored horns, hints of late 90s downtown songwriter rock and suspenseful triplet groove, the uneasily hopeful Dear Friend is another smash: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Gretchen Parlato songbook.
The ballad Sleepwalk With Me, underscored by Anderson’s poignantly minimalist solo, paints a colorfully nocturnal portrait of separation anxiety – and it’s not all angst, either. If you listen closely the narrative includes a pillow fight. Levy does Dexter Gordon’s Soy Califa as a triumphant samba, contrasting with the withering breakup scenario Leaving Today, where the cad who’s dumping her can’t be coaxed out of his easy chair. The version of John McNeil’s Down Sunday is even darker, and the most evocative of Sarah Vaughan, Levy cursing the “worthless, rotten Sunday, glum day, hurts me like a love untrue..then Monday, I wake up the same way…” Riley’s shivery solo juxtaposes against Knuffke’s ebullient upward drive, mirroring how Levy weighs triumph against defeat.
The album winds up with the tropically-tinged title track, Levy’s images painting a picture of an imperiled long-distance relationships:
Cities between us
Will mock us and tease us
Airlines will taunt us and haunt us…
If there’s anybody alive to sing these songs fifty yeas from now, many of them will be part of the standard repertoire. In keeping with Levy’s ongoing city theme, maybe next time she can do an album about love in a time of repression, mass displacement and pathological greed and call it City Under Siege.
To pigeonhole the Maria Schneider Orchestra‘s latest magnum opus, The Thompson Fields. as pastoral jazz downplays its genuinely extraordinary beauty and epic sweep. But a musicologist would probably consider how much the vast expanses of the Minnesota prairie where Schneider grew up have influenced her writing. To call Schneider this era’s paradigmatic big band jazz composer would also be just part of a larger picture: among this era’s composers in any style of music, only Kayhan Kalhor and Darcy James Argue reach such ambitious and transcendent peaks. She’s bringing her Orchestra to a stand at Birdland this week, June 2 through 6 with sets at 8:30 and 11 PM.
As is her custom, Schneider’s compositions go far, far beyond mere vehicles for extended solos, although the solos here are exquisite and serve as the high points they ought to be. Scott Robinson’s alto clarinet dipping between heartfelt lows and airily triumphant swells on the opening number, a newly reorchestrated take of the early-morning nocturne Walking by Flashlight – from Schneider’s previous album Winter Morning Walks – sets the stage.
That number is the shortest one here: the rest of the album builds an expansive, dynamically rich Midwestern panorama. All of Schneider’s familiar tropes are in top form: her use of every inch of the sonic spectrum in the spirit of her mentor Gil Evans; endless twists and turns that give way to long, lushly enveloping, slow upward climbs; and her signature, translucent, neoromantically-influenced tunesmithing. Marshall Gilkes’ looming trombone and Greg Gisbert’s achingly vivid flugelhorn illuminate The Monarch and the Milkweed, a pensively summery meditation on the beauty of symmetry and nature. Robinson’s baritone and Donny McCaslin’s tenor sax take to the sky in Arbiters of Evolution, a labyrinthine, pulsing, slowly unwinding portrait of birds in flight (perhaps for their lives – as in much of Schneider’s work, there’s a wary environmentalist point of view in full effect here).
Frank Kimbrough’s piano and Lage Lund’s guitar carry the title track from its gentle, plainspoken intro through an unexpectedly icy interlude to gracefully dancing motives over lush waves of brass. The most pastoral of all the cuts here is Home, graced by Rich Perry’s calm, warmly meditatitve tenor sax. Then the orchestra picks up with a literally breathtaking pulse, inducing g-forces as Nimbus reaches its stormy heights, Steve Wilson’s alto sax swirling as the cinematics unfold. As a portrait of awe-inspiring Midwestern storm power, it’s pretty much unrivalled.
Gary Versace’s plaintive accordion takes centerstage amidst a rich, ominously brooding brass chart in the intense, elegaic A Potter’s Song, dedicated to the late, great trumpeter and longtime Schneider associate Laurie Frink. The album winds up on a joyously Brazilian-flavored note with Lembranca, inspired by a pivotal moment in Schneider’s life, spellbound by a carnival drum orchestra, Ryan Keberle’s trombone and Jay Anderson’s bass adding color and bouncy energy.
The album, a crowdfunded endeavor comprising newly commissioned works, comes in a gorgeously illustrated full-color digipak with extensive and articulate liner notes from the composer. Like a couple other pantheonic artists, Richard Thompson and Olivier Messiaen, Schneider is also a birder, and her commentary on current environmental crises affecting the avian world and her beloved prairie home turf are spot-on. Where does this fall in the Schneider catalog? It’s hard to say: there’s the ambition and scope of, say, Concert in the Garden, but also the saturnine majesty of Winter Morning Walks. It’s a new direction for her, no surprise considering how often she’s reinvented herself. And while it doesn’t seem to be up at the usual spots, i.e. Spotify and such, you can get completely lost in the radio feature at Schneider’s webpage. It’s the best possible advertising this album, and her work as a whole, could possibly have.
Pretty much everybody, at least in the jazz world, agreed that Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans, by conductor and Evans scholar Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project, was the best album of 2012. You rarely see that kind of consensus. Even for an ambitious jazz bandleader, it was an enormously labor-intensive achievement. Truesdell also left himself little wiggle room for a sequel: pretty much anything was destined to be anticlimactic. So Truesdell – who has probably spent more time unearthing rare and previously unknown Evans compositions and arrangements than anyone else – flipped the script. Rather than emphasizing the iconic big band composer’s genre-smashing, paradigm-shifting later works, the group’s new live album, Lines of Color features a lot of older material. It’s also on the upbeat side: Evans’ music is Noir 101 core curriculum, and what’s here tends to be more lighthearted than Evans typically is. So there’s another cult audience – the oldtimey swing crowd – that will probably love this if they get to hear it. You can hear this mighty, stormy, dynamically rich, twenty-plus-piece group when they play their annual residency at the Jazz Standard starting this Thursday, May 14 and running through the 17th, with sets at 7:30 and 10 PM. It’s pricy: $30, and $35 on the weekend, but it’s worth it. Remember, the club doesn’t have a drink minimum (although they have a delicious and surprisingly affordable menu if you feel like splurging).
The new album opens with a punchy, sleek take of the noir waltz Time of the Barracudas, from the iconic 1964 album The Individualism of Gil Evans. On the heels of a bouncy Marshall Gilkes trombone solo, tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin takes it up with an aptly marionettish pulse through a series of a playful hints at endings. The band follows by reinventing Bix Beiderbecke’s Davenport Blues as a lustrous slow drag, Mat Jodrell’s trumpet carrying its triumphant New Orleans tune much of the way. This version is notable for being exactly the way Evan originally wrote it before many better-known revisions, right down to the second line-flavored break midway through.
Avalon Town both embodies its dixieland origins and transcends them – those oceanically eerie close harmonies as it opens are a prime example of how Evans could take something utterly generic and make magic out of it. And you thought you knew (or wish you’d forgotten) Greensleeves? Just wait til you hear the mighty outro and warily tasty Marshall Gilkes trombone solo that concludes it.
John Lewis’ Concorde, another track from The Individualism of Gil Evans, has more of a jet-age ebullience and plushness than the uneasily bossa-tinged original – here Lois Martin’s viola plays Lewis’ original righthand figure for piano. Singer Wendy Gilles does a marvelously nuanced job, ranging from fullscale angst to playful cajolery on Can’t We Talk It Over, over a pillowy backdrop with Evans’ signature high reed/low brass dichotomy. Later on, she offers an elegantly cheery take of Sunday Drivin’.
Gypsy Jump, an early work from 1942, reveals that already Evans was doing things like hinting at Tschaikovsky and opening with a figure he’d recycle memorably later on with Miles Davis. It’s lternately neblous and disarmingly oldtimey, McCaslin’s sax enhancing the former and Steve Kenyon’s clarinet the latter. Then the band makes a medley of Easy Living, Everything Happens to Me – centered around Gilles’ heartfeld, angst-driven, tersely bluesy phrasing – and another Johnny Mercer tune, Moon Dreams, which builds to a galactic sweep, dreamy JMW Turner colors over that omnipresent low, murky pulse.
Just One of Those Things is another mashup of vintage swing and lush sophistication, Steve Wilson’s purposefully fluttering yet unresolved soprano sax solo at the center. The album ends with a take of How High the Moon that’s on the slow side – at least for a song that so often gets played lickety-split – with an exchange of barely bar-length solos frou throughout the band, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Lewis Nash pushing it with what’s practically a shuffle beat. You like epic? You like counterintuitive? You like venues with exquisite sound? The album was recorded in this very same space, most likely in front of a sold-out house, but it’s a big-studio quality production. Some if not all of it is up at Truesdell’s webpage along with tracks from that amazing first album.
If there’s one thing that defines Maria Schneider‘s work, it’s color. So why would this era’s most dynamic composer in any style of music want to make a monochromatic album? Maybe because it was a challenge. Although Schneider’s big band jazz can be lush and enveloping to the nth degree, writing for string orchestra as she does here gives her a chance to build lingering long-tone themes that would be less suited to the reeds and brass of her jazz orchestra. Both suites on her most recent, death-obsessed album Winter Morning Walks are sung by Dawn Upshaw, an apt choice of vocalist considering that she’s as at home in both the avant garde and in jazz – notably in her collaborations with Wynton Marsalis – as she is in the classical world.
The first suite is orchestrations of poems by Ted Kooser, which debuted on NPR and document his predawn strolls while battling through chemotherapy (which he happily survived). The second is Schneider’s orchestral scores of text by iconic Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. The music of both is remarkably cohesive, and pretty much through-composed in keeping with the uneven meters of the poems: there’s very little repetition here. Upshaw is backed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra on the first and on the second by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra along with core members of the Maria Schneider Orchestra: pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Jay Anderson and multi-reedman Scott Robinson on alto and bass clarinet.
Music inspired by impending doom has seldom been more gorgeous. An aptly drifting tone poem opens the initial suite, Upshaw’s clipped vocals growing more agitated against scurrying strings which then drive the music to a lull. Kimbrough’s steady, minimalist piano pairs with Robinson’s optimistic clarinet, then Upshaw delivers a mantra of sorts over a theme that grows uneasy despite the lushness underneath. A tender piano/strings interlude illustrates the point where Kooser’s wife joins him on one of his excursions. A calmly pulsing after-the-storm tableau gets followed by the menacing miniature Our Finch Feeder, with echoes of circus rock and noir cabaret, then a hopeful, crescendoing interlude. Nebulous, balmy orchestration gives way to a big bravura vocal crescendo on the final segment.
The de Andrade suite is more in the vein of Schneider’s extraordinarily vivid large ensemble jazz. The opening prologue sounds like an Ernesto Lecuona piece with lusher strings and English vocals – it gets creepier as it trails out. The Dead in Frock Coats, a plaintive, cello-fueled waltz in disguise, comes next, followed by the minimalist lullaby Souvenir of the Ancient World. The best song on the album, the absolutely chilling, majestically menacing Don’t Kill Yourself, blends hints of Arabic music with vintage Gil Evans Out of the Cool noir (which makes sense since Schneider was Evans’ greatest protegee). The album ends with an ominously throbbing vamp concealed in a cloud of strings. This is an album best enjoyed on your phone or your pod or your earphones – it’s best heard up close where Schneider’s intricacies can draw you into a reverie and then jar you out of it when least expected.
Now where else can you hear this album? Not at Spotify, or Instantencore (the classical counterpart to Bandcamp). Not at Schneider’s Youtube channel. However, Schneider streams much of her catalog at her site: you can get absolutely lost in the amazing stuff that’s up there.
Great tunesmiths never have to look far to find good musicians. Wednesday night’s late set by the Maria Schneider Orchestra at the Jazz Standard may have been a clinic in cutting-edge writing for large ensemble, but it was also a summit meeting of some of New York’s edgiest jazz talent. Schneider and this awe-inspiring cast are here through Sunday at 7:30 and 9:30, an annual Thanksgiving week tradition that, if you haven’t already joined the cult, is waiting for you to discover and be hooked by it forever.
The most unforgettable solo of the night was when pianist Frank Kimbrough segued from the slinky, suspenseful soul groove Night Watchman into the more sweepingly lush Sailing, adding a menacingly glittering noir coda packed with chromatics and macabre major-on-minor riffs before the bright, buoyant atmospherics set in. Or, it might have been tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s droll, mischievous portrayal of hijinks out on a Minnesota lake, Schneider looking back on hanging with friends during her formative years. There was also a slowly unfolding, enigmatic but warmly chordal solo from guitarist Lage Lund, an even more ambient and plaintive one from accordionist Gary Versace. an allusively microtonal Steve Wilson alto sax solo; a thoughtfully considered, spiraling trombone solo by Marshall Gilkes and a more spacious yet also more rhythmically adventurous one later on from Ryan Keberle – and there were others. Ironically, this big band relies less on soloing than any other. It’s Schneider’s compositions that people come out for: contributions from the rest of the personalities are the icing on the cake.
A couple of the set’s early tunes were the bluesiest and most in-the-tradition, but also less of a showcase for the sweeping colors and epic majesty that characterizes so much of Schneider’s more recent work: it was as she was saying, “So you think I was good then? You should hear me now.” A new one, dedicated to the late Brazilian percussionist Paolo Mora, was inspired by the time he took Schneider out to see a performance of one of his massive student ensembles: “It was like being shot out of a cannon,” Schneider explained, being surrounded on all sides by all the percussive firepower. And this piece, with its swirling, hypnotic midsection, had the same effect, bolstered by her signature melody and sweep. But there were just as many hushed, rapt moments, as in the closing number, a bittersweet, pre-dawn Great Plains tableau (from Schneider’s recent Dawn Upshaw collaboration, Morning Walks), or when bassist Jay Anderson built elegant, plaintive pointillisms with guitar voicings as swells subsided to whispers.
It also happened to be Schneider’s birthday, and she was overcome both by the band’s affection – not to mention their blend of meticulousness and titanic, Gil Evans-inspired power – and by her memories of the late trumpeter Laurie Frink, an important part of this ensemble for several years. It wasn’t much of a surprise that Schneider would wear her heart on her sleeve, considering how emotionally direct her music is. If you’re in town this weekend, go see her.
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.
You might not expect a club to be packed on the eve of Thanksgiving, but the Jazz Standard was sold out and there was good reason for that: the Maria Schneider Orchestra were playing the second night of their annual weeklong stand here, and word had obviously gotten around. If jazz is your thing and you haven’t seen this band in awhile, now’s the time. The Jazz Standard is closed Thanksgiving day but they’ll be open tomorrow the 23rd, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30; Schneider will be here through Nov 25.
At the risk of inciting jealousy among other composers, Schneider is the gold standard as far as writing for big band is concerned these days – and has been for some time. Her music is an instance where the melodies mirror the artist herself, lithe and beautiful. Her work is defined by an economy of notes, vivid emotional attunement, lyrical transparency, ability to surprise and even stun and evince every breath worth of talent from the formidable cast behind her. For the mighty beast that they are, this orchestra can be exceptionally quiet: last night’s early set seemingly had as many solo, duo, trio and quartet passages as it did fullscale, all-stops-out crescendos. The result is plenty of suspense as well as a dynamic that sets up those big, sweepingly majestic swells so they can revel in their lustrous glory.
Even by Schneider’s standards, this particular set was transcendent, loaded with rich payoffs like that. Casually but energetically, she led the band through her well-loved Concert in the Garden, its bright, triumphant anthemics and lively Brazilian rhythms contrasting with terse guitar solos and an unexpectedly chilling, chromatically-fueled Frank Kimbrough piano solo out. The cinematic Journey Home wound its way methodically through its brass-heavy introductory theme, a series of rises and ebbs over a dancing tropical groove, Dave Pietro’s alto sax solo handing off nimbly to trombonist Ryan Keberle, who took his time as the chart wound down to just him and the rhythm section before bringing it up with a lushly energetic pulse.
Dance You Monster to My Soft Song, a standout track from Schneider’s 1992 debut, vividly drove home its taunting, tantalizing themes inspired by a Paul Klee painting in the Guggenheim. It’s an ambitious work full of ominous slides and tricky metrics, punctuated this time out by a wailing, upper-register bari sax solo from Scott Robinson and an agitatedly heated hard-bop conversation between soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen.
A brand-new song dedicated to George Wein, an early champion of Schneider’s music, made its New York premiere, dancing its way to a warm, balmy series of shifting sheets of sound, lit up by an expansively lyrical Rich Perry alto sax solo and Kimbrough’s glimmering nocturnal piano. Big band jazz simply doesn’t get any better or more memorable than this. The ensemble wrapped up the set with a towering, stormy take on El Viento, a showstopper if there ever was one, working an Arabic-tinged mode with venomously powerful, succinct solos from Chris Potter on tenor sax and Mike Shapiro on trombone. As it hit the final series of seemingly endless false endings, it was easy to hope that the band simply wouldn’t end it and would keep going as long as the club would let them. In sum: this is why big band jazz is so much fun, a monster performance from a group which also included Tony Kadleck, Laurie Frink and Garrett Schmidt on trumpets, Jay Anderson on bass, Clarence Penn on drums, Marshall Gilkes and George Flynn on trombones.
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.
Bright and carnavalesque but also hypnotic and constantly shapeshifting, vibraphonist Erik Charlston’s new album Essentially Hermeto more than does justice to legendary Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal. Pascoal’s work is incredibly lively and kinetic, but it’s also deep, and Charlston absolutely gets that. But it’s more than just a tribute: this is a mostly brisk, fascinating ride through a whole bunch of diverse Brazilian styles. The band here behind Charlston is choice: multi-reedman Ted Nash; Mark Soskin on piano; Jay Anderson on bass; Rogerio Boccato on drums and Cafe (Edson da Silva) on percussion. They’re at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Monday night, Nov 7 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM, and if Brazilian sounds are your thing, you should go see them.
The album kicks off kinetically with Vale de Ribiera. Inspired by a rainforest sunrise, it’s an apt musical portrayal of what the world stands to lose if the tropics get deforested. Boccato cleverly disguises a disco beat and the vibes scurry while the reeds play hide and seek. The second track is a jazzed-up choro tune, Charlston masterfully working every single tonality available, especially the low, moody ones, taking it up at the end with a surreal edge. It’s a fitting theme for the land of magic realism.
The summery San Antonio is meant to evoke a family at a Saint Anthony festival, but it seems much more than that: there’s an obvious elegaic aspect, and Charlston plays that up to the fullest, walking a wire between suspense and balminess, Nash’s alto sax contrasting intensely with a waltz theme that disappears quickly in favor of Soskin bringing it into vivid focus – and then it ends ethereally.
Cafe opens the following tune with more suspense, a scrapy berimbau solo that introduces a stately but cheery midtempo maracatu slink. Between joyous “beep beep”crescendos, Charlston defiantly avoids resolution with a pensive solo that Anderson follows tersely and intensely. Charlston wavers between pointillism and echoey mysterioso ambience on the next track, a fascinating diptych, Nash adding a wary bossa edge over the lush tropicality of the melody, Soskin and then Charlston taking it to an understatedly insistent, intense crescendo out. The album winds with a vocal tune that’s sort of a dixieland/soca hybrid and another partita, a richly dark frevo composition that the ensemble shifts effortlessly between lively swing, apprehensively clustering crescendos and finally an irresistibly wry series of birdcalls that the band becomes finds just as hard to put away. Like his inspiration, Charlston has a clear passion for Brazilian themes, and the band rises to to the occasion: count this among the best jazz albums to come over the transom here this year.
Ryan Truesdell wears a lot of hats: composer, conductor and fulltime copyist for the Maria Schneider Orchestra. He’s also the founder of the Gil Evans Project. Revered by jazz fans for his paradigm-shifting arrangements for Miles Davis, Evans remains a cult figure decades after his death: sometimes lush and opaque, sometimes devastatingly direct, his compositions are still miles ahead of anything in the jazz mainstream. The Gil Evans project seeks to revive interest in the great composer/arranger by recording, releasing and playing rare, previously unreleased material that Truesdell discovered with the help of Evans’ family. A passionate and persuasive advocate for Evans’ music, Truesdell took some time out of his demanding schedule to give us the scoop:
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: When did you discover Gil Evans? You were a kid, right? You heard Sketches of Spain and said, “Wow,” maybe? That’s what happened to me, and to pretty much everybody I know, who’s familiar with Evans…
Ryan Truesdell: My first exposure to Gil was through the album Porgy and Bess. It was some time in high school. I was looking for recordings of Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley and saw that they were both on that record, plus I liked the album cover so I bought it. Little did I know what I was in for. From the first notes of Buzzard Song, I was hooked. I had never heard anything like that. At this point in my musical life, I was just starting to be interested in composition. Then to hear something like that? It was incredible. I think I went out the next day and bought the other records – Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain and Quiet Nights. Then I started branching out to other things Gil had done with his own group or as an arranger on other people’s recordings. It was all so new and amazing to me. The way he used sound and color and the harmony of everything. And the fact that every time I listen to one of his records, I hear something new. I’ve listened to Porgy and Bess a thousand times over the years and to this day, I still find something new hidden in there every time hear it. Gil just had a mysterious quality to his writing and I was so curious to find out the answers to the mystery.
LCC: What inspired you to start the Gil Evans Project?
RT: This project started relatively gradually over the past few years. I started searching out Gil’s music because of my interest in it from a composer’s viewpoint. I wanted to learn as much as I could from Gil’s music to benefit my own writing, to learn and grow as a composer. Most of Gil’s music has never been widely available, so I would go through people that knew or worked with Gil or the Evans family directly. Then I started helping the Evans family out a bit more organizing Gil’s music, getting it back into playing condition, and trying to locate music that the family didn’t have copies of. As I was collecting all this music and going through it, I started to realize that I had a lot of pieces that I couldn’t find recordings of. After a while, I realized I had a LOT (at last count around 50 pieces) of unrecorded works of Gil’s, spanning his whole career. Around the same time, discussion was starting to happen about how best to celebrate Gil’s upcoming centennial in May 2012. The unrecorded music I found was really amazing and I felt it wasn’t fair to leave it in a filing cabinet, unplayed and unheard. So, that’s how the project started: what better way to celebrate Gil’s 100th birthday than to present a whole album of music never-before-heard, and show a whole other side of Gil people may not be aware of. I’m really looking forward to finally get this on record, and to share it with the world. It’s truly incredible music.
LCC: Gil Evans, as you know better than most anybody, was an extremely eclectic composer. Is the upcoming album the swing Gil Evans, the third-stream Gil Evans, the noir Gil Evans – or all of them?
RT: I’ve discovered arrangements of Gil’s from all eras of his career – one piece as early as 1937 that I suspect that he wrote for his own band, before he joined Skinnay Ennis or Claude Thornhill. For the recording, I’m going to look at everything I’ve found that hasn’t been recorded and pick the best charts. I’ve definitely found more tunes from the early part of his career than the later, but I think the tunes I’ve chosen will give the record a nice balance of his whole career.
LCC: Tell us about the songs. Do you have a particular favorite among them?
RT: There is one song in particular I’m drawn to; an arrangement Gil did for Astrud Gilberto of “Look To The Rainbow.” When they did the record of the same name in 1965, they recorded a version of “Look To The Rainbow” with just rhythm section, Astrud and one flute. But, I uncovered a full arrangement of this tune, for the same sessions, that they didn’t record. I’m not really sure why, but it’s really beautiful. I think everyone will agree when they hear it. A beautiful approach to the tune and just a great arrangement. But, in all honesty, every tune I’ve found has something that just amazes me. I can’t wait for everyone to hear these arrangements of Gil’s. I think they’ll find some new favorites of their own.
LCC: To what degree, if at all, are you rearranging any of the compositions?
RT: Almost none. In fact, there is only one tune out of all of them that I’m taking a very slight deviation from Gil’s approach, and that’s only in the rhythm section’s groove. Every note, every rhythm, every sound is Gil’s. Since this will be the first time these pieces have been put on record, I want them to be as close as possible to Gil’s original intention. The only reason I’m taking a slight deviation on the one tune is because Gil had just rehearsed it once, and hadn’t taken the time to perfect it, so I felt I could maybe make a slight change. I felt the rhythm section groove that Gil had used at the rehearsal didn’t fit the tune as well, and might be the reason Gil didn’t pursue the tune further. It is a tune based on Indian music and scales, and the groove was a sort-of jazz waltz. I’m going to try and incorporate a little more of the Indian vibe to the tune. I’m going to add a tabla player and see where that takes the tune.
LCC: How many of these compositions been previously recorded?
RT: Every piece I’m recording of Gil’s has never been on record before. There are a couple tunes that you will recognize in association with Gil – Maids of Cadiz, Waltz, etc. – but the arrangements of these tunes are totally new and never heard on record before. I’ve also uncovered a few of Gil’s original compositions that I’ll be recording as well. It’s especially great to find these since Gil was more known as an arranger than a composer, and this shows that Gil was writing a few more of his own compositions.
LCC: In what year of Evans’ career do you start, and where do you end?
RT: The never-before-recorded music that I’ve discovered all total spans nearly his entire career, from 1937 through 1987. For the recording, I chose the “best of the best” of these pieces and it happened that this time period was a little smaller – 1946 through 1971 or so.
LCC: Is there a backstory to any of the compositions you’ve unearthed that we should know about?
RT: Absolutely. Each tune has its own individual history within Gil’s career, but then all of these tunes together come together to give us a better view into Gil’s history as a whole. It’s amazing that this music, that has been undiscovered until now, held so much information on Gil’s history. I’ve been discussing each tune and its individual history and relationship to Gil’s career for the Project participants through the ArtistShare site, www.gilevansproject.com. It’s all outlined there for those who have pre-ordered the cd (or another participant level) and have chosen to participate in the project to follow the process of discovery and creation. I also plan to outline the history in the liner notes of the final cd as well.
LCC: You’re recording the album in August, right? Who’s on it?
RT: The group is made up of mostly NYC-based musicians – 30 all total – including Steve Wilson, Frank Kimbrough, Jay Anderson, Joe Locke, Luciana Souza, Lewis Nash, Marcus Rojas, Andy Bey, Greg Gisbert, Laurie Frink, etcetera. It’s an amazing group of musicians and I can’t wait to hear what they do to this music. The recording is in late August, the 21st through the 26th, here in New York.
LCC: You’re a musician yourself. Will you be playing on the album?
RT: I’ll be conducting in addition to my producing duties.
LCC: I understand you’re doing multiple cd release shows? Where and when, and with whom?
RT: I have a cd release concert in the works, but the details aren’t finalized yet, so it’s a little early to give specific details. BUT, I can say that we will have a cd release show, or shows, performing these never-before-recording works, in addition to a lot of the music of Gil’s that hasn’t been available or performed since it was first recorded. The cd is being released on May 13, 2012, Gil’s 100th birthday, so the concerts will be happening on that day for sure, and hopefully the few days leading up to it. So, all I can say now is that if you want to come to the cd release, plan on being in NYC on and around May 13, 2012! I’ll release further details as the plans become finalized.