Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The American Composers Orchestra: Cutting Edge Sounds from Across the Decades at Carnegie Hall

The American Composers Orchestra’s main mission is to whip new material into shape so as to entice other enterpising orchestras to play it. A daunting task, but one they’ve tackled gamely since the group’s inception back in the 90s. The group’s appeal is bittersweet: along with many tantalizing premieres that other orchestras will pick up, the ACO also plays a lot of material that you’ll never hear again. And that they’ll never play again, which makes their job so much harder considering that they have to learn so much of their repertoire, such that it is, from scratch. Friday night’s Carnegie Hall performance was typically eclectic and more historically-infused than usual, featuring an old standard of the avant garde that’s lived to claim its place, more or less, in the standard repertoire; a rarity from Mexico; two new works utilizing wavelike motives, the second much more successfully than the first; and a suite of new songs by the orchestra’s main man Derek Bermel.

They opened with a rather twistedly fascinating rarity, Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas’ 1932 suite, Alcancias (literally, the title means “piggy bank;” figuratively, it can also mean “bullet” or “pimp”). The middle section was an uselfconsciously pretty pastorale lit up with a lyrically panoramic solo by oboeist Kathy Halvorson. On either side of it was a frantic, Keystone Kops pastiche of snippets of folk tunes, ragtime and vaudeville, so blustery that the pageantry seemed suspiciously forced. A satire, maybe?

The evening’s piece de resistance was the New York premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank‘s Manchay Tiempo, a chilling, Bernard Herrmann-esque depiction of waves of fear inspired by childhood exposure to a documentary about terrorism in 1970s Chile, where her mother grew up. Frank flaunts her multiculturalism fearlessly: no idiom is off limits. That fearlessness extends to subject matter and emotional content as well, in this case a series of slow, menacing glissandos and murderously creeping crescendos, a knife’s-edge depiction of terror in the night, noir in the purest sense of the word. The surreal, off-center, tone-bending “is this really happening” ambience finally faded down to an unexpected calm at the end, a terrorized child finally drifting off to sleep. It’s impossible to think of a more gripping piece of music performed on a New York stage this year.

Gunther Schuller‘s Contours was considered radical when it debuted in 1958. More than half a century later, the composer’s vision has been more than validated: it’s still pretty cutting-edge. Conductor George Manahan, poised on his heels, was clearly having a good time with Schuller’s long, suspenseful crescendos, jazzy rhythms and bracing post-Ives lyricism and so was the orchestra. The program concluded with Bermel’s new suite of Eugenio de Andrade songs, delivered guardedly and methodically in a cool alto by Luciana Souza, building tension and intensity almost imperceptibly through deft manipulation of a series of circular, often hypnotic, yet equally kinetic themes.

One upcoming ACO series of concerts that’s been regularly promising is their Underwood readings of new works by up-and-coming composers at the DiMenna Center this coming June 5 and 6.

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April 5, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

July 17, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project Unearths Rare, Never-Recorded Jazz Classics

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.

June 27, 2011 Posted by | interview, jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment