Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

Advertisements

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

Ryan Truesdell Resurrects a Gil Evans Classic Mothballed for Half a Century

Friday night the Jazz Standard looked to be sold out and for good reason. In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Impulse Records, the club has been playing host to a series of concerts commemorating artists or albums associated with the influential 1960s jazz label. This was the pick of the bunch, an allstar sixteen-piece cast assembled by composer Ryan Truesdell, a leading Gil Evans advocate and scholar, playing Evans’ 1961 big band cult classic Out of the Cool. Truesdell was quick to acknowledge the support of Evans’ widow Anita, who was in the audience. He also reminded that this may have been the first time the music on the album has been played live, as a whole, in fifty years. Which on one hand is mind-boggling – in the intervening five decades, couldn’t someone have pulled a band together just like Truesdell did? On the other hand, leaving it alone makes a lot of sense: it’s hard to improve on perfection.

In their opening set, they didn’t do the whole thing, substituting a vivid, animated version of Nothing Like You (a song long associated with Miles Davis, recorded on another cult classic, 1964’s The Individualism of Gil Evans) for the brooding atmospherics of Sunken Treasure. That choice kept the energy level up via a nonchalantly bristling solo from pianist Frank Kimbrough (spot-on in the Evans role with his judicious, incisive chordal attack) and a long, smokily bluesy one from tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland. As the album’s and the night’s opening track – George Russell’s Stratusphunk – unwound with a jaunty martial pulse, it was clear that this would be an attempt to reach for the brilliance of the original ensemble’s collective improvisation rather than to replicate it. A tall order, needless to say. But having eclectic, virtuoso tuba player Howard Johnson – whose association with Evans lasted more than two decades – helped. As did the presence of George Flynn on bass trombone and Michael Rabinowitz on bassoon, rounding out the low end along with bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa, who got a real workout doing an energetic impression of Ron Carter’s marathon walks.

Kurt Weill’s Bilbao Song got a deliciously pillowy performance, including nimble, incisive work from Kitagawa and guitarist Ben Monder along with ensemble work that dramatically brought out the contrasts between rhythm and the lush horizontality of the melody. Horace Silver’s Sister Sadie, which didn’t make it onto the album until the reissue, also paired off contrasts between the tune’s jaunty swing and some typical blazing, all-stops-out Evans crescendos, and a neat false ending. As expected, the high point of the set, in fact one of the high points of this year’s concerts so far, was an absolutely devastating version of Where Flamingos Fly. The most obviously Sketches of Spain-influenced number on the album, its tense noir atmospherics gave trombonist John Allred a long launching pad for a plaintive, wounded, chillingly beautiful solo spot. They closed with La Nevada, a noir epic on album, here more of a jam on its stunningly simple, memorable hook, Rabonowitz going with slow, gripping blues, trumpeter Greg Gisbert going at it fast, flutist Charles Pillow playfully elbowing Johnson off the page when the tuba started making some unexpected runs way up into flute territory. Drummer Clarence Penn, who’d been grinning almost nonstop at the prospect of getting to emulate Elvin Jones for a whole night, pounced on turnarounds and the end of phrases like a fighter who’s been waiting his whole life for the occasion.

Truesdell didn’t conduct so much as he signaled transitions – and did so with great intuition – although he made a great emcee. His passion for Evans’ music was contagious. Among other projects, he’s spearheading a celebration of the centenary of Evans’ birth this year, with concerts and a recording of some of the fifty-odd unpublished Evans compositions he’s unearthed.

April 25, 2011 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment