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Homages to Gil

Gil EvansI often wonder how music would have sounded today had Gil Evans never existed. We celebrated the centenary of Gil’s birth last year, and this year marks the 25th anniversary of his death, but for those of us who love his work he seems ever present, both in the enduring wonder of his own music and in his subtle but persistent influence on others.

A few weeks ago it was announced that Ryan Truesdell’s Centennial, a crowd-funded (via ArtistShare) CD of new recordings of lost or obscure Evans arrangements, had been named record of the year by the US Jazz Journalists’ Association. A New York-based composer, Truesdell secured access to Gil’s archive and delved deep into the arranger’s history for previously unrecorded pieces for Tommy Dorsey (“Dancing on a Great Big Rainbow”) and Claude Thornhill (“Who’ll Buy My Violets?”, “Beg Your Pardon”, “How About You?”), and a version of “Maids of Cadiz” written for Thornhill seven years before it appeared in reworked form on Miles Davis’s Miles Ahead. He does a wonderfully empathetic job of imagining how Gil might have completed work on “Punjab”, a piece which previously only existed in a skeletal rejected version (from the 1964 sessions for the classic The Individualism of Gil Evans).

He also earns my gratitude, in particular, for unearthing a couple of important arrangements written by Gil for a concert with a 24-piece Dream Band at the Berlin Jazz Days in 1971. I was present that night, and I retain a vivid memory of how, although the band was full of excellent musicians, the performance was disappointing and suffered badly from a lack of adequate rehearsal time. Particularly in the days before he espoused electric instruments, Gil’s music was all about nuance and heavily dependent on his musicians’ understanding of his unusual modus operandi, including an approach to conducting that was, shall we say, suggestive rather than prescriptive. Thanks to Truesdell’s diligence, here there are no such problems, and we get an extended 12-minute treatment of “The Barbara Song” (the Kurt Weill tune also featured on The Individualism), now with a thoughtful vibes solo from Joe Locke in place of Wayne Shorter’s immortal tenor saxophone improvisation, and a 19-minute medley of “Waltz”, “Variation on the Misery” and “So Long”. The glistening performances are everything Evans might have wished to hear that night in Berlin, and completely true to his spirit.

If it is one thing to recreate the music he wrote as accurately and sympathetically as possible, it is another to use it as a platform for further exploration, which is what, in his characteristically quiet way, the composer and arranger Mike Gibbs has done on his latest album: Mike Gibbs + 12 Play Gil Evans, released this month on the Whirlwind label. Unparalleled in his devotion to and understanding of Evans’ music, Gibbs has allowed it to colour and inspire his own work for the past 40-odd years, ever since he came to prominence with such compositions as “Family Joy, Oh Boy” and “Sweet Rain”, made famous by Gary Burton and Stan Getz respectively in the late ’60s.

For this new album, recorded in London earlier this year, he takes six of Gil’s arrangements and, rather than using the original charts as Truesdell did, makes his own transcriptions, to which he adds his own variations. I can’t imagine anyone else bringing this off, but from the very start, with “Bilbao Song” (another Weill tune, recorded by Evans on Out of the Cool in 1960), it’s apparent that he is fully capable of adding something new and valuable to what is already a masterpiece. We also get a third great cover version of Gil’s perennially seductive “Las Vegas Tango” (based on Ravel’s “Piece en forme de habanera”), to go with those on Robert Wyatt’s End of an Ear (1970) and Michael Shrieve’s Stiletto (1989), and beautifully enhanced treatments of “Sister Sadie”, “Spring is Here”, “St Louis Blues” and “Wait Till You See Her”.

The album is completed by arrangements of four tunes with no Evans connection: Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin'”, Carla Bley’s typically enigmatic “Ida Lupino” and Gibbs’ own “Feelings & Things” and “Tennis, Anyone?”. It’s the highest of compliments to say that all 10 pieces maintain a unity of tone, texture and vision, with “Ida Lupino” contrasting a clarinet lead and low brass in a way Gil would surely have loved, while demonstrating just how far from pastiche this exercise is.

The soloists, too, are up to the task. The bassist Michael Janisch, outstanding throughout in partnership with the drummer Jeff Williams, is featured at length on “Bilbao Song”, showing himself to be one of a new breed of player (along with Thomas Morgan and Larry Grenadier) whose renunciation of the desire to play faster, higher and ever more intricate lines acts to the great benefit of the music. Julian Siegel’s tenor saxophone and Mark Nightingale’s trombone are featured to good effect on “Las Vegas Tango”. Robbie Robson adds a light-fingered trumpet solo to “Sister Sadie” and plays the Miles role more than efficiently on “Spring is Here”. The altoist Finn Peters evokes the very different spirits of Coleman on “Ramblin'” and Cannonball Adderley on “St Louis Blues” without being remotely imitative. And the gifted pianist Hans Koller brings his own approach to Evans’ sidelong, minimalist keyboard style.

I’ve gone on at length about these records because, as hard as it been to accept for the past quarter-century, we won’t be getting any more new music from Gil Evans. There wasn’t even nearly enough of it in his lifetime, thanks to the difficulty he always experienced in trying to write quickly or to order. Maybe one way of measuring his stature is to look at what he has inspired in others, and there can’t be much higher praise than to suggest that these two albums belong next to his own.

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13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nick Stewart #

    The defining work for beginners please

    August 6, 2013
    • Of his own albums: Out of the Cool (Impulse), The Individualism of Gil Evans (Verve). With Miles Davis: Miles Ahead, Porgy & Bess, Sketches of Spain (all Columbia). Then you can go in either direction, back through bebop to swing with Miles’s Birth of the Cool (Capitol) and any of Claude Thornhill’s 1940s recordings (various reissue labels), or forward into the rock-influenced years with Blues in Orbit (Enja), Svengali (Atlantic), Priestess (Antilles) or There Comes a Time (RCA).

      August 6, 2013
  2. Wonderful piece. You’ve really captured why Gil is still such an important artist. Thank you.
    It’s very good news about the Mike Gibbs record. Maria Schneider (unsurprisingly) is someone else who’s built on Gil’s influence to make some great music.
    I only saw Gil live twice – at the Festival Hall in 1978 and at Sweet Basil in the 80s. The former was a strangely muted affair that sounds a bit better on the RCA/Mole records than it did in the hall, whilst the latter was a charming but shambolic gig with 15 musicians on stage and only about 20 people in the audience!
    As far as records go, your recommendations are of course spot on. Beautiful timeless music. I also have a soft spot for Gil Evans & Ten, Where Flamingos Fly and Helen Merrill’s gorgeous Dream Of You.

    August 6, 2013
    • Thanks. Agree with everything except your opinion of the 1978 gig at the Festival Hall: that version of “Variation on the Misery”, with the long Hannibal Peterson trumpet solo, was one of the most moving concert experiences I’ve ever had.

      August 6, 2013
      • Now that got me out of the office and on to the stereo. You’re right it is a magnificent solo by Peterson. I must have been particularly cloth eared that night at the RFH. I also ended up listening to some of the Masabumi Kikuchi & Gil Evans record that also sounded fantastic. Now belatedly back to work and more Gil tonight I think…

        August 6, 2013
  3. Mick Steels #

    I recall an interview you did with Gil where he was talking about the Berlin gig, he said Capitol had plans to release the recordings which never materialised. He also was not happy with the rhythm section in particular who would not play at his speed and would lapse into their own preferred time. Evans was always blighted by lack of rehearsal time through out his career.
    Mike Gibbs two Deram albums are essential purchases, but remember the storming live set ‘Just Ahead’ on Polydor?
    Cracking piece by the way

    August 6, 2013
  4. I’m so happy to hear that there is a new Mike Gibbs album. It was Peter Clayton’s use of the haunting “And On the Third Day” as the theme tune for Jazz Notes on a Sunday night that opened up whole new musical vistas for me. In my case as a 17 year old I found Evans via Gibbs. Apart from the Michael Gibbs album, my other Gibbs favourite is Europeana with Joachim Kuhn and the NDR Radio Orchestra. Thanks for the reminders in your lovely piece.

    August 6, 2013
  5. Shaun Hurley #

    A very nice article, Richard – and it’s good to see that you are still appearing in the Guardian!
    The Mike Gibbs is live at Kings Place on the 12th October.
    While ‘Out of the Cool’ remains my first choice for the desert island, long established favourites are ‘New Bottle, Old Wine’ and ‘Great Jazz Standards’ from 1958/9 (now together on both Avid and Blue Note).

    August 7, 2013
  6. GRAHAM ROBERTS #

    What a nice piece on Gil Evans and the fine way his legacy is celebrated by Ryan Truesdell and Mike Gibbs (and also by Maria Schneider, a label-mate of Ryan Truesdell on ArtistShare). As far as I am concerened, Truesdell’s ‘Centennial’ is one of two essential jazz releases of 2012 (the other, I believe, is Wadada Leo Smith’s mighty ‘Ten Freedom Summers’; would love to hear your views on it). I was first alerted to ‘Centennial by a Steve Voce review in Jazz Journal and it is every bit as worthwhile as both you and he say; great music, wonderfully recorded by some of the best players around.

    I look forward to the new Mike Gibbs release as well. I missed his Vortex gigs last year but caught him at Kings Place, and assume that the band on the new release has most (all?) of the same band on it. I’ve been buying Mike Gibb’s stuff for years now; it was probably his debut on Deram, along with the New Jazz Orchestra’s ‘Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe’ and John McLaughlin’s ‘Extrapolation’ – all released in the late 1960s and still amongst the most precious pieces of vinyl in my collection – that first got me hooked on this music as a teenager and has remained a life-long passion. I am so pleased, by the way, that you have highlighted Michael Janisch in your piece – what a great comment it is on the health of the local scene that this splendid American musician should be such a prominent presence here.

    August 8, 2013
    • I couldn’t agree more about Ten Freedom Summers. A magnificent achievement, about which I must find a way of writing soon.

      August 8, 2013
  7. Hi Richard, I bought the Mike Gibbs CD off the back of your recommendation – very nice so thanks. Regarding re-interpretations of Gil’s music, there was a very good concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall about 5 years ago, put together by Gil Goldstein (I think) and featuring Mino Cinelu on percussion, plus a female Brazilian vocalist taking some of Miles’ parts.

    Two other great versions of ‘Las Vegas Tango’: Gary Burton’s from his ‘Good Vibes’ album, plus a very atmospheric version by Ed/Ge, which was a short-lived project from Geoff Wilkinson of US3 fame, and features a kind of ‘film noir’ voiceover (better than it sounds!).

    Great posts recently – really enjoy reading them.

    August 16, 2013
    • Thanks, Gavin. Sorry I missed the QEH gig. I’ll check out those two versions of “Las Vegas Tango”.

      August 16, 2013

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