I 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.