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Posts tagged ‘Gil Evans’

A Spanish sketch

 

Tributes and recreations are not, generally speaking, my thing. I’m more interested in hearing something that hasn’t been done before. Exceptions would be Brian Wilson’s Smile (a reconstruction rather than a recreation) and anything written by Gil Evans, particularly if Miles Davis was involved. Hardly anything from the three prime Davis/Evans albums — Miles Ahead, Porgy & Bess and Sketches of Spain — was played live during the period in which they were written, recorded and released. To hear the original scores of such rich music brought to life in a concert hall or club, as with last November’s wonderful recreation of the full Porgy suite by alumni of the Royal Academy of Music, is to acquire a deeper appreciation of a music that has always inspired an unusually deep affection.

One of the biggest treats of lockdown listening has been last Thursday’s online release of the video of a socially distanced version of “Concierto de Aranjuez”, the centrepiece of Sketches of Spain, by the 21 musicians of the Gil Evans Project, a New York ensemble led by the composer and arranger Ryan Truesdell. Their two albums of Evans’s lesser known music, Centennial (which I wrote about here) and Lines of Color, have given me enormous pleasure since their appearance in 2013 and 2015 respectively, but this is a little different.

Riley Mulherkar, who takes on the daunting task of playing the soloist’s role, does an exceptional job, staying true to the sound and flight-path of Davis’s original playing while adding just enough inflections and inventions of his own to remind us that this is no mere impersonation but something with a life of its own. The true value of this performance, however, lies elsewhere. As with the Royal Academy’s version of the Gershwin arrangements, Truesdell was given the original scores by the Davis family, and again the scale of his band’s resources enables him to give full value to Evans’s orchestrations, which ranged far beyond the conventional jazz big-band instrumentation.

Those of us who love Evans’s music are very familiar with the effect of his favourite sounds, which included the alto flute and the bass clarinet, muted trumpets and French horns, a tuba and piccolo. But it was always hard to identify the individual components of the sound-washes that he created behind Davis. Now, thanks to the brilliant editing of this socially distanced performance, it’s possible to see exactly how he combined his colours to such magical effect.

To take just one example from this 17-minute recomposition of Joaquin Rodrigo’s guitar concerto, go to 11:50: there you’ll find four muted trumpets, three French horns, a bass trombone, a tuba, three flutes, a bassoon, a contrabass clarinet. It was Evans’ special gift to make such an elaborate combination feel so weightless.

As well as being deeply felt, the ensemble’s performance is so clear and precise that it’s amazing to think the musicians weren’t playing in the same room at the same time. If you want to know their names — and you should — go to Truesdell’s website: http://www.ryantruesdell.com. And maybe think about making a donation. In the present circumstances, it’s the only way we can subsidise something like this, while giving our thanks to performers whose skills and devotion bring a little light to our dark time. And, of course, to the eternal Gil Evans.

‘Porgy and Bess’ revisited

Porgy 2

As he surveyed the ranks of musicians preparing to play Gil Evans’s score for Porgy and Bess at St John’s, Smith Square last night, Nick Smart knew that he had everything he needed: a 21-piece orchestra including the correct complement of French horns (three), bass clarinets (three), flutes of various sizes (four, when necessary), and a quartet of wonderful trumpeters — Henry Lowther, Martin Shaw, Steve Fishwick and Freddie Gavita — prepared to hand around the role of soloist. Since that soloist was, of course, Miles Davis, the task facing the four men was not without its challenge.

Smart also had the benefit of dealing with Evans’s actual score. As John Billett, the concert’s promoter, pointed out in his introduction, even the best intentioned reproductions of Evans’s pieces for Davis have been forced to make do with transcribed versions which inevitably miss some of the infinite subtlety of the original orchestrations. Thanks to the Evans family’s generosity, last night’s orchestra — consisting of alumni of the Royal Academy of Music, where Smart is in charge of the jazz programme — were able to work from the notes as Gil wrote them.

Of the three much loved albums Davis and Evans recorded together between 1957 and 1960, Porgy and Bess may be the most ambitious and fully realised, the pinnacle of the highly original approach to large-ensemble music that the arranger had been developing since his days with the Claude Thornhill band in the 1940s. Sixty years later, the richness and variety of gesture Evans applied to George Gershwin’s show tunes remain a source of wonder. And it can only be said that, under Smart’s direction, last night’s ensemble did the score complete justice in both execution and spirit.

To watch and listen as the ensemble brought Evans’s unorthodox instrumental deployments and love of dynamic contrast to life was a delight, from the whispered accompaniment of the French horns behind the trumpet solo on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” to the sudden brassy flares of “Prayer”. To hear each trumpet soloist pay the proper homage to Davis without forfeiting his own character was enormously impressive (and I’m not going to compare them: they were all outstanding). To admire the way Jeremy Brown coped with the bass lines written for Paul Chambers and the restrained panache with which Ed Richardson attacked the drum parts played in the studio by Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb was hugely impressive. Nor can one forget the trumpeter who didn’t solo: George Hogg, who played Ernie Royal’s lead parts with perfectly judged power and precision.

The nave of St John’s was packed for the occasion. The sessions for the original album took place in Columbia Records’ studio on East 30th Street in New York City, in a deconsecrated Armenian Orthodox church whose dimensions created a famously perfect natural reverberation. Apart from a hum that briefly emerged late in the set, the amplified sound in the former Anglican church in Westminster, built in 1728, severely damaged in the war and then restored as a concert hall, was equally sumptuous, revealing all the fine detail of the scoring.

This was the last night of the EFG London Jazz Festival, and earlier in the evening the pianist Chris Ingham had led a sextet through downscaled versions of pieces from Miles Ahead, the first of the three Davis/Evans albums. They included “Blues for Pablo”, “New Rhumba”, “Maids of Cadiz”, and a rearrangement of “The Duke” on which the combo managed to sound like a big band, and there was also a lively account of “Boplicity”, an earlier Evans arrangement for Davis’s 1948 Birth of the Cool nonet. Paul Higgs played the Miles parts on trumpet and flugelhorn with great finesse, flanked by two outstanding saxophonists, Jamie O’Donnell on alto and Colin Watling on tenor.

A long relationship with the music that Gil Evans and Miles Davis made together a lifetime ago tends to create an unusually strong emotional bond. Probably the greatest tribute that can be paid to the evening at St John’s is that the listener emerged with that bond not only confirmed but strengthened. Congratulations, then, to everyone involved in a sublime experience.

New tango in Paris

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Léonor Seraille’s Jeune Femme is a funny, affecting and occasionally jolting film about what happens to an attractive but rather unfocused young woman (brilliantly portrayed by Laetitia Dosch) when she becomes untethered from her former life. She’s a character who, in the writer-director’s words, “chooses discomfort”. It won the Caméra d’Or award at last year’s Cannes Festival and was released in the UK a couple of weeks ago.

The soundtrack, by Julie Roué, is mostly clubby. However, to my surprise and delight, brief extracts from Gil Evans’s Las Vegas Tango pop up quite unexpectedly, its wonderful bass riff — borrowed from Maurice Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habanera and played by Paul Chambers — and anguished upper-register horns adding a very different kind of exoticism to a couple of scenes.

Gil’s composition is a favourite of many. I’m also fond of versions by Robert Wyatt, who stretched and dismembered it on The End of an Ear, his first solo album, in 1970, and Michael Shrieve, the Santana drummer, who arranged a rather straighter treatment for a small band including the trumpeter Mark Isham and the guitarist David Torn on his album Stiletto in 1989. But the original is unsurpassable, as is the album from which it comes: The Individualism of Gil Evans (Verve), which belongs, whether in its 1964 vinyl incarnation or as the expanded CD, in every home.

Phil Woods 1931-2015

Phil Woods 2Phil Woods, the great alto saxophonist, died yesterday, aged 83. He was featured on the first jazz LP I ever bought, with money saved from a paper round: East Meets West: The Birdland All Stars on Tour, recorded in 1956, with Kenny Dorham, Conte Candoli, Al Cohn, Hank Jones, John Simmons and Kenny Clarke. It was a second-hand copy, found on a market stall. Not a great album, but not a bad place to start, either. More important, Woods went on to play a wonderful solo on one of my very favourite records: the version of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” on the expanded reissue of The Individualism of Gil Evans, recorded in 1964.

I couldn’t begin to count the number of things I love about music that are contained in this 14-minute piece, from the deepest blues to the most sophisticated modern jazz. In strategic terms, it creates, intensifies and sustains an extraordinary mood that is quite unlike anything else I know. The tactical details include Gil’s Zen piano and his at times almost subliminal arrangement (those woodwinds painted across the horizon!), the magical combination of Paul Chambers’ calm bass and Elvin Jones’s brooding drums, Kenny Burrell’s super-cool guitar ruminations, Johnny Coles’ heart-piercing trumpet, the brilliant use of Harry Lookofsky’s tenor violin… and the sense of space, space, space, and time, time, time. Time and space became what Gil made of them, and never more so than here.

In the eighth minute the tension rises as the arrangement prepares the way for a passage of two and a half minutes in which Woods’s improvisation makes the most of the landscape Gil has established, exploiting the freedom offered by the modal framework to drill down from a different angle into the essence of the blues. As elegantly funky phrases coalesce into a double-time flurry, the solo reaches its climax — the climax of the whole 14 minutes, in effect — before meandering carefully back to its starting point, finally decompressing though a series of beautifully syncopated two-note phrases into a light-fingered imitation of the walking bass, deliberately lowering the temperature before an ensemble section leads to the drifting, dissolving finale.

I have no idea whether for Woods this represented more than just another good day’s work in the middle of a long and distinguished career. For me, it’s an example of perfection.

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.