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 profound 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.