Summer 1987; Italy's heartland, Umbria; torrid heat. Perugia, as usual, was the location of the most popular Italian Jazz Festival. On Saturday, July 11th, the Gil Evans Orchestra is scheduled to perform at the Curi soccer stadium, together with the pop icon Sting as guest vocalist. The media attention for this event is reflected by the fact that RAI UNO, the most popular Italian public TV channel broadcast it live during prime time. Unbelievable... great jazz televised live during prime time on the most popular TV channel! Of course, this was due to the presence of Sting rather than that of Gil Evans. The English singer, however, had been extremely clear about the fact that "the true protagonist will be Gil and his Orchestra, not me... I am here just to sing with them."
The concert was a huge success, opened by a shining rendition of "But & Bird"without Stingthat immediately demonstrated the high level of the music to come.
The following night the same stadium provided the stage for a Miles Davis concert. A great concert too, but on that night jazz fans hungry for more great music did not return home after the performance by the 'prince of darkness.' There was an almost secret appointment to go to ...'round midnight. The lucky ones aware of this event could be found walking in the darkness of Perugia's tiny medieval alleyways, heading towards the deconsecrated church of "San Francesco al Prato," where the Gil Evans Orchestra was about to start a week of midnight concerts.
"San Francesco al Prato" was built in the 14th Century andover the years the continuous subsiding of its foundations threatened its stability. After repeated attempts to repair it, the cave-in of the apse's roof marked the demise of the church; which stayed on as a beautifulif uselessmonument.
The Gil Evans Orchestra sat right there, in the apse area, with the sky as its only roof. Gil was on the left hand-side, at the electric piano, often motionless, enraptured by the music that his musicians created for him. The rest of the area reserved for the Orchestra was very small and packed with musicians and instruments. The soloists often had to step out and move to the nave to solo, right by the audience. Never had a setting proved more suitable for the concerts of that edition of Umbria Jazz.
Soon the rumor about these night performances spread and the audience became much larger than the promoters had expected for such late-night performances. It was necessary to ask people to leave after the first set, in order to allow all the others to enjoy the second set.
I was lucky enough to be there for the first three nights in a row. Every night the repertoire changed. When a composition was repeated, it was completely different from the nights before. I still have vivid memories of a "Medley" dedicated to the music of Charles Mingus during which George Adams fell into an artistic trance andbefore our unbelieving eyesdelivered a haunting, piercing, solo. Just there, between the apse and the nave; as if his mind and his body were enraptured in an ideal conversation with his former band-leader, who certainly was listening, from above the clouds.
The Italian label Egea Records has just released the first volume of a series of recordings from those magic nights. This is a precious album that, for the first time, provides us with an official recording of Delmar Brown's "Sometimes," a great showcase for the 'churchy' solo of the keyboard player. "Orgone" is a reworking of "Gone," a composition that Gil Evans wrote as a variation on the theme of George Gershwin's "Gone, Gone, Gone." It is another pearl from this album; previously that tune could be found only on the 8-CD-Box-set "The Complete Gil Evans & the Monday Night Orchestra at Sweet Basil," available exclusively in Japan. On this CD, the tune is introduced by a sparkling quote from "Gone" and then it drifts towards quieter territories, with a very evocative use of Ursula Dudziak's voice. The CD is completed by more familiar tunes like "Up from the Skies," featuring unexpected nuances courtesy of Chris Hunter's flute, "Orange Was the Color...," with George Adams, once again, leading the way towards Mingus-land, a very lively rendition of "Bud and Bird," a tune that juxtaposes Charlie Parker's "Bird Feather" to a composition by Bud Powell in a superb arrangement by Gil Evans that allows all sections of the Orchestra to give their best within a well balanced musical mechanism.
With all the media pressure gone, after the concert with Sting, the atmosphere inside the apse was a mix of relaxation and tension charged with artistic promises.
Rationality is perhaps not the best means to give a full account of those nights. Maybe the absence of Hiram Bullock with his guitarthe usual loud voice in that bandpushed the ensemble to develop new nuances, new 'refined' musical blends. Maybe the very enchanting setting enabled the musicians to express the most evocative side of their craft. The music successfully crossed the bridge between improvisation and composition, with very free moments following tightly arranged sections.
I would have never thought that recordings of such a high quality could be captured from those nights, which proved wonderful from an artistic point of view but rather chaotic as to the sound engineering. Maybe my memory is failing me but it seems that the sound is even better on the CD than it was back then... there is a more balanced mix and the details emerge with greater clarity. It must be because I was sitting on the ground, 30 centimeters away from the musicians. As the title and the liner notes explain, this is just the first volume of what we can hope will be a long series of CDs. Translation by Luigi Santosuosso and Sherry K. Holbrook* * * * *
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Egea Records Website: www.egearecords.it