Ryan Truesdell: Centennial - Newly Discovered Works Of Gil Evans
Centennial: Newly Discovered Works Of Gil Evans
This CD, released to celebrate the 100th birthday of the late Gil Evans, provides a wealth of listening pleasure. It is also a US national treasure that deserves a place in the Smithsonian Institute and every jazz record library. It is a Hope Diamond for everyone to enjoy often. Gil Evans (1912-1988) was a giant, one of the two greatest arrangers in the history of jazz, the other being the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn collaboration. Both created new music that changed the face of the art form forever.
The endeavors for which Gil Evans became famous were his iconic recordings with trumpeter Miles Davis, contributing several arrangements for Birth of the Cool (Capitol, 1957) and fully collaborating with Davis on Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960) and Porgy and Bess (Columbia, 1968). In these latter recordings, Evans and Davis lifted jazz to a new level of expressiveness and beauty, combining cool jazz and modal elements with sonorities and phrasings that others have emulated but never equaled.
Less attention has been given to the fact that Evans' career spanned over forty years, and during that time he wrote arrangements reflecting the big band, bebop, and post bop eras, always listening, growing, contemplating, evolving new forms and concepts. Some of these arrangements can be heard in the Claude Thornhill recordings, for example, Claude Thornhill 1946-47 Performances, Vol. 1 (Hep, 2003), a band he worked with during the 1940s and 50s, as well as in a number of albums Evans made on his own or with vocalists, for example, Out of the Cool (Impulse, 1960), The Individualism of Gil Evans (Verve, 1964), Live at Sweet Basil, Vols. 1 & 2 (Evidence, 1984) and Collaboration: Helen Merrill and Gil Evans (EmArcy, 1987). Indeed, Evans released over 40 albums as a leader. Despite his large recorded output, many other of his arrangements were either performed live but never recorded, or never made it beyond rehearsals on account of Evans' meticulous standards.
Ryan Truesdell, the producer and conductor of this album, studied composition with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and has worked closely with the Maria Schneider Orchestra. A couple of years ago, in a manner he well describes in the liner notes, he discovered and accessed a slew of Gil Evans' charts of all eras in archives and homes around the country. Truesdell focused in on those he wished to study intensively, and from them he chose the ten never before recorded arrangements for Centennial. The album is a gem, a royal accomplishment, a labor of love, with some of the best musicians in the business doing an outstanding job of interpreting the charts in a way that captures all that Gil Evans stood for. Since Evans was a perfectionist who attended to the minutest details on his recording dates, this is no small achievement. The album sounds as if Evans were in on it and captures the right style and sound for each of the time periods represented in the collection.
Rather than organizing the tracks in chronological order, Truesdell chose to weave his way around three periods of Evans' work: the Thornhill band of the swing era (there is also an arrangement of "Dancing on a Rainbow," aka "Cannery Row," that he may have written for the Tommy Dorsey band); the period after Miles Davis when Evans produced his own albums and collaborated with vocalists Lucy Reed and Helen Merrill; and a time when he formed a "dream band" that toured Europe. Overall, it amply illustrates Evans' resilience, equally comfortable with small ensembles, vocalists and big bands, and employing varied instrumentation and styles ranging from straight ahead to complex dissonances with free jazz and modernist classical influences. What unites these arrangements is Evans' trademark sensitivity to orchestration and instrumentation. This album shows beyond a doubt that there is indeed a Gil Evans "sound," a slightly ethereal overlay suggestive of an archangel muse. As an added attraction, the album provides vivid illustrations of the evolution of jazz from the swing era to post-bop and free jazz elements, all beautifully evoked by the Truesdell band and vocalists.
The album begins with "Punjab," an evocation of the northwestern province of India which was invaded at different times by Persian, Greek, Afghan and other cultures, lending a complex mix to the culture and its music. Evans "gets it." Rather than imitate other "exotic places" tunes like "Caravan" and "Night in Tunisia," he uses complex motifs and instrumentation that reflect the multicultural aspect of the Punjab region. Truesdell notes, however, that Evans was unsuccessful in writing out the rhythm section, and that he (Truesdell) used the tabla to get the piece started on a good footing. But soon Evans' own writing takes over, with his application of the tuba, flute, and other brass and wind instrumentation in rich, imaginative, and always cool and well-contained ways. Dan Weiss does the honors on the tabla, with solos by Steve Wilson on alto saxophone and Frank Kimbrough on keyboards. The chart was a version written for but not included in The Individualism of Gil Evans.
The next Evans arrangement is one that Evans intended to contribute to an album, This is Lucy Reed (Fantasy, 1957), a collective recording effort designed to introduce this understated nightclub singer to a larger public. Evans played piano and contributed several of the arrangements. The tune, which didn't appear on Reed's album, is an obscure blues, "Smoking My Sad Cigarette." Kate McGarry elegantly captures the sound of a singer in the transition period from swing to bebop, when Reed made the above recording. The arrangement is for a smaller ensemble and demonstrates Evans' skill at making such groups sound like a larger group.
"The Maids Of Cadiz" is a well-known song by the French classical composer Leo Delibes. This version is completely different from one Evans did only seven years later for the album, Miles Ahead (Columbia, 1957). This is a big band arrangement that Evans wrote for Thornhill and is of the sort that couples could dance to, while the Miles Ahead version already foreshadows Sketches of Spain, dark and moody. Clarinetist Benny Goodman had performed this tune with vibraphonist Red Norvo and pianist Jimmy Rowles, and perhaps that is where Evans found his inspiration. It graphically illustrates how the same tune can be re-arranged in vastly different contexts. Evans' scoring here is simple, a touch more subtle than typical big band work, and the Gil Evans "sound" comes through as the piece develops. Kimbrough's piano solo captures the feeling of the late swing era, as does Dave Pietro's alto sax solo and Greg Gisbert's muted trumpet solo.
The next track offers a surprising contrast with all that precedes it. It begins with a legato French horn introduction and suddenly breaks out into a lively big band arrangement of "How About You?" that could have been written by Pete Rugolo or Nelson Riddle. Solos by Scott Robinson on clarinet and tenor sax, pianist Frank Kimbrough, and trumpeter Gisbert make it sound even more like a studio recording from the 1950s. Only the intro and the last off-center closing bar could possibly be considered Evans' way of signing his name to the piece.
By contrast, Kurt Weill's "Barbara Song" gave Evans a golden opportunity to express his unique self. It is an amazing arrangement that Evans wrote for the "dream band" that he led at the Berlin Jazz Festival (hence perhaps the choice of a Weill song.) Evans brilliantly evokes dissonances and ensemble work that are highly evocative of Weill's cabaret influence, again showing Evans' remarkable sense of the time and place of diverse cultures. This is in 1971, and Evans has evolved well beyond even the Davis collaborations in terms of textures and dissonances. The arrangement could not have been written by other than someone like Evans who was steeped in classical music. A soft and sophisticated vibraphone solo by Joe Locke works its way around some brass choir sounds and helps the piece evolve a poetic sorrow that is almost heartbreaking. The range and subtlety of emotional expression in Evans' work is itself notable.
"Who'll Buy My Violets" harks back to the Thornhill era. It is a slow dance tune that any of the big bands could have played at an army base or a hotel dance hall during World War II. But, unlike "How About You?" this arrangement shows Gil Evans' trademark orchestration and instrumentation in statu nascendi. It manifests Evans' sound, and shows how that sound could adapt to virtually any musical context. It exemplifies how Evans could utilize simple elements like major triads and a cliché-ish melody to express a consistent mood, in this case, a sentimental one. And even with such sentimentality, there is never any hype or artificiality in Evans' music. It is always sincerely felt.
As Truesdell notes, "Dancing On A Great Big Rainbow" has a confusing history. The initials "TD" at the top of the chart suggest that Evans composed and arranged it for the Tommy Dorsey band in the 1950s, but even that isn't certain. (Remember that Truesdell found these charts gathering dust decades later). Truesdell also realized that the tune is identical with another Evans composition entitled "Cannery Row." It's a lively number in an arrangement so straightforward that it could be used by college dance bands. Yet, once again, some of the voicings have that Evans sound.
"Beg Your Pardon" is yet another from the Thornhill band. Vocalist Wendy Gilles renders it in the style of the "girl singers" of the big band era, Helen Forrest in particular. A laid back alto saxophone solo by Dave Pietro is in that same style. The musicians on this CD show an empathic ability to re-create styles of various jazz eras, and some of the credit for that must also be given to Truesdell's conducting and coaching. What this arrangement tells us about Evans is simply that, while in spirit an innovator, he could and often did deliver whatever his boss requested, especially when that boss was Claude Thornhill, who commanded Evans' and others' admiration and respect. Moreover, Thornhill was a devotee of classical music, and it's likely that he encouraged Evans in this direction as wellor was it vice-versa?
The next track is truly the piece de resistance of the CD. It consists virtually of a symphonic suite based on three Gil Evans originals that span his career combined by him into one: "Waltz/Variation On The Misery/So Long." Much more than a medley, it qualifies as a symphonic movement, and could be considered one of the few great extended jazz compositions along with those of Ellington and Charles Mingus. This arrangement and performance is so contemporary in 2012 that no one would suspect it was put together by Evans in the 1960s-70s. As it progresses, you begin to hear hints of Bartok and Stravinsky, who were among the classical composers that Evans heard and shared with musicians like saxophonist Charlie Parker, Davis and many others when Evans lived in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. Steve Wilson's saxophone solo even has a free jazz, Ornette Coleman feel. A sweet and very lively trombone solo by Marshall Gilkes is clearly in the J.J. Johnson style. Donny McCaslin does some reflective tenor sax soloing, and the composition becomes more and more "free" in its orchestration, even approaching Coleman's "harmolodics" idea at some junctures. As a whole, it is rich and expansive enough to suggest that Evans could have made much more of himself as a composer had he chosen to do so. This is a puzzle about him that maybe no one could solve except himself. If this suite is any indicator, Evans could have created large symphonic works and operatic/musical scores had he chosen to do so.
The album concludes in gentle way with Burton Lane's "Look to the Rainbow" in a sweet rumba version. Singer Luciana Souza evokes recollections of Elis Regina and Astrud Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim's best vocalists. In fact, the arrangement itself mirrors aspects of Jobim, although the latter once told baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan that he was influenced by cool jazz, so it's possible the influence went the other way.
This album is an historic landmark analogous to events in music history like Pablo Casals' discovery of a tattered copy of Bach's Cello Suites in a second hand music store in Barcelona, Spain. Here we have before us work of a great innovator which we would never have heard if Truesdell did not serendipitously come across a few of his manuscripts, search diligently for more, and then, like Casals with Bach, interpret them to the world. There are moments of transcendent beauty in these charts, and Truesdell and this group of outstanding musicians have brought it all forth with great devotion and care.
Tracks: Punjab; Smoking My Sad Cigarette; The Maids Of Cadiz; How About You; Barbara Song; Who'll Buy My Violets; Dancing On A Great Big Rainbow; Beg Your Pardon; Waltz/Variation On The Misery/So Long; Look To The Rainbow.
Personnel: Henrik Heide: flute, piccolo; Jesse Han: flute, piccolo, bass flute; Jennifer Christen: oboe; Sarah Lewis: oboe; Ben Baron: bassoon; Michael Rabinowitz: bassoon; Alden Banta: bassoon, contra bassoon; Steve Wilson: soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, flute, clarinet; Dave Pietro: alto saxophone, clarinet, flute, alto flute; Donny McCaslin: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Scott Robinson: tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Brian Landrus: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, alto flute, piccolo; Charles Pillow: flute, piccolo, clarinet, oboe, English horn; Adam Unsworth: French horn; David Peel: French horn; John Craig Hubbard: French horn; Augie Haas: trumpet; Greg Gisbert: trumpet; Laurie Frink: trumpet; Ryan Keberle: trombone; Marshall Gilkes: trombone; George Flynn: bass trombone; Marcus Rojas: tuba; James Chirillo: acoustic guitar, electric guitar; Romero Lubambo: acoustic guitar; Frank Kimbrough: piano, harmonium; Jay Anderson: bass; Lewis Nash: drums; Joe Locke: vibraphone; Mike Truesdell: timpani, marimba; Dave Eggar: tenor violin; Dan Weiss: tabla; Kate McGarry: vocals (2); Wendy Gilles: vocals (8); Luciana Souza: vocals (10).