Ryan Truesdell: The Gil Evans Project

Victor L. Schermer By

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Imagine the commotion when previously unknown manuscripts of Beethoven or Bach were discovered. In the jazz world, the equivalent of such an event might occur with regard to the music of innovators like Duke Ellington or Gil Evans. Indeed, that is exactly what composer-arranger-conductor-producer Ryan Truesdell has uncovered with Evans' music. He researched and found a treasure trove of sketches, arrangements and compositions by the great Gil Evans in several collections, and many of them have never been heard before, other than perhaps in live performances many years ago. Truesdell is preparing a CD with today's musicians playing a selection of these vintage charts that shed new light on Evans' work.

Gil Evans is especially known for his landmark Columbia recordings with Miles Davis: Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958) and Sketches of Spain (1960) as well as his contributions to the breakthrough Birth of the Cool (Capitol, 1956), album that changed the face of jazz. His legacy, however, was much broader than that, spanning five decades, beginning with his work with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, with Evans subsequently adapting his unique sound to various formats, groups, vocalists, and instrumentalists. Truesdell has been presenting this big picture on the ArtistShare- based website www.GilEvansProject.com, and at concert halls and clubs in New York and elsewhere.

The Gil Evans Project will be featured on a CD to be released in 2012 as part of the 100th anniversary of Evans' birth. It will include performances of Evans' charts never heard before on record.

Truesdell—who also works with the world-famous Maria Schneider Orchestra, in addition to pursuing his own composing, arranging, and conducting—hails from Madison, Wisconsin, and currently resides in New York City.

Chapter Index
  1. Musical Influences
  2. The Gil Evans Project
  3. Evans' Time with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra
  4. More on the Project and AristShare
  5. Gil Evans' Musical Legacy
  6. The True Truesdell and the Evans Mystique

All About Jazz: For a warm-up, the infamous desert island Question. Which recordings would you take?

Ryan Truesdell: My first choice is definitely The Individualism of Gil Evans. It has everything about his music that I love. It was 1964 for Verve Records, produced by Creed Taylor. It's absolutely gorgeous. It includes one of Gil's greatest arrangements, "The Barbara Song," as well as "Time of the Barracudas," "Spoonful," and "Concorde." It's just an incredible album.

I've always loved Ravel's music, so I'd want a compilation of his music—the Piano Concerto in G, the Mallarme poems, and the String Quartet would all have to be on there. Bob Brookmeyer Composer, Arranger (Gryphon) with the Mel Lewis Orchestra in 1980 has to be on that list, too. That was very influential on my development as a composer. Brookmeyer also did a record in the early 1960s called Gloomy Sunday and Other Bright Moments (Verve, 1961) that is really amazing. The band is absolutely insane—Phil Woods, Clark Terry, Bernie Glow, Mel Lewis, Gene Quill, et cetera— and the music is beautiful. Bob did half the arrangements, and his friends did the other half: Ralph Burns, Eddie Sauter, Gary McFarland, and Al Cohn.

And even though I'm not a pianist, Bill Evans was very influential on my writing; the linear aspects of his playing, the melodic content, the harmony, and his whole left hand movement all affected me a lot. Perhaps to round out my desert island choices, I would probably take something by Stravinsky, like The Firebird Suite or The Rite of Spring as well.

AAJ: Both Stravinsky and Ravel influenced Gil Evans.

RT: I know Ravel influenced him, for sure. Gil was very interested in classical music, and you can find classical influences in his own writing as early as his work with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra or even earlier for the various bands he was working with, as well as his own orchestra that he formed right out of high school.

Musical Influences

AAJ: Let's hear a bit about your youth. Where did you grow up? What were your earliest exposures to music?

RT: I'm from Madison, Wisconsin. My mother played piano, and my parents were always very supportive of anything my brother and I wanted to do, so music was always part of our lives. We had piano lessons; I took violin in fourth grade, and ended up taking band in middle school. My first wind instrument was oboe, and then I switched to saxophone. I was in Madison through high school, and then I went to the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and received my undergrad degree in music education, in addition to playing classical and jazz saxophone.

AAJ: Wait a minute, classical saxophone? Please spell that out.

RT: It was mostly in wind ensemble and saxophone quartets. I was doing a lot of conducting at that time too, of works by Dello Joio, Hindemith, and so on. Through the saxophone, I started playing and getting interested in a lot more jazz, and through that got interested in writing.

AAJ: What music were you listening to back then?

RT: My first sax teacher in the Madison area was Anders Svanoe. He was a great teacher and remains a good friend today. He wasn't just interested in the music, but also the history. We would look at pictures of Charlie Parker or other saxophonists, and try to figure out the type of saxophone they were playing, the history behind the instruments and all the other aesthetics, in addition to just how to play the instrument. Anders was very influential in sparking my love of not just music, but its history, too.

And, of course, I discovered music just by going to record bins. I had Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) on cassette. I was big into Art Pepper, and had a lot of his recordings. One of my first interests in composition and arranging came through Art Pepper Plus Eleven (Contemporary, 1991), for which Marty Paich wrote the arrangements. It was beautiful. And it was different; it used French horn and tuba, for example. I had never heard that before in jazz. That was when I started to wonder what composition was about.

But the big one for me was Gil Evans, when I was in high school. I was shopping around for records by Miles Davis and by Cannonball Adderley, and I came across a recording called Porgy and Bess, that they were both on. I played it when I got home, and the first notes of "The Buzzard Song" were like nothing I'd ever heard before. I couldn't believe it! I couldn't figure out what was going on, and who or what instrument was making these sounds. It was totally mind-blowing. I went out the next day and bought these other records that Miles did with this guy called Gil Evans. So that was how, early in high school, I made the connection to Gil Evans. As you know, a lot came out of that for me.

AAJ: So the Gil Evans connection goes back a long way for you. Now, what did you do after college?

RT: I went to the New England Conservatory and studied composition with Bob Brookmeyer. I wanted to spend those two years studying composition. That became my passion.

AAJ: Of course, Brookmeyer is known for valve trombone. However, he is also a great writer and arranger. But what made you choose him as a mentor?

RT: Well, earlier I got a recording of Brookmeyer's arrangement of "You Took Advantage of Me," that he did for the Mulligan Concert Jazz Band, and it blew my mind. When I was contemplating grad school, I was just getting to know Maria Schneider, with whom I've now worked for eight years, and I discussed Bob's teaching with Maria, whom she studied with, too. I was looking for someone who was forward thinking and could stretch me as a composer. Bob was the obvious choice for that. He used the analogy of a rubber band. When you're with him, he stretches you as far as you can possibly go. Then, when he lets go, the shape is still there but it's changed and expanded. That's definitely what he did for me. He opened up my ears, showed me that basically anything is possible in development, and so on.

AAJ: Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band was a fabulous group. Did Brookmeyer write some of those arrangements?

RT: I would say that Bob was more or less the musical director of that band. Gerry really didn't write that much of the music. He wrote some charts, but most were written by Bob. Bill Holman and Al Cohn also did some arrangements.

AAJ: Did you have any connection with the Eastman School of Music?

RT: That came later. I know Dave Rivello who teaches up there. I knew Dave when I was in college. He came as a guest artist to the University of Minnesota, back when I was a student there. We've stayed in touch ever since, and he has been very helpful in my development of the Gil Evans Project. There is so much music from so many different periods, and the number of musicians needed to play the music is very large. One piece may have 25 parts and, say, three bassoons, French horns, harp, and so on. Ordinarily, this would be financially impossible to manage. But Dave has invited me up to Eastman to do reading sessions of this music with the Eastman students. I didn't go to school at Eastman, but I have the connection through Dave.

AAJ: So you're working on a CD of the Gil Evans music you located?

RT: Yes. We're recording it in August, and the CD will be released on May 13, 2012, which is Gil Evans' 100th birthday.

AAJ: Good timing. So what group are you going to use for that recording?

RT: I'm putting together a band consisting mostly of New York musicians.

AAJ: Will there be some from the Maria Schneider Orchestra?

RT: I've worked with Maria for eight years now. I started off as a copyist, and now I help her with the tour managing, and I co-produced the last two records that she's done, Sky Blue (ArtistShare, 2007) and Concert in the Garden (ArtistShare, 2004).

It's inevitable I would use some musicians from her band, because I've known them for so long, and they are all great friends. But it just so happens that they are also some of the best musicians around, so even if I didn't have the connection through Maria, I would be calling them anyway. They are all so great. I can't wait to hear these musicians playing Gil's music for the first time.

AAJ: Just briefly, before we segue into the Gil Evans Project, can you give us an overall portrait of your life today as a musician?

RT: At this moment, the Project is consuming most of my time. However, many other things come across my desk on a day-to-day basis. I do some writing through the occasional commission and I do arrangements for some people. I deal with a lot of the logistics involved with running large ensembles: the nuts and bolts of scheduling, hotels, and so on. Tomorrow, Maria and I are flying to Minneapolis to rehearse her Carnegie Hall concert with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and soprano Dawn Upshaw. Then we fly back on Thursday, and the concert is on Friday (May 13, 2011) at Carnegie Hall. I work with various colleges too, doing concerts and master classes. But the Gil Evans Project is central right now; putting the music together, planning the recording, hiring the musicians, et cetera.
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