Gil Evans’ centenary brings two great jazz events


Gil Evans’ first repertory concert – or at least, the first expressly presented that way – took place at Carnegie Hall in 1974, when Evans was still there to keep his orchestra away from sentimentality. Billed as “an evening dedicated to the music and career of Gil Evans,” it was one of the first productions of the fledgling New York Jazz Repertory Company, for which Evans was one of many musical directors. He was then in his early sixties, a leading arranger and composer in jazz, and a conductor unaccustomed to retracing his steps.

It deserves to be remembered now, in the face of two great commemorative events. The first, from Thursday to Sunday at the Jazz Standard, presents the same ensemble heard on “Centennial: Recently Discovered Works by Gil Evans”, an extraordinary album released this week on the occasion of what would have been Evans’ 100th birthday. The second, next Monday at the Highline Ballroom, will feature the Gil Evans Orchestra, made up of alumni and guests and conducted by the conductor’s son, Miles Evans. Both engagements seem likely to shed new light on Evans as a composer and arranger, which speaks volumes about the enduring mystique of his art.

Evans, who died in 1988, was hardly an obscure figure in jazz. His orchestral work with Miles Davis, particularly on the albums “Porgy and Bess” (1958) and “Sketches of Spain” (1960), is widely and rightly revered. But the writing he wrote later, for his own ensembles – and earlier, for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra in the 1940s – still largely belongs to the connoisseur. In addition to landmark albums like “Out of the Cool” and “The Individualism of Gil Evans”, Gil Evans’ legacy encompasses a lot of murky sprawl. It is impossible to wrap your arms or your head around it all.

At the same time, so much of his vocabulary has been absorbed into the language of jazz orchestration that it can be easy to take it for granted. A follower of classical Impressionism, he was obsessed with mixing timbre, often scoring tight-voiced chords for unusual clutches of instruments like the French horn and bassoon. He had a way of involving both lightness and compression in his writing, as well as a swirling subtlety of movement.

His legacy lives on in the conservatory, naturally, and in occasional tributes like “Sketches of Gil Evans,” presented by Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2007. But he burned the brightest in the expertise of former proteges like composer Maria Schneider, who had a training mandate as a copyist and assistant. One of the most impressive feats of jazz repertoire I have ever heard took place at Carnegie Hall in 2000, when Ms. Schneider conducted “Porgy and Bess” and “Sketches of Spain”, bringing penetrating clarity and three-dimensionality to music.

A similar astonishment has now come to the hands of Ryan Truesdell, a 32-year-old composer-arranger who is Ms Schneider’s chief copyist. (He also helped produce his two most recent albums.) Mr. Truesdell has spent the last few years researching and understanding previously unrecorded Evans scores, with the blessing of the composer’s family. “Centennial,” his first album as a leader, presents a select sampling of his findings and asserts his absolute authority on the subject.

The album – produced with crowdfunding through ArtistShare, based on an example given by Ms. Schneider – features a superb ensemble with more than a few musicians borrowed from Ms. Schneider’s ranks. The instrumentation often suggests a sort of chamber orchestra rather than a big band; the execution is impeccable, as is the recording quality, with a depth and transparency that captures the infinite nuance of the writing.

Half of the 10 tracks on the album date from the Thornhill era, and it’s striking how fresh they sound: even in the midst of the swinging brilliance of a track like ‘How About You’, there are piccolo parts designed to accommodate a lemony dissonance. A 1950 arrangement of “The Maids of Cadiz” offers a more springy sound than the version heard seven years later, on “Miles Ahead” by Miles Davis.

Later entries, such as a tripartite original titled “Waltz / Variation on the Misery / So Long”, from 1971, and an arrangement of Kurt Weill’s “Barbara Song” revised the same year, feature intricate harmonic layers and austere dramatic flourishes. . “Punjab,” a castaway from the 1964 sessions for “The Individualism of Gil Evans,” rides a puff of tabla drums, based on an idea that came to Mr. Truesdell after hearing Evans’s unreleased rehearsal tapes. There is a brilliant spice to all this music, and Mr. Truesdell manages to make his own contribution seem almost invisible.

Each of his four evenings at Jazz Standard will highlight a different phase of Evans’ career, starting Thursday with the Thornhill era, and continuing Friday with the reimagined standards of a pair of 1950s albums, including the Relevant headline “New Bottle, Old Vin.” On Saturday the focus will be on “The Individualism of Gil Evans” and Sunday it will focus on Evans’ arrangements for the singers. (Singers will be Kate McGarry and Wendy Gilles, who each have a track on “Centennial”.)

If Mr. Truesdell’s work suggests the most conscientious jazz repertoire – original lyrics, faithful renditions – Monday’s concert feels heavier and more like something Evans might have assembled in his later years. Starring veterans like trombonist Tom Malone and multi-instrumentalist Howard Johnson, it will feature prominent guests like drummers Jimmy Cobb and Lenny White, with Paul Shaffer of “Late Show With David Letterman” as the host. Anchored by electric bass and keyboards, this group seems predisposed to deal more seriously with the uncompromising jazz-rock that Evans explored from the 1970s.

Which would be neither more true, nor less true, in his memory. During this inaugural season of the New York Jazz Repertory Company, Evans once again headlined Carnegie Hall, performing a concert of Jimi Hendrix music that was, by most accounts, undercooked. (That didn’t stop him from taking the project to the studio a few days later, to record an album for RCAThe point is, Evans always pushed, always reached, challenged the notion of jazz repertoire as a concern strictly in the past. “Newly Discovered Works” may be the descriptive subtitle for Mr. Truesdell’s new album, but the phrase also captures what Evans was after all along.


Willie J. Johnson

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