Monday, September 26, 2011

4B: "Svengali" a Weill Later

Much more Kurt Weill still lay ahead as Lotte Lenya’s publicizing efforts (see part 4A below this closing section) made things happen--long-play records, more performances by more curious musicians, scholars mulling things over. Nonet trombonist J.J. Johnson and pianist Andre Previn teamed up for a Weill record, and then Gil Evans proceeded to create two multi-varied albums of great genius, perhaps the best of his long career (and no Miles for miles!), titled Out of the Cool and The Individualism of Gil Evans.

Each LP featured, and to some extent was keyed on, a single piece by Weill. Retrieved from his German theatre works were “Bilbao Song”—in Gil’s hands a mix of dissonant proclamation, odd percussion, and plucked bass and guitar, somehow all of a piece with the Cool album’s other tunes—and,
more prominently, “The Barbara Song,” a stunning, perfect arrangement that hovers and shimmers and haunts, on first listen or fiftieth, a wealth of melody and modulations, mastery and mystery alike.

Evans’ assistant for several years in the Eighties was Maria Schneider, who learned much from Gil and applies those lessons herself as a multi-Grammy award-winning Jazz orchestra leader. Invited by to pick and analyze a dozen favorite Evans tracks from his long career, well, Ms. Schneider chose Weill’s “My Ship” and “The Barbara Song” as two of the twelve. Regarding the latter she wrote, in part:

“I thought of it as a ‘Gil piece,’ not an arrangement of something. One day it occurred to me to check out Kurt Weill’s original version. And there it was, the whole long and developed melodic contour that I was familiar with. Gil had simply laid it out, but he did it in such a way that made it feel improvised and continually evolving…. Through the melody, Gil heard profound depth, and spun his own universe out of it…. Gil’s lines are just Weill’s original melody, but wrung out at a slow, searing tempo.”

Musician, conductor, and scholar Ryan Truesdell has located and studied and prepared for recording a number of unknown Evans arrangements, with an album to be released next year. He too has declared “The Barbara Song” to be one of Gil’s best and most important creations.

In fact, Gil’s quiet influence—his colors and dissonant voicings, his composer shadows (Debussy, Stravinsky, de Falla… and Weill?), his unlikely but perfect orchestrations and “notes between notes”—eventually pervaded or at least provoked the thinking of arrangers and musicians alike, whoever worked with him or studied his works, for the next 40 years: among arrangers, Bob Brookmeyer and Hal Mooney, Pete Rugulo and Teddy Charles, across the decades to Bob Belden and Gil Goldstein, Maria Schneider and Laurent Cugny; and among the scores of players, John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan and Miles… Steve Lacy, Cannonball Adderley and Johnny Coles… Eric Dolphy, Kenny Burrell and Elvin Jones…
Wayne Shorter, Herb Bushler and Tony Studd… Howard Johnson, Billy Harper and David Sanborn… Lew Soloff, Hiram Bullock and Arthur Blythe… Masabumi Kikuchi, Hannibal Marvin Peterson and Tom Malone… Pete Levin, George Adams and Airto... on and on and on.

Without Gil Evans and Kurt Weill would the Doors ever have swung wide open--first, Kurt’s “Alabama Song” and then Gil’s “Jambangle,” reworked a bit to become, with lyrics added, “Light My Fire”? And that era-defining hit probably led inexorably to Gil’s late projects with both Robbie Robertson and Sting—while edgy rockers like Lou Reed, Marianne Faithful, Nick Cave, and Tom Waits
built their careers in part on the jagged sound of Weill.

Without Evans, would composer Carla Bley’s twists and turns and quirky jibes so readily have found a place in Jazz? Without Kurt’s Berlin days, could bassman Charlie Haden’s peripatetic orchestra ever have become so political, so “Musically Liberated,” and so admired?

If Gil hadn’t taken off the arranger gloves and punched-up his freeform bands of the Seventies and Eighties, embracing electricity and synthesizers, would Miles Davis have gone so far (and farther out) into fusion and funk? He continued to consult Gil at every turn, and one can easily imagine the two of them holed up with some medicinal weed,
chortling merrily at the next step each planned to take. (In fact, if old guard Gil hadn’t grinned and accepted the mantle of avant garde “Svengali,” would fusion music ever have succeeded so?)

But we need to resume our walk on the Weill side. George Avakian became the manager and producer for a John Lewis-Gunther Schuller “Third Stream” venture called Orchestra U.S.A.; and one mid-Sixties project was an album titled Mack the Knife and Other Berlin Theatre Songs of Kurt Weill, by two Orchestra sextets that included ex-Nonet members Mike Zwerin and Lewis. Zwerin’s arrangements took a much simpler approach to Weill,
with a varying core of five musicians playing Kurt’s tunes fairly straight while the freed-up sixth man became the overlaid improvising soloist... basic stuff, really, very dependent on each soloist’s inspiration. But the results were astonishing, because the primary soloist on three of the seven tracks was Eric Dolphy going ballistic and berserk on his bass clarinet, especially on “Alabama Song,” registering his response to the Civil Rights violence there. (Had Dolphy not died soon after the first session no doubt he would have crushed the other four tunes too.)

Nearly three decades later, when Avakian wrote typically brilliant liner notes for the CD reissue of yet another Weill/Jazz album (John Bunch playing solo piano versions, mostly “up” and Fats Wallerish),
George was still marveling at Dolphy’s performances and he told this anecdote: Lenya had heard Dolphy play at a gallery opening in 1962 and had enjoyed his inventive style. In ’64 George gave her a copy of the Sextet album, warning that she might be shocked by the ferocity of Eric’s playing, particularly on “Alabama Song.” Avakian commented, “I am convinced that it will never be surpassed as the wildest bass clarinet solo of all time.”

Lenya listened and then responded with her own tale of Kurt hearing a Jazz version of one of his tunes and not recognizing it at first. When he did, he quoted a Threepenny lyric, “It’s possible my way—but this is possible too.”
Then she added, “Tell Eric I’m not sure what Kurt would have said about him, but I think it’s great and now I really understand why [he] wanted to play…” (that is, for the artist back in ’62).

Gil Evans was dead by the time Avakian wrote about woodwinds-and-sax genius Dolphy—who had contributed as well to the great Individualism album. In the mid-Eighties Gil evidently had begun to rethink the anything-goes, un-arranged bands he had “led” (just barely) for two erratic decades. Some bits of evidence:

Maria Schneider found him at the piano one day, practically tearing his white hair out; he desperately wanted to recreate his classic re-composing of Weill’s “My Ship,”
but couldn’t remember what he’d done or how—and he had thrown the arrangement away many years earlier.

At the time of his death in 1988, he was considering a proposed commission from producer Hal Willner, innovative driving force behind the excellent Weill tribute album Lost in the Stars (released in 1985) and the varied and amazing September Songs CD sequel that would shake up the Jazz/Pop world in 1997. Willner wanted Gil to do a new version of Mahagonny! (The mind boggles at what might have been… the whole opera given the old Evans musical magic? The Songspiel only? Or even just the right song or two…)

Maybe Gil had finally heard the rumblings among fans and Jazz critics,
who were tiring of too many live albums by spur-of-the-moment, hit-or-miss, "Monday at Sweet Basil" bands. Columnist Francis Davis ended one essay, for example, with this suggestion:

“Evans belongs back in the studio, where greater focus is a prerequisite, and where arrangers are in their element… He deserves an opportunity to pick the soloists for an entire album of Mingus or Ellington or Billy Strayhorn or Kurt Weill, for whom he has long shown a special affinity…”

But none of that occurred. Instead Gil cut a disc of duets with Steve Lacy and a pair of fine, old-style-Evans orchestral CDs with Laurent Cugny’s Big Band Lumiere. Then he died.

Weill’s fans around the world celebrated his centennial in 2000, and lots of new albums appeared, and then the world just resumed turning. These days the Weill Foundation works with scholars doing related research, and it keeps tabs on Kurt’s music, Berlin to Broadway and beyond.

Gil’s assistants and musicians and fans continue to ponder his musical choices and mysterious innovations. The piano trio known as Tethered Moon issued a terrific CD of Weill songs in 1995; all three musicians (Masabumi Kikuchi, Gary Peacock and Paul Motian) in some manner had played or recorded with Gil.

In 1997 Charlie Haden produced an interesting “duet” on “Speak Low,” his deep-as-a-well double bass thudding alone over pianist Fred Hersch and then segueing into… Kurt Weill himself singing the familiar lyrics!

And in late August, a few weeks ago, Ryan Truesdell and his hand-picked orchestra of New York musicians cut a dozen previously unrecorded and/or unknown Evans arrangements ranging from the Forties up to the Sixties. The resulting album will be issued in 2012, Gil’s own centennial year.

Among the tunes recorded was a recently discovered alternate arrangement of “The Barbara Song,” this unknown version
for a larger and differently configured orchestra than Gil used back in 1964.

The Kurt Weill conduit continues.

* * * * *
My thanks to all who actually read all five parts in this diffuse saga. I tried to make it vaguely amusing, even surprising in a few spots, with a changing perspective on the people and music. Maybe I got in over my head, but the float vest worked... and here we are, finally ready to move on.


Alan Kurtz said...

Wow! I've never heard before that Gil threw away his magnificent "My Ship" arrangement. Was it accidental?

I did read once that Miles tossed all the nonet charts; but when somebody asked Gil about that, he laughed it off, saying Miles had them in his basement but didn't want anybody poking around down there.

I Witness said...

In the late Nineties someone turned up a copy of the "My Ship" arrangement, so the family has it again, also mutual access to the scores squirreled away by Miles. Gil's older son is another Miles, which probably helped. Evans' bored dismissal of accumulated papers evidently went on for some time. Who knows what unknown treasures were tossed?

Steve Provizer said...

Fascinating... DId the Doors ever acknowledge their debt to Jambangle? I'm not that big a fan, but Eartha Kitt does a very good job on the Barbara Song-

I Witness said...

You can bet the Elektra lawyers told them to acknowledge nothing and make no statements detrimental to their legal position. Anita Evans wanted Gil to sue, but as usual he was more amused than miffed--just couldn't be bothered--kinda like Ellington when Jimmy Forrest pilfered the tune he called "Night Train" but which was Duke's "Happy Go Lucky Local" (I think). Both leaders were more concerned with their next piece of music (and maybe who'd be playing it), not what they had written before. "No ancient history, please; what's next?"

Steve Provizer said...

I know it's very late for a Weill/jazz comment, but I just dipped back into Escalator Over the hill and, cripes, listen to this: