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,
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 Jazz.com 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:
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.
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
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,
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,
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),
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.”
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,”
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,
“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.
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.
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
The Kurt Weill conduit continues.
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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.