Saturday, September 24, 2011
Gil Evans: Here 4A Weill
(Lengthy Part 4 is now divided for readability, with second half in a day or two.)
There was something in the air. Or maybe it was the water. But from the Twenties to the late Sixties there was this spectrum--invisible, imaginary, whatever--of oddball anarchist music (well, quirky anyway) being created and released on record and film. Aural symptoms might include sound effects, irregular rhythms, changing tempos, tuneless tunes, uncommon instruments, eccentric, possibly amateurish playing, an alien musical conception withal.
Each artist would exhibit only certain of these traits. At one end of the spectrum you’d find, chronologically, the barnyard sounds and seemingly uneducated playing of the Original Dixieland Jass Band; the wild and woolly, wacky-woo-woo, musical bits and pieces strung together with split-second timing by composer Carl Stallings for Warner Bros.’ “Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies” cartoons; and the bizarre combinations of music and dialogue and sound effects good-humoredly smushed together on the records of Spike Jones. (The near-musical, carefully timed, rapid-fire routines of comics like the Marx Brothers and Abbott & Costello fit in there somewhere too.)
The opposite end of the spectrum is much more musical, though still strange-sounding when first sprung on a casual, unsuspecting listener. I hope there’s no need to belabor the point (racially or otherwise), but I’m thinking of the choppy, hammering, stride-piano playing and eccentric, brilliant-corners compositions of Thelonious Monk; the slightly west-of-caterwauling, hues-of-blues originals issuing from Ornette Coleman’s plastic sax (love the “ugly beauty”; still not ready for Prime Time); John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” reflecting his unshakeable, inner-space determination to blow every possible note and combination of notes arrayed in the infinite field of any piece of music (and do so all at once!); and the antic hijinx--the combs, brooms, costumes, dreams and drums--the delirious music unleashed on a suspicious world by the world-is-our-playground-and-oyster, con-kniving knaves known as the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
One end “light”… one end “serious.” And most groups and Jazz bands somewhere along the line between. You can supply your own candidates and placement, or you can dismiss the whole fanciful thing as Hog-warts, but I ask that you just amble with me a ways further.
Edging toward the bizarre would be the Boyd Raeburn Orchestra mixing BeBop and Stravinsky, while the working groups and session bands organized by Gil Evans would be drawn more to the blues’n’boogie, Hard Bop portion of my diagram. And the odd balance of Jazz, opera, and Broadway pop would deposit Kurt Weill (his friend Gershwin not far off) right on the invisible midpoint, flanked by tubas and tangos!
Kurt died in 1950, with only his American show-tune hits of the Forties still having any currency. But two stubborn fans (maybe three) versed in his forgotten European works were having none of that. I wrote a bit last time about Lenya’s revived career and tireless publicizing of Kurt. Time now to introduce George Avakian: writer, producer, scholar, proselytizer, bon vivant, and great good friend of Jazz. The fact that he knew and loved Weill’s early masterworks was the cake under all that frosting.
Avakian and Lenya teamed up to create most of the famous Columbia Records LPs starring her and resurrecting Kurt’s songs and German theatrical works with and without Brecht—excellent if not quite perfectly definitive productions of Mahagonny, Threepenny, his German and American theater songs, Seven Deadly Sins… all but Happy End, which was a later addition after George had moved on from Columbia. (Avakian shows up time and again in this fable.)
Parallel to this were developments in the career of arranger/re-composer/conductor Gil Evans. Claude Thornhill’s bands of the early and later Forties, with beaucoup arrangements by Evans, occupy a special “Beautiful Music” spot on that spectrum chart. Gil fashioned a strange but lovely sound by blending high woodwinds, low brass, and Thornhill’s soft-as-snow-falling piano… which oddly worked on BeBop adaptations as well as ballads and semi-Classical numbers.
When the band was off the road, Evans stayed on in New York City, and his door’s-always-open bachelor pad became the philosophic bull-session center (circa 1948-1951) for a select group of musicians and fledgling arrangers: Evans, John Parisi, Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, John Lewis, and several others including Gil’s new pal, Miles Davis. Fresh from his high-profile time with Charlie Parker, Miles soon became the frontman/leader, and Gil the central force behind the scenes, as the group gradually experimented with a stripped-down version of Thornhill, all the rich chords and strange harmonies vested in nine players only (including tuba and French horn)—just the sort of musical challenge Weill once thrived on.
So there they were, the Evans crew gradually rehearsing, road-testing audience response via a two-week gig at the Royal Roost, and slowly edging into the recording sessions that became known years later as “The Birth of the Cool”—and Kurt doing much the same: writing, orchestrating, rehearsing, moving on from Street Scene to shape new shows Love Life and Lost in the Stars. I’d love to believe that Gil and Kurt each had a chance to catch the other’s work; it’s just barely possible. Certainly Weill’s music became a source for Evans’ magpie curiosity and skillful re-composing a few years later, but Gil’s interest might have started in the Forties.
Here’s that chronology told simply:
Miles' (and Gil’s) Nonet recorded very slowly, with sessions in 1949-50. Among the changing roster of players, Konitz, Mulligan, Miles, and tuba whiz Bill Barber made all dates, joined variously (as available) by J.J. Johnson, Max Roach, John Lewis, Junior Collins, Al McKibbon, Gunther Schuller, and (in place of Johnson during the Roost gig) trombonist and writer Mike Zwerin.
Evans’ conception and maybe even his handiwork seem evident in several arrangements though he claimed only “Moon Dreams” (often cited as the perfect Nonet cut) and “Boplicity.” Some selections were released on 78s with minimal publicity and minimal response, but reissued c. 1954 and then 1957 on LPs with the “Cool” claim—light textures, subtle rhythms, disciplined arrangements; some of them including “Moon Dreams” aren’t too far from what Weill was composing and imaginatively orchestrating at (and on) all stages. (Tangos seemed one of Kurt’s special fortes. Intriguing then that Evans’ own best-loved original was “Las Vegas Tango.”)
Kurt died in 1950, the Nonet soon after. Players dispersed to become leaders elsewhere. Miles and Gil stayed in touch. Then in 1956 Columbia’s producer and a&r great George Avakian not only began issuing the Lenya-Weill albums, but also signed Miles to a major label contract. Gil came aboard to help with arrangements for the Davis Quintet’s ‘Round Midnight debut, which turned out so well that Avakian decided to put Gil and Miles together for an orchestral Jazz LP.
Which became the brilliant and famous album titled Miles Ahead, though not without a struggle: several three-hour recording sessions and countless hours of cut-and-splice tape editing by Avakian and overseer Gil. But the result… ah, the bountiful, beautiful result… “Springsville.” “New Rhumba.” “The Duke.” “The Maids of Cadiz.” “Blues for Pablo.” The title cut. And leading into that track, because the LP really is one big suite of linked, disparate tunes and themes, Kurt Weill’s song superb, fleet of foresail and fancy, “My Ship”… the track routinely discussed as one of Evans’ masterworks of melody and motion. (Yes, Kurt and Gil, together again for the first time, documented.)
And so onward, to Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain and more, as Davis and Evans went deep into the dark center of Catfish Row and the deepest song of flamenco--wailing Jazz soloist against richly textured orchestra, slipping closer to a kind of opera. And the reawakened Sephardic soul of Kurt lingered a Weill, smiling