Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Gil: Still Cool

Gil Evans, the brilliant, self-effacing, stubbornly dedicated arranger/composer, died in 1988, but admirers of his recordings and students of his amazing re-imaginings of other composers’ work, whether Tchaikovsky’s “Arab Dance” or Parker’s “Donna Lee” for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra; Gershwin’s “Summertime” or Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez for Miles Davis; Weill’s “Bilbao Song” or the Willie Dixon Blues-assembly known as “Spoonful” (and howled by the Wolf) for Gil’s own bands--or for that matter his famous tunes like “La Nevada,” “Flute Song,” “Hotel Me” (with Miles), “Zee Zee,” “Las Vegas Tango”—marked the Evans Centennial on May 12th of this year. And they… I should say we, because I am one and we are many… we have great cause for celebration.

One of our number, a young composer named Ryan Truesdell, protégé of composer/bandleaders Bob Brookmeyer and Maria Schneider and sometime Jazz musician, was curious about one long-lost work of Gil’s, inquired about it to the Evans family, was given access to great heaps of paper (scattered across the U.S.) representing Evans’ accumulated life’s work, and gradually found a treasure trove of unknown arrangements, some never used, others played but unrecorded and forgotten, from the five decades of Gil’s life in Jazz.

Ryan searched for all the elements for 15 or 20 of the more intriguing, found nearly every chart for those arrangements, and then applied to the ArtistShare program, which helps musicians raise the money for projects adjudged worthwhile, and which also provides a shared-ownership record label to present the results. But most of the production money comes from fans of each artist, who are invited to “participate” at contribution levels ranging from the price of a single CD up to several thousand dollars. (More about that below.) Among previous ArtistShare successes are award-winning albums by Maria Schneider, Jim Hall, Bob Brookmeyer, Pat Metheny, the Clayton Brothers, and other less familiar names.

With this Evans hundredth-year project, simply titled Centennial, the combination of splendid subject, important discoveries, applicant’s proven experience (and connections), and willingness of Evans fans to cough up some serious money carried the day; and so last fall Truesdell assembled a modern Evans-styled orchestra made up of New York’s top Jazz band musicians (including a few who had played for Gil), and they recorded ten of the best or most interesting arrangements, with pride of place, the opening track on the terrific resulting album, given over to “Punjab”--the missing tune that began Ryan’s unplanned quest--revealed as quintessential Sixties Gil, a wandering and wailing (piano and alto sax, respectively), 14-minute, tabla-driven journey, past Bangalore and the Hindu Kush to regions unknown… or, if I exaggerate, just think of an open window with a view of the richly exotic East, and then look beyond. (That tabla, by the way, was Truesdell’s own shrewd addition to the Evans arrangement.)

Complexity and a sheath of eerie dissonance mark Gil’s revision and extension of Kurt Weill’s “Barbara Song,” the ten-minute earlier version of which had appeared on the Individualism album. But Gil revisited and re-arranged it for a 1971 Berlin concert of his compositions; allowing for plenty of the Evans-patented, unresolved, hovering chords, the new version also leads to a more driven and insistent second half. Truesdell in turn has allowed the “Orkester Neo-Gil” (I made up the name) to wind and find its own way, like an Evans band of the later Seventies, through colors and silences and drifting solos, and with a vibraharp guiding the arrangement--in place of the original’s startling piano cues and Wayne Shorter’s haunted, lyrical tenor--providing a musical spine that seems to rattle a bit like the skeleton-ribs vibes in some Thirties b&w cartoon. (Anyone confused by that sentence, mea culpa, and be assured that the resulting 12 minutes of “Barbara” may well be the CD’s piece de l’existence.)

There are many other gems here—a beautiful expansion of “The Maids of Cadiz,” once a trim highlight of Miles Ahead; three delicate but craftily constructed vocal tidbits, two meant for Thornhill and the third for Astrid Gilberto years later, plus a peripatetic fourth chart maybe played by both Tommy Dorsey and Les Brown (think of all these as small steps on the path of a scufflin’ arranger); a three-tune Evans medley, a melange of meandering melodies meant to nudge his players into leading from within; plus the late-evening chart that Brookmeyer remembered playing during his brief time with Thornhill's band, and that he recommended Ryan track down as well. (It was “How About You.”)

All the tracks merit further attention, but I want to discuss participating in ArtistShare instead… because I did.

I had purchased direct from the organization some excellent CDs by Schneider and Hall, so I received email notice of the Evans/Truesdell project, with an invitation to help make it happen. “Wow,” I thought. “…If I only had the money.” As the saying goes, Be careful what you wish for…

A day or two later, I heard from my friend Ken Wiley, radio station KPLU’s Sunday afternoon deejay, playing the whole history of Jazz for 30-plus years now. Ken wanted me to help him sell some duplicate Mosaic-label box sets on eBay. (He proudly owns no computer.) I’d have done it as a favor, but he insisted on splitting the money on any sales made. Long story short, the collectors were buying; Ken made out like a band leader, and I fell into a first chair spot. Suddenly I had some discretionary money. I hemmed and hawed and then went ahead, sending the cash for a Bronze-level participation.

Each project sets its own definitions for rewards and, I suppose, light responsibilities—for example, buttonholing other fans to contribute or to join. The Evans project so far has posted well over a hundred videos, downloads, interviews, caches of session photos, rough mixes, reports from Ryan, and more—all available to participants only (but that includes single CD buyers too). Each of us also received a Signed copy of the Evans biography by Stephanie Stein Crease, and one or two peripheral notices from Ryan. Also per the system, the big-bucks Silver or Gold-level participants might be invited to recording sessions or club dates; and all of the "metal" bearers have their names listed prominently on the elaborate double-fold digipak (which also comes with separate burnt-umber booklets housing Ryan’s informative liner notes and session-musician photos). Altogether, First Class treatment and a First Rate experience… and with Gil Evans involved, one can claim to be contributing, however slightly, to the serious History of Jazz.

Meanwhile the Centennial disc keeps spinning and gleaming. Chords hover and solos turn sharply. Trombones bark and trumpets sound, saxes swirl and woodwinds moan. There’s tuba and tabla, bass clarinet and clarion bass, horns a-French and flutes afloat, oboes ever and—oh, man—all over his drum kit, the great Lewis Nash. Ryan conducts with assurance, Frank Kimbrough channels Gil at the piano, altoist Steve Wilson hard-charges inside and out-... and together they transport the band from the lost history behind to the Free Territory ahead.

Spread the word, shout it out, write it on the walls:

Evans Unearthed… Gil Lives.

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