Music Reviews
11:52 am
Thu August 2, 2012

Digging Up The 'Newly Discovered Works Of Gil Evans'

Originally published on Thu August 2, 2012 6:47 pm

Gil Evans, born a century ago this year, was a leading jazz arranger and composer starting in the 1940s, when he wrote for big bands. He helped organize Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool sessions, then arranged Davis' celebrated orchestra albums like Sketches of Spain. Evans, who had his own big bands that went electric in the 1970s and '80s, died in 1991, but some of his rare music has been newly recorded.

On Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans, Evans scholar and fan Ryan Truesdell digs into rarities dating from the mid-1940s to the mid-'60s. Even the music Gil Evans wrote for swing bands was sleek and airy. A godfather of cool jazz, he could make dissonance sound pretty, vanilla chords sound exotic and a big band seem to float.

Truesdell's research turned up unheard Gil Evans scores, revised versions of a couple of pieces he'd already recorded, and one arrangement that looks forward to his collaborations with Miles Davis. A setting of Léo Delibes' pop classic "The Maids of Cadiz" dates from 1950, seven years before the hushed version on "Miles Ahead."

Centennial also features three fine singers. Given the current crop of cooing low-key jazz vocalists, these Gil Evans revivals are perfectly timed. He'd arranged the torch song "Smoking My Sad Cigarette" for the emotive singer Lucy Reed in 1957, though she didn't record it; Kate McGarry's approach is suitably smoldering. I love that sustained piccolo note behind her, which is in the original score: the sound of a smoke alarm, decades too early.

Gil Evans wrote such transparent, quietly lovely harmonies, he was a natural for showcasing singers — the cooler, the better. In the '60s, he arranged "Look to the Rainbow," from the show Finian's Rainbow, for the cool Brazilian Astrud Gilberto, who recorded a bare-bones version instead. In the remake, Luciana Souza crosses Gilberto with her onetime teacher, Dominique Eade. The singing is lovely, but check out those backgrounds.

In this case, the reboot beats the original — it's more richly textured, instrumentally and vocally. Gil Evans' orchestral music was about more than the notes on the page. He was proactive in the studio, coaxing the musicians along and changing details on the fly. As with other jazz composers whose music survives them, this revival band can sound a little less vivid than the real thing, maybe because these players hadn't lived with the music for long. So you wouldn't want to pick up Centennial before Evans' own Out of the Cool or The Individualism of Gil Evans or Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain or Porgy and Bess. But it's the next best thing to a classic Gil Evans record.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This year marks the centennial of the birth of the prominent jazz arranger and composer Gil Evans. He started writing for big bands in the 1940s. He helped organize Miles Davis' "Birth of the Cool" sessions, and then arranged Miles' celebrated orchestra albums like "Sketches of Spain." Evans also had his own big bands that went electric in the '70s and '80s. Gil Evans died in 1991, but some of his rare music has been newly recorded. Our critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "PUNJA")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Gil Evans' composition "Punja," previously known only by reputation. His early '60s band used to rehearse it, but never made a good recording. This new version's from the album "Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans," led by Evans scholar and fan Ryan Truesdell. These rarities date from the mid-1940s to the mid-'60s.

Even the music Gil Evans wrote for swing bands was sleek and airy. A godfather of cool jazz, he could make dissonance sound pretty, vanilla chords sound exotic, and a big band seem to float. This is a 1950 tune he wrote for Tommy Dorsey, "Dancing on a Great Big Rainbow."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING ON A GREAT BIG RAINBOW")

WHITEHEAD: Ryan Truesdell's 14-piece orchestra with Donny McCaslin on tenor saxophone and Lewis Nash on drums. Truesdell's research turned up unheard Gil Evans scores, revised versions of a couple of pieces he'd already recorded, and one arrangement that looks forward to his collaborations with Miles Davis. A setting of Delibes' pop classic "The Maids of Cadiz" dates from 1950, seven years before the hushed version on "Miles Ahead."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MAIDS OF CADIZ")

WHITEHEAD: Greg Gisbert on trumpet. Other soloists on the session include Steve Wilson on alto sax, Frank Kimbrough on piano and Joe Locke on vibes. The album "Centennial" also features three fine singers. Given the current crop of cooing, low-key jazz vocalists, these Gil Evans revivals are perfectly timed.

He'd arranged the torch song "Smoking My Sad Cigarette" for the emotive singer Lucy Reed in 1957, though she didn't record it. Kate McGarry's approach is suitably smoldering. I love that sustained piccolo note behind her, which is in the original score: the sound of a smoke alarm, decades too early.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMOKING MY SAD CIGARETTE")

KATE MCGARRY: (Singing) Seems like someone knocking. Can you stop your rocking? But it's just the window blind. Lord, the night is haunted, when you are wanted. Your heart goes out of its mind. Looking out the window, smoking my sad cigarette. The blue smoke rings...

WHITEHEAD: Gil Evans wrote such transparent, quietly lovely harmonies. He was a natural for showcasing singers - the cooler, the better. In the '60s, he arranged "Look to the Rainbow," from the show "Finian's Rainbow," for the cool Brazilian Astrud Gilberto, who recorded a bare-bones version instead. On the remake, Luciana Souza crosses Gilberto with her onetime teacher, Dominique Eade. The singing's lovely, but check out those backgrounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK TO THE RAINBOW")

LUCIANA SOUZA: (Singing) So I bundled my heart, and I roamed the world free, to the east with the lark, to the west with the sea. And I searched all the earth, and I scanned all the skies. But I found it at last in my own true love's eyes. Look, look, look to the rainbow. Follow it over the hills and the streams.

WHITEHEAD: In this case, the reboot beats the original. It's more richly textured, instrumentally and vocally. Gil Evans' orchestral music was about more than the notes on the page. He was proactive in the studio, coaxing the musicians along and changing details on the fly.

As with other jazz composers whose music survives them, this revival band can sound a little less vivid than the real thing, maybe because these players hadn't lived with the music long. So you wouldn't want to pick up "Centennial" before Evans' own "Out of the Cool" or "The Individualism of Gil Evans" or Miles Davis' "Sketches of Spain" or "Porgy and Bess." But it's the next best thing to a classic Gil Evans record.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for emusic.com and the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed the newly discovered works of Gil Evans by the Ryan Truesdell orchestra. They'll perform Gil Evans' music at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island this Sunday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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