Gil Evans’ Porgy And Bess for rare London performance

Concert promoter John Billett has surmounted the technical challenges of Gil Evans' landmark suite to prepare a faithful recreation featuring a 22-piece orchestra of Royal Academy alumni

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Downbeat magazine declared Miles Davis’s and Gil Evans’ collaboration on Porgy And Bess as one of the greatest jazz albums of the 20th century, a must-have in any jazz collection, yet it’s notable that the work is rarely performed in concert. Jazz concert promoter John Billett of JBGB Events found no evidence of any public performance in the UK in the last four decades, and determined to remedy that situation. The result is that it will be performed in London as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival in November this year.

John identified various challenges that may have militated against performance of the piece: Firstly, the music is complicated and difficult to play and expensive to mount, requiring a 22-piece orchestra featuring four French horns, four flutes, bass clarinets and tuba in addition to more conventional voicing.

Secondly, the original recordings took place over several days. The trumpet soloist, Miles Davis, was able to spread the efforts of the taxing parts. No single musician could execute the 60-minute suite in one, continuous live performance.

Thirdly, the mathematical imperative of such a performance, requiring top-class musicians, many rehearsals, a large venue filled to capacity and with first-class sound, acts as a brake on imaginative musical promoters for whom commercial returns from such a venture would at best be uncertain.

Lastly, while some have attempted to transcribe the instrumental parts from the recordings, these are unreliable versions of Gil Evans’ writings. The original parts, which are the exclusive preserve of the Gil Evans family trust, who hold their father’s legacy close, have been unavailable for performance.

However, through collaboration with Gil Evans’ son Miles Evans, JBGB Events have been granted exclusive access to the authentic instrumental parts and arrangements of Gil’s Porgy And Bess, meaning that a reliable recreation of the original recording can be staged. Miles Evans has commented: “John Billett – and his JBGB Events – is a very passionate and superb music promoter. It’s going to be a very special presentation of some of my father’s most cherished arrangements and compositions. This is a performance not to be missed”.

To perform the suite, JBGB Events has commissioned a special 22-piece Royal Academy of Music All Stars Jazz Orchestra – with some of the UK’s finest musicians selected from RAM alumni spanning the last 50 years. The orchestral conductor is Nick Smart, the Royal Academy’s Head Of Jazz. The orchestra leader and manager is the outstanding young trombone player Tom Green. To manage the Miles Davis trumpet parts the concert will feature a sterling selection of soloists – Henry Lowther (a former member of the Gil Evans orchestra), the virtuosic Steve Fishwick, rising star and British Jazz Awards winner Freddie Gavita and the much in-demand Martin Shaw.

The full band line up is: Henry Lowther, Freddie Gavita, Steve Fishwick, Martin Shaw (t); Matthew Herd (as); Harry Winstanley, Helena Gourd (f); James Allsopp, Sam Rapley, Rob Cope (cl); Alexei Watkins, Francisco Ruiz, Robyn Blair (h); George Hogg (lead t); Tom Green, Mike Feltham, Harry Brown (tb); Dan West (btb); Sasha Koushk-Jalali (tu); Jeremy Brown (d); Matt Skelton (d).

In a complementary prelude and scene-setter, the first half of the evening will feature Chris Ingham and his Rebop sextet, playing their arrangements from the Gil Evans Miles Ahead album including The Duke, New Rhumba and Blues For Pablo, among others.

Porgy And Bess will be performed at St John’s Smith Square, Westminster, London SW1P 3HA from 7.30pm on Sunday 24 November 2019 as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. To book tickets go to jbgbevents.com/the-music-of-gil-evans