This previously unreleased concert will either delight or disappoint Gil Evans admirers. Those of us raised on his arrangements or rearrangements on such seminal albums as Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain and Porgy And Bess, as well as his benchmark recordings like Gil Evans & Ten, Out Of The Cool, The Individualism Of Gil Evans and There Comes A Time, may find it difficult to accept his later apparent conversion to rock – with a heavy use of synthesizers. These included [Gil Evans] Plays The Music Of Jimi Hendrix, Blues In Orbit, Gil Evans And The Monday Night Orchestra: Live At Sweet Basil, and Gil Evans Monday Night Orchestra: Bud & Bird, recorded in the 1970s and mid-1980s.
Still active and touring at the age of 74 – and 18 months before his death in Mexico in 1986 – Gil directed a 16-piece orchestra in a sell-out concert in Hamburg. They performed four Hendrix compositions: Stone Free, Up From The Skies, Little Wing and Voodoo Chile, as well as pieces by Delmar Brown (Sometimes) Pete Levin (Subway), and Tony Williams/Joe Zawinul (There Comes A Time & Birdland). Some of the assembled musicians were veterans of Gil’s latter-day ensembles – trumpeter Lew Soloff and synthesizer virtuoso Pete Levin. Newcomers to the ranks included trumpeter Miles Evans (Gil’s youngest son), percussionist Marilyn Mazur and vocalist/keyboard player Delmar Brown. By the early 1980s, the orchestra, with changing personnel, had regularly featured a mix of Hendrix songs, reconstructions of Gil’s earlier recordings, and original compositions by band members.
CD1 opens with a long, cacophonous (to these ears), formless and seemingly endless synthesizer-laden version of Stone Free – only making a nodding acquaintance with the well-known melody at the end. From The Skies, a slightly shorter ensemble piece, is more immediately accessible/less chaotic and also (suspend possible disbelief) actually “swings”. The audience loved it. Little Wing is an 18-minute elegiac excursion with solos by Soloff, an ear-piercing (and not entirely intelligible) vocal from Delmar Brown and A. N. Other, plus (I jest not) a penny whistle. Subway is a heavily textured and lumbering composition, with semi-comic trombone ripostes and train-conductor vocal interjections.
CD2 offers very much the mixture as before. Tony Williams’ There Comes A Time (the title track of Gil’s 1975 studio album) is linked to Weather Report’s Birdland (running to 23.29). Formless and with self-indulgent solos, it is mainly a ponderous and less-than-joyous excursion, with solos on instruments which, apart from a trumpet, I’m unable to identify. Happily, things pick up with an unexpected segue into Weather Report’s well-known Birdland. Sometimes and Voodoo Chile are more tranquil performances, but an uptempo Orgone, which initially features the leader’s piano accompanied by a fruity trombone, catches fire when the orchestra launches into a reconstructed version of Gone, Gone, Gone which was one of the (many) highlights on the Miles Davis/Gil Evans album collaboration Porgy And Bess in 1958, complete with an explosive drum solo and precision section work. It’s the most purely enjoyable piece of the concert. The entire orchestra is introduced to an ecstatic audience by Miles Evans – who does not forget to mention its leader and guiding light (and father).
In his biography Castles Made Of Sound: The Story Of Gil Evans (2002), Larry Hicock suggests that after the 1970s Gil (like Miles) “wanted to incorporate into his music something of the radical new Jimi Hendrix sound [and] saw the prospect of reaching an audience that was no more interested in hearing old jazz tunes than he was”. In a concise booklet essay accompanying this CD, Michael Laages asserts that Gil was “always ahead of his contemporaries” and that in Hamburg he sketched “a universe with different voices interacting on an equal footing, sometimes working against each other, at other times joining forces with all contradictions still present”. Pay your money, which I (thankfully) don’t have to, and decide.
CD1: Stone Free; Up From The Skies; Little Wing; Subway (72.44)
CD2: There Comes A Time & Birdland; Sometimes; Voodoo Chile; Orgone (50.16)
Lew Soloff, Shunzo Ono, Miles Evans (t); John Clark (frh); Dave Taylor( tb); David Bargeron (tb, tu); Chris Hunter (ts); Bill Evans (ts); Howard Johnson (bar); Gil Evans (p, cond); Hiram Bullock (g); Pete Levin (syn); Mark Egan (b); Victor Lewis (d); Marilyn Mazur (pc); Delmar Brown (v, syn). Hamburg, 26 October 1986.