JJ 03/74: Gil Evans – Svengali

Fifty years ago Steve Voce reckoned Gil Evans, now replete with synth, was still out front, and still mov­ing on. First published in Jazz Journal March 1974

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Atlantic seem to be rather more aware of Evans’ importance than the other companies he has worked for, and the comparative speed with which this has appeared here means that we are able to keep up to date with one of the major forces in modern jazz.

Each new Evans album has to bring us something radically new. The 1969 Ampex introduced us to Gil and the electric armoury, and here things are carried to fruition in that department, and the new element of the synthesiser is introduced.

The music has three levels: the com­position and writing of Evans, with ad­ditional composition from Harper, Russell and Gershwin; the sound tex­tures of the orchestra; and the individual solo interpretations. The synthesiser is used brilliantly, making the adrenalin run with its lines on top of the orchestra, complementing the reeds and wood­wind – it’s easy to see how it could re­place some of them.

Thoroughbred, Billy Harper’s fine piece that first appeared on the Ampex album and later on last year’s Japanese Philips set, appears in a more matured version. After the opening fanfare, with violent tuba from the phenomenal Howard Johnson, Gil comes in playing far more eloquent piano than has been his wont. He also plays functional band piano here and elsewhere with a flexi­bility which seems a fairly recent ac­quisition. Ted Dunbar solos with beauti­fully tailored and languid comments from the band before Johnson’s revolu­tionary tuba solo, contrasted against synthesiser and woodwind and the clank of Gil’s piano. The track has an interesting display of jazz-rock drumming from Bruce Ditmas.

George Rus­sell’s Blues In Orbit is on the new Verve (not yet to hand) and also on the 1969 Ampex. It’s a strongly con­structed piece, and Evans’ reworkings are a match for the composer’s splendid original version. There’s a touch of vaudeville about the unusually sardonic intro, with Gil rolling down on a piano bass line. The theme is remorselessly pinned down by Bushier, Ditmas and the same slap-tongued saxes that Gil used on his version of another Russell piece, Stratosphunk, from ‘Out Of The Cool’. There’s a buoyant passage for wood­wind before Dave Sanborn races into a full-blown solo more notable for pace than profundity. Then some nicely orchestrated contrasts between the top (with piccolo) end of the band and the bottom before Harper steams into his tenor solo. Half way through it he cuts the tempo and trades phrases against the band. The baritones and synthesiser converse in the next ensemble and then Bushier plays a rather unusual duet with himself. As always with Evans there are so many things happening in the en­semble that one misses many of them first time round.

Eleven (first on the Japanese album) is a short work out for Richard Williams’ trumpet, his usual side-of-a-house sound blasting out over flailing drums. Cry Of Hunger has a semi-scored, partly free explosive intro­duction, leading to Harper’s mournful theme, with the composer constructing a remarkably percussive tenor solo in front of stimulating synthesiser backing. It’s here that the potential of this con­troversial but I am sure indispensible instrument is revealed.

Summertime completely re-works Gil’s arrangement for Miles, and speeds it up as a setting for Dunbar’s guitar. Zee Zee, a piece Gil has been using for some years now (I have a tape of a 1971 version in Berlin) is a moving piece for Marvin Peterson, like a windswept version of Sunken Treasure, which Gil used to feature Johnny Coles. The arrangement is indescribably moving, and Peterson makes the most of it with a mournful solo.

Evans is still out front, and still mov­ing on. And still one of the most im­portant jazz musicians so far.


Discography
Thoroughbred; Blues In Orbit; Eleven (18½ min) – Cry Of Hunger; Summertime; Zee Zee (22 min)
Gil Evans (arr/cond/pno/elec-pno); Tex Allen, Richard Williams (tpt/tbn/tuba); Sharon Freeman. Peter Levin (Fr-hn); Howard Johnson (flg-hn/tuba/ bari); Dave Sanborn (alt); Billy Harper (ten/fit); Trevor Koehler (bari/sop/flt); Ted Dunbar (gtr); Herb Bushier (bs-gtr); Bruce Ditmas (dm): Susan Evans (perc); David Horowitz (synthesizer). Trinity Church, NYC, Summer 1973. On “Zee Zee’ Marvin Peterson replaces Tex Allen. ‘Newport In New York’ Festival, summer, 1973.
(Atlantic SD 1643 £2.98)