Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Listening to Prestige 253: Gil Evans

Gil Evans is best known for his early work with Claude Thornhill, where he began to sow the seeds for modern jazz big band arranging; for his seminal work with Miles Davis on the Birth of the Cool sessions, thought by many to be the most important jazz album of the 50s (although recorded in the 40s); and the great orchestral albums he made with Miles for Columbia: Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain. He had already recorded Miles Ahead at the time he went into Rudy Van Gelder's studio on three dates in September and October to record his first album as leader. He used 21 pieces on Miles Ahead.

According to the excellent Evans biography Castles Made of Sound, by Larry Hicock, Evans's work with Miles was far more extensive than the album credits would suggest. He had input into virtually every recording Miles made, and during his angriest, most anti-white periods, Miles still spoke to Gil nearly every day.

This is Evans's first album under his own name as leader, and if it doesn't register with the same historical force as the Miles Davis sides, it surely registers musically. Evans works with eleven instruments, including some of the Miles Ahead crew (John Carisi, Louis Mucci, Willie Ruff, Jimmy Cleveland, Lee Konitz and Paul Chambers), and including himself on piano (Wynton Kelly had done the Miles sessions). I hadn't realized what a good piano player he was.

But his greatest strength was as an arranger, and a group this size gives him all the room he needs to work with textures, dynamics, the shifting and balancing of parts.

The first day's work was two songs, Irving Berlin's "Remember," and "Ella Speed," a blues ballad best known in its 1944 recording by Lead Belly, and a continuing favorite of folk singers.

"Ella Speed" was rejected. Not "unissued," meaning put on the shelf, but sooner or later it might turn up on a later album or compilation. Rejected. One imagines Bob Weinstock's response: "Hey, Gil, what is this shit? We're a progressive jazz label. If you want to do folk songs, go over and see Moe Asch at Folkways."

But if such was the case, Evans was not dissuaded. He came back a week later for his second session, and this time led off with "Ella Speed." And this time, it was accepted, and it became a part of the Gil Evans canon.

And rightly so. There's something about a simple folk melody that lends itself to being a showcase for brilliant arrangements. Around the same time that Evans was recording "Ella Speed," British jazzman Johnny Dankworth made a record called "Experiments With Mice," in which he played "Three Blind Mice" in the styles of the great bandleaders and arrangers of the day: Billy May, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Gerry Mulligan, Sauter-Finnegan, Stan Kenton. And Victor Borge, on Broadway, was doing baroque and romantic variations on "Happy Birthday to You." And so "Ella Speed" really shows off Evans at his best.

Miles Davis and Gil Evans
Leonard Bernstein's "Big Stuff" isn't quite a jazz standard, but it could be. It was written for Bernstein's first theatrical venture, the score for Jerome Robbins' ballet Fancy Free. "Big Stuff" is the ballet's prologue, and was written with Billie Holliday in mind, but at the time Bernstein thought Lady Day was out of his league, and didn't show it to her. As it turned out, Bernstein was right. Holiday loved the song, and later recorded it. The Evans version is the only other jazz recording of it that I've found.

Some of Evans' musicians: Willie Ruff was already starting to make a name for himself as half of the Mitchell-Ruff Duo, a name he was to continue to inhabit for the next 50 years. He and Dwike Mitchell became international ambassadors for jazz, the first jazz group to play in China and the Soviet Union.

Steve Lacy was at the beginning of a career that would make him one of the most versatile and widely recorded jazz stars of all time, and he was already showing his versatility, having recorded with Dixieland groups and with avant-gardist Cecil Taylor. He may have been the first significant musician to bring the soprano sax into modern jazz, well before John  Coltrane.

Of the lesser known players, Lou Mucci was revered as a teacher. I particularly loved this story from one of his students:
I went to see Louis Prima at the Paramount Theater. The trumpet players had very shiny trumpets and I wanted one. I asked Mr. Mucci if he would give me a note for my parents so that they would buy me a shiny trumpet. He tried my horn and said that I did not need a new horn and that he was doing the Patti Page TV show and he would use my horn.
That is a good man.

Gil Evans and Ten was released on Prestige, and later rereleased on New Jazz as Big Stuff.


 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

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