Written by Kevin Whitehead from National Public Radio
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.