Centenntial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans is a daunting undertaking, years in the making. Producer Ryan Truesdell was given access to a humongous collection of manuscripts left by the late, great Gil Evans. Among the familiar pieces were a number of arrangements that had never been heard publicly, and in some cases had never been completed. With the blessing of Evans’s estate, Truesdell took it upon himself to gather a band and record these previously unknown compositions and arrangements. Here is the fruits of his labors, with significant help from the dozens of musicians he assembled and Artist Share, the collaborative process in which fans themselves fund projects and get to help choose what kind of music gets made. And thank whatever gods you worship that this album was made, because it is beyond phenomenal.
Elmer Gilmore Evans is, of course, one of the most important figures in the history of jazz, although for the casual jazz fans Evans may be known solely as the collaborative partner of Miles Davis on such classic albums as Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain, which are perhaps the very best examples of jazz being mixed with its forgotten roots in classical music. They are exceptional examples of Davis’s playing, but more importantly served as showcases for Evans’s severely underrated skills as an arranger.
There is far, far more to Evans’s legacy, however, than merely facilitating the masterpieces of another artist. Although his output as leader of his own ensemble is rather sparse in comparison with most other big names of golden eras of jazz, the albums he put out with his own collectives made up for the lack of quantity with exceptional quality. Like Davis, he was at the forefront of just about every new trend and movement in jazz from the ‘40s to the ‘70s. His album Gil Evans and Ten stretched the boundaries of cool jazz, he was one of many early proponents of the use of electronic instruments in jazz with his Svengali, and he swung much farther towards rock than most of his fusion contemporaries with the surpassingly good The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix.
This album, like most that are comprised of earlier compositions, tends to shy away from the fusion period and focuses on perhaps jazz’s most fertile period (as well as Evans’s) of the 1950s. So of course the vast majority of the pieces here slip very, very easily into the collection of any jazz fanatic, although Evan’s distinctive arrangements always place his work above is peer and this is no exception. His ability to subvert the pitfalls of big band jazz, which could often fall into vats of extreme cheese, despite using the same set of tools as the cheese purveyors. A number of the tracks do this by inserting tonal colors or instruments that are downright foreign to the kind of jazz that was being produced at the time that these arrangements were written, i.e. the table on “Punjab”, which absolutely makes the track. Evans’s desire to create gorgeous music spurred on a natural talent, making him a restless virtuoso of orchestration. The sonic textures conjured up here by the specific combinations of instruments and melodic passages are revelatory. “Punjab” as an opener is a good indicator of the level of quality that the listener is in store for on this album.
Other highlights of the album are the beautiful “Look to the Rainbow”, with it’s sweet folklike melody and harmonic accompaniment that builds and climbs throughout. The bass solo in the break between verses is sublime, as are the mellow vocals of Luciana Souza and the occasional glissandos of the slide trombone. “Smoking My Sad Cigarette” is almost the opposite on the emotional spectrum. Each note can be seen through a thick haze of smoke as the splendorous bass trombone and piccolo combine in a perfect distillation of the prototypical “dark night of the soul.” There are so many highlights here that you could pore over basically every note played on the album, from the fantastic syncopations of “The Maids of Cadiz” to the frightening, haunting dissonances of “Barbara Song”, that sound exactly like a film noir starring Dracula. The best, though, is the nearly twenty-minute medley of “Waltz/Variation on the Misery/So Long”, that producer Truesdell describes as Evans’s “magnum opus”, an apt description if ever there were one. There is so much ground covered here that it would takes miles of wreaths of words to explain the power of this piece; it is akin to a symphony and is most certainly an uncovered diamond of the jazz world that will hopefully be treasured for a long time to come and given it’s due credit when the last book on the subject is written.
No beating around the bush; get this album. Any fan of jazz will love this. Any fan of Gil Evans will live and breathe for this. If you don’t like this, you don’t like music.
Buy it. Listen to it. Love it.