Gil Evans Centennial Celebration
Monday, May 21
Better than: Never witnessing a world-class band in action.
I’m actually fortunate enough to have caught the Gil Evans Orchestra in the ’80s, before it became a ghost band. Back then, when the slew of clubs lining Seventh Avenue South below West 11th made that stretch prime jazz real estate, Evans was the genius you could still get within handshaking distance of every Monday night at Sweet Basil. By that time the Miles Davis collaborations that had made the arranger’s reputation were decades in the past, and Evans, then in his seventies, seemed content to leave them there—much like Miles had. Anyone who came to Sweet Basil looking to hear silky bits from Birth Of The Cool, Sketches Of Spain or Miles Ahead was often in for a shock; the graceful French horns, tubas and flutes were on hand, but the arrangements were spiked with raucous grooves and guitar (borrowed from Jimi Hendrix and punk) as well as the noise of the avant-garde. Evans, born Ian Ernest Gilmore Green in Toronto, would flash a wide-eyed grin and make subtle gestures as his weekly groupings of the scene’s most vibrant young sessioneers came together—and on many occasions fell apart.
David Letterman’s longtime sidekick/bandleader Paul Shaffer hinted at this ferment last night while hosting the final show of last week’s Gil Evans Centennial. (A different orchestra, led by trombonist-arranger Ryan Truesdell, had spent much of the week revisiting some of Evans’s earlier music at the Jazz Standard.) In his introduction, Shaffer contrasted the polish of the iconic music with the “living organism” the audience was about to experience. Any ominousness in that statement was leavened to some degree by the fact that this was also an all-star reunion; nearly every chair in the 17-piece outfit was filled by someone who’d come of age under Evans’s baton, and Evans’s son Noah was quick to point out that percussionist Airto Moreira had traveled from the West Coast, while guitarist Ryo Kawasaki made it here from his current home in Estonia. The sax section included Billy Harper, Brit transplant Chris Hunter, Howard Johnson and the Saturday Night Live band’s Alex Foster; the trumpets, Jon Faddis and Evans stalwart Lew Soloff. It was a reminder that even though Evans maintained the bearing of a humble wizard with a baton, his bands had a strategy: He chose band members who were equally capable of wizardry. Merely playing the notes in his charts wasn’t enough.
Perhaps fittingly, for the first 55 minutes of the celebration’s two-plus hours, it was the orchestra of a perennial futurist’s dreams. The opener harked back to bebop era but was clearly not of it, and the version of “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” that followed kicked off with a Hunter alto solo that telegraphed the orchestra’s muscularity. (Gil Goldstein’s keyboard textures gave off an immersive, rattling buzz.) Although Shaffer stayed out of the way for much of the evening, he gave Hendrix’s “Little Wing” the appropriate minute detail with a toy glockenspiel while his Letterman show sideman Will Lee sang and trumpeter Lew Soloff got off a torrential solo, alternating long tones and sputters. On any other bandstand that might have been hard to top, but then the next piece, “Teen Town,” did just that; Alex Foster’s extended soprano solo unleashed a funky breakdown that brought the house down.
But then, unfortunately, things fell apart kinda like a point guard losing the dribble on fast break. It was a combination of an arbitrarily conceived video tribute to other jazz greats (I’d have preferred a live version of Evans’s classic “La Nevada” rather than a backing track); the need to get the numerous special guests queued up in the wings onstage for cameos; and other vocal showcases which left that brilliant one-night-only horn section sitting idle for perilously long stretches. By then, neither the evening’s only Miles Davis nod (“Summertime”) nor homages to Jimi (“Stone Free”, “Voodoo Chile”) could get things back on track.
Critical bias: I miss being able to hear a variety of orchestras weekly.
Overheard: “I wonder if any of these kids know who Jaco Pastorius was.”
Bud & Bird
Goodbye Porkpie Hat
There Comes A Time