Daily Archives: August 22, 2012

RYAN TRUESDELL PRESENTS “CENTENNIAL: NEWLY DISCOVERED WORKS BY GIL EVANS”

Most tribute recordings or projects labor under several burdens.  The musicians who made the original recordings are, in most cases, no longer alive and playing . . . .although one could make the case that Louis playing POTATO HEAD BLUES thirty years after its issue, Ellington revisiting IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE, Billie singing WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO in 1952 . . . are all paying tributes to their earlier selves.

But, in general, artists who choose to “play old records live” in the studio or in concert have the towering presence of those accessible sounds to deal with.

Some tribute projects attempt to impose a modernist sensibility on established repertoire and style . . . with results that require equal parts love, understanding, and daring to pull off — STRANGE FRUIT remixed over techno rhythms wins points for novelty, but to me it feels blasphemous.

Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project has none of these self-created burdens to carry up the mountain.  For one thing, Truesdell, a composer and scholar, did not — as others have chosen to do — assemble an orchestra to reproduce recordings everyone knows well.  Rather, he took as his starting point ten compositions — only three of them Evans’ originals — that Evans had arranged but (in most cases) had not recorded.  The details of Truesdell’s discoveries and research are contained in the intriguing and immensely readable booklet for the CENTENNIAL CD. (In my life as a literary researcher, I spent many hours filling in the gaps and appreciating the warmth of otherwise unread first-hand materials — unpublished manuscripts of Frank O’Connor’s short stories and Yeats’ poetry, letters between O’Connor and William Maxwell, between Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner . . . and I immediately saw that Truesdell was honest and searching in his investigations.)

For a number of sessions, he assembled a series of dream orchestras, featuring saxophonists Steve Wilson, Donny McCaslin, Scott Robinson; brass players Greg Gisbert, Laurie Frink, Ryan Keberle, Marshall Gilkes, rhythm section players James Chirillo, Joe Locke, Frank Kimbrough, Jay Anderson, Lewis Nash; singers Kate McGarry, Wendy Gilles, Luciana Souza, and many other brilliant musicians.

Initially I was intrigued by the project because I so admired the Evans arrangements for Claude Thornhill and the work he did for Miles Davis, most memorably MILES AHEAD and PORGY AND BESS.  The Evans sound I cherish suggests floating clouds, many-hued, that are ever-changing,never static, leaving impressionistic traces as they move across our consciousness.  About the Evans who organized lengthy electric-flavored orations devoted to Jimi Hendrix compositions, I know little.

But once the disc arrived, I was initially delighted by the perceptive diligence Truesdell showed in the research that got him and his orchestras to perform these otherwise “unheard” works.  Some might say that his efforts are no different from a conductor faced with a score of a “new” work, but Truesdell has managed to balance the pull of individualism — assembling an orchestra of mature soloists and section players who can create appropriately within an idiom without offering pastiches of others’ solos — and staying faithful to what is written in the score.

I knew I had to write this post when there were certain tracks on the CD –THE MAIDS OF CADIZ, HOW ABOUT YOU, DANCING ON A GREAT BIG RAINBOW, BARBARA SONG, and — most memorably, WHO’LL BUY MY VIOLETS? — that I wanted to play over and over.  I had been hesitant at first — did I know Evans well enough to appreciate this music?  Would I find it too outre for my well-nourished narrowness?  I need not have worried: the music’s beauty broke through any imagined walls.

This CD honors Evans’ essential spiritual brilliance without getting confined within an idea of “repertory” that is ultimately imprisoning.  I found much to love in this music . . . and I will keep and replay this disc into the future.

For more information about the project, the CD, and future appearances by Truesdell and his master musicians, click here.  Many pleasures await!

May your happiness increase.

Advertisements

BOB WILLOUGHBY’S REMARKABLE PORTRAITS

Because they give themselves to what they are creating, jazz musicians make splendid photographic subjects.

Bob Willoughby, who died in 2009, wasn’t the first to capture their intensity, lack of self-consciousness, and energy on camera.  But his beautiful volume of photographs and recollections, JAZZ: BODY AND SOUL, shows on every page that his work is superbly moving.  (Evans Mitchell, 2012, 192 pages, hardbound.)

Since musicians — in the act of creation — aren’t standing still, some photographs begin to look like versions of poses we have already seen a thousand times before: the horn player, face distended, sweating, looking like a runner just before crossing the finish line; the intimate relationship between the singer and the vertical microphone; the drummer, moving so quickly that the sticks blur.  Other photographs entrance us because they are the only visual evidence we have that an otherwise obscure musician was ever seen.

Willoughby’s work goes well beyond these formulas, although some of his images have been reproduced so widely that they are now the way that we mentally identify the subject.  But even his most famous pictures have something to offer us, a half-century after they were created.

The book is divided into two sections: one of Wlloughby’s West Coast photographs from 1950 to — Billie Holiday, Wardell Gray, Miles Davis, George Shearing, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Krupa, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Ventura, Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong, the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Duke Ellington, Ray Nance, Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Hodges, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Peggy Lee.  Particularly absorbing is a series of dramatic photographs catching the emotional interplay between saxophonist Big Jay McNeely and a crowd in hysterical rapture.  Willoughby photographed Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Stan Getz, Buck Clayton, Martha Tilton and friends during the recording sessions for the soundtrack of THE BENNY GOODMAN STORY.  An extended photo-essay on Frank Sinatra tells us more than any biography.

The second section of the book offers photographs Willoughby created in Germany in 1992 and 1994 — fascinating portraits of Lee Konitz, Marcus Roberts, Jon Faddis, Art Farmer, Wynton Marsalis, Pat Metheny, John Lewis, Mulligan much transformed by the years, and many others.

Having purchased many volumes of photographs of jazz musicians, I tend to look at the book with fascination immediately after their purchase . . . but not often after.  Willoughby’s book has proven itself an exception.  In tne month that I have had a copy, I have come back to it over and over, drawn by what his eye captured — tantalizing wordless dramas that open deeper each time I stare into the pages.

And the appeal of the book is wider than the allure of the musicians portrayed there.  Without being precious or coy, Willoughby created small paintings full of feeling, emotion coming through the lovely blacks, greys, and whites.  He was a master of seeing, of shaping line and angle, shape and focus.  I look at these portraits and I can feel Louis’ happiness, imagine the words passing between Bing and Frank on the set of CAN-CAN, hear Billie’s voice.  In addition, Willoughby’s photos are idiosyncratic master classes for photographers: what to emphasize, what to leave out. . . all the more remarkable because he captured his subjects in the moment.

Marc Myers, of JAZZ WAX, knew and spoke with Willoughby, and the essays Marc has created about the man and his work are rewarding (with photographs that will astonish): read more here and here.   The book’s website — with even more beautiful pictures — can be found here.  Willoughby’s photographs reward the eye.

May your happiness increase.