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I spent many hours filling in the gaps and appreciating the warmth of otherwise unread first-hand materials — unpublished manuscripts of Frank O’Connor’s short stories and Yeats’ poetry, letters between O’Connor and William Maxwell, between Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner .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.