Review: Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project Recasts Classics at New York’s Jazz Standard

Ryan Truesdell conducting the Gil Evans Project big band at the Jazz Standard in New York City.

By Bradley Bambarger <2018>

When Ryan Truesdell was asked to catalog the manuscripts of Gil Evans by the late arranger-composer’s family, this former assistant to composer/bandleader Maria Schneider — herself an assistant to Evans in the 1980s — scarcely realized that he would eventually be conducting his own virtuoso big band devoted to playing the music. This group, dubbed the Gil Evans Project, has played its home club of New York City’s Jazz Standard now for seven straight years, along with recording two albums, both produced by Truesdell. The first release, Centennial, included many previously unrecorded pieces and garnered Evans a posthumous Grammy Award; the follow-up, Lines of Color, recorded live at the Jazz Standard in 2014, earned the band its own Grammy nomination.

Truesdell and company’s latest four-night run at the Jazz Standard, May 17–20, marked a confluence of anniversaries: Evans was born in May (in 1912, in Toronto), and this is the 30th year since his death. Moreover, the latter two nights celebrated the 60th anniversary of the recording of Porgy and Bess, a distinctive take on Gershwin that made for one of the arranger’s landmark LP collaborations with Miles Davis. The Gil Evans Project drew a capacity crowd for two sets each night, with the audience vocally enthusiastic for the performances and charmed by Truesdell’s effusive commentary between numbers. Along with offering tidbits of insider info on the music and justly extolling the band’s players, the conductor was able to point out the jazz luminaries in the crowd from night to night: Schneider, Slide Hampton, Sy Johnson, members of the Gershwin family and 90-year-old altoist Lee Konitz (who played on the Davis-led Birth of the Cool sessions of 1949–50 that included Evans among the arrangers).

Evans was a sonic alchemist, his sound born of the blues, bebop, flamenco and the harmonies of Debussy and Ravel. Although he grew up listening to the dynamic Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson bands, Evans also put in hours at the library copying out scores by the French Impressionists in an effort to augment his harmonic language with what he called “an edge, a spice.” That palette would feature singular chord voicings, unusual juxtapositions of instruments, intricate inner parts and rhythms that avoided standard swing; his seamless, painterly forms often blurred the line where composition left off and improvisation began. Schneider once told me how Evans would say “no, no, no” when she handed him a textbook-perfect arrangement. “He didn’t like that at all,” she recalled. “He’d say, ‘Make some of these high instruments play in their lower ranges and the low instruments play high.’ He wanted the intensity that the players’ struggle would add.”

The Evans charts remain challenging to perform live — often demanding that the woodwind players double or triple on various instruments (bassoon, oboe, multiple flutes) — and the Gil Evans Project has learned some 200 of these scores over the past seven years. But that difficulty scarcely showed in the band’s remarkably confident, cohesive playing. The first two nights at the Jazz Standard saw Truesdell and a 17-piece lineup present highlights from Evans’ early work and vintage-era LPs. This included “How About You,” which was the tune from Evans’ late-’40s book for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra that won the arranger his posthumous Grammy in 2013 via Centennial; after a pensive introduction by the French-horn section — not many big bands have those — the number swung tartly.

Several highlights from that first night originated on two albums Evans made for the World Pacific label in the late ’50s: New Bottle, Old Wine and Great Jazz Standards. For Bix Beiderbecke’s “Davenport Blues,” trumpeter Mike Rodriguez took, with aplomb, the solo spot that Evans wrote for Johnny Coles, and pianist Frank Kimbrough added a soul-rich solo of his own. For Lil Armstrong’s 1920s tune “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” which Evans modernized as a snappy Cannonball Adderley feature, ace altoist Dave Pietro was in the spotlight, pushing his tone for maximum expressivity. In “Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” trombonist Ryan Keberle played a vulnerable, darkly shaded solo that had him sounding like a broken-hearted torch singer. “Lester Leaps In” saw the horn choir voicing the famous opening riff beautifully, with a burning Steve Wilson alto solo to follow.

“Time of the Barracudas,” from The Individualism of Gil Evans (perhaps the arranger’s greatest solo LP, from 1964), wasn’t as hard-swinging as it might have been at the start, but drummer Matt Wilson — whom Truesdell called “the captain of the band” — subtly but insistently stoked the momentum forward. Trombonist Marshall Gilkes played a long solo, wonderfully done with expressive slides, before Scott Robinson took over on tenor sax, his squalls evoking original tenor soloist Wayne Shorter. Wilson followed with a richly musical solo, in which he utilized every drum and cymbal to melodic ends. From the 1960 Evans LP Out of the Cool came George Russell’s “Stratusphunk,” and Truesdell supplanted the Miles Ahead version of “The Meaning of the Blues” with a later, looser arrangement from the 1970s that included an extended tenor solo by Robinson, one that dramatically made use of the full range of his horn.

The arrangement of John Lewis’s jazz fugue “Concorde” stressed the contrapuntal facility of the band from Marcus Rojas’s tuba on up, with Kimbrough’s piano part including fast-repeating notes at the top of the keyboard that evoked Connie Kay’s ride cymbal from the Modern Jazz Quartet original. Truesdell — who knows even the most obscure reaches of the Evans catalog — paid tribute to vocalist Bob Dorough, who passed away in April at age 94, by digging out his tune “Nothing Like You,” which Evans arranged for a Davis-led sextet featuring the singer (the one-off recording tacked on, oddly, at the end of the trumpeter’s quintet LP Sorcerer). Vocalist Wendy Gilles joined the band for a stretch, including a floating “I Will Wait for You,” which Evans arranged for Astrud Gilberto in the mid-’60s. The first nights were capped by Evans’ ingenious treatment of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite” from the arranger’s Thornhill days, a marvel of bebop-to-big-band transmutation that showed off this band’s collective virtuosity.

In his autobiography, Miles Davis wrote, “Of all the people I knew, Gil Evans was one of the only ones who could pick up on what I was thinking musically.” Evans maintained that what he and Davis shared most was “an interest in timbre, the pure sound of the music.” This came through strikingly via the Gil Evans Project performances of Porgy and Bess, which brimmed with aural warmth — conveying the depth of Gershwin’s folk-opera masterpiece as well as any instrumental performance one could imagine. Of course, there have been myriad jazz treatments of Porgy and Bess, from Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong to Oscar Peterson, the Modern Jazz Quartet and more. But perhaps the version that echoes most in the ears of jazz fans today is the 1958 Davis-Evans recording, which voices the blue-hued grandeur of the original in a coloristic, modernist way.

Truesdell presented the Evans suites from Porgy and Bess inventively, with different players inhabiting the Davis solo role for each of four sets: Sara Caswell (violin), Scott Robinson (tenor saxophone, trumpet and tárogató, an Eastern European woodwind instrument), Mike Rodriguez (trumpet) and Steve Wilson (soprano and alto saxes). Rodriguez was under particular pressure, having to be the featured soloist on Davis’s own instrument. But the trumpeter rose to the occasion, with a burnished tone and hairpin agility on the open horn, in particular. In “Summertime,” his clarion cries, smeared notes and bluesy shouts were exciting and affecting. “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” showcased Rodriguez’s way with a ballad, as the brassy blend of the band swelled behind him. The number with the most emotional impact — in terms of both the arrangement and the performance — was “Prayer (Oh, Doctor Jesus),” with the trumpeter’s gospel-fused solo playing off the amen chorus of the low brass.

Evans didn’t include a piano for the original recording of Porgy and Bess, but Truesdell tweaked the arrangement slightly, including Kimbrough in the 20-piece lineup for the suites. In an inspired move, Truesdell put the spotlight on the pianist for a solo take on “Here Comes the Honeyman,” the sublime feeling in Kimbrough’s treatment of Gershwin’s melody surpassing that of the original band version. This led seamlessly into “I Loves You, Porgy,” which Truesdell turned into a feature for the core quartet — Rodriguez, Kimbrough, Matt Wilson and bassist David Wong — that the crowd loved.

The final set of the Gil Evans Project’s stand saw altoist Wilson take on the Davis role. Although it took a few minutes for the ear to adjust to such a different sound in the high-lying solo part, the saxophonist played sustained tones in his horn’s upper register with ideal intonation. Switching to soprano sax, he voiced “Summertime” with expressive hesitations, a blend of cries and whispers; though, again, “Prayer (Oh, Doctor Jesus)” was a highpoint, with Wilson in snake-charming mode, keening and bending notes as the band outdid itself in tolling call and response. While Wilson soloed with indigo liquidity in “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” three French horns kept up a grooving rhythm. In another characteristic Evans touch, there were three bass clarinets in unison for the rollicking closer, “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York.”

Before that finale, Truesdell thanked the crowd and then the band, making the apt point that the magical thing about these performances wasn’t just the Gil Evans Project musicians meeting the challenge of playing all the notes in tune and in rhythm, often on multiple instruments; it is that they perform their parts to evoke the full range of human feeling, bringing the music alive from Gershwin through Evans to us today, and vividly so.

(Originally published in June 2018 on DownBeat.com.)

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