The elegant, dark, stark, ambiguous terrain that Gil Evans created and explored is unique.
Impulse IMP 11862
Gil Evans (piano, arranger, conductor); Johnny Coles, Phil Sunkel (trumpets); Keg Johnson, Jimmy Knepper (trombones); Tony Studd (bass trombone); Bill Barber (tuba); Ray Beckenstein, Eddie Caine, Budd Johnson (saxophones); Bob Tricarico (bassoon, flute, piccolo); Ray Crawford (guitar); Ron Carter (bass); Elvin Jones, Charlie Persip (drums, percussion)
This album was inevitable. The success that Gil Evans achieved with Miles Davis encouraged him to form his own band, which he did in October 1960. The spectacular music that Evans created on the albums Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain, and Quiet Nights was immediately recognised as being not only innovative but beautiful. Evans secured a six-week engagement at the Jazz Gallery in New York. It was unusual for Gil; his first extended engagement since 1937. He had put together bands for occasional engagements but nothing like this. It was a chance for musicians to become really at ease with the music. Night after night they explored new compositions. Soon, after the finish of the six weeks engagement, Gil took the musicians from the Jazz Gallery into Rudy Van Gelder’s recording studio to record an Impulse album for producer Creed Taylor.
There are stories about the sessions. Guitarist Ray Crawford remembered that Van Gelder had long running tapes which he left recording and went away as Gil experimented and played with and noodled ‘La Nevada’ endlessly.
About the piece ‘La Nevada’ Gil remembered: ‘Six steady weeks, six days a week. We knew that music. The way we played ‘La Nevada’ was different than we had ever played it before, but we always played it differently. The only change from that record was Elvin. Charlie Persip was the drummer and Elvin came in and just played shakers for the whole fifteen minutes. It’s all he did and he just kept it together, letting Charlie spill over all he wanted. The form—we didn’t plan it. I think I just gave the order of the solos.’
The first track “La Nevada,” unfolds with a mysterious quality, featuring layered textures and rich harmonies. There is a piano introduction and eventually the piano is joined by other
soloists in five extended solos: Johnny Coles on trumpet, Tony Studd on bass trombone, Budd Johnson on tenor, Ron Carter on bass and Ray Crawford on guitar. The interplay between brass and woodwinds, combined with Evans’ distinctive use of instrumentation, creates a rich sonic tapestry that holds the attention from the outset. The balance between the written and the improvised is subtle. The whole piece was improvised and almost certainly was a precursor of the way that Gil would work later in the sixties, seventies and eighties. It is interesting to compare this version with ‘La Nevada’ recorded about a year earlier on the Evans album of standards. The earlier arrangement has a driven-hard quality whereas the music here has a floating almost ethereal quality.
Jimmy Knepper plays on ‘Where Flamingos Fly’. His warm tone and lyrical phrasing shine through, adding a soulful quality to the composition. The beautiful piece is enhanced by an arrangement that features a four-note figure which is used throughout over a tuba and bass pattern. The use of space adds to the feeling of melancholy inherent in the melody.
George Russell’s writing was as adventurous as Evans, so the inclusion of Stratusphunk was probably a form of homage. The unusual sound at the beginning is saxophones playing slap tongued over Tony Studd’s trombone who eventually hands over to Ray Crawford and Johnny Coles before the catchy theme is revisited.
‘Bilbao Song ‘starts with trumpet and soprano before the bass picks up and carries the melody. There is a hushed feeling as though we are eavesdropping on an orchestra. A novel percussion instrument of tuned drums is softly used in the background.
Sunken Treasure’ has Coles bluesily soaring over the trombones and imaginative percussion. It is a piece that further exemplifies Evans’ gift for creating intricate and evocative musical landscapes. The arrangement builds gradually, drawing the listener into its enigmatic world. The use of unconventional harmonies and counterpoint contributes to the sense of exploration that permeates the entire album.
Horace Silver’s ‘Sister Sadie’ was not included on the original vinyl issue of the album. It was probably thought that it was different in character from the rest of the album. In a way it is. It belongs more to the album where Evans re-orchestrated standards
Johnny Coles, who worked with Gil Evans from 1958 to 1964, plays a prominent role on this album and delineates Gil’s ambiguous nuances: spare and lyrical. The solos taken by Coles on the album are a tribute to the musician. His cool, poetic, intensity graces ‘Sunken Treasure’, ‘La Nevada’, ‘Stratusphunk’ and ‘Sister Sadie’. Coles is probably the star of the album but that did not secure him a rich career. He played with Mingus for a while. Towards the end of his life, he played in the Ellington trumpet section but Ellington did not use him well. Coles has a sound all his own. He contributes to the otherworldly vibe pervades the album.
Ray Crawford’s guitar playing adds a unique flavour to the ensemble. His solos, while often understated, contribute to the overall texture of the music. He can be heard on tracks like ‘Stratusphunk,’ and ‘Sister Sadie ‘where his subtle yet effective playing enhances the rhythmic and harmonic elements.
Tenor player Budd Johnson moved effortlessly across time. On one date he was with Basie, the next with Gil Evans. His playing suited each. The bass of Ron Carter is a vital element in the music’s rhythmic foundation. His solos are elegant and provide a solid anchor. Often, he can be felt rather than heard.
It is probably a tribute to this album’s continuing life that there are so many versions, so many editions. The masterpiece is loved by audio aficionados, enraptured by the sound stage, the detail, the warmth and depth of the bass, the space and periodically there are attempts to ‘improve’ the sound. Each attempt is written about in almost religious terms.
The album is Gil Evans writ large—not creating for Miles Davis, not orchestrating jazz standards, but doing his own thing with his own band. The elegant dark, stark ambiguous terrain that Gil Evans created and explored is unique.