Saturday, April 1, 2017

Gil Evans on Ampex

Gil Evans is another of my musical heroes. He's a jazz arranger, but that doesn't really begin to describe what he did. He wasn't much of a composer - most of his originals are very slight melodically. But whether he was working with his own material or other folks' compositions, he didn't "arrange" as much as recompose. The barest of musical sketches, the tritest of pop songs blossomed in his hands. His early work is complex and carefully worked out, but during the 1960s his work looser and more improvisatory, until by the 1980s he had what was in effect an improvising big band. Evans would give the band a melody line and a groove, and the band would create the arrangement spontaneously.

By the time Gil made this record for Ampex in 1969, that loosening-up process was well underway. Most of the pieces here are Evans originals, but for many of them, it's hard to imagine that much was written down. I'm going to quote my favorite jazz critic, Max Harrison:

No longer is Evans concerned with mathematical symmetry or balanced repitition, but rather, it seems, with a reflection of the mysterious complexity of the forms of nature, in particular nature's love of analogy instead of repetition. The lyrical tenor saxophone "solos" by Wayne Shorter in "Barbara Story" on The Individualism of Gil Evans or by Billy Harper in the Ampex "General Assembly" are only single threads in textures which now defy both description and analysis; the music is a seamless web in which lines cross and re-cross, glowing, opalescent colors come and go in inexhaustible combinations. Hear, for example, the magically woven fabric of "Hotel Me" on the Individualism set, the exquisite beauty of even the tiniest details of the Ampex "Proclamation."
 In fact this music increasingly happens on several levels at once, recalling the multiplicity of events in Charles Ives' works. Things happen close up, in sharp focus, others take place in the middle distance, some murmer far away on the horizon, and the exactness of Evans' aural imagination is such that we can hear it all, every note, every vibration, carrying significance.
 The impressive band, which includes such jazz luminaries as Jimmy Knepper, Billy Harper, and Elvin Jones, handle Evans' loose, but demanding approach magnificently, as can be heard in "General Assembly" and "Proclamation" below. These were apparently uploaded from a later reissue on the Enja label. Again, the compressed YouTube sound makes me cringe, but at least you can get an idea of what Max Harrison was talking about.

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