When Ryan Truesdell was asked to catalog the manuscripts of Gil Evans by the late arranger-composer’s family, the former assistant to composer/bandleader Maria Schneider—herself an assistant to Evans in the 1980s—scarcely realized that he eventually would 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 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. Both were released through ArtistShare.
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 1912 and this year is the 30th anniversary of his death. Moreover, the latter two nights celebrated the 60th anniversary of the recording of Porgy And Bess, a distinctive take on George 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 its arrangers).
The Evans charts remain challenging to perform live—often demanding that woodwind players double or triple on various instruments—and the Gil Evans Project has learned some 200 of these scores during 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.
For Bix Beiderbecke’s “Davenport Blues,” trumpeter Mike Rodriguez took 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 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), Rodriguez (trumpet) and Steve Wilson (soprano and alto saxophones). Rodriguez was under particular pressure, having to be the featured soloist on Davis’ own instrument. But the trumpeter rose to the occasion, with a burnished tone and hairpin agility on the open horn, in particular. The number with the most emotional impact—in terms of both the arrangement and 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, he 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, he voiced “Summertime” with expressive hesitations, a blend of cries and whispers.
Before that finale, Truesdell thanked the crowd and then the band, making the 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; it is that they perform their parts to evoke the full range of human feeling, animating the music from Gershwin through Evans to listeners today, and vividly so.