Gene Perla: Orchestral Tones for Elvin Jones

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Gene Perla

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Of all the recording projects Gene Perla has overseen during his distinguished 40-year career as a musician, producer and record label owner, none has taken a more curious and surprising route to completion than his newly released CD, Bill’s Waltz (PM).

It all began as a simple but intriguing notion: In 1986, Perla decided to orchestrate the propulsive force unleashed by drummer Elvin Jones, relying on MIDI technology and the assistance of percussionist Don Alias. But the project has evolved into a full-blown orchestral session that features Hamburg’s NDR Big Band. Its 10 performances are vigorously underpinned by recordings that Jones made over 20 years ago, and colored by a series of multifaceted arrangements recently devised by Perla and, in one instance, by his friend (and Lehigh University teaching colleague) Bill Warfield.

How did the music get from there to here? Even now Perla marvels at the project’s odd trajectory, how it morphed, after two decades on the shelf, into something entirely unexpected. But one thing is certain: The original MIDI concept stemmed from Perla’s close association with, and great admiration for, Jones.

Speaking from his home in Easton, Pa., Perla recalls first getting a chance to play with the legendary drummer at the old Five Spot in Manhattan circa 1965. At the time, Perla, in his mid-20s, was a less-than-proficient pianist. “I got up the nerve to ask to sit in,” says the New Jersey native. A few minutes later, Jones was asking Perla to call the tune. “I said, ‘Nothing too fast.’ And he said, ‘Me neither!’ Of course, I club-fingered my way through it.”

Perla later switched to electric bass and snared a breakthrough gig with Jones in Boston in 1968. Not long afterward, Perla heard that Jones was referring to him as the “white guy” who made the electric bass sound like an upright, “which is what I’ve always attempted to do. That’s when I think I got into his frontal lobes.”

In 1971, Perla got the call to join Jones’ band, and played with the group for two and a half years nonstop. Throughout the tenure Perla was fascinated by Jones’ innovative attack and remarkable power, dexterity and imagination—the sheer force of his genius: “Those wild things he played, like no other drummer had [before], or has since,” says the bassist.

Perla often heard Jones speak of his desire to perform more often in a big-band setting, along the lines of his occasional work with Gil Evans and Duke Ellington. Perla, however, came up with the idea of using Jones’ performances as the basis for MIDI-fashioned orchestrations. In 1986, he went into a Manhattan studio and recorded a series of mostly original pieces with Jones, accompanying him on Fender Rhodes electric piano. The drum tracks were isolated and, to Perla’s ears, nothing short of astounding.

Unfortunately, for numerous reasons, nothing came of the session—that is, until Perla finally concluded that he’d “better get going on this or otherwise the project might outlast me.”

Jump forward to 2006: At a gig in Switzerland, Perla got a chance to show drummer Danny Gottlieb (“a huge Elvin fan”) the progress he was making on the MIDI project. Impressed with what he heard, Gottlieb suggested that Perla might want to collaborate with the NDR Big Band. “My initial response was, I don’t know; do I want to do this?” Perla recalls. “Much of the MIDI stuff was more intricate, more aligned to what Elvin was playing. A lot of the stuff I wrote for the big band flows over the top of Elvin’s playing. The original idea was that Elvin was the orchestration, and all I was going to do was write notes to support his rhythm.”

Still, Perla took Gottlieb’s advice, and he’s glad he did, despite the recording, editing and mixing challenges that ensued. Holed up in a Paris flat for a month, he wrote nine charts, including one for the album’s opening and title track, an evocative salute to pianist Bill Evans. (Warfield, meanwhile, arranged the album’s delightful take on “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.”) Though not well versed in crafting big arrangements, Perla was confident that his gift for harmonizing would serve him well. Besides, he points out, there was no lack of role models.

“If there’s one fellow I feel a real kinship to, it’s Thad Jones,” says Perla. “The way Thad’s shoulders would rock—for me, that was the beat. And his arranging: how the fullness of horns and the punctuations of the rhythms and the wide scope of going from tender excursions into loud, fiery bursts. To me, the guy had it all together.”

Not surprisingly, Gil Evans is another guiding light. “I thought, if I ever get the opportunity to write for a big band again, I would go the Gil Evans route,” says Perla. “This time I would say I went Thad’s way, but I wasn’t trying to copy his orchestrations or his sounds or anything. I was really coming off Elvin’s drums.”

And how successful was he? Suffice it to say that Gottlieb, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and other notable Elvin enthusiasts were quick to give Bill’s Waltz ringing endorsements.

Originally published in January/February 2009

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