Gil Evans Centennial Celebration, Highline Ballroom, NYC, May 21, 2012
Family, friends and former bandmates honor late jazz great on centennial
The 700-capacity Highline Ballroom in Chelsea was decked out with balloons and party favors in celebration of composer-arranger Gil Evans’ 100th birthday (he was actually born on May 13, 1912 in Toronto and passed away in 1988 at age 76). A brief film preceding the concert featured touching personal testimony from Gil’s wife Anita Evans (who was in attendance) and pop star Sting, who said, “Gil was like a wise elder, like a wise old soul the people on Star Trek would meet.” He went on to praise Evans’ open-mindedness and childlike love of music while mentioning that the greatest advice the elder statesman ever gave him was, “There are no wrong notes.”
Former bandmates from different eras of the Gil Evans Orchestra converged on the Highline Ballroom stage for this nostalgic event. Guitarist Ryo Kawasaki, who played in the band during the mid-’70s and appeared on 1975’s The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix, flew in from Estonia for the occasion. Other mainstays from the old order included tuba ace Howard Johnson and trumpeter Lew Soloff (both of whom joined the Evans orchestra in 1966), guitarist Paul Metzke (from the mid-’70s band), trombonists Tom “Bones” Malone (who joined in 1973) and Dave Bargeron (a member since 1972) and drummer Bruce Ditmas (1971-1977). Tuba virtuoso Bob Stewart, tenor sax great Billy Harper and trumpeter Jon Faddis, all from the mid-’70s Evans orchestra, were also on hand for the festivities. The remainder of the aggregation included stalwarts from the band’s longstanding ’80s Monday night residency at Sweet Basil, the now-defunct Greenwich Village club (with the exception of Strat strangler Oz Noy, who filled in for the late and much lamented Hiram Bullock).
With Paul Shaffer acting as master of ceremonies, Gil’s son, trumpeter Miles Evans, leading the band and Gil Goldstein filling big shoes on keyboards, this Gil Evans Centennial kicked off with a rousing rendition of “Bud & Bird,” which featured alto saxophonist Chris Hunter blowing passionately over darkly swirling, dissonant harmonies. Trombonist Bargeron, guitarist Kawasaki and tenorist Harper also stepped up to blow with abandon on the walking blues section of Evans’ crafty homage to Bud Powell and Charlie Parker that incorporated some of their patented phrases into the horn arrangement. Hunter also led the ensemble through a moving evocation of “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” which had him wailing way up into the altissimo range. Howard Johnson also turned in a beautiful baritone sax solo on this richly reharmonized Mingus anthem while guitarist Noy contributed some edgy six-string work, nonchalantly running through daring intervallic leaps and audacious runs up and down the fretboard of his ax.
Paul Shaffer’s Late Show with David Letterman bandmate Will Lee next thrilled the Highline crowd with his soulful vocal delivery on Evans’ slow, rapturous arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” that also had Shaffer sitting in on xylophone. Trumpeter Soloff, who described the Evans orchestra as “a living organism” during his pre-concert testimony, gradually built to a signature high-note crescendo in the course of his dynamic solo on this Evans staple. Lee then switched bass, doubling with bassist Mark Egan to provide the power of a charging rhino through the chops-busting lines of Jaco Pastorius’ “Teen Town,” a tune that the Gil Evans Monday Night Orchestra regularly played at Sweet Basil during the ’80s. Alex Foster contributed a wailing soprano sax solo on this raucous Jaco anthem from Heavy Weather, which was underscored by drummer Kenwood Dennard’s insistent backbeat. At one point, Lee cleverly underscored the jam with Pastorius’ familiar bass lick from his “River People” while Delmar Brown (a member of the ’80s Gil Evans Orchestra and Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth band) added a scintillating keytar solo to take the adrenaline-pumped jam up a notch.
Gil’s other son, Noah Evans, then premiered a video he had put together titled Honoring the Greats, which showed a host of past Evans collaborators who have passed on, including Eric Dolphy, Elvin Jones, Steve Lacy, Gerry Mulligan, Jimmy Garrison, Bob Brookmeyer, Woody Shaw, Michael Brecker, John Stubblefield, Jaco Pastorius, Joe Beck, George Adams, Kenny Kirkland, Bob Berg, Hiram Bullock, Philly Joe Jones, Cannonball Adderley and, of course, Miles Davis. The film concluded with footage of Tony Williams playing and singing his “There Comes a Time” with the Evans orchestra in 1974, which segued smoothly to the live band playing it at the Highline, with Delmar Brown handling the vocals and featuring special guests Lenny White on drums and Darryl Jones on bass. Dave Taylor turned in a potent bass trombone solo on this Williams composition while Jones played more notes in his bass solo than he plays on an entire tour with the Rolling Stones. Miles Evans also blew authoritatively on his trumpet solo while Soloff punctuated the swirling horn harmonies with more high-note blasts over the top. Special guest Jerry Gonzalez also snuck in some tender muted trumpet playing to put a poignant finishing touch on this Williams tune.
Producer John Simon (best known for his work on debut albums by Blood, Sweat & Tears and Leonard Cohen, as well as classic albums by Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Band) next reminisced about his friendship with Evans, recalling his generosity of spirit while playing some leisurely stride-type piano. Simon then performed and sang his own thoughtful tune “Lost,” accompanied by Gonzalez on muted trumpet.
Percussion great Airto, who had worked with Evans on his 1984 album Misa Espiritual: Airto’s Brazilian Mass (which has Evans listed as “musical director” in a collaboration with the NDR Big Band), next turned in an amazing one-man show, singing and whacking everything in sight at his percussion station. Evans’ expansive horn arrangement of Hendrix’s “Stone Free” featured a brilliant display of multiphonics by tuba player Bob Stewart and a strong trombone solo by Tom “Bones” Malone. Delmar Brown next inspired the crowd with a stirring, gospel-tinged solo performance, accompanying himself on organ while showcasing his incredible vocal range. There followed a cool Evans arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” that featured special guest drummer Jimmy Cobb, who had played on the 1958 recording of that Gil Evans-Miles Davis classic collaboration, Porgy and Bess. And Howard Johnson nearly brought the house down with his earth-shaking tuba work on Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” which also featured Matthew Garrison on electric bass and Gabby Abularach providing the necessary Strat work on this volatile Jimi anthem.
Following a radical reharmonization of “Happy Birthday” that turned into a wild kind of Dixieland free-for-all, this heart-warming reunion concert closed with a brief taste of Evans’ “Eleven, a longtime set-closer for the orchestra. After the final note, there were hugs all around among all the members of Evans’ extended family, and the reminiscing of Gil went on well into the night.