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Gil Evans: Svengali

After 1975, Gil Evans’ ouput was brilliant only in spots. His bands’ performances put less emphasis on his arrangements and more on the whims of his soloists. This 1973 album is from the arranger’s last great period. Evans was fully involved in the music. He was in control of a balance between writing and soloing that allowed the new freedom that had been in the air for a decade, without surrendering coherence.

Svengali has a good deal of music on the leading edge. It also has the lyricism and glowing vertical harmonic structures that endeared Evans to a wide audience. “Zee Zee” encompasses both aspects, with its mysterious backgrounds to Hannibal’s (Marvin Peterson’s) rangy, probing trumpet solo. “Summertime” reprises the famous Evans setting for Miles Davis, with guitarist Ted Dunbar as the soloist. Tenor saxophonist Billy Harper roars in Evans arrangements of two Harper compositions, “Thoroughbred” and “Cry of Hunger.” In the latter, baritone saxophonist Trevor Koehler leaves a powerful reminder that his early death removed an important talent.

“Svengali” was the anagram Gerry Mulligan constructed on the letters in Evans’ name. Unlike the evil manipulator of fiction, Evans was a benevolent genius who did not need hypnosis to induce his subjects to make beautiful music. This album, his only one for the Atlantic label, has some of the most unusual writing of his last two decades.

Originally Published