I was invited recently to write an article for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s season promotion campaign. The goal was to appeal specifically to non-jazz types who’ve probably heard of at least one of these records and with a bit of a friendly push just might get out to the concert. Here’s what I did…
p.s. If you’re even remotely close by, there’s still time to get your tickets.
Three Masterpieces. Two Legends. One Night Only.
Few jazz artists manage to produce a true break-out recording – something that transcends jazz and connects with diverse audiences the world over. But in the 1950s, with the help of his friend Gil Evans, Miles Davis did just that – three times in a row.
Miles and Gil were consummate artists but also great innovators: once these recordings were done they moved on and never looked back. Consequently, except for one concert (Carnegie Hall, 1961), they were never to perform it together again. Decades later, it would take no less a figure than Quincy Jones (another personal friend) to get Miles to finally reconsider. For these reasons alone, getting to actually hear this music now, performed in its original form, is an opportunity that’s about as rare as it gets.
There would be other landmark achievements from this dashing, daring trumpeter – that’s why he was honored earlier this year with a commemorative stamp by the US Postal Service. Likewise there is much more to the Evans legacy, as evidenced this year by the many tribute concerts celebrating the centennial of Gil’s birth in 1912.
But that’s another story. Let us concern ourselves with Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958) and Sketches of Spain (1959-60): Let us consider what makes this music so special, and what you can expect to experience – emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, viscerally – come this magical night in October.
The musical landscape
Long before words like fusion or world music became fashionable, Gil Evans had mastered the art of listening, synthesizing and reinventing. He ignored all labels and boundaries, looking only for what he called the music’s “living spirit.” He drew freely, and with impeccable taste, from Duke Ellington and Joaquín Rodrigo, George Gershwin and Kurt Weill and Charlie Parker. He transported us from 19th century Europe to post-war 52nd Street, from Catfish Row to the Royal Palace of Aranjuez.
The vision and the voice
As elaborate and breathtakingly beautiful as these orchestral settings are, they are just the beginning. All three works were conceived as concertos, in which the orchestra’s primary role is to spotlight a single voice, in this case the trumpet, and to showcase not only these great melodies but also the melodic variations of a true jazz master. Enter Miles Davis, the foremost improviser of his time. For countless musicians, and millions of listeners the world over, the love affair with Miles’ sound began right here – and to many ears, he never sounded better than he did in these spectacular Gil Evans arrangements.
The master works remounted
This concert was developed with the original Gil Evans charts. Its music director is Vince Mendoza, a six-time Grammy-winner often cited as “the clear and natural successor to Gil Evans.” The featured trumpeters are Terence Blanchard, another Grammy-winner (known to many for his numerous Spike Lee film scores) and Sean Jones, one of today’s fast-rising “young lions.” Two other guests were there at the beginning: drummer Jimmy Cobb played on both Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain. Tuba virtuoso Howard Johnson was with Gil for over two decades, including Gil’s work with Miles in the late 60s. All the other players, too, were hand-picked not just for their technical ability but for their attitude, their energy.
The You-Are-Part-Of-It experience
Such energy, as Vince Mendoza found, starts right in the charts. “What’s most striking to me is how Gil’s treatment of the orchestra continues to be inspiring to the improviser. There are a lot of details involved with the proper performance of this music – dynamics, phrasing, ensemble playing – but in the end the music needs to remain spiritually exciting and fresh for the soloist. With these arrangements it happens every time, and the energy is different every time.”
In much the same way, Terence Blanchard took his cue from Miles Davis. “Miles was my hero, of course. But the way to pay homage to Miles is not to play like Miles. Miles’ whole thing was, do your own thing, be yourself.”
Best of all, Terence adds, the energy that animates this music is a two-way street: “It was special not only for the musicians but the audience. The audience was really enthusiastic, which propelled our energy and helped us put more energy into it, so it was a beautiful thing all around.”
Beautiful indeed, and very rare. “This music becomes more precious with time,” says Howard Johnson. “It’s never been equalled, really, and the way to celebrate it is to keep it being played.” We are fortunate that musicians of this calibre will go out of their way to do just that. They do it because it matters so much to them personally. And, as Terence Blanchard puts it, because it matters so much to all of us: “This music is a part of Americana. It’s part of American history. It’s one of the great moments in time that makes the rest of the world respect our artistry.”
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