Review: London Jazz Orchestra – Miles Ahead

London Jazz Orchestra: Miles Ahead.
(Directed by Scott Stroman. Soloists Miles Evans & Henry Lowther. Vortex, May 13th 2012. Review by George Foster)

I had gone to this gig at the Vortex, on the centenary of Gil Evans’ birth, out of a sense of loyalty to the memory of Miles and Gil whose music together and separately, has given me so much pleasure and enlightenment. Over the years I have built up a pretty good stereo system, and a good record collection of work by the two. I have several different vinyl and CD versions of Miles Ahead. I thought I knew it well, but in the first few bars I was forcefully reminded that listening to records and hearing live music are radically different.

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You could listen to Gil Evans’ orchestrations on a car radio, a high end stereo system, an MP4 player or over a mobile phone speaker and enjoy aspects of his skill in melodic writing, but it takes a live performance to bring out a depth and complexity of his orchestrations – especially in the lower registers where bass trombone, tuba, 2 french horns and 2 bass clarinets are scored with lines and voicings which underpin the solo trumpet and higher instruments.

When you listen to the recordings you miss out on much of this low end richness and detail. You are in effect listening to a different composition. Without the depth of sound and texture, the music comes over as pieces for a solo trumpet heard against the melodies and harmonies of a backing band or at best in a kind of dialogue with the orchestra, because you are only hearing and feeling part of the music.Hearing the scores live at the Vortex played superbly by the LJO. the weight of lower register detail, the marvellous orchestral textures and the melodic lines were clear to me for the very first time.

The London Jazz Orchestra can easily stand comparison with the original Gil Evans orchestra of 1957. The LJO play together regularly while the Evans men included a large proportion of session musicians, and LJO members have been listening to these charts for years and didn’t have to stop every few minutes and start another take (you can hear the tape splices on the 1957 recordings). They did the music proud, from delicate to deafening, with a superb 5 strong trumpet section led by Noel Langley. All were clearly enjoying the music. Paul Clarvis and Alec Dankworth were free to grin delightedly – all the other musicians had the encumbramance of an instruments either to their lips or in their mouths. Oren Marshall on tuba, who had been bemoaning the lack of good tuba parts seemed to be having the time of his life as he powered the brass from below with nimble melodic lines and rich tones.

The only soloists were Henry Lowther and Gil Evans’ son Miles Evans who split the original Davis trumpet role between them. Lowther was on top form with the confidence and skill to move back and forth between Davis’ original lines and his own improvisations seamlessly as if the music had been written for him. His playing on Blues for Pablo was outstanding, evoking Davis but not imitating him. It segued into a version of New Rhumba where his and the orchestra’s playing was so good that the audience forgot themselves and interrupted the performance with applause. A competent player, overshadowed by Lowther, Miles Evans chose a different approach, rather further in tone and phrasing from the paths of his namesake and only really shone when he and Lowther joined in a bubbling duet for the last number, the witty arrangement of I Don’t Want to be Kissed.

Scott Stroman has surpassed his earlier re-creations of Birth of the Cool and Africa/Brass and thankfully BBC R3 recorded the performances. This evening has been the best argument I have encountered for re-creating a classic performance. It took great music and made it even greater. This concert will affect how I listen to orchestral music for the rest of my life.

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2 replies »

  1. That's a very good review, perceptive and personal – and important also because you bring out the differences between the live experience and the sound experienced when listening to a recording – I would say that on the best vinyl pressings and top quality CDs on a decent hi-fi you do get the broadest range which brings in that additional depth, maybe not quite the same as live, but it can do justice to the performance and the composition – and at a live gig you are at the mercy of the sound system, which thankfully at the Vortex is excellent. And, of course, if you don't have the option of being able to get to a live performance, you do rely on recordings. I'm looking forward to the BBC broadcast, now!


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