The Gil Evans Orchestra – Out of the Cool
(Music On Vinyl MOVLP 1286. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)
It is salutary to be reminded what a great writer Gil Evans was, and this Music on Vinyl reissue of Evans’s classic album provides the perfect occasion. Recorded on Impulse in 1960 (one of the label’s very first releases) it was Evan’s fourth outing as a leader, in the wake of his successful collaborations with Miles Davis. The title evokes his first recordings with Miles, which collectively became known as The Birth of the Cool. But it’s more specifically a continuation of the work begun with Miles Ahead in 1957, a new kind of big band music, possessed of a machine-tooled polish — sophisticated, cool and modernist.
The opening track of the album, La Nevada, is an extended (fifteen and a half minutes) film noir masterpiece. It begins with solo, mysterioso Morse-code piano from Evans, a signal of intent from a shadowy realm, then shakers creep in courtesy of the spectacular percussionist Charlie Persip. Upright bass from Ron Carter begins to give structure to the piece. Drummer Elvin Jones picks up the Morse code on the cymbals. There’s a striking spatial sense to this recording as distant horns suggest themselves (trumpets by Johnny Coles, Phil Sunkel, tuba by Bill Barber). The ensemble is now rolling with some notably wonderful guitar from Ray Crawford standing out from the mix. Crawford strums and preens. Then big, sinister trombones muscle in on the act (Jimmy Knepper, Keg Johnson andTony Study). Saxophone banditry ensues from Budd Johnson. There’s a dry hissing of the brushes on the cymbals from Elvin Jones and a gentle, exploratory flute by Ray Beckenstein. Gil Evans provides caressing, descending runs on the piano. The surging, triumphant trombones show Evans’s exceptional talent for section writing. Johnny Coles’s cool, eloquent trumpet weaves through. Then the guitar comes strumming into ascendancy again. Fat notes pour forth and the trombones wail sorrowfully underneath. Beckenstein’s flute soars serenely high above the proceedings, chirping like a fascinated bird. Gil Evans got his start working as an arranger for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra in 1941 and one of their first triumphs was Snowfall. ‘Nevada’ means snowfall in Spanish.
But the power of the opening track shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow the beauty to be found elsewhere in this classic album. Where Flamingos Fly has big swaggering trombone by Jimmy Knepper drunkenly regaling us with its lovely, melancholy tale, Eddie Caine’s flute sharpening the sound and adding deft highlights. Kurt Weill’s Bilbao Song displays delicate sifting of cymbals from Elvin Jones and a chorus of almost abstract horns. The abstraction continues with odd bubbling percussion by Charlie Persip, who is the hero of Sunken Treasure, which is a veritable tour de force for the percussionist. Elsewhere George Russell’s Stratusphunk returns to the dramatic film noir feel and offers spiky crime-jazz. Even more than the piano, the orchestra was Gil Evans’s instrument, and he never played it better than he does here.
As it happens, it was possible to compare this new Music on Vinyl edition with a copy of the 1960 Impulse A-4 stereo first pressing (with the glossy AM-PAR label and a Rudy Van Gelder stamp). Compared to the original, the Music on Vinyl acquits itself startlingly well. In fact it sounds very fine. While there is more subtlety, scale and immediacy to the Impulse, this reissue from half a century later is surprisingly, impressively good. An outstanding success among recent reissues. If you want this great album on vinyl you shouldn’t hesitate.