Album review

The Gil Evans Orchestra – ‘Live at Fabrik’ (recorded 1986)

The Gil Evans Orchestra – Live at Fabrik
(NDR Kultur D77101 (2 CD) / D78101 (3 LP). Album review by Charles Rees)

Gil Evans’ post-’70s projects have been given relatively little attention by critics and historians, who have concentrated on his earlier work, notably with Miles Davis (Birth of the Cool, Sketches of Spain, Porgy & Bess, etc.) but also as a leader in the mid-’60s.

Attention has been lavished on Miles Davis’ work from Bitches Brew onwards. And on an even bigger scale, Jimi Hendrix’s improvisations, notably on the “Star-Spangled Banner”, which the guitarist performed not just at Woodstock, but on 70 other occasions, have more or less given rise to their own branch of cultural studies.

It has mostly escaped attention that Gil Evans and Jimi Hendrix were planning a collaboration shortly before the guitarist’s passing in 1970. Though the project was placed on hold, Evans eventually carried it out alone. The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix was released in 1974, a few months after the project debuted at Carnegie Hall. It featured musicians ranging from David Sanborn to John Abercrombie, as well as players who would continue to tour and record with Evans until his passing. These players deserve some credit for helping him to establish and develop his new sound: one that is very adventurous, that embraced more ‘current’, mainstream sounds and styles, and one with a heavier emphasis on improvisation. The big bands of Jaco Pastorius and Mike Gibbs would probably have sounded very different if Gil Evans had not chosen this route.

The lineup of the band that performed at Fabrik in Hamburg in 1986 is mostly that of the one Evans established at the Sweet Basil club in 1983. The same ensemble toured Europe through the mid-’80s, and several recordings exist, notably Last Session, recorded live at Perugia Jazz Festival in 1987, with Sting as special guest and featuring some of the same charts heard on this album. The instrumentation, particularly the horn section, is similar to the one used on Birth of the Cool, packed with strong individual voices who create a powerful, unconventional collective sound.

British-born saxophonist Chris Hunter is on alto. His main feature is on “Subway” as well as via some fiery trading on “There Comes a Time” with saxophonist Bill Evans, who plays the ferocious solo on “Little Wing”. (The absence of information in the liner notes about who is soloing is disappointing). Also in the section is the late Howard Johnson, a versatile player and something of a one-man bass-instrument band. His instruments were baritone saxophone, bass and contrabass clarinets and tuba, his playing on which, particularly when screaming in the high register, is a defining aspect of the band’s sound (especially in “Voodoo Chile”).

Lew Soloff is on lead trumpet and also takes a solo on “Little Wing”; also on trumpets are Japanese-born Shunzo Ono and Miles Evans, son of Gil and the band’s MC. On trombones are Dave Taylor, a name commonly found on bass trombone in New York sessions, and David Bargeron, also credited on tuba and possibly responsible for some of what I attributed to Johnson. Lastly for the brass section is John Clark on the french horn, who was player of choice on that instrument for Gil Evans, as well as Jaco Pastorius and many others throughout the ’70s and ’80s.

For a band of this size, Evans’ rhythm section is extensive: Hiram Bullock on guitar, perhaps the most vital role in a band like this one; Mark Egan on bass, who was notably a member of the Pat Metheny Group until 1981; Victor Lewis on drums, who recorded with Woody Shaw, Dexter Gordon and Kenny Barron among others. The rest of the section is comprised of Pete Levin and Delmar Brown on synths (the former is the composer of “Subway” and the latter provides somewhat quirky vocals on “Sometimes”), Marilyn Mazur on percussion, and Gil Evans playing piano and conducting. 

Gil Evans performing at the Public Theater, NYC, during the early ’80s. Photo credit: Michael Ullman.

Other tracks on the album include “Stone Free”, “Up From the Skies”, “Birdland” and “Orgone”. The set is largely comprised of Jimi Hendrix songs, which are interspersed with some very interesting and contrasting numbers, such as “There Comes a Time” by Tony Williams, which is underpinned by a wonderfully infectious bass-line/vamp. “Orgone” is the only chart to have been composed by Evans, and it’s the clear outlier of the set being the only swing number. 

For this NDR radio recording of the live concert in Hamburg, the engineers have done a wonderful job bringing the old recording to life, certainly it is more vivid than the later Last Session but the balance is not what would be expected in a studio recording. For example, the soprano sax solo on “Stone Free” doesn’t quite cut through as one would wish.

Perhaps, had Jimi Hendrix lived to record a project with Gil Evans, the arranger’s late period would have received the attention I believe it deserves. This is nevertheless an album guaranteed to bring two hours of enjoyment to anyone who enjoys jazz-rock fusion, contemporary big band jazz or even the bombastic sounds of ’80s synthesizers. Let us hope that this release triggers a long overdue re-evaluation of what Gil Evans achieved in the last years of his life.

LINK: Live at Fabrik at Presto Music

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