Quarantine Diaries: The Glory of Gil Evans

So now they got me in lockdown. Man is stuck indoors. Nothing to do.  Twenty three hours a day on lock. But as my man Kano would say, can’t hold we down.

This quarantine thing is a gift to those of us with too many records and not enough time under normal circumstances. Finding those hidden corners, forgotten masterpieces and overlooked gems. 

So I’d been listening to a load of Miles Davis. But then he started getting all weird. You know. Skronky and deliberately difficult. And while I’ve got plenty of time for those records most of the time, I’m feeling a bit on edge at the moment, what with the lethal virus and the enforced house arrest. Last thing I need is Miles Davis getting all atonal on me. Just pick a fucking melody already. 

But then there’s Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess, both of which I love, both of which reminded me of the Gil Evans albums that he recorded after Sketches.

So I dug them out and, well, that knot at the base of my neck went away.  The claw of tension that’s been crushing my head for the past week released its grip. I was able to stop grinding my teeth to powder. And I started to feel like I was starring in a Steven Soderbergh movie. One of the good ones circa 2000. Let me explain.

Gil was of course one of the greatest orchestrators in all of jazz. And at the same time he was doing arrangements for Miles, he was recording some of his own vital recordings.

So there’s Out of the Cool, which is slick and smooth. Way smoother than you’d imagine for 1961. The Gil Evans Orchestra stretches out on “La Nevada,” a 15-minute journey into being really fucking cool. And that’s the marvel of this record. It’s on in the background, boom. You have it on loud, it’s a party. You want to pretend you’re on the run from the FBI and you’re stuck in the boot of your car with a young Jennifer Lopez and… wait, that didn’t happen…

The whole album glides past in a similar vein. Tracks start slow and build to a thrilling climax. Muted trumpets take the lead occasionally, never in a way that would give Miles any cause for concern. And you can feel bits of Sketches of Spain drift in and out from time to time. “Where Flamingoes Fly” bears a passing resemblance to “Saeta.” “Stratusphunk” swaggers along on and Elvin Jones/Ron Carter rhythm. The whole thing is moody and sexy. 

Then there’s the companion album, Into the Hot. And obviously what you’re getting here is a whole heap of the same, but in the best way possible.  Effortlessly sophisticated from the opening, “Moon Taj,” onwards.

Archie Shepp pops up. So does Cecil Taylor. And so tight is Gil’s ship that the absence of Elvin Jones on drums is not an issue. Before you know where you are, you’re about to rob the Bellagio using a group of maverick thieves. Either that or you’re gently dozing off on the couch.

The final LP is The Individualism of Gil Evans. Once again, it’s all muted trumpets, big band swing played at half volume and quarter speed. Elvin Jones and Ron Carter are back. Eric Dolphy makes an appearance. So does Wayne Shorter. 

But more importantly, you feel like you’re strolling about New York City on a hot day in 1964. You’re wearing a tailored suit and you’re probably going to save someone from something without ever breaking a sweat. Or maybe you’re just stood out in the garden waiting for the world to start turning again.