CD Review: Ryan Truesdell “Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans”

When the work of a great artist is released posthumously, there is reason to be wary: Sometimes that incomplete Hemingway novel was tucked away in a drawer for a reason. But when the emerging conductor/arranger Ryan Truesdell discovered a treasure trove of previously unheard arrangements by Gil Evans, there is reason to celebrate. Turns out Evans’ cast-offs are better than just about everyone else’s best work.

Evans, who is at, or near the top of, everyone’s short list of the greatest arrangers in jazz history, was best known for his work with Miles Davis. Their collaboration ranged from the 1949,1950 “Birth of the Cool” sessions to the late 1950’s masterworks “Porgy and Bess” and “Sketches of Spain.” But Evans did a great deal of work for other artists and produced a significant body of work as a leader.

Truesdell’s album begins with the unmistakable sound of an Evans classic. But the tune, “Punjab,” never made it on to 1964’s “The Individualism of Gil Evans.” Truesdell had to do some tweaking to make it work, but his addition of a tabla solo at the start (and tabla throughout) was a brilliant solution on a tune based on Indian folk music.

Truesdell’s liner notes provide a vivid sense of the excitement he felt discovering these works. When he was investigating Evans’ three arrangements for vocalist Lucy Reed, Reed’s son said he’d be happy to send him all four. Four? Well, I don’t know how the other three sounded on the original album or why the fourth was not used, but “Smoking My Sad Cigarette” is a not only a great arrangement of a wonderful song (by Don George and Bee Walker), but the version here  features a stunning vocal performance by Kate McGarry.

She’s just one of the great musicians Truesdell recruited for this inspired project. Romero Lubambo (guitar), Joe Locke (vibraphone), Lewis Nash (drums), Donny McCaslin and Steve Wilson (saxes) and Luciana Souza (vocals) are just a fraction the talent on the CD. Truesdell includes some familiar works in earlier incarnations, but they too are fascinating. “The Maids of Cadiz,” well known from “Miles Ahead,” is offered here in a looser form, offering fascinating insight into Evans’ creative process.

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