Monday, June 22, 2009

Gil Evans' Bartók Connection

That passing reference to Gil Evans while writing about Porgy and Bess reminded me that it has been a while since I did some serious listening to Evans. On the Porgy and Bess album he had the chutzpah to supplement his arrangements of George Gershwin's music with an original composition of his own, "Gone," which is far more than a paraphrase of the music for Robbins' funeral scene in Scene 2 of Act 1 of the opera. This is symptomatic of the way in which Evans could turn the work of another composer into a new and original object. This was probably most evident in the way in which he reworked the second movement of Joaquín Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez," originally written for guitar and orchestra, for the Sketches of Spain album he prepared with Miles Davis. Less familiar may be "Song of our Country," recorded at the Sketches of Spain sessions but not released on the original Columbia vinyl. The title is the English translation of the subtitle of the second movement of the second of Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras suites ("O Canto de Nossa Terra"); and Villa-Lobos is far better served by Evans' treatment than he ever was by the overabundance of hack adaptations (anyone remember Johnny Mathis?) of the aria from the fifth Bachianas Brasileiras suite.

More surprising, however, is when Evans moved away from Spain and Brazil and turned to Béla Bartók. This is a more subtle (if not downright concealed) adaptation, since it resides in the introduction to his arrangement of the tune by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, "Wait Till You See Her." The source comes from the introduction to the first movement of Bartók's "Concerto for Orchestra." Hopefully, one of these days some capable graduate student will get around to writing a thesis on Bartók's influence on jazz in the third quarter of the twentieth century. Given Evans' extensive literacy, finding that influence in his music is no surprise. More surprising may be accounts that John Coltrane used to practice by playing along with the opening measures of that same Bartók composition, which may well be where he got his idea for "Giant Steps." At the same time we find piano solos by Mose Allison with a strong Bartók influence (which I was able to confirm through a conversation with Allison "back in the day"). The middle of the twentieth century was an exciting time for both making and listening to music. Gil Evans was a champion of that time; and the recordings he influenced, both directly and indirectly, constitute a valuable legacy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember Johnny Mathis very well. Heard him sing in Canada just last month....still wonderful after 50+ years. Can't say that anyone will remember me, or you after half a century.