20. Worlds collide

Angel. From Gil Evans , Live at the Royal Festival Hall London 1978.

Manchester, late 1970s: as I’ve mentioned before, US jazz visitors were few and far between. Then one day they all arrived at once! The full Gil Evans Orchestra played the Free Trade Hall, on the same short tour as this recording, and blew me away.

It was, I hazily recall, too much to take in. There was the set of people in the band, most of whom I’d never heard of then but can now see were astonishing (sax section: David Sanborn, Arthur Blythe, George Adams!). And the sound, or rather sounds of the orchestra. Most large ensemble jazz had seemed stodgy, and backward looking until that night. I knew this lot were revelatory, and it would take time to figure out why. When a selection from the London show appeared on LP, I listened to it innumerable times.

For once, the date is actually in the title of the recording (a second volume came out on Mole Jazz later) – it genuinely seemed like a historic event. And it’s not the best ever recording quality, but still a vital document, bringing home that the man who I mainly associated with the classic Mles Davis dates was still creating great work.

Everything about the record – the choice of tunes, the orchestration, the solos – was wonderful but this one stood out. It’s the opener here: not sure it was on the concerts, but quite possibIy. I was a Hendrix fan but unaware Evans was too. So hearing David Sanborn bursting forth on Angel, not to mention Bob Stewart soloing later on tuba(!) on Voodoo Chile, was startling.

There were other great live nights with Evans to follow – the British Orchestra a few years later, also preserved by Mole Jazz; a set at the Bracknell Festival where Don Weller stepped up to play tenor sax; and the star-studded 75th Birthday concert in Hammersmith, shortly before Evans’ death, which appeared on a BBC CD. And of course there are plenty of other Evans tracks. Those most immediately comparable to this one include the first recording of Angel a few years before this (I’ve added that to my Spotify playlist as the live track is only on YouTube)

And there’s another classic Sanborn feature, Evans’ second go at King Porter Stomp, (originally recorded with featured Cannonball Adderley) which contrasts with the Hendrix and has a manic energy that makes it even better than the first studio recording to my ears.

But Angel is the one that pushes even more buttons for me. Sanborn, sounding somewhat like Hank Crawford but expressing an urgency that Crawford doesn’t always convey, revels in Hendrix’s gorgeous melody, bouyed by the orchestra, in a near-perfect five minutes of music. The composer’s work was so strong it’s always hard to follow, but Sanborn uses Evans’ arrangement to make the tune his own. I’ve had plenty of pleasure from jazz players taking on unexpected favourites from other genres since, but this collision of worlds remains among the best. Evans was pretty free about who took a solo, when, by this time (“I ask them not to take more than four solos at a concert if possible” he told Charles Fox. But this one was always reserved for the alto player. He owns it.

Why the No 20? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify

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