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JAZZ REVIEW : Art Farmer, Ensemble Try to Live Up to Gil Evans' Originals


NEWPORT BEACH — During a tribute to the late Gil Evans at the Hyatt Newporter Friday night, when trumpeter Art Farmer struck the first few notes of "Springsville" from the 1957 Evans-Miles Davis collaboration "Miles Ahead," there was an eerie similarity to the original. It was almost as if Davis himself had formed the bubbling series of upbeat tones, while Evans himself directed the orchestra behind him.

Playing from charts supplied for the first time by the Evans estate, Farmer and an ensemble conducted by Mark Masters made it clear from the start that they would be true to the form and spirit of Evans' arrangements. If the authenticity wasn't letter-perfect (the "Miles Ahead" session was subtitled "Miles Davis + 19"; Masters' band was only 17 strong), it was close enough to provide more than a few haunting moments.

But this appeal to genuineness worked against Farmer and the group at times. The orchestra, playing the difficult arrangements after only two brief rehearsals, often seemed tentative and uncertain; one missed the swagger and confidence heard on the "Miles Ahead" date. Bill Roper's tuba work, often lost beneath the over-miked upright bass, seemed to stumble as often as it moved with certainty.

Playing the "flumpet" (a cross between a trumpet and fluegelhorn; Davis played the fluegelhorn on the original "Miles Ahead" session), Farmer was true to Davis' rich tonal quality. But the kind of seemingly misbegotten notes that Davis turned into an art form came across, more often than not, as missteps and mistakes by Farmer.

It wasn't until the second set, when he presented Evans' "Solea" from the "Sketches of Spain" project, that Farmer came alive, using his own romantic lyricism to paint moody colors across the sultry, flamenco-styled piece with sustained, circling figures, gracefully stated high notes and warmly voiced melodic statements.

Until then, the star of the show had been the arrangements themselves. Evans' way of framing melodies with a blend of brass and woodwinds, of shading with French horns and underpinning with tuba, had been captured perfectly on the "Miles Ahead" recording. The trilogy "The Duke," "My Ship" and "Miles Ahead" were performed by Farmer and company as a unit, just as they were on the album. "The Maids of Cadiz" and the haunting "Blues for Pablo" from the same session also were played, Farmer doing fine if not splendid work on both.

Masters' ensemble opened the evening without Farmer, playing Evans' 1957 arrangement of "King Porter Stomp," a rhythmic romp almost visual in its orchestration. Evans and Davis' "Waltz" (also known as "Time of the Barracudas") gave the band members room to blow, and the most notable efforts came from trumpeter Carl Saunders, whose long, involved lines would contrast sharply with Farmer's staid delivery.

Masters' orchestra made its best statements playing the nonet arrangements from the Davis-Evans 1949-50 "Birth of the Cool" sessions, which had been provided for the concert by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. Jack Nimitz did an admirable job filling Mulligan's shoes on the big horn during "Boplicity" and "Moon Dreams." On the down side, pianist Jeff Walters never seemed to get a handle on his "Boplicity" improvisation.

The last tune of the evening--Masters' arrangement of Billy Harper's "Priestess," a piece played frequently by later, electric editions of Evans' orchestra--also provided some sterling moments. Finally, the musicians, many of whom regularly play the number with Masters' orchestra, seemed comfortable with their work and the improvisations came with more content and confidence. Farmer took a nice, somewhat more aggressive turn before the piece closed with the simple piano passages with which it began.

When all was said and done, one had to admire Farmer, Masters and company for even attempting the "Birth of the Cool" and the later Davis-Evans' collaborations, which have been hailed as some of the highest musical achievements of the last 40 years. Leaving the concert, even with its faults, one couldn't help feel that somewhere Evans was smiling over what had just gone down.

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