Gil Evans: Svengali (1973) Atlantic

Selection: Cry Of Hunger (Billy Harper)

.  .  .

Soloists:  Baritone Saxophone, Trevor Koehler; Flugelhorn, Howard Johnson ; Tenor Saxophone , Billy Harper.


Billy Harper, flute, tenor saxophone; Bruce Ditmas, drums; Dave Sanborn, alto saxophone; David Horowitz, synthesizer; Gil Evans, piano, electric piano; Hannibal (Marvin Peterson), Richard Williams, Tex Allen, trumpet; Herb Bushler, electric bass; Howard Johnson, tuba, flugelhorn, baritone saxophone; Joseph Daley, trombone, tuba; Other -Gerry Mulligan; Peter Levin, Sharon Freeman, french horn; Susan Evans, percussion; Ted Dunbar, electric guitar; Trevor Koehler, flute, baritone saxophone, soprano saxophone.

Gil Evans, Kenneth Noland, producers; Lew Hahn, recording supervisor;  mixed by Lew Hahn, Mark Abramson. Recorded at Church Of The Holy Trinity, New York (May 30, 1973), and Philharmonic Hall, New York (June 30, 1973); pressed by PRC Recording Company, Richmond, IN


Just in from Toronto, Canadian Gill Evans headed into big band avant garde territory with heavily scored arrangements and improvised solo passages of considerable structural weight and virtuosity. Evans was easing electronic instruments into his orchestral palette: electric guitar, electric bass, electric piano, in addition to a large accoustic section  bolstered by French horns and tuba. Svengali thankfully pre-dated Gill Evans subsequent infatuation with the “tunes” of Jimi Hendrix.

The song selection of Svengali includes a fragment of the Miles session “Eleven“, and George Russell’s quirky cut-up piece Blues In Orbit. The Harper composition Thoroughbred (a race-horse simile) strangely doesn’t feature Harper but gets solos from tuba and electric guitar.  Evans serves up an easy-listening interpretation of Summertime,  with a tasteful guitar solo from Ted Dunbar, set in the acoustic ambience of HolyTrinity Church, no EMT plate required, the Lord provides the acoustic  reflections.

The star piece of Svengali is unquestionably Billy Harper’s Cry of Hunger. A blazing impassioned piece, which opens to chaotic large-scale orchestral dissonance before setting off on its own direction.  Harper’s  hard-as-nails solo excursions pull against half-tempo shifting orchestral backcloth, which, in Evan’s hands, takes on  a life of its own. A baritone solo emerges with more controlled form, while a flugelhorn solo adds a cool backbone.  With its restless big-band undertow, shifting pace and direction, this piece had me rivetted for its ten minutes, trying to figure where it was going next. Balliett’s  “Sound of Surprise” is alive and well here.

Harper’s anthemic tunes turn up frequently in different settings.To hear a more stripped-down delivery of Cry of Hunger, without Gil Evans arrangements, look to Capra Back.

In 1973, Billy Harper was gaining attention through his Strata East album,  “Capra Black”, and Gil Evan’s recruited him to provide a strong tenor voice on Svengali.  His Strata East album is  very collectable and difficult to find.  Copies of Atlantic’s Svengali are readily available and completely undervalued: the record cost little more than the  postage.

Probably the least interesting feature of this album is that we are told the title, “Svengali” is an anagram of “Gil Evans”. Oh wow, honey it’s an anagram, I must have it.  Sweetheart, isn’t another anagram of Gil Evans: Vangelis? Gosh, you’re right, honey. I must have that too!  I love anagrams! ..Vane Gils….Slig..Naev. .it’s not easy you know…oh look, the letter colours match…

Other reviewers take:

“Gil Evans emerged toward the end of the big band era as a composer and arranger, and collaborated with Miles Davis for several albums in the early 1960s. Like Miles, Evans did not stand still musically and borrowed from jazz’s outer limits as well as the progressive/ experimental rock and electronic music of the late ’60s/early ’70s.
The results sometimes sound like Frank Zappa (circa 1968-71), jamming with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, on Mars, in the year 2010: swinging, yet daring, electric, searing and probing. This is an important album in the history of both big band jazz and fusion.”

Vinyl: Atlantic SD 1643

Original stereo pressing, 1973. Its big band microphony lacks the intimacy of small combo or club dates. Puts me in mind if the “Decca Tree” of suspended microphones needed to record a large 30-piece classical orchestra. (and why those set-ups rarely sound any good. Thirty musicians in the room? It never works)

Inner sleeve

A reminder of “popular taste” in 1973 – Atlantic Jazz artists –   Herbie Mann, Yusef Lateef, Hubert Laws, Herbie Mann, Roland Kirk, Herbie Mann, Joe Zawinul, Eddie Harris, Herbie Mann… what it is to be popular.Collector’s Corner

No Atlantic connection, move on  to Columbia.

One of the unexpected pleasures of writing about records is that people send you all sorts of stuff, searching for the provenace of a particular record which has no Discogs entry, some anomaly  in the expected time series, or things that are just plain odd. This week was no exception, and having nothing special to add to this Collector’s Corner, I will share this one with readers, maybe you have some insight into this oddity.

Frederik from Stockholm acquired a copy of Miles Davis ‘Round About Midnight, original Columbia mono six eye. To his surprise, the run-out bore more than just the expected Columbia matrix code. 

“Help stamp out Rock and Roll”

A heartfelt message from the past, a warning, inscribed somehow on a stamper, by someone with access to Columbia metal parts. My own copy, pressed at Columbia’s Hollywood, Alden Drive plant, apparently the same edition, has no such inscription.

When this record was pressed, perhaps around 1956, Rock and Roll was still in its infancy, but one some far-sighted individual understood the threat. Or maybe had his tongue firmy planted in his cheek. 

Anyone have any insight into this curiosity? Or maybe you have a theory as to its origin. Narrative is a good currency compared with facts nowadays. How did this inscription happen?


5 thoughts on “Gil Evans: Svengali (1973) Atlantic

  1. Good to see a later Gil Evans make it to your esteemed pages. . I could never understand why the later Evans works were often dismissed , like the world ended when he stopped recording with Miles.( even though the friendship continued until the end) I tend to look at Gil in his later years as another Blakey , everybody wanted to play in his Orchestra , look at the talent , Lew Soloff, Hannibal Peterson , George Adams, Chris Hunter, Arthur Blythe, Harper, George Lewis , Billy Cobham ,the list goes on and on. If you ever come across Live at the Public Theater New York Volume 2 ,take a listen to the wonderful work of Hannibal Peterson , it will melt your heart

  2. For the ultimate in dead wax messages on old jazz records, see EASY GEARY PLAYS BURNS HOBARTT (Hathor HL-001) and the subsequent 13 releases on the Hathor label. ☺

  3. i have nothing of value to add, but that weird stamper thing is AWESOME. definitely a hot collector’s item once the collecting world at large becomes aware of it!

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