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Boplicity, Gil Evans and cool jazz

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[Monday's Notes no. 29] It is rare in jazz for musicians to simply conduct without also being leading instrumentalists. Gil Evans is perhaps one of the most famous conductors, in the late 1940s he made a series of recordings published under the title Birth of the Cool, which created a sonic mixture never heard before. Let us analyse Boplicity.

The line-up playing in Birth of the Cool consists of nine elements, forming a very original ensemble. Going beyond the classic swing orchestra setup of brass, saxophones and rhythm section, Gil Evans' group includes instruments such as tuba, horn, baritone sax.

Apart from the choice of instruments, there is another substantial difference between the ensemble conducted by Gil Evans and the classic 1930s big bands. In these, the instruments are grouped into three homogeneous sections: trumpets, trombones, saxophones. Gil Evans, on the other hand, treats each voice individually, as in traditional classical chamber music.

Boblicity is a tune that even in its title recalls the bebop idiom, yet the tempo is moderate and the character is relaxed and soft, lacking the harshness typical of Charlie Parker and the boppers. In bebop, the theme is secondary and serves only to introduce the improvisations, whereas in this piece the arranged parts prevail and the solo interventions are more limited.

An excellent example is the solo by pianist John Lewis (2'26''), a measured and sparse intervention that prepares for the reprise of the theme. In boplicity and the other tracks of Birth of the Cool the solos are almost marginal, what counts is the ensemble.

Birth of the Cool thus carries a very strong Gil Evans imprint, despite the fact that he does not play any instruments and there are no original compositions by him. Gil Evans' vision was also shared by other musicians, who wrote some of the arrangements. First and foremost, Gerry Mulligan.

Miles Davis, Lee Konitz, John Lewis, Max Roach also participated in this recording. Musicians of great personality who nevertheless knew how to cooperate with Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan to create a new and interesting collective sound.

Until next Monday!

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