Out of all the myriad of tribute albums dedicated to Jimi Hendrix, this would have to be the most authentic and genuine. Evans and Hendrix had spoken on numerous occasions about working together, Jimi having even asked the legendary jazz arranger to teach him how to read and write music, thus liberating the guitarist from the burden of having to record everything on tape. But their friendship might never have happened were it not for producer Alan Douglas, who had been discussing with Gil the possibility of him and Jimi collaborating. He explained it thus: “I was recording Jimi at the time, and Miles was always around, always talking to Jimi. Jimi’s music took people outside of anticipated structure, and consequently everybody thought they could adapt it to jazz. I played all the Miles and Gil stuff for him. We knew Gil was crazy about Jimi’s music through Miles – Miles kept telling Jimi that Gil would love to talk to him.” And so they did.
Rehearsals with Evans’ orchestra were scheduled to take place at the end of September, after Hendrix’s return from his European tour, followed by a performance at Carnegie Hall, then an album consisting of Evans’ arrangements of Hendrix compositions, with Hendrix himself as the principle soloist. Tragically, Jimi failed to return from that ill fated tour, however Gil never gave up on his ambition to release an LP based on the original project he and Jimi had discussed in 1970.
Throughout Evans’ arrangements are respectful, without taking too much away from the original tunes. No less than 19 musicians contribute (along with Evans himself): two saxophonists (David Sanborn and Billy Harper, on alto and tenor respectively), two French horns, three guitars (John Abercrombie, Ryo Kawasaki and Keith Loving), two bass players, two percussionists, one trumpeter, along with tuba, synthesizers, flugelhorns, piano, vibraphone and a long list of other instruments. Obviously, Evans was determined not to skimp when it came to making the record.
Opening with the majestic “Angel”, David Sanborn’s saxophone successfully underplays the delicious melody, while the funk-jazz of “Crosstown Traffic/Little Miss Lover” is a sort of Band of Gypsys/Earth Wind & Fire hybrid – very seventies, very cool. Of course what Hendrix might have made of Evans’ reworking of “Castles Made of Sand” is impossible to speculate, but I’m sure he’d have approved. One thing’s for certain, it sounds nothing like the original. Here the guitars sit in the back row with the saxophones way out front. The overblown “Foxy Lady” has the brass section having multiple orgasms in unanimity, yet minus its creator, it comes across as little more than an exercise in self indulgence. Far more successful is “Up from the Skies”, on which Evans has retained the rhythm while adding additional instrumental textures Jimi himself quite possibly could never have conceived of.
Jimi’s sci-fi masterpiece “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)”, is given a complete reinvention, and in the process establishes the potential Hendrix had to write film soundtracks. Now if there’s one major misfire (depending on your point of view) it has to be “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”, because this is a guitar song, after all, and not one for abstract trumpet players. The spacey, near Oriental “Gypsy Eyes” flies along at a hectic pace, before a re-imagined “Little Wing” takes the listener on a mournful, brass dominated journey. This is one of the tunes Douglas had discussed with Evans in 1970 as a likely candidate for the LP they were planning, and rightfully so, as the melodies are rich with possibilities, which perhaps is why it is often mentioned by fans as their favourite song.
John Abercrombie and Ryo Kawasaki do their best on electric guitar, both of whom are more than up to the task, clearly – but why have two when only one will do, and his name was Jimi Hendrix. Drop all the acid you want, but at the end of the day, nobody could play like him.
The 2002 remaster contains four bonus tracks (five if you include “Little Wing”, from the original CD release), whose inclusion, although welcome, is merely academic in nature.
Released in 1974, The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays The Music Of Jimi Hendrix is the closest hint of what might have been, and as such remains a fascinating document throughout. Had an alliance occurred, it might well have propelled Hendrix on to a whole new trajectory, one which could have seen him embark on a career as a jazz-fusion pioneer. Sadly we will never know.