Oakland-based keyboardist-composer Steve McQuarry
has long been in love with the unique music of Gil Evans, the late, largely-self-taught Toronto-born composer, arranger, and keyboardist best remembered for his numerous collaborations with Miles Davis.
“The whole way he thought about orchestrating using instruments and also pushing those instruments in different ranges is really fascinating,” McQuarry says of Evans. “I remember talking with Maria Schneider about this. She said he would write the trombone parts really high and things like that, which academically trained arrangers are told not to do, and how that changed a lot of textures and tone quality in the sound.”
For a program of a dozen Evans arrangements drawn from Evans’s early days with the Claude Thornhill big band through his later work with Davis, Kenny Burrell, and his own ensembles, McQuarry has expanded his 19-member Mandala Orchestra to 25 pieces to accommodate instruments Evans sometimes used to enrich his voicings, including French horn, English horn, oboe, bassoon, and cello, as well as downsized it to nine to play three pieces from Davis’s legendary 1949-1950 “Birth of the Cool” sessions.
McQuarry’s Evans concert will take place on Saturday, September 30, at the SFJAZZ Center’s Miner Auditorium, the scene of his highly successful tribute to Carla Bley in June of last year.
No transcriptions from recordings will be performed. The musicians will instead play from original Evans scores—some written in pencil by the composer himself—supplied by composer Ryan Truesdell. An associate of Maria Schneider, Truesdell had gathered arrangements from Evans’s family, musicians who had worked with him, and from the archives of bandleaders for whom he had worked, among other sources, and recorded 10 of them for his critically acclaimed 2012 CD Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans
The earliest Evans composition on the program is “The Troubadour,” first recorded by the Thornhill orchestra in 1947. Another Evans composition in the set is “Dancing on a Great Big Rainbow,” written for Thornhill in 1950 but not recorded until 2012 by Truesdell. The Mandala Orchestra will also perform “Blues for Pablo” and “The Maids of Cadiz” (both from Davis’s 1957 album Miles Ahead
) and “Greensleeves” (from the 1964 Kenny Burrell album Guitar Forms
), as well as “St. Louis Blues,” “La Nevada Blues,” “Punjab,” and “Eleven,” all from various albums made by Evans’s own bands. And the Nonet will play “Budo,” “Israel,” and “Boplicity” from Birth of the Cool
Although born in Canada, on May 13, 1912, Gil Evans resided in the United States from the time he was a boy. He became enamored of the music of Louis Armstrong and other early jazz greats while living in Berkeley in the mid-1920s and formed a nine-piece swing band in Stockton a few years later. He spent most of the 1940s as a staff arranger for the Thornhill band, whose distinctive style greatly influenced that of the Miles Davis Nonet that made the sessions that became known as “Birth of the Cool.” He recorded in subsequent years with various vocalists and instrumentalists and with bands of his own, but it is the four classic Columbia albums he made with Davis—Miles Ahead
(1957), Porgy and Bess
(1959), Sketches of Spain
(1960), and Quiet Nights
(1963)—that Evans’s reputation most strongly sits in the minds of many. He died on March 20, 1988. Steve McQuarry, who was born in Denver on August 17, 1959, took his first arranging class at age 17 at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, with Oakland-born composer-arranger Russell Garcia, renowned for his work with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Stan Kenton, and many others. McQuarry also studied at the University of Colorado at Denver, Berklee College of Music, UC San Diego, and Alexander University. An Oakland resident for the past decade, he has performed as a pianist at Yoshi’s San Francisco with his own trio and with flutist Gerald Beckett’s quartet and has broadcast with his chamber octet Resonance over KPFA in Berkeley and KKUP in Cupertino. He currently records for his own label, Mandala Records, with his piano jazz trio and the jazz ensembles Resonance, Steve McQuarry Organ Trio, Art-Jazz- Rock group, Echelon; Afro-Cuban Latin Jazz band, Tribu; the electronica group Synsor; and the new age group Agharta.
“I named my record label, the octet, and the orchestra Mandala after meeting the Dalai Lama and some Tibetan monks drawing mandalas on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley some years ago,” he says.
The Mandala Orchestra members are trumpeters Justin Smith and John Worley; trombonist Ken Yee; French hornist Winston Macaraeg; tuba player Portia Njoku; saxophonists Ruben Salcido, Corey Wright, Georgianna Krieger, and Hermann Lara; oboe and English horn player Glenda Bates; bassoonist Wendell Hanna; cellist Nancy Bien; guitarist Mason Razavi; bassist Ted Burik; Greg German, drums; and tabla player Jim Santi Owen. Conductor: Omid Zoufonoun.
Sat. September 30, 8:00 p.m.: SFJAZZ Center, Miner Auditorium, 201 Franklin Street, San Francisco. $25. RSVP to mcquarry.org.
(This concert has been rescheduled from March 4, 2017.)