“Arab Dance” (1946) and “La Paloma” (1947) Claude Thornhill and Gil Evans

“Arab Dance”

Composed by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky; arranged by Gil Evans.

Recorded by Claude Thornhill and His Orchestra for Columbia on July 17, 1946 in New York.

Claude Thornhill, piano, directing: Louis Mucci, first trumpet; Jake Koven, Rusty Diedrick, Clarence Willard, trumpets; Tasso Harris, Bob Jenney, and Ray Schmidt, trombones; Sandy Siegelstein, French horn; Bob Walters, clarinet; Jack Ferrier and Ted Goddard, clarinet and alto saxophone; John Nelson and Carl Swift, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Chet Pardee, clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone; Barry Galbraith, guitar; Robert C. “Iggy” Shevak, bass; Billy Exiner, drums. Solos: Bob Walters, clarinet; Ted Goddard, alto saxophone.

The story: Upon being discharged from the U.S. Army in late 1945, Gil Evans returned for a while to his mother’s home in California, and then resumed living in Manhattan early in 1946.(1) He was most interested in the developments that were taking place in jazz at that time in New York, which centered around the ongoing development of bebop. Evans himself was certainly not a bopper, though their music fascinated him. What he didn’t know then was that his music fascinated them.

One of the first and best drummers who was instrumental in integrating the rhythmic feeling of bop into his drumming was Max Roach. Here is his recollection about Evans: “Gil was a dominant figure because of his writing. He was already established as an orchestrator during that early period. What interested us – amazed us, I guess – about Gil’s work was the instrumentation that Claude Thornhill had – that was totally different from the big band format. …He had French horns and a tuba and the sound was just rich to us. These instruments …gave  a new timbre to the sound of the music.” (2)

What is interesting in Max Roach’s recollection of Gil Evans in 1945 was that Gil’s musical identity then was linked in his memory to that of Claude Thornhill. This undoubtedly was because of the relatively few arrangements Evans had written for the prewar Thornhill band that had been recorded. By the time Evans joined the Thornhill band as an arranger in the fall of 1941, the musical personality of that band had been well established. And that musical personality reflected Claude Thornhill’s approach to music.The instrumentation of the Thornhill band in late 1941 was similar to the instrumentation of the band Claude would organize five years later. In what he wrote for the Thornhill band in 1941 and 1942, Evans applied his musical ideas, which were extensions of what Thornhill was then doing .

As we will see, Gil was quite happy working with Thornhill before World War II, and wanted to do so again after the War. But Claude was not discharged from the U.S. Navy until September of 1945, and was not in good health then. It took about six months for him to regain his physical (and emotional) health,(3) and then a couple of more months to organize, rehearse and begin to work with another band. (The postwar Thornhill band debuted on April 10, 1946.) Claude, for his part, couldn’t wait to work with Gil again. Evans continued expanding the sonic palette of the postwar Thornhill band until the the late 1940s, when he moved on to other musical endeavors.

Claude Thornhill himself did not write any arrangements for his postwar (1946-1948) band. The main arranger of current pop tunes and mainstream dance charts then, as before the War, was Bill Borden. He was assisted by Danny Hurd, and Andy Phillips, and later by Charlie Naylor. Evans’s role initially was to also help with current pop tunes, but it slowly evolved to where he arranged only “special” material for the Thornhill orchestra. All of these arrangers however, fit whatever they wrote to the instrumentation and musical approach of the Thornhill band, and that had been established by Claude in his prewar band, and continued in his postwar ensemble. (Above left: L-R: Claude Thornhill, Gil Evans and Bill Borden – 1946.)

Thornhill’s musical orientation was grounded firmly in the work of French Impressionist composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Gil Evans, likewise, studied the music of those composers, but he gradually broadened his scope of appreciation and understanding of classical music, especially right after he returned to New York after his military service. His studies eventually covered music from the time of J.S. Bach (“Well Tempered Clavier”), through the Russian masters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to Manuel de Falla, Bela Bartok and Ernest Bloch. “Actually, the classical composer that impressed me the most was Bloch. He inspired me. I like the blues quality, and his harmonic language too, which has carried me farther than the Impressionists. As a matter of fact, I think “Schlomo” is one of the most perfect compositions ever written.” (4)

The music: “Arab Dance” is one of many memorable melodies in Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker. The arrangement of it written by Gil Evans, was one of his first for the postwar Thornhill band. It is a brash, brassy swinger, though one with musical contrasts, yet still very much in the Thornhill mode. It was recorded at the postwar Thornhill’s band’s first Columbia recording session.

The introduction Evans created is a textbook example of how creatively he used various instruments in the Thornhill orchestra. A blast of open brass melds into a mysterious mix of sustained clarinets, tom-toms, an ostinato played by a bass clarinet and a tuba, and then a paraphrase of the melody carried by the trombones and French horns against a weird woodwind sound like bees swarming around a hive, followed by muted trumpets – and this is in just the first 19 seconds of the recording!

The reeds, led by one of the clarinets, begin the exposition of Tchaikovsky’s melodies, being spurred along by the cup-muted trumpets and trombones. This sleek passage, and the ones that follow it, were certainly not unusual by swing era standards. Their purpose was to orient the listened to the melodies, and of course to swing. In fact, much of the arrangement through the excellent solos, first by Ted Goddard on alto saxophone, and then by Bob Walters on clarinet, though obviously the work of a master arranger, is not particularly different from the best writing being done by arrangers in the mid-1940s for top level bands.

The sparks start to fly as clarinetist Walters leads the ensemble into a dynamically intensifying, upwardly swirling sequence that allows the orchestra to roar. When the French horns come in in their eerie high-register, a climax is reached. Thornhill’s presto piano leads the music out of this intensity into a quieter phase. Then, as if out of nowhere, Evans drops a blasting tutti into the arrangement, which is a direct quote from Duke Ellington’s “Ko-Ko.” I am reasonably sure that Claude Thornhil, a man who had an extremely offbeat sense of humor, was delighted by this brief musical digression. The dynamically building, exciting finale is a masterly use by Evans of all of the instruments in the Thornhill orchestra to conclude the music in dramatic fashion. (Above left – Gil Evans.)

Whereas “Arab Dance” is an up-tempo demonstration of the capabilities of Gil Evans’s skill in writing for the Thornhill ensemble, and their virtuosity as as an orchestra, “La Paloma,” though it is music in a much quieter, reflective mood, nevertheless presents another example of Evans’s sorcery as an arranger, and of the brilliance of the Thornhill orchestra.

“La Paloma”

Composed by Sebastián Iradier Salaverri; arranged by Gil Evans.

Recorded by Claude Thornhill and His Orchestra for Columbia on June 30, 1947 in New York.

Claude Thornhill, piano, directing: Louis Mucci, first trumpet; Emil Terry and Eddie Zandy, trumpets; Vahey “Tak” Takvorian and Allan Langstaff, trombones; Walt Weschler and Sandy Siegelstein, French horns; Bill Barber, tuba; Les Clark (lead) and Danny Polo, alto saxophones and B-flat clarinets; Mario Rollo, tenor saxophone and B-flat clarinet; Mickey Folus, tenor saxophone and bass clarinet; Bill Bushey, baritone saxophone, B-clarinet and bass clarinet; Barry Galbraith, guitar; Joe Schulman, bass; Billy Exiner, drums.

The story continues: By the time Claude Thornhill made this recording, he had been leading his postwar band with success for some fourteen months. The Thornhill ensemble of 1947 was fully integrated and immaculately rehearsed, and it played a fairly wide variety of music.The arrangements Gil Evans wrote for this band were unquestionably among the best not only in the Thornhill library, but of the entire swing era. As you will hear when listening to the old melody (composed before 1860) “La Paloma,” Evans did not simply arrange it, he reinvented it for performance by this unique orchestra. In the late 1940s, Evans was hitting his stride as one of the most individual and creative arrangers to emerge from the swing era. What he was doing in the Claude Thornhill orchestra led directly to a number of developments in jazz in the 1950s, most notable of those being Gil’s highly rewarding musical collaborations with jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.

Trumpeter Robert Chudnick, known professionally as Red Rodney, was 20 years old when he joined the Thornhill orchestra shortly after this recording of “La Paloma” was made. Here is his recollection of his first encounter with the music of Gil Evans: “I didn’t know anything about Gil Evans, I didn’t know him or of him. But when I got there and played that book, my first impression was ‘Good God, this is gorgeous.’ And I didn’t play first trumpet. I was the jazz player, I was the soloist in the band, and you know when your playing a harmony part, it’s just that — it’s a harmony part. But yet Gil had a knack of writing so that even the second and third trumpet (parts) had beautiful melodies to them. That band, musically, was sensational. It was a gorgeous, gorgeous orchestra — primarily because of Gil.” (5)

The music: The introduction begins with fluttering clarinets as a background, on top of which Evans places French horns and trombones. Into this sonic mix, Evans adds bass tones played by a bass clarinet, tuba, and arco (bowed) bass. Then he has the clarinets begin to move up in register, being joined by the open trumpets as the backgrounds shift to create an upward arc of sound. This is followed by a lower passage that introduces the sound of Barry Galbraith’s electric guitar played in unison with Mickey Folus’s bass clarinet and Bill Barber’s tuba, which provide a magic musical carpet for pianist Thornhill to enter on.

Music scholar Gunther Schuller concisely described Thornhill’s approach to the piano: “…all his playing showed a refined touch, beauty of tone, and the technical discipline of classical piano literature. His crystal-clear arpeggios, or the pearly four-octave runs in thirds with which he loved to end pieces are some of the more obvious examples of his classical pianisms.” (6) Claude then plays the main melody of “La Paloma” on piano to orient the listener. His sparse playing provides the first of many musical contrasts with the dense instrumental combinations used by Gil Evans in this arrangement. The subtle, shifting backgrounds Evans fashions for Thornhill’s piano enhance the pensive mood of the music. One of these, the blending of French horns and trombones being played softly into their metal derby mutes, was a signature Thornhill/Evans sound. It is also noteworthy that Evans uses one of the French horns to play the most quiet sustained tone as a background through parts of Thornhill’s solo.

When the band comes in with the secondary melody, it is so gently that one barely notices. Still, a lot is going on musically, involving the French horns, derby muted trombones, bass clarinet, tuba, and unison guitar and bass. This is followed by an astonishing musical ascent that begins with swirling B-Flat clarinets, then the French horns/trombones, and finally the open trumpets topping the harmonic mixture.

The second half of Evans’s arrangement begins with a melodic exposition using the French horns/trombones played against a unison ostinato of bass clarinet and plucked bass. This sequence is extended into the next, where Eddie Zandy plays a quiet obbligato on his Harmon-muted trumpet against it. Then clarinetist Danny Polo (7) (shown at right in the fall of 1947) plays sotto voce, and is accompanied first by simple rhythm (guitar/bass/brushed drum), and then by spare elegant Thornhill piano tones.

Evans then takes the music into a mildly dissonant place, defined by the trumpets and trombones being played into their derby mutes, and of course the French horns. Thornhill’s soft piano concludes the performance with a gentle reminder of the melody.

The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) Gil Evans lived with trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell, a long-time musical associate and friend, and Jimmy’s wife Gertrude (and their infant son David), for several months upon his return to New York in early 1946. He moved into his now legendary apartment at 14 West 55th Street early in the summer of 1946. This basement apartment (really a largish open space which Claude Thornhill had used for storage before the War), soon became a combination crash pad and musical salon for jazz musicians who worked at the jazz clubs on nearby 52nd Street..

(2) Castles Made of Sound …The Story of Gil Evans, by Larry Hicock (2002); 33. Author interview of Max Roach, April 26, 1992.

(3) Apparently, the stresses of military service caused Thornhill to suffer a nervous breakdown, and receive a medical discharge. “After his discharge, he received electric shock treatments as a part of some psychiatric therapy. Always a bit of an oddball, the residual effects of these treatments, combined with his increasing alcoholism, made Thornhill more recalcitrant and peculiar than ever.” Gil Evans: Out of the Cool, by Stephanie Stein Crease (2002), 139.

(4) Hicock, 34.

(5) Hicock, 39.

(6) The Swing Era …The Development of Jazz 1930-1945, by Gunther Schuller (1989) ,755

(7) Danny Polo (really Pollo), was born in Clinton, Indiana on December 22, 1901. His father was a clarinetist. Polo met Claude Thornhill probably around 1918, when Thornhill was about 10, and already a prodigy on piano. Polo was then about 17. They performed together briefly as a novelty duo in Indiana. Polo began working with various bands in Chicago in the early 1920s. He went to Europe in 1927 (with drummer Dave Tough, among others), and remained in Europe (including Great Britain) for the next dozen years. Much of Polo’s time then was spent in Ambrose’s orchestra in London. He returned to the USA after World War II began in Europe in the fall of 1939. He joined Thornhill’s band in February of 1942, and remained until Claude entered military service at the end of 1942. He rejoined Thornhill in February of 1947, and remained associated with Thornhill until his sudden death in Chicago on July 11, 1949.

Here is a link to another post on this blog about the music of Claude Thornhill and Gil Evans, and a bit more information about both of them.


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