Six years ago composer and arranger Ryan Truesdell began a research project into the archives of Gil Evans (1912-1988), the great jazz bandleader, arranger and composer. The results of this personal obsession have become a thriving career. Mr. Truesdell, who is now 35, had been a fan of the jazz great since his teens, and he studied Evans’s music as a student at the New England Conservatory of Music. He approached the Evans family and gained access to his manuscripts. During his perusal, Mr. Truesdell began finding arrangements that had never been performed.
For any fan of orchestral jazz, this was a Life-on-Mars level discovery. His employer at the time (whom he occasionally still works for on a project-to-project basis), the composer and bandleader Maria Schneider, an Evans protégée, encouraged him to form a band and record the music. He created the Gil Evans Project in 2011 and their recording, “Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans” (ArtistShare, 2012), stunned the jazz world. It was nominated for three Grammy Awards in 2013 and won one for Best Instrumental Arrangement for the song “How About You.”
The timing of Mr. Truesdell’s undertaking couldn’t have been better. Evans’s influence can be heard both directly and indirectly throughout the current jazz scene. Ms. Schneider’s orchestra, which employs many of the same musical innovations that Evans did—an impressionistic sound, unusual harmonies and unique instrumentation—has become one of the leading groups in jazz. Darcy James Argue leads a big band called Secret Society, which has won praise for its two Evans-influenced recordings, and earlier this year Mr. Argue was the recipient of both a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award and Guggenheim Fellowship.
Evans is a cornerstone figure in jazz—arguably the most important arranger of postwar jazz—but he never sought fame, unlike Miles Davis, with whom he collaborated on essential albums such as “Birth of the Cool” (Capitol, 1957), “Porgy and Bess” (Columbia, 1959) and “Sketches of Spain” (Columbia, 1960). Evans’s arrangements changed the big-band sound from hefty bursts of horns into nuanced and unique sonorities. His openness to innovation led him to arrange bebop tunes for big bands, when the genre was still new and controversial. He welcomed free jazz rebels by showcasing the Cecil Taylor Unit on the recording “Into the Hot” (Impulse!, 1962), and he arranged songs by rock guitar god Jimi Hendrix for the album “The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix” (RCA, 1974).
Following warm reception received by “Centennial,” Mr. Truesdell continued to peruse the Evans manuscripts. On a few occasions, he’d call the descendants of Evans collaborators and discover additional arrangements that were either never or rarely performed. He has culled six newly discovered works, two arrangements with sections that were never publicly performed and three better known pieces into a recently released album, “Lines of Color: Live at Jazz Standard” (Blue Note/ArtistsShare).
The recording features several top-echelon musicians on the New York scene who form an impressive unit: among the highlights are solos by saxophonist Steve Wilson, trombonist Ryan Keberle, pianist Frank Kimbrough and drummer Lewis Nash. It moves from big, bold sounds to feathery, light ones with astonishing grace and poise. Songs like “Davenport Blues” are big and flamboyant, while others like “Concorde” are complex and sublime.
Last week Mr. Truesdell brought the 24-member Gil Evans Project back to the Jazz Standard in New York to celebrate the new recording, and the band highlighted the ingenuity of the arrangements. For instance, on “Smoking My Sad Cigarette,” which is on the first recording, vocalist Wendy Gilles is backed by bass clarinet, bassoon, alto flute, piccolo, bass trombone, trombone, plus a piano, bass and drum rhythm section. Rather than sound precious or forced, the sinuous arrangement and unusual instrumentation enhanced the melancholy mood of the song. The music evoked the ’40s and ’50s, when many of the arrangements were written, but the solos were straight out of 2015 with canny dissonances and postmillennial stylings.
Unfortunately the economics of jazz have prevented Mr. Truesdell from making this band a touring unit. However, his work has made him the pre-eminent Evans-ologist in the world. For instance, in July he will travel to Rotterdam, Netherlands, and perform Evans’s music with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra at the North Sea Jazz Festival.
During the final decade of his life, Evans led a big band that performed every Monday night at a New York jazz club. It isn’t too much to hope that Mr. Truesdell gets a similar opportunity 30 years later. This music deserves frequent and regular performances.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.