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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Steve Arloff, Nick Barnard, Pierre Giroux, Don Mather, Glyn Pursglove, George Stacy, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf

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Blues in Orbit

Enja ENJ 2130-2



1. Thoroughbred
2. Spaced
3. Love in the Open
4. Variation on the Misery
5. Blues in Orbit
6. Proclamation
7. General Assembly
8. So Long

Collective personnel
Snooky Young, Mike Lawrence, Ernie Royal, Johnny Coles - Trumpets
Jimmy Cleveland, Jimmy Knepper, Garnett Brown - Trombones
Julius Watkins, Ray Alonge - French horns
Howard Johnson - Tuba, baritone sax
Billy Harper - Tenor sax, flute
Hubert Laws - Flute
George Marge - Flute, soprano sax
Gil Evans - Piano, electric piano, conductor
Joe Beck - Guitar
Gene Bianco - Harp
Herb Bushler - Bass
Elvin Jones, Alphonse Mouzon - Drums
Sue Evans, Donald McDonald - Percussion


Many big bands are unexciting because they often sound just like other big bands: using identical stereotyped styles of arranging, which may have seemed innovative several decades ago but have now worn thin. However, Gil Evans knows how to be different - even if only because he uses such unusual instruments as the tuba, the French horn and the harp, which are all employed on this album. But Gil's arrangements also manage to stand out from the crowd because they avoid the overworked conventions and always seek something new - even if that new thing is not necessarily mellifluous.

These recordings were made in 1969 and 1971, and the title reflects the mood of the times: hinting at futuristic spacey ideas. In fact Duke Ellington recorded an album with the same title about ten years earlier, but it was mostly less way-out than this one. The predominant style of the opening track Thoroughbred is primarily jazz-rock, although with the added stimulus of unusual voicings and instrumentation. There is a rocky beat beneath the cries of a French horn and composer Billy Harper's tenor sax.

The next track - Spaced - is futuristically weird. Perhaps it is free improvisation, with strange sounds from Joe Beck's guitar conjuring up an image of aliens invading. When the ensemble enters, the atmosphere is still unsettling and discordant.

Woodwinds dominate the waltzing opening of Love in the Open, with a swirling tenor-sax solo before the whole orchestra cooks up a smorgasbord of sounds. Variation on the Misery maintains the ambiance of other-worldly sounds, which may again result from free improvisation. Thankfully the title-track has a more graspable melody, with elegant solos from trombone and guitar over a four-four beat, although the recording quality turns fuzzy halfway through.

Proclamation starts anarchically but then becomes more orderly, although still fragmented. General Assembly (co-written by Miles Davis and Gil Evans) seems rather muddled, with instruments playing disconnected snatches without anything integrated emerging, until the ensemble introduces something more organised but nevertheless ragged. The closing So Long has an exploratory air, with Billy Harper's tenor sax strongly in evidence again, over a backing of deep chords of the kind that Gil Evans created so well.

This album is a useful indication of Gil Evans's progress in the period between his "cool" recordings (and his masterpieces with Miles Davis) and his later ventures into more electronic sounds. Nonetheless, it seems as if Gil was searching rather than finding, and the album is only partly successful because it has no clear direction. With only about 38 minutes of music, this CD is really only a must for the Gil Evans completist.

Tony Augarde

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