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Because of Miles Davis’ career-long penchant for hiring and nurturing stars such as Chick Corea and John Coltrane, among others, I’ve tended to follow former associates of the trumpeter the way die-hard Boston Red Sox fans follow the progress of players who make their way away from the autumnal sadness of that baseball club. I’m aware that many of Davis’ fans—and I include those who’ve even cordoned off his “fusion” period like so many checkout aisles in a supermarket—don’t consider the post-1981 editions of his bands to be from the same fecund vineyard as, say, the 1969-1970 Wayne Shorter/John McLaughlin electric incarnations, but I think that’s missing the point.
The ensembles featured on posthumous Davis collections such as Live Around the World weren’t fashioned to provide listeners with the marathon solos associated with Miles’ classic mid-’60s quintet so much as to immerse the audience’s ears in gorgeous theme statements, followed by shorter, pithier variations on the theme. Saxophonist and Miles acolyte Rick Margitza’s Heart of Hearts falls somewhere between the solo and thematic approaches. It’s an acoustic-based date, with both Margitza’s inventive, sprightly takes on the genre’s building blocks (blues, ballads, etc.) and solos sounding closer to those that folks expect to hear at, say, Blues Alley—as opposed to the “social music” Davis espoused in his bands.
But as you might expect from someone affiliated with the Prince of Darkness, Margitza’s solo and ensemble work ripples with an enthusiasm and lyricism, which prevents enticing originals such as “14 Bar Blues” from falling into straight-ahead jazz’s version of formula. It also clearly inspires the work of drummer Ian Froman, bassist Scott Colley, and pianist Joey Calderazzo, who all joyously tumble behind and beside Margitza’s soprano (he also shows up on tenor) like happy kids on a toboggan.
They are equally seamless on the title track—a waltz in which Calderazzo’s solo dances like Ali in his prime and the leader’s tenor clearly revels in the sublime chord changes, but not excessively; their restraint would please Davis.
Still, the unfettered beauty of Margitza’s tone is best heard on Randy Newman’s “Dexter’s Tune”—originally titled “Rolando’s Tune” and featured throughout the soundtrack for Awakenings, a film in which the late saxophonist Dexter Gordon played Rolando, a silent but visually moving character ensconced in a mental hospital. The heartbreaking theme is arranged as a duet between Margitza’s tenor and Calderazzo’s piano, and clearly benefits from the less-is-more treatment. In choosing not to turn the stark melody into a vehicle for endless solos, the players prove that they know when not to hide behind technical prowess.
A more vigorous example of Margitza’s hand can be found on the up-tempo “Father John,” which again finds the quartet frolicking and exploring as one, and taking full advantage of the sublime, but somewhat unpredictable harmonic structure.
It’s interesting that Margitza chose to title this album Heart of Hearts rather than give it the name of its 10th and last track, “Some of the Things I Am.” Like so many of the post-Coltrane hornmen Davis hired, Margitza has more than a little of Coltrane’s roiling bliss in his tenor, but he stops short of strenuous aping to tell us who he is—and who he is trying to be. CP