There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Some people subscribe to the notion that Miles Davis’ trumpet artistry didn’t change as much as the varying harmonic and rhythmic contexts in which he placed it during his nearly 50-year career. But even those believers will have to admit that the late trumpeter’s long-awaited and finally released collaboration with Quincy Jones, Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux, in which Davis and other players revisit some of arranger Gil Evans’ classic charts, is—on the surface at least—something of a surprise.
I say “something” because, contrary to popular (and critical) perceptions, Davis did occasionally tread the trad jazz terrain so tightly embraced by his pre-fusion followers. His much-lambasted comeback band of ’81 played titles from the standard repertoire (say, Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now”) and infused them with placid 4/4 swing elements. He would also occasionally intersperse mawkish selections (say, “Human Nature”) with quotes from old pieces like “Billy Boy.” In fact, Davis’ decision toward the close of his career to revisit classic collaborations from the late ’50s places him among the neuvo-retro youngsters who so revere his acoustic output; Montreux‘s approach makes Davis—a gentleman known for his “hipness” —trendy once again. It also allows producer/conductor Jones a chance to flex his all-but-dormant jazz muscles. (This, apparently, was something Jones had in mind when the art for the CD’s liner notes was conceived: There’s a large shot of Q conducting the orchestra, under which Jones thanks Davis. Whose date is this, anyway?)
Davis’ decision to tackle the strenuous Evans charts heard on classics such as Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain, and Porgy and Bess led both longtime fans and skeptics to ask the same question: Could he pull it off? Montreux‘s 15 tracks, for which Davis was accompanied by trumpeter Wallace Roney, saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and the combined Gil Evans and George Gruntz Orchestras, offer the following answers: yes and no.
Like a great hitter who has laid off for awhile, Davis both strikes out and provides moments of sheer lyric brilliance within the same performance. His muted trumpet attacks the lush, shyly swinging changes of “Boplicity” with great relish, performing the theme and solos as if he was unaware that the year was no longer 1949, which is when the title was recorded.
By contrast, Johnny Carisi’s “Springsville” finds Miles painfully tentative, weaving in and out of the themes like an apprentice, benefiting greatly from the presence of second trumpeter (and former Duke Ellington School grad) Roney. During a post-concert interview (included in the presumably forthcoming film documenting the event), Jones confessed that the rehearsals were “spotty” up until the last minute. That could explain the occasional tentativeness heard on the opening of “The Duke,” where in the ensemble is as shy as a schoolboy on the verge of a kiss, which only serves to emphasize the woodenness of Davis’ initial outing. But that timidity dissolves once soloists Roney and Davis trade supple phrases and the orchestra finds its feet; by then, the arrangement regains much of the original’s playful lyricism.
Though not given tons of space, Davis’ co-soloists, Roney and Garrett (the latter a member of Miles’ last working band), take full advantage of their outings on “Miles Ahead”: Roney’s essaying of Davis’ original 1957 solo is performed with both dazzling technique and emotion, and Garrett’s semi-acrid lyricism, unshackled from the “social music” performed with Davis’ pop/funk bands, tumbles and laps upon the title’s harmonic framework like waves. This enthusiasm is, fortunately, not lost on the orchestra, which responds with its most technically and emotionally complete performance. The “Miles Ahead” medley is one of the collection’s highlights.
It is clearly also a turning point for both Davis and the ensemble, for the brief reading of “Summertime” (from Porgy and Bess) finds Miles spitting deliciously pithy blues licks over the woodwind drenched four-note ostinato, match ing the high points of “Boplicity,” and reclaiming Gershwin’s maudlin Negroisms with the melodic panache which marked the original date with Evans. I find myself wishing for a chorus or two of “Bess, O Where’s My Bess,” but there are no unused performances from this 1991 date in the can —and no requests honored from the great beyond.
Montreux closes with performances of two Evans compositions written for the Sketches of Spain album, “Solea” and “The Pan Piper.” The latter showcases Davis’ legendary penchant for delivering what one critic once referred to as “choked melancholia,” while Evans’ equally mournful harmonic undulations embrace Davis’ solo statements, step back, then murmur softly, ghostlike.
“Solea,” which also features Roney, Garrett, and, unfortunately, electric bassist Carles Benavent’s painfully out-of-tune contributions, is a surging, bravado performance (imagine Miles leading a brass-and-percussion-laden assemblage of gladiators over sand dunes in glaring heat). Despite the title’s occasionally overstated drama, “Solea” benefits from the appropriately parched solos from Garrett and from the burnished shouts and whispers Roney and Davis toss between and around the orchestra’s blustery, ever-questing interpretation.
Davis is reputed to have expressed interest in taking this package on the road (he passed away a little more than two months after Montreux was recorded), and you don’t have to be a critic to imagine how this already remarkable date might have sounded with even more rehearsal and performance. But then, Miles wasn’t one for dwelling on any project for too long, and in this case, there just wasn’t time.