By Devon Wendell
Los Angeles, CA. Any tribute to Miles Davis really goes against Miles’ core belief in always growing and never looking back at past ideas and concepts. But when you gather five musicians (three of whom — Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Marcus Miller — played with Miles) who are constantly pushing themselves beyond what they know, and collectively changing Miles’ compositions from all eras of his career, the result will likely be something Miles would have been proud of. This is what the Tribute To Miles performance achieved on Tuesday night at Disney Hall.
Witnessing Hancock, Shorter and Miller, along with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and trumpeter Sean Jones together onstage, was in itself something to behold, whether it was a tribute to Miles Davis or not. Throughout the night, the solo order was pretty much the same with Jones playing the first solo on trumpet, followed by Shorter on tenor and soprano saxes, then Miller and Hancock exchanging leads between bass and keys.
The band opened the show with “Walkin’,” giving this Miles hard-bop classic a funky/fusion twist to it, especially in the tight, slick groove laid down by Miller on bass and Colaiuta on drums. Jones’ trumpet style sounded very close to that of Miles’ mid-‘60s playing, which mixed perfectly with Shorter and Hancock, since both were core members of Mile’s second classic quintet of that time.
Although the harmonies and arrangements of each number were drastically altered, the long time connection between Hancock and Shorter could be felt during the entire program, especially on “Little One,” which was the only piece close to the ‘65 original in its melodic approach. This piece was rarely performed with the next Davis quintet, so it was exciting to see Hancock and Shorter revisiting it all these years later.
The arrangements of each song were changed so much that even the most devote Miles fan would have had to take a moment to figure out the tune, which kept the material fresh on classics such as “Milestones,” “All Blues” and “Directions.” Only true masters who understand Miles’ music intimately could have done this as successfully as these players did. The energy level grew with each nuance and it felt as though the players had ESP and were symbiotically feeding each other new ideas, pushing themselves beyond the parameters of the songs’ structures.
Miller’s mournful bass clarinet playing on “In A Silent Way” was truly haunting and mesmerizing, as the other band members dropped their sound down to a whisper. Shorter alternated between tenor and soprano sax, Hancock moved from his grand piano to his various synthesizers, and Colaiuta played with sticks, brushes, and his hands, all over the kit from one moment to the next. There was constant motion within the band as well as reactions to ideas that happened in the moment.
Although neither man actually played with Miles, Sean Jones’ youthful energy and aggression, matched with Colaiuta’s dynamic fire and bombast, pushed Miller, Shorter, and Hancock to amazing heights. This was especially the case in an up-tempo, joyful reading of “Fran Dance.” Here, Hancock played a fluid solo that quoted directly from Bill Evan’s piano part on the original recording from 1958. Jones played muted trumpet and only emphasized syncopated segments of the original melody line, with Shorter filling in those spaces on tenor sax. The results were brilliant on all levels.
The highlights of the entire evening were stark, sinister versions of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and Shorter’s masterpiece “Footprints.” Shorter played a brief soprano sax solo on “Footprints” that screamed and shrieked into a place beyond good or bad as only a genius like Shorter could pull off. And he made it look easy, as if it wasn’t and couldn’t have been rehearsed.
Even with all of Hancock’s adventurous synthesizer experimentations, the bebop qualities were not lost on “Dr. Jackle.” Jones’ trumpet squealed into the upper register, venturing into a Don Cherry, avant-garde style, and Miller switched to upright bass. Colaiuta conjured up the spirit of Tony Williams and Philly Joe Jones, without abandoning his own unique musical presence.
The band finished with an encore of “Jean Pierre.” Miller played the slap-happy bass line with the same youthful vitality he expressed on the original recording with Miles in 1981. Hancock made some delightfully peculiar sounds on his many synthesizers to match Miller’s live vocal special effects. And all the players were laughing and having fun.
The Tribute to Miles was a powerful statement of focus, soul, and wisdom by some of the greatest musicians in the world. The constant energy and movement made it seem as if Miles were there watching each musician with the intense look that only Miles could give – a look that meant that you’d better give it your best. And these remarkable players did just that.
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