By Don Heckman
Call it a mixed blessing. The thought kept flickering through my mind Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl during a program titled, promisingly, “Miles Davis/Gil Evans: Still Ahead.” There was no faulting the premise: selections from Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain and Miles Ahead, the classic Davis/Evans musical partnerships of the late fifties, performed by an ensemble of L.A.’s finest musicians, conducted by Vince Mendoza, with Terence Blanchard and Nicholas Payton as principal soloists.
The original recorded music was the product of encounters between two jazz masters, each in rare creative form, fully receptive to the directions that each might trigger in the other. And the result was a startlingly far-ranging collection of music: the adventurous individual items of Miles Ahead (including, among others “My Ship,” “New Rhumba” and “The Duke”); the transformative instrumental versions of the character-driven songs in Porgy and Bess; the atmospheric blend of folk, classical and jazz elements in Sketches of Spain.
Amazingly, there is only a minimal history of live recordings of this music. A selection has surfaced here and there over the years, usually at a festival or big band celebration. Evans continued to play some of the individual pieces over the years with his own orchestras — but always in drastically revised versions. And, in the only significant revival, Davis performed excerpts from all three albums in a Quincy Jones-produced event at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1991.
All of which made Wednesday’s Bowl program a much anticipated event. And the upside was clearly the utterly timeless quality of the music. Hearing Evans’ capacity to move effortlessly from the collective jazz drive of some of the Miles Ahead pieces to the emotional intimacy of Porgy and Bess‘ “My Man’s Gone Now” and “I Loves You Porgy” and the passionate intensity of the “Solea” from Sketches of Spain was an ear-opening (and ear-caressing) experience.
So far, so good. But all of these works were conceived as unique concertos — with Davis’ solo voice placed within an orchestral setting. And those settings were designed with the timbre, the phrasing and the style of his trumpet (or flugelhorn) in mind. Blanchard’s playing on Porgy and Bess was an extraordinary display of rich, emotional, improvisational layering. Heard on its own, separate from the Evans’ setting, it would have been a memorable Gershwin interpretation. Positioned within Evans’ re-composition of the score, it seemed at odds with its surroundings — a bit like hearing the Mozart Concerto for Clarinet performed by a superb soprano saxophonist.
It’s neither fair nor desirable, of course, to expect Blanchard — a major artist in his own right — to perform a Miles Davis simulation. And there were a few passages in which his own intimate qualities found meaningful interpretive variations. Given more time to work on it, he would surely have discovered more. Still, one couldn’t help but wonder whether the rarity of the live renderings of this work may simply trace to the challenge of finding a way in which a player other than Davis can find expressive room within a framework so specifically oriented.
Payton’s performance on the Sketches of Spain pieces came somewhat closer to the mark — in part because so much more of the trumpet role was written, in part because his sound and phrasing verged closer to the Davis method. Gil Evans’ trumpet-playing son, Miles, also played on a few pieces, his tentativeness offset by his obvious affection for the music. Jimmy Cobb, who had been present on some of the original recordings, alternated — and sometimes combined — with Peter Erskine in the drumming. And tuba player Howard Johnson, a veteran of Evans’ orchestras, made some significant contributions to Porgy and Bess.
But neither the orchestra, the soloists nor the music were well-served by the sound amplification. Christian McBride’s bass (especially in the Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess segments) was boosted to the point of heaviness, despite the excellence of his playing. All of the trumpet solos were positioned so far out front of the audio mix that they lost the almost symbiotic relationship with the ensemble that was an essential aspect of the original Davis/Evans vision. Many of the brass passages (some of which were poorly blended with each other) overwhelmed the lighter woodwind timbres. And this, once again, diminished the subtle dynamic qualities so vital to Evans’ orchestrations.
So, as I said, a mixed blessing. Like everyone else in the large crowd, no doubt, I’m happy to have been there, pleased to have heard this remarkable music in live performance fashion. But I couldn’t help but wonder — with a little more rehearsal time, some thoughtful consideration of how to creatively approach the soloing, and the provision of the correct acoustic environment — how much more it might have been.