By Fernando Gonzalez
Almost by definition, tribute concerts are safe gambits. The honored figure provides a brand name, a ready-made repertoire, and a marketing narrative. Feature in the bill artists who were part of the honoree’ s career or were influenced by the master, stir and sell out the hall.
Consider Celebrating Miles, the entertaining show at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, FL, Friday. The first part of the concert featured a sterling group led by trumpeter Wallace Roney, with saxophonists Javon Jackson and Donald Harrison, pianist Billy Childs, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Al Foster. The music was acoustic and focused on Miles’ repertory from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The second half, featuring bassist Marcus Miller and a group comprising trumpeter Christian Scott, saxophonist Alex Han, pianist Federico Gonzalez Pena and drummer Louis Cato, focused on Tutu, the 1986 album co-produced, and mostly written and played, by Miller.
It was a smart set up, but Miles Davis can be as elusive and contentious in memory as he was in life. When celebrating Miles, what are we celebrating? He was an inimitable player, but not a memorable composer. His best material was mostly either standards, or pieces by his collaborators. He was an exceptional leader. By hook or by crook he coaxed the best out of his sidemen, both playing and writing. But this is not a talent that lends itself to tributes. And celebrating leadership without the leader suggests something akin to setting up a game of basketball without a ball.
A certain group sound? An approach? Which? Miles had many of both. An attitude? How? His never-look-back approach is contradicted by the very idea of a tribute. Celebrating Miles addressed some of these questions, shrugged off others, and, with some reservations, it worked.
Roney is an exceptional player, who probably will never get his due because of his association with Miles. He has ideas, a beautiful, lustrous full sound, and a goldsmith’s control of tone and phrasing. In spots, he even suggested a might-have-been, fleet fingered, technically better version of Miles. Jackson and Harrison played their roles well without ever trying to evoke Cannonball or Coltrane. Childs showed an arranger’s ear in the framing and development of his parts and his solos, making the most of his chances. Carter and Foster dutifully, impeccably anchored the music in pieces such as “So What,” “All Blues,” and “Seven Steps to Heaven.”
The arranging was minimal, consisting basically of head and solos. The exception was a long Carter intro feature. But it was all well-done rather than inspiring. At times, Wallace and company suggested museum curators bringing out the prized artifacts for a look – from a distance, through a glass, for a timed viewing – before they would take it all back to the vault without a word.
Miller had a better idea. Because Miles’ much maligned late period has not been yet bronzed, and because the composer of much of the music being celebrated was at hand, there was an opportunity to take liberties, stretch out, and have fun. And Miller & Co. took it and ran with it.
Both trumpeter Scott, saddled with Miles’ role, and especially saxophonist Han, a player to watch, were healthily irreverent while probing the material from different angles. (Han even added some dance moves and a friendly challenge to the boss that actually felt spontaneous.) Songs like “Tomaas,” “Portia,” or “Backyard Ritual,” will likely never be considered on par with “Round Midnight,” “Stella By Starlight,” or “Nefertiti,” perhaps because — not in spite of it — they were thoroughly enjoyable. Even “Tutu,” the class of this field, got a shake-and-bake reading that included double time swing and variations rather than a respectful reconstruction of the original.
Now, that was something Miles might have approved.
Photos by Rodrigo Gaya.