Live Jazz: A Celebration of Miles Davis at the Hollywood Bowl

By Don Heckman

There was a lot to like about the opening program in the 2012 jazz schedule Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl.  Start with the fact that it was conceived as a tribute to Miles Davis.  Add to that the simultaneous release of a commemorative Davis USPS stamp. And top it off with a program of music celebrating three of Davis’ most memorable recordings.

Herbie Hancock, the L.A. Philharmonic’s Creative Chair for Jazz, opened the evening with an introduction of Jimmy Cobb’s “So What” Band playing the complete set of works from Davis’ much praised  Kind of Blue, reportedly the best selling jazz recording of all time.  Cobb, who performed on the original recording, has been touring his Band, emphasizing his connection with Kind of Blue. “So What” is the title of the first tune on the album, and it was first on the program.

Here, as elsewhere in the performance, the evening’s trumpeters – Jeremy Pelt (with the Cobb band), Nicholas Payton (with the Miles Electric Band) and Sean Jones (with Marcus Miller’s “Tutu Revisited”) – had to confront the question of how to take the role of the inimitable Miles Davis in the midst of the legendary trumpeter’s highly influential outings.

To his credit Pelt captured some of the Davis sound and flow without abandoning his own creative identity. So, too did alto saxophonist Vincent Herring and tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson move convincingly within their assumed roles of Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane.  But ultimately, a good part of the appeal of Kind of Blue traces to the way the soloists worked from the amiable sounds of modal harmonies, rather than the complex, often chromatic chords of hard bop.  And it was the pieces themselves – “Freddie Freeloader,” “Blue in Green,” “All Blues” and “Flamenco Sketches” in addition to “So What” – that made the Cobb band’s set appealing.  (This, despite the fact that the audio engineers needed at least two tunes to find a sound balance that did not heavily overweight the bass and piano in the mix.)

The program’s second portion was devoted to Davis’ so-called electric bands, which actually were among the ‘70s and ‘80s’most convincing blends of jazz and electric rock elements.  Performed by an eleven piece band featuring Payton’s trumpet, the saxophones of Antoine Roney, the guitar of Blackbyrd McNight and high energy percussion from Mino Cinelu, Munyungo Jackson and tabla player Badal Roy, such classic Davis outings as “Jack Johnson,” “Nefertiti” and “In A Silent Way” came vividly to life.  Up to this stage it was clearly the high point of the program.

But it remained for Marcus Miller’s “Tutu Revisted” to climax the evening with a set that would surely have made Davis proud of the encouragement he gave to the bassist/composer/bass clarinetist when he was an enthusiastic young player.  Pieces such as “Tutu” (from the Davis recording of the same name, produced, composed and arranged by Miller) along with newer Miller works such as the deeply atmospheric “Goree” were underscored by remarkable emotional intensity from the players.  Trumpeter Sean Jones and alto saxophonist Alex Han were especially impressive, delivering some of the evening’s most emotionally compelling musical moments.

All that said, the tribute raised a few questions as well.  One wonders, for example, why – given the timely issuance of the  stamp — Miles Davis wasn’t included, five days earlier, among this year’s group of inductees into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame.  Maybe next year?

It also was odd to see Herbie Hancock, who was a member of one of Davis’ most highly regarded bands, making announcements without going near a piano.  That band, the Davis quintet of the ‘60s, also included Wayne Shorter, like Hancock a Los Angeles resident.  And one wonders, too, why Shorter and Hancock, with the addition of bassist Ron Carter, a veteran of the same band, couldn’t have been assembled with, say, trumpeter Wallace Roney (who was mentored by Davis) and a drummer with Tony Williams’ skills in an impressively authentic version of an important Davis band, otherwise unrepresented in this gathering.

Those carps aside, any celebration of the life of Miles Davis is a worthwhile celebration.  And it was both the successes and the failures of this ambitious program that reminded us of Miles’ greatness, of the vital role he played in the second half of the first jazz century.

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