Manhattan (Bloomberg): The spirit of Miles Davis was hovering over Midtown Manhattan. Tribute concerts renewed his music one more time on a weekend in early May. Under the banner of “The Many Moods of Miles Davis," Jazz at Lincoln Center presented two groups a night for two nights in the Rose Theater in the Time Warner building on Columbus Circle, covering Davis's career from the late 1940s through the 1980s.
Concurrently, eight blocks south, there was a four-night engagement by a “Four Generations of Miles" band in the Iridium club on 51st Street and Broadway.
One conclusion that might be drawn after listening to these events is that jazz music has not really advanced all that much since Davis's death in 1991. The lack of post-Miles innovation might be sort of depressing if the music being toasted had not been before its time and remained fresh. Davis had been so rooted in the principles of change and unpredictability that even musicians doing their best to sound derivative could not help but remain contemporary.
In the Rose Theater, the excellent trumpeter Nicholas Payton honored the quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams in the 1960s. Payton can testify for pretty much any period he wants to (he has already done Louis Armstrong). In this case, thanks to the immortality of the material, and the good, subtle groove of the young rhythm section — Danny Grissett, piano, Vincente Archer, bass, and Eric McPherson, drums — the past sounded newly hatched.
Featured with Payton, the young tenorwoman Sophie Faught, a long-tall sophomore jazz performance major at Temple University, can do a Wayne Shorter impression that may sound like Wayne but it's somehow not Shorter, if that makes any sense. Either way, it is delightful to hear such a young improviser leave out so many unnecessary notes. Later the same evening, listening to the band led by bassist Marcus Miller, who produced and wrote most of the 1986 hit Davis album “Tutu," it was bizarre to hear jazz-rock players like Miller, the drummer Lenny White, and guitarist Vernon Reid (from Living Color) performing under the flag of Wynton Marsalis's Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Marsalis, musical director of JALC, has long considered Davis's electric music to be some sort of a capitulation, and he is famous for his narrow-minded put-downs of the back-beat-based jazz-rock from the 1970s and 1980s. Has he finally awakened to its timelessness, or has the program just run out of other music to present?
A Future for Good Music?
Songs such as “Tutu" and Cyndi Lauper's “Time After Time" being featured in this hallowed hall prove that Davis's electric music has, like the rest of it, become just plain unavoidable. The trumpeter's spirit, however, seemed most comfortable one flight down in the intimate Iridium club. Drummer Jimmy Cobb, saxophonist George Coleman, bassist Buster Williams and guitarist Mike Stern come from four different Davis eras, but they were totally in the here-and-now down here.
Long underrated, Coleman proved once more that he is one of the most masterful of the surviving masters. Stern's rocky, effect-pedal-loaded electric guitar helped make the music sound freshly minted. They played tunes associated with their ex-leader, such as “Solar" and “Freddie Freeloader," and true to his memory, the selections were not announced. There were only minimum traces of melody and harmony, and the improvisations were deep into the mystery of it all.
You could only wonder where the people in the sold-out club who paid a $35 entrance fee plus a $10 cover to descend from gaudy Broadway to hear such tasteful, difficult, important music had come from. Maybe good music has a future after all.
It was easy to fantasize a scowling Davis coming out of the woodwork in the basement and wandering about holding up signs with the given names of the soloists, a wacky on-stage crediting he adopted late in life to support his “Prince of Darkness" image. One way or another, you just knew he would have been very happy down here