Photos by Rudy Lu
SO WHAT BAND
Swyer Theatre @ the Egg
February 10, 2011
by J Hunter
“Many of us have waited 52 years to hear this album played live,” Peter Lesser said in his introduction to the band of killers gathered by drummer Jimmy Cobb – the last living participant in the sessions that produced one of the greatest albums (let alone greatest jazz albums) of all time. And Lesser wasn’t kidding, because in concert back in the day, Davis used to fly through “So What” like he was afraid of catching something. Basically, Miles regarded Kind of Blue with the same attitude he had about his entire discography, and that view is summed up in Miles’ own words: “Once I’ve done something… Well, it’s over.” For the rest of us, though, Blue marches on, and Cobb’s amazing sextet made it live again – with a little something extra.
No, this was not a “re-imagining”, or whatever spin is used to excuse ripping a classic to shreds for no apparent reason. When pianist Larry Willis hit those four magic notes that lead off the classic opener “So What”, there was still the whispering hush that made you prick up your ears so you could capture whatever came next. And when bassist Buster Williams played the figure that started Davis’ melody, the rest of the band didn’t hit it at breakneck speed, or any special speed. It was right in line with the original… almost. Rather than go with the sprinter’s take favored by Davis, Cobb had his people use the old heat level, but with a little more spice, a little more light. The result was brighter, but no less tasty.
The linchpin to this approach was Willis, who is as accomplished as Bill Evans but whose sound comes a lot closer to McCoy Tyner. The safecracker touch is there, but there’s also a more percussive approach that brings an undoubtable vitality to pieces as varied as the bluesy “Freddie Freeloader” and the achingly beautiful “Blue in Green.” Willis’ attack had so much punch, in fact, that it nearly unbalanced the latter tune, but Willis pulled it back from the edge to polish off the tune’s loving coda just the way it needed, and bassist Buster Williams’ bowing kicked the romance up a notch. Anyone who went to Lake George Jazz Festival knows the magic Williams can do, and he was a pure wizard on this evening, with his booming slide into the head of “Freddie” being the highlight.
Jeremy Pelt has it a lot easier than Wallace Roney did; at way too young an age, Roney joined some high-end Davis alumni on A Tribute to Miles (Qwest, 1994) right after Miles passed away, and then Roney spent the next 16 years running from (and, alternately, embracing) being “The Next Miles Davis.” Pelt’s got his own niche well and truly dug, so he could attack this material with complete confidence, free from fear or expectation. With the mute (on “All Blues” and “Flamenco Sketches”), it was like listening to Blue-era Miles all over again; unmated (on everything else), Pelt had the clear, laser-like sound Miles brought to his later, more raucous (read: Electric) recordings. But that’s just the sound: The content was all Pelt, with Miles’ melodies acting merely as jump-off points, and he jumped so high and well, he had altoist Vincent Herring cheering him on from the back of the stage.
The reed section was a study in contrasts – not all of them good. Herring was feeling this music from the jump, bending into his solos like each note made his muscles flex. His solos didn’t just glow, they burned white-hot with a passion and a soul Julian “Cannonball” Adderley would have cheered. The flip side of this was Javon Jackson, someone who should have tackled the tenor parts with the warmth and skill he’s shown many times before. Instead, he seemed to fight the material every step of the way, with solos that were thick on chops but thin on understanding. He must have been frustrated, because he kept walking away before his solos were even completed – not on one last long note, but in the middle of phrases he played to the exit doors.
I’m not a big fan of the belief that jazz’ best moments happened fifty years ago, and if Cobb had merely done Blue exactly the way it was on record, I’d have gotten out the big hammer. But while the personnel he chose didn’t make Kind of Blue young again, the group sure made the music jump. It wasn’t worth a 52-year wait, but it was damn good nonetheless.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.