A Tribute to the Music of Miles Davis
April 19-21, 2002
He always preached looking ahead, not back, and Miles Davis practiced that approach to his musical life, constantly evolving, from bebop pioneer to cool-school founder to modal to genre blender to fusion and beyond, seldom revisiting the many milestones of his illustrious career.
Fortunately, though Miles is gone, many who played with him over the years remain active, and aren't averse to bringing his masterpieces to life once more.
A dozen or so former Davis sidemen gathered April 19-21 in Cape May to look back on his legacy on the 75th (plus one) anniversary of his birth.
Of course, many of the other more than 100 performers never accompanied Miles, and their sets didn't always include his classic compositions. But as Ed Smith, moderator of a panel discussion among onetime sidemen put it, "Our art could never exist without the blessings of Miles."
Things got off rousingly as the three Heath brothers were joined by an early Davis find, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, whose tone has mellowed over the years from the acidic bite of the 1950s. He still plays with fire, as on the very first tune, "Dig," which is "Sweet Georgia Brown" done bop-style. On "Walkin'â", the medium tempo blues, his solo was juicy indeed.
Jimmy Heath's tenor feature, "I Thought About You," was lushness personified, and brother Percy electrified the crowd with an a cappella bass version of "Yardbird Suite."
The third Heath, drummer Tootie, got in his licks on "Gingerbread Boy," a tune by Jimmy Heath that is full of surprises, a spicy treat indeed.
Guitarist Russell Malone's quartet drove "All Through the Night" at a breakneck pace, then hit the brakes for a languid "Heartstrings," Milt Jackson's ballad. On a medley of "How Deep Is Your Love" and "I Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry," Malone's expressive face appeared on the verge of tears as he set this mournful tale to music. "Soulful Kisses," an original, began ballad-like but metamorphed into a genuine down-on-the-farm swinger.
Philadelphia's primo tenor man, Bootsie Barnes, brought his "Philly Gumbo" quintet to Cape May and went Milesian with a classic "Freddy Freeloader." Trumpeter Duane Eubanks' clean and bright tone was a fair approximation of Davis', and Barnes' robust solo conjured up early Coltrane. Pianist Syd Simmons was in great form, cutting across the grain of the rhythm on his constantly surprising solo.
Vocalist Denise King joined Barnes, and won the audience over immediately with some sage advice for modern divas who overembellish the standards: "Just sing the song, tell the story." That she did, engagingly, on "Nearness of You," "All of Me" and "Summertime."
Blues singer/guitarist Sam Taylor was the choice round about midnight Friday. Ably abetted by violin whiz and backup singer Heather Hardy, Taylor mixed up tempos on originals and classics, singing in a somewhat nasal tenor reminiscent of Bobby Blue Bland.
Muddy sound marred Saturday night's opening set by the Legends of the Bandstand, led by trombonist Curtis Fuller and tenor saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman. The problem, reportedly due to the band's forgoing of a sound check, was fixed before the second set, we were told, but there were other acts for us to catch.
Mose Allison is a treasure, a classically schooled pianist with a spare, modern but blues-based style, a vocalist with a deceptively laid-back manner, a composer of wryly humorous ditties about the state of the world. "Now That the World Has Ended (I Don't Get Out Much Anymore)" is an example of this 75-year-old's zingers.
Dave Liebman, who was with Miles in the chaotic fusion days of the early 1970s, was all sweetness on soprano on an unannounced opening number, then took up the tenor for some soaring exploration of the master's hypnotic anthem, "All Blues."
Jimmy Cobb was Miles' drummer in the "Kind of Blue" years, and led Cobb's Mob in the festival's grand finale. A superb backup group ... Richard Wyands on piano, Peter Bernstein on guitar and newcomer John Webber on bass ... was propelled along by the leader on several ballads and a blues. "Yesterdays" was for Miles.
The festival again drew some 7,000 jazz fans to this Victorian enclave on the southern tip of New Jersey. A second festival is set for Nov. 8-10, and although Cape May keeps getting better, it's hard to envision the next one will outdo what just transpired.