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Live Reviews

Omar Sosa, Jimmy Cobb and Chano Domínguez, 'Kind of Blue' variations at the Barcelona Jazz Festival (V)

By Published: November 17, 2009
In 2009 Kind of Blue, the album that symbolizes jazz music for more people the world over turned an astounding 50 years old. Originally released in August 1959, jazz' most influential album is also its best seller ever; having sold untold millions of copies worldwide, it's turned quadruple platinum (4 million copies) in the US alone.

The 41st Voll-Damm Festival Internacional de Jazz de Barcelona celebrated the 50th birthday of Miles Davis

Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
' masterwork with a series of concerts featuring performers who worked with the trumpeter like Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
b.1933
saxophone
and Jimmy Cobb
Jimmy Cobb
Jimmy Cobb
b.1929
drums
, as well as younger players like pianists Omar Sosa
Omar Sosa
Omar Sosa
b.1965
piano
and Chano Dominguez
Chano Dominguez
Chano Dominguez
b.1960
piano
, who like most jazz players have been inspired by the landmark record, and held a prism up to the legacy of Kind of Blue. Using Miles' landmark record as a starting point, three concerts by Cobb, Sosa and Domínguez provided a fascinating triangle of approaches, three vastly different takes, on what they've drawn from Miles' opus, while also providing a window into their own original creative processes.

When asked to pay tribute to a towering classic like Kind of Blue, the choices often come down to a choice between two paths, neither of which are easy or guarantee success. Slavishly imitating an album, playing it straight, covering songs as close to the original as possible, is much harder than it looks, particularly when the band is this case included talents like Bill Evans

Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
and John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
. This approach also means that your efforts will be compared to the originals, and in most cases suffer as a result.

On the other side, going as far away from the original as possible, making familiar material almost unrecognizable, means that fans of the original, who expected to hear something that they recognized, will be alienated. Even worse, some may feel that this approach is an insult or is ridiculing the original. Again, either way has potentially lethal pitfalls, and the bigger the original record, the greater the dangers. All of which made the three Kind of Blue concerts at Barcelona Jazz such a provocative experiment.



Omar Sosa Sextet, The Afrocuban Side of 'Kind of Blue'
41st Voll-Damm Barcelona International Jazz Festival
Auditori de Barcelona (Sala 2)
November 6, 2009


On Friday, November 6th, Cuban pianist Omar Sosa and his sextet, with special guest trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez chose the second path, namely taking the music from Kind of Blue into outer space. Steeped in Afro-Cuban rhythms and gestures, this performance was music for musicians. An inventive and versatile pianist/composer/arranger as well as inspirational onstage leader who dresses in white robes, has an easy rapport with the audience—not to mention one of the world's most original hair styles—Sosa's music routinely and successfully fuses elements of African, American and Latin jazz with electronica and even funk. Currently living in Barcelona, Sosa's take on Kind of Blue, commissioned by the project, was highly anticipated and filled with promising moments but in the end was perhaps too esoteric for it's own good.



For those looking for direct references to Kind of Blue, the most obvious was the first eight bars of the album's opening track, "So What" which returned several times, and seemed to float inside and over many of Sosa's original compositions. Rhythmically intense which turned too aggressively percussive in spots, Sosa's original music, often taking it's titles directly from the album's original tunes, —"Soo W." and "So All Freedy," was chunky and clunky and sounded more like Mile's 1986 record Tutu than something inspired by Kind of Blue. Electronica flourishes and electric keyboard riffs dominated at points, though his mostly Cuban band, in particular drummer Dafnis Prieto

(known to some in attendance as the "Cuban Billy Cobham"), couldn't help but fall into infectious Latin grooves at different points in the evening.



Bronx-born trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez

Jerry Gonzalez
Jerry Gonzalez
b.1949
trumpet
who's currently living in Madrid, played with the Miles famous muted tone throughout the evening and while he added inventive accents and some decent extended solos, he was not strong enough to carry his part. An unusual instrument also made a welcome appearance when American saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum
Peter Apfelbaum
Peter Apfelbaum
b.1960
various
played what looked like a Musette but was in reality a Clarosax, an instrument made in the 1920's to make it easier for children just beginning to play the saxophone.



Perhaps the best part was Sosa's sly and effective use of samples of Miles exquisitely cool voice, a low growl so distinct that only has to be heard once for it to become unforgettable. In the end, while full of soaring moments and many inventive, imaginative turns, Sosa's take on Kind of Blue was hard to connect with, at times finding it's voice, at others getting lost in an unfocused, cacophonous vibe; that was still rarely less than intriguing.



Jimmy Cobb's So What Band, 'Kind of Blue' @ 50
41st Voll-Damm Barcelona International Jazz Festival
Palau de la Música
November 7, 2009



If Omar Sosa represented the "out" take on Kind of Blue's widespread influence, then Jimmy Cobb

Jimmy Cobb
Jimmy Cobb
b.1929
drums
's So What Band leaned the other direction, grimly trying to play covers as faithful to the originals as possible. Given the choice between Sosa's imaginative alien flights and Cobb's flat imitations, the decision definitely goes to Sosa. But again it bears repeating, for any musician tasked with paying tribute or synthesizing their feelings about Kind of Blue—what Kind of Blue means to me—the task is very simply a monster of sorts, one that would intimidate lesser men and musicians. All three acts here deserve much credit just for trying.





As the last surviving member of the original band that recorded Kind of Blue with Davis in 1959, Jimmy Cobb clearly has the intellectual and emotional authority to do whatever he likes when it comes to the album's legacy. Unfortunately, he chose doing more or less straight covers of Kind of Blue "hits" like "Freddie Freeloader" and "All Blues." To re-play the album, he surrounded himself with an immensely talented crew that mixed veterans like bassist Buster Williams

Buster Williams
Buster Williams
b.1942
bass
who actually played with Miles Davis and several younger stalwarts of the New York City jazz scene like saxophonist Javon Jackson
Javon Jackson
Javon Jackson
b.1965
saxophone
. Larry Willis
Larry Willis
Larry Willis
b.1942
piano
held down the piano chair and another well-known New Yorker, Vincent Herring
Vincent Herring
Vincent Herring
b.1964
saxophone
was on alto saxophone. On trumpet, which is of course the key instrument, was Wallace Roney
Wallace Roney
Wallace Roney
b.1960
trumpet
, who once studied trumpet with Miles, reputedly as the only student Miles ever had—although it's still difficult to imagine Miles being a willing mentor. As an added weight to his credentials, Roney also played with Davis before the master's death in 1991. Unsurprisingly tagged throughout his career as a Miles imitator, Roney did a fine job as part of Cobb's band evoking the spirit of Miles in his solos as Cobb's group played the songs from the album in their original running order. Faced with the thankless and ultimately impossible task of playing the John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
parts—although to be honest, no one in this band had it easy—Jackson skillfully trod a thin line, playing his own style and using his ideas while also re-capturing just enough of the flavor and legacy of Coltrane to give the set the necessary authenticity and drive.



As fun as it was to hear this music played live—Miles never took the Kind of Blue band on the road after making the album—Cobb's efforts were faithful and a little tired. Perhaps it's his age, but the performance was not high energy and had only slights hints of the sparkle and flash that make the original so compelling. The fact that the musicians never smiled and remained stone-faced throughout the set, and Cobb made no stage announcements and never even said hello to the visibly expectant crowd, only drained more energy from what was a well-played but ultimately uninspiring run through of jazz's fifty year old star.



Chano Domínguez Quinteto Flamenco, El duende de 'Kind of Blue'
41st Voll-Damm Barcelona International Jazz Festival
Auditori de Barcelona (Sala 2)
November 12, 2009



Happily, the Barcelona Jazz Festival's salute to Kind of Blue evolved into a smashing success thanks to Chano Domínguez, who chose a middle road between imitation and furor. Blending the flamenco music heritage of his hometown of Cádiz, with his own facile technique on piano and the skill of his super tight regular band who did not overplay and very clearly played exceedingly well as a unit, Domínguez' horn-less take on Kind of Blue was fizzy and bright, eliciting shouts of joy from an energized crowd that called he and his group back for three encores, the last of which Chano wisely slowed into a ballad, his touching original, "A mi padre," otherwise he would still be onstage in L'Auditori. Overall, his compositions based on and around the tunes on Kind of Blue mixed inventiveness, though not as wild as Sosa's, with passages lifted directly from the originals, yet not long enough to be imitations nor in the same arrangements or instrumentation as the originals.





The original touches he added were genius. "Blue In Green" had haunting vocals from cantaor Blas Córdoba, using a poem by Rafael Alberti. Chano quoted Catalan composer Frederic Mompou in "Freddie Freeloader." "All Blues" became a clap along. "So What" began with Mario Rossy's stand up bass like the original yet Chano's piano, with several quotes from Coltrane expertly slipped in, took over the famous counterpoint chords played by Miles and Trane. The rhythms were uniformly snappy throughout; each song clocking in shorter than the original. Steady inventive percussionist Israel Suárez, who played snare drums, cymbals and the cajón all with just his hands steered the proceedings, while the combustible dancer Tomasito added a very enjoyable, and surprisingly organic visual element to Chano's salute to Kind of Blue. Whether he was waggling his hips, stamping his feet, doing a bit of The Robot dance and even imitating a giddy-up-horsie motion, the smiling, lusty Tomasito, seemed to belong in the music, quite a feat when you consider that Kind of Blue is the widely considered the epitome of cool—the opposite of flamenco's trademark fire.



By the final encore, the sprightliness and happiness evoked by Chano's glorious reworkings, were impossible to resist and the ecstatic crowd let him know how they felt. Both sophisticated and accessible, lively and yet profound, musical in all the right ways, Chano's music-making had the right balance, making it the most listenable and meaningful tribute to the genius of Miles Davis, that fifty years has only made brighter and more resonant.



And remember: if you are in New York, you can catch El duende de 'Kind of Blue,' the final concert series of the 41st Voll-Damm Barcelona Jazz Festival, live at Jazz Standard from December 3rd to 6th, 2009.

Photo Credits: Ricard Cugat



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