The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
February 7, 2009
Around the time that Miles Davis was recording the iconic album Kind of Blue in 1959, a kid from Philadelphia named Randy Brecker was learning to play trumpet, and not long after that, he entered the firmament of jazz, working with Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, and Horace Silver among others. After several decades in the top echelons of musicians, Brecker returned to Philadelphia's Kimmel Center to offer a program honoring Miles Davis and the fiftieth anniversary of the album that changed the face of modern jazz.
Among his myriad of activities, Brecker has assembled the quintet which made this appearance on the stage of the Perelman Theater, the chamber music hall at the Kimmel Center. One immediately couldn't help but notice that the sax and piano players were attractive women who appeared as if they came straight out of the pages of Harper's Bazaar. Could they make it in the "man's world" of jazz? Ada Rodatti and Jill McCarron quickly proved their mettle. They were right there matching Brecker's stunning virtuosity and musical insight. Accompanied by the legendary Steve LaSpina on bass, and the forceful Steve Johns on drums, the group did two sets of straight-ahead playing from the Kind of Blue repertoire, as well as several compositions by Brecker himself, and the standard, "Stella by Starlight," of which Davis, as Brecker correctly noted, achieved the definitive jazz interpretation.
Brecker's trumpet mastery was immediately apparent in the first number, "Freddie Freeloader," from the classic album. Brecker played clearly and strongly throughout, with a tone and technique that few players can rival. Rovatti, on tenor sax and McCarron on piano performed masterful solos. A colorful commentary included Brecker's recollection that the "real" Freddie Freeloader was a bartender at the defunct Night Life club in Philly, where Miles sometimes performed. Such anecdotes, along with Brecker's baggy "clownish" pants lent a lightness to the performance which yet was tasteful and not at all intrusive. Brecker came across as relaxed yet businesslike, and seemed at ease with the hometown audience.
The group then performed three original compositions: Brecker's "There's a Mingus A-Monk Us" more Mingus in style than Monk; "Shanghai," from a recent CD, 34th and Lex, and Rovatti's "O Corko Mio," written for a concert in Cork, Ireland. The first piece featured fast runs on all solos (trumpet, piano, and bass) followed by trading eights and fours among the group. "O Corko Mio" included Brecker on flugelhorn and an outstanding drum solo by Johns, with an assertive Art Blakey feeling.
Introducing "So What," the head tune from Kind of Blue, Brecker pointed out that the theme was subsequently used as a horn motif in James Brown's "Cold Sweat," and performed it with extra accent notes taken from Brown's recording. Rodatti outdid herself with a superb saxophone solo showing a strong Dexter Gordon influence.
Following the intermission, there was a brief on-stage discussion with Kimmel VP of Programming Mervon Mehta querying Brecker and the series' creative curator, pianist Danilo Pérez. Perez mentioned in passing that Mehta is leaving his Kimmel post. (He will be sorely missed, as he has been a champion of jazz within that organization and brought in a host of fantastic musicians and groups there.) Mehta noted that the Grammy Awards ceremony was scheduled in LA the next day and that both Brecker and Perez have had albums nominated this year, the latter for an arrangement by the great Claus Ogerman.
During the musical discussion, Brecker expressed the need for diversity of style and content in jazz and pointed out how much Davis contributed. Perez emphasized the connection between "First World" and "Third World" music and acknowledged Brecker's influence on him. Brecker in turn noted how jazz has spread all over the world; even to the remote hinterlands of Siberia, where he performed. He further acknowledged Joe Zawinul as a major influence. Davis' impact was, of course all-inclusive. He inspired individuality and headed several of the greatest groups, according to Brecker, who noted that Davis' music gets better over time. Perez asked him about the women in his band. Brecker said he is "an equal opportunity employer." He correctly pointed out that women have broken the "glass ceiling" in jazz and regularly appear with many groups. The drummer Terri Lyne Carrington is one of Brecker's favorites who played an important role in breaking the gender barrier.
In the post-intermission set, the group began with Brecker's "Free Fall," in an early bebop mode with sax, trumpet, piano, and drum solos in that order. Johns' exceptional dexterity gave bounce to the piece. Unlike most current drummers, who follow the sensitive aesthetic tradition of Elvin Jones, Johns echoes the swing era drummers Gene Krupa and Louie Bellson with his strong attack and liberal use of the bass drum. His sense of timing and ability to catch the rhythmic essence of modern jazz made the "power approach" effective throughout.
"All Blues" from Kind of Blue surprisingly featured the 12 year old son of the drummer. Darryl Johns did a terrific job on bass, and the audience marveled at his youthful skill. The number also included the only muted trumpet solo by Brecker (Davis, of course, developed a unique style with the Harmon mute) and a fine Coltrane-style solo by Rovatti on soprano sax.
Brecker noted that the standard, "Stella by Starlight" is included in the new Legacy edition of Kind of Blue and added that it was a tune that Davis "made his own." He said that the song came from the movie Vanishing and further, that he and Ada named their recently born daughter Stella. McCarron on piano and Laspina on bass shone in this rendition. McCarron showed herself to be possessed of a true sense of the jazz idiom, not to mention her technical mastery. Listening to her, one thought in particular of the styles of Art Tatum and Wynton Kelly.
The concert concluded with a Brecker Brothers number: "Skunk Funk," an upbeat bop tune manifesting a Lee Morgan influence.
For those who could not attend, this concert will air at subsequent time on WRTI FM which also offers a website with a live and archived feed.