The Magic of Miles Davis at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa

John Kelman By

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The Magic of Miles Davis
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Saturday, February 12, 2005

As the first performance in his planned series Impressions in Jazz , local bassist Adrian Cho bit off a large chunk by not only attempting to recreate legendary trumpeter Miles Davis' mid-'60s Quintet with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, and the late '50s sextet that recorded, amongst other things, the classic Kind of Blue ; he also strove to recreate the '49 recording The Birth of the Cool by putting together a nonet with the same instrumentation as the now infamous and first-recorded collaboration between Miles and noted arranger Gil Evans. The results of this ambitious undertaking, which took place in the comfort of Ottawa's National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage, a room that has the intimacy of a small club (without the smoke), was engaging and also largely successful from a musicological perspective. Cho, a solid bassist with a disposition towards instrumental purity — using gut strings and no amplification — insisted on minimal miking of the various-sized ensembles, relying, instead, on each group to self-regulate its own mix.

Mention must be made of Cho's extensive programme notes — that not only described the Impressions in Jazz series and its ambitions, but placed the three ensembles in historical musical perspective, and provided informative descriptions of all compositions being played. Cho's intentions were clearly to educate as much as entertain, and he succeeded on both fronts.

Starting with the '60s material and working chronologically backwards in time, Cho was joined, for the first half of the first set, by trumpeter Jean Trudel, tenor saxophonist Brian Magner, pianist John Roney and drummer Jim Doxas. No surprise to anyone who saw him perform with bassist John Geggie and saxophonist Mike Murley on the same stage last year, Doxas created much of the excitement of the quintet's treatment of material including Carter's "Eighty-One," Shorter's "Pinocchio" and "Prince of Darkness," Hancock's "Little One," Williams' "Pee Wee" and the Victor Feldman staples "Joshua" and "Seven Steps to Heaven." Doxas, normally based in Montreal, played with the kind of unbridled energy that paid tribute to Williams without strictly imitating him, demonstrating a similar ability to punctuate the music with motifs that were anything but non sequiturs.

Roney, also from Montreal, has spent a lot of time playing with Doxas and it shows. The obvious comfort level and communication between the two was in clear evidence, especially when the quintet broke down into a trio for solos from Roney, and was responsible for many of the most magical moments of the night. Roney's style clearly comes from the Hancock/Evans school, but his clear harmonic command and sense of composition in his solos meant that he, perhaps more so than anyone else, was able to take the material in new directions — which is what the mid-'60s quintet was, after all, all about.

Magner, a fixture on the local R&B scene for many years, is a relative newcomer to this kind of music, and he's clearly doing his homework. While he still has a ways to go in terms of comfortably playing through the changes, rather than to them, what he lacked in Roney's harmonic sophistication he more than made up for with a rich and robust tone, a terrific set of ears that had him interacting with the players around him, and an economical sense of style that clearly worked in terms of echoing the similarly concise and spare Shorter. Smiling often and providing the kind of eye contact and encouragement to the others that demonstrated just how plain happy he was to be there, Magner was second only to Doxas in terms of having a vibrant and commanding physical presence on stage.

Sadly, Trudel was the weak link. Granted, filling Miles Davis' shoes is a tall order for anyone; but while Trudel was capable at navigating the themes, when it came to solos he had an appealing enough tone and sense of space, but lacked the kind of immediacy and presence that was really required, especially for the more exploratory nature of the mid-'60s quintet. He seemed to approach solos as distinct spaces for himself rather than points of interaction with the rest of the group.

For the second half of the set the quintet was augmented by Ian Babb on alto, performing material from the late '50s including "All Blues," "Flamenco Sketches," "Milestones" and "Teo." Babb added another strong solo voice to the mix, with a tone less bold and brash than Cannonball Adderley's, but impressive nevertheless. Doxas, shifted cleanly into Jimmy Cobb mode, but never so much so that he lost his own voice. His more playful and sometimes less straightforward approach might have rankled purists, but the fact is that this is living, breathing music, and the best interpreters of archival material are those that remain reverent while, at the same time, breathing new life and bringing a sense of modernity to it. Again, Roney and Magner were compelling soloists, both clearly understanding the essence of the late-'50s sextet.

After a short intermission, the sextet came back on — with Magner on alto and Babb on Baritone this time — augmented by Nicholas Atkinson on tuba, Mark Ferguson on trombone and Elizabeth Simpson on French horn. Working their way through the complete The Birth of the Cool programme, Cho's diligence at transcribing the music from the original recording and putting together the charts for the nonet was impressive. Also remarkable was how, with a group this size and minimal miking, the instrumental mix in the house was as close to perfect as one could expect.

The textures were rich, with Cho and Doxas providing the necessary swing element. Trudel seemed better suited to this material than that of the first set. Clearly, with this set being more heavily structured and less about group interplay, Trudel was more firmly in the position of featured soloist and, consequently, was able to follow his muse in a more form-based environment. As good as Babb was on alto in the first set, he seemed to shine even more on baritone. Magner's alto tone is as attractive as his tenor, and Ferguson contributed a couple of solos that demonstrated a broader melodic sense that equalled that of Roney.

The group closed with a reading of "So What," with everyone — including Simpson and Atkinson — taking a turn at soloing. A fine ending to an overall enjoyable evening. And, with a sell-out crowd, it's strong encouragement for Cho to continue on with the next Impressions in Jazz show, titled Suite Freedom , intended to celebrate music inspired by the Civil Rights Movement of the '50s and '60s. Cho will be bringing an even larger ensemble to the stage to perform music including Coltrane's Africa/Brass , along with smaller group interpretations of music by Miles, Mingus and Joe Henderson's Power to the People suite. Cho is nothing if not ambitious, and the clear appreciation of the audience for The Magic of Miles Davis shows how his instinct that there is an audience for this kind of venture in Ottawa is more than just a dream, it's a fact. And that's a good thing.

For information on Adrian Cho's Impressions in Jazz series, visit www.diadic.com on the web.

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