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Miles Davis 1959 – Porgy and Bess, Kind of Blue and More (Cadogan Hall 21 Sept)

The latest in the historical concerts presented by Richard Pite’s Jazz Repertory Company, focuses on a jazz icon, Miles Davis, and his annus mirabilis, 1959. Peter Vacher fills in the background to the 21 September concert in Cadogan Hall:

The advertising image for the concert (Artwork supplied by Richard Pite/Jazz Repertory Company)

In the course of some 30 or more concerts at Cadogan Hall, Richard Pite’s Jazz Repertory Company has documented and recreated many of the most significant events and movements in jazz history. Whether looking at its rudimentary beginnings as an offshoot of ragtime, through to the small groups and swinging big bands of the 1930s and 1940s, via the replication of a key concert like Benny Goodman’s famed 1938 Carnegie Hall concert and the emergence of modern jazz, each JRC jazz concert has deployed the best of our specialist local performers, the content meticulously researched, with authenticity as their watchword. Now comes their celebration of the classic albums made by Miles Davis with Gil Evans as his collaborator in the 1950s. Stand by to be amazed.

Where other jazz trumpeters seem to fade from view, their notoriety dissolved and their fame diminished – who discusses Blue Mitchell, Donald Byrd or even Freddie Hubbard much these days? – others, most notably Lee Morgan, Chet Baker and Miles Davis, forge ahead in critical and public estimation. Of these, it’s Davis, who died in 1991, who has escaped most completely from the narrow world of jazz appreciation and attained wider recognition. After all, what greater kudos can there be than to have a new Davis album release discussed recently on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme?

Davis is, to use a much-overworked word, an icon. His every move has been documented – there’s a shelf of books devoted to Davis – his recordings constantly re-appear and can be heard as the soundtrack to television and movie features. You’ll even hear them emerging from the speakers in wine bars and restaurants. Many of his albums have stayed in print from then until now and there are exhibitions held of his wildly over-praised abstract paintings. There is a Miles Davis Estate and a Miles Davis Brand.

Much of this has to do with his regular re-inventions of himself, both musically and socially; once a soft-spoken, son of a wealthy black dentist in St Louis, he became trenchant in his opinions and often quite foul-mouthed in his comments. He sought the company of boxers and sparred with them, pursued and sometimes married glamorous women, drove fast Ferrari cars and wore outlandish clothes and collected art. And yes, he painted those awful pictures.

More to the point, he collaborated with some of the most innovative of jazz players and composers and in the process, created a series of recordings that culminated in 1959 with the best-selling album Kind of Blue. At one bound, or so it seemed, Davis had changed the working template for modern jazz expression. How did he accomplish this? “I tell my musicians to be ready to play what you know and play above what you know,” he told Leonard Feather. And so they did, bringing new sounds, textures and techniques to bear on jazz.

It’s his sense of artistic fearlessness that is evident throughout the series of classic Davis albums that the Jazz Repertory Company will revisit at Cadogan Hall on 21 September. Aside from the glories of Davis’ unique trumpet sound which the hugely accomplished British trumpeter Freddie Gavita will seek to evoke, there are the companion pleasures of hearing and experiencing the orchestrations created by Gil Evans for Davis for three seminal albums, Miles Ahead, Porgy & Bess and Sketches of Spain.

For these recordings, Evans chose to augment the time-honoured big band brass, reeds and rhythm sections with a range of woodwinds, plus French horns, and to deploy tuba, not as an adjunct to rhythm but as a mobile melodic voice He had already experimented with subtle re-alignments of the orchestral forces at his disposal when working for the Claude Thornhill band. It took these collaborations with the mighty Miles Davis for his genius to be recognized and affirmed. Critical appreciation was effusive: “Evans recorded three albums which rank with the finest orchestral music of the twentieth century,” wrote the late trumpeter and Davis biographer Ian Carr. It’s perhaps pertinent to note that Gil Evans is an anagram of Svengali!

All of this will be represented in the performances of the array of first-call British musicians specially assembled for this concert under the benign hand of Pete Long, as Musical Director, with erudite commentaries by music journalist and author David Hepworth. Alongside Gavita will be fellow trumpeter Steve Fishwick, a noted exponent of post-bop modern jazz and a distinctive soloist in his own right.

If the Evans-Davis collaborations stand as a peak in orchestral writing and a master-class in the integration of a soloist with an ensemble, then Kind of Blue, from the Davis Sextet’s annus mirabilis, 1959, must represent the perfect stylistic apogee. “The group I had with Coltrane made me and him a legend,” said Davis, with some justification. He had brought sketches to the album session rather than finished pieces, none of them previously rehearsed, their form dictated by his interest in moving away from conventional harmonic ideas towards a modal approach. It took the existing alchemy between the trumpeter and his bandsmen, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb to ensure success. Ironically, none of the musicians involved had any idea that they had recorded a bestseller.

How one envies those who will be coming to all this ethereal, compulsive music for the first time. Consider it, as critic Robert Palmer put it, “Like a visit to heaven”. (pp)

LINKS: Jazz Repertory Company website

Cadogan Hall booking site

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