Album reviews

‘Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic XII – Sketches of Miles’ (Theo Croker)

Theo Croker Quartet and members of the Berlin Philharmonic (arr Magnus Lindgren) Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic XII – Sketches of Miles

(ACT 9948-2. Review by Julian Maynard-Smith)

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To open CD 1 with ‘Pinocchio/Milestones’ and CD2 with ‘Miles Ahead Suite’ is a clear statement of intent: the first half of this live concert is dedicated to the music of Miles’s two great quintets, and the second to his Gil Evans collaborations, with arrangements by Swedish reeds player and composer/arranger Magnus Lindgren.

The weight of history means that anyone playing trumpet in a Miles tribute band requires serious chops and broad shoulders: Wallace Roney carried it well with the Grammy-winning A Tribute to Miles (1994), playing with the four remaining members of Miles’s second great quintet of Wayne Shorter (ts), Herbie Hancock (p), Ron Carter (b) and Tony Williams (d). Theo Croker, the grandson of trumpeter Doc Cheatham, also carries it well. Like Miles, he started off acoustic before branching into other genres (such as funk and Afrofuturism). But fear not, fans of acoustic Miles – this double CD live performance is acoustic all the way.

The original ‘Pinocchio’ was on Nefertiti (1968), Miles’s last fully acoustic studio album and performed by his second great quintet; and the original ‘Milestones’ was on the eponymous Milestones (1958) with the first great quintet comprising John Coltrane (ts), Red Garland (p), Paul Chambers (b) and Philly Joe Jones (d) – supplemented by Cannonball Adderley (as). But which quintet will dominate? Let’s have a listen…

Theo Croker opens with a soft clarion call on trumpet, soon joined by restless drums from Gregory Hutchinson (consistently brilliant), scattered but lyrical piano from Danny Grissett, and inquisitive probing on bass from Joshua Ginsburg. Loose yet tight. Ah, that’s it. Second quintet, with the spirit of restless exploration carrying over from ‘Pinocchio’ into ‘Milestones’ around the halfway mark of what proves an expansive opener (16:45). As if further proof were needed of the second quintet’s influence, the next track is Shorter’s ‘Footprints’ (12:29), first recorded by Miles on Miles Smiles (1967); followed by a languid and mournful ‘My Funny Valentine’ (11:06), which can’t help but recall the version on My Funny Valentine: Miles Davis in Concert (1965), which the second quintet (but with George Coleman replacing Shorter on tenor saxophone) played at their most exploratory.

But then, as if to provide maximum contrast, a springy bass solo launches the band into a straight-ahead but brisk performance of ‘So What’ accompanied by cheers and whistles from an ecstatic audience. CD1’s closer is also a chance for Magnus Lindgren to join the quartet on tenor, delivering a fine solo somewhat reminiscent (in both tone and style) of Joe Henderson.

And so to CD2, where the person needing broad shoulders is Magnus Lindgren – can his arrangements bear comparison with the legendary Gil Evans? According to the liner notes, the three suites that comprise most of the second CD – ‘Miles Ahead Suite’, ‘Sketches of Spain Suite’, and ‘Porgy and Bess Suite’ – are ‘based on the music’ from the respective Davis/Evans albums. And sure enough, while Lindgren’s orchestration echoes Evans in that it’s brass and woodwind only (all members of the Berlin Philharmonic, incidentally), the arrangements capture the spirit of Evans without handcuffing themselves to him.

For example, while ‘Miles Ahead Suite’ manages to cram in snippets of ‘The Ship’, ‘Springville’ and ‘The Duke’ in under two minutes, the arrangements are far too smart to descend into mere medley, and the textures are plush without being suffocating. Other markers of good taste include (on ‘Sketches of Spain Suite’) Grisset’s trilling piano riff that cleverly replaces the castanets from Gil Evans’s orchestration of ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’, and the classical canon-like feel of a brass-only interlude; and while ‘Porgy and Bess Suite’ includes an almost obligatory ‘Summertime’, it avoids the risk of cliché by excluding ‘Ain’t Necessarily So’, instead seeking inspiration from lesser-known tunes from the original album.

The closer is a quintet performance of ‘All Blues’, Lindgren joining the quartet on flute rather than saxophone and delivering another fine solo, this one replete with vocalisations. Listen out too for Ginsburg’s great bass solo and Grisset’s cheeky piano quote of ‘Footprints’, providing a nod to the first set – and the orchestra’s triumphal return in the final couple of minutes with an arrangement of Ahmad Jamal’s ‘New Rhumba’ from ‘Miles Ahead Suite’.

A great album that packs in a lot and merits repeated listening to unfold all its details.

LINK: Buy Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic XII – Sketches of Miles

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