Prisoners of the Past

A steadier intensity pervaded "Kind of Blue at 40." It began anxiously if fittingly with "Milestones" and "On Green Dolphin Street," which offered little justification for another retread of Miles beyond Vincent Herring's boisterous alto and Geri Allen's robust chords. Yet the set devoted to Kind of Blue itself managed, at its best, to produce something like suspense. We know the record so well we forget the original challenges imposed by the pithy choruses of "Blue in Green" or the amorphous form of "Flamenco Sketches." Instead of blindly following decisions made by Davis and company, Allen, Herring, Wallace Roney, and Ravi Coltrane tiptoed through those minefields, focused by brevity, and recovered a measure of spontaneity. Roney inevitably suggested Miles (he stuck with that D-minor scale on "So What"), Herring attacked with an openness redolent of Cannonball, and Allen nodded toward Wynton Kelly on "Freddie Freeloader." Yet the immediacy of the task kept them on point. Ravi Coltrane scrupulously avoided his father's ghost and jubilantly waltzed through "All Blues," the one piece with a real sextet head on it. Jimmy Cobb, who played on the original, interlocked with Buster Williams, who took liberties with "So What," but firmly grounded "Blue in Green." The six players fulfilled a primary tenet of jazz rep: they made a sacred text human without diminishing it.

Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock recalled Miles only because they cannot avoid doing so. Those who knew their duet album, 1+1, were less disappointed than those who expected the Miles Davis Quintet of 1965 minus three. And even they were given the unexpected bonus of a closing "Footprints"— just the melody, not the blues grid. Shorter produced the most apposite quote of the festival when he interpolated a reference to "Rockabye Baby," though it was appreciated only by those not already asleep. Actually, he played quite well, his flat broadsword of a sound on soprano rolling over Hancock's progressive— le mot juste— chords, particularly on his haunting "Aung San Suu Kyi." But like Horn, the twosome knew but one tempo, which like Wilson didn't exactly canter. Still, it was preferable to a closing set by Roy Hargrove's quintet that sounded like a rejected 1958 hard bop album. Only pianist Larry Willis seemed attentive— maybe "Rockabye Baby" did more damage than we thought.

And so it went. Ken Peplowski had taken his Benny Goodman band on tour, so lack of rehearsal could not explain its by-the-numbers approach to 1930s arrangements, mostly by Fletcher Henderson. Randy Sandke and Loren Schoenberg were the liveliest soloists— they are rare among swing revivalists in sounding comfortable in their own skins— along with the leader, especially in a duet with Dick Hyman, who stepped out of the audience to press him on "Tiger Rag." But the rhythm section was plodding and the introverted precision of the winds gave no inkling of what made people whoop when this music was new. The newest repertory was heard at a tribute to the much missed young pianist Kenny Kirkland, feted in an ambitious evening by Branford Marsalis, with cameos by Sting and Harry Connick and redundant filmed interviews that recalled him as a likable and gifted musician. Yet the audience was given little incentive to follow up, as none of his compositions was identified— and the film editor would have done Marsalis a favor by clipping his remark about Dizzy Gillespie (unlike Kirkland) not being "literate" in Afro-Cuban rhythms. In jazz repertory begin responsibilities. But then, even James Brown appeared uncertain of what he was conserving as he preached more than he sang, introduced Al Sharpton while praising Giuliani, and gave a third of his set to one Tommie Raye, whose intonation would have been ambiguous even if she hadn't been trying to sing while shaking her blond tresses from side to side.

I close with another near miss. After playing routinely (except for an unaccompanied revival of "Thank You") with his longstanding quartet, the indefatigable Dave Brubeck began his second set with James Moody, who opened on tenor with a "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" that shimmered with warmth and seemed to shave 30 years off Brubeck, most of whose best music was achieved in company with saxophonists of Moody's stature. The next number, however, was given to Moody's admittedly funny yodeling vocal on the World War II parody "Benny's From Heaven." Then the usual Brubeckians returned. Moody salvaged "Blue Rondo" and "Take Five," yet more important he intimated a genuine chemistry with old Dave, and you couldn't help but wonder how far they might have traveled in the course of an entire burlesque-free hour. Maybe they can do that on a record. But how far have we come when we look to records to fulfill the promise of dashed concerts?

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