Wall to Wall Miles

Wall to Wall Miles

by James Hale
copyright © 2001 James Hale

Guitarist Vernon Reid, his long dreadlocks shaking around his animated face, is holding forth on Broadway in front of Symphony Space on New York City's Upper West Side. He's stomping his feet for emphasis as he expounds on -- favorite subject for an audience of three jazz journalists.

"Miles Davis put it out there like no one else, man. Every musician has -- style that they don't grow beyond. Some grow more than others, like Ellington, but Miles, man, his growth just went on forever."

It's appropriate that his high-speed monologue is delivered over the sound of Miles Davis himself, being piped out into the midnight air at the tail-end of -- 12-hour marathon tribute to the trumpeter and composer who was born 75 years ago this month. Between his first New York recordings in 1945 and his death as -- result of -- stroke on September 28, 1991, Davis was the single most-influential trumpeter in jazz. More importantly, though, the stylistic movements he pioneered -- -- half-dozen, by his own count -- each influenced entire schools of musicians.

The first invention was -- reaction against the intensity and harmonic limitations of bebop, which Davis had played alongside saxophonist Charlie Parker for two years. Davis heard something softer and more romantic, -- choral sound that he captured with -- nonet that recorded the dozen compositions that were collected on The Birth Of The Cool album. Those 12 recordings spawned the so-called "cool" school of jazz that formed in California in the early '50s, as well as countless mid-sized band recordings by people like Gigi Gryce and Quincy Jones.

Davis himself never expanded on those nonet experimentations. A five-year addiction to heroin all but derailed his career, but in the mid-'50s he stunned the jazz world by re-emerging with -- superb quintet that featured the young John Coltrane on tenor saxophone. With Coltrane exploring his hugely influential "sheets of sound" approach to the horn, the quintet set -- new standard for improvisation on recordings like Round About Midnight.

In the late '50s, Davis expanded his group by adding alto saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and changed its sound significantly by recruiting the harmonically gifted pianist Bill Evans. The sextet's landmark recording, Kind Of Blue, with its lyrical improvisations based on modal scales, continues to sell briskly today.

The early '60s found Davis in yet another artistic holding pattern, but with the addition of pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and drummer Tony Williams in 1963 the trumpeter's band became -- laboratory for contemporary jazz. Performing mostly standards like "My Funny Valentine," the musicians stretched and compressed time signatures like no one before them.

By 1968, Davis had turned his ear to new sounds coming from the rock world, and he began to add electric instruments to his group. With the album Bitches Brew studio technology became as important to the trumpeter as live improvisation, and the result was -- heavily layered sound that combined elements of rock, African percussion and Middle Eastern tonalities.

Health problems sidelined Davis for most of the '70s, and by the time he returned in 1981 for -- final 10 years of activity, the music scene had changed dramatically. Although not as radical as his earlier inventions, the combination of his trademark trumpet sound with dense funk rhythms and electronic sound washes on recordings like Amandla and Tutu proved to be highly influential.

What's even more remarkable than Davis' ability to continually find new contexts for his signature instrumental voice is the fact that, -- decade after his death, each of his stylistic advancements -- the first now more than 50 years old -- continues to influence contemporary musicians.

The proof of that range of influence was onstage at Symphony Space's Wall-to-Wall Miles Davis event on March 24 -- more than 150 musicians in 28 ensembles, ranging from dyed-in-the-wool beboppers like saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera to hip-hop turntable artists like DJ Logic, who gathered to interpret Davis' music in their own style. Included were some alumni of Davis' bands, ranging from drummer Jimmy Cobb -- the sole remaining participant in the renowned Kind Of Blue -- to keyboardist Adam Holzman, who anchored Davis' last few bands.

Trumpeter Graham Haynes led the brass-heavy nonet through five of the gauzy tunes from The Birth Of The Cool -- Davis' first major expression of his individuality. Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano -- whose freewheeling, robust sound is heavily influenced by early John Coltrane -- was joined by the movingly lyrical trumpeter Tom Harrell for a trio of compositions from the mid-'50s.

The modal scale music of the late '50s was essayed by perhaps the oddest musical aggregation of the day -- a steel guitar-driven gospel group from upstate New York called The Campbell Brothers. Their blend of guitars and loping groove made Davis' composition "All Blues" sound like it was being channeled by The Allman Brothers Band.

The fertile mid-'60s -- arguably Davis' richest period -- were re-created by two groups. The first, led by alto saxophonist Bobby Watson and featuring trumpeter Terell Stafford, approached the music as a celebration, with drummer Victor Lewis injecting funk rhythms into "Freedom Jazz Dance" and "Gingerbread Boy." The second band -- trumpeter Ingrid Jensen's superb quintet -- set out to capture the sense of adventure exhibited originally by Davis' group of the day, and succeeded brilliantly. Jensen's reharmonizations of "If I Were A Bell" and "Walkin'" were gorgeous, and she managed to make the music her own -- no small feat considering how ingrained Davis' originals are in his fan's minds.

Of course, Davis' electric music is what has influenced most musicians under the age of 40, and it was represented in -- number of guises. Drummer Bobby Previte's Voodoo Down Orchestra specializes in interpreting the music of Davis' first major electric recordings, so its spirited versions of "Bitches Brew" and "Spanish Key" were suitably well-rehearsed, if a tad stiff at the unusual jazz hour of 12 noon.

Bassist Melvin Gibbs' Liberation Theology promised fireworks, thanks to the inclusion of the reclusive Chicago guitarist Pete Cosey -- who set a new standard for electric guitar with his incendiary recordings with Davis' group in the early '70s -- but the set was only partially successful. With Joe Lovano on flute, Graham Haynes on cornet and several percussionists, the music had the complexity and cross-cultural swirl of the original music, but Cosey stuck to an amplified kalimba and an electric sitar, and never picked up his guitar to add his distinctive voice.

Vernon Reid was one of the guitarists heavily influenced by Cosey's original work with Davis, and it fell to him to re-create some of the turmoil and noise of the '70s with his young band, Masque. Interestingly, Reid chose to perform "Freddie Freeloader" from 1959 along with "Right Off" from 1970 -- making a musical point about Davis' range that he would later amplify in words in front of the theatre.

One other musician -- trumpeter Dave Douglas, performing for one of the first times with his new quintet -- chose to underline the obvious: Miles Davis was a man whose music was constantly in motion. Douglas performed songs from '49, '69 and '81, and funneled them all through one lens -- that of a contemporary musician influenced by the entire scope of another's artistic output. Look at the breadth of this music, his performance said, and imagine it coming from one mind.

Accepting congratulations later, Douglas added: "I was trying as hard as possible to avoid the dangerous tendencies toward necrophilia."

For musicians like Douglas, Roney, Jensen, Stafford and Haynes -- who must carve out their own identity on an instrument so closely associated with its most recognizable voice -- the challenge of finding a suitable interpretation of Davis' music is one thing. It's quite another for artists like singer/performance artist Nora York or African kora master Mamadou Diabate. Yet, they were also able to find something vital in Davis' music to call their own.

Taken together -- over 12 hours of swirling, wildly diverse artistic statements -- the impact of Davis' music and its ability to move other artists to make their own contributions is nothing less than stunning.

What was it about Davis that gave him the freedom and sense of vision to constantly stretch beyond what was already successful for him? And what was it about him that enabled his music to touch and influence so many varied musicians?

"Miles' influence on so many musicians was, to an extent, an extension of his personality," says Boston-based writer Eric Nisenson, who knew Davis well during the mid-'70s and wrote the biography 'Round About Midnight. "He was a genius, of course, but he was also driven by his constant curiosity and restlessness. Jazz has continually changed throughout its history, but no single musician has changed his music as relentlessly as Miles did -- not even Ellington. Miles showed other musicians -- and the rest of us, too, that change is to be embraced rather than rejected."

Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen agrees. "He seemed to live on a kind of musical edge," she says. "As soon as he experienced one high he was off searching for another, often crashing and burning, and then resurrecting himself to come back with another perfectly poised outburst of highly expressive sounds."

Out on the sidewalk, as the music wound down, Vernon Reid made what has become a frequent comparison for those looking to find a non-musical antecedent for what Davis accomplished in his 65 years.

"The way he kept changing, his ability to keep turning things and looking at them in different ways, reminds me of Pablo Picasso," said Reid.

Indeed, although he created a sound on his instrument that has come to personify jazz for many listeners, the essence of what made Davis such a force -- what continues to touch people today -- is his humanity.

Perhaps it takes -- trumpeter to separate where the technical part of playing ends and something greater takes over. As Jensen summarizes, "Miles' trumpet sound transcends the metallic make-up of the instrument and strikes me to the core with depth of personality-, heart- and soul-driven human energy and power."

James Hale listens and write about music, among other subjects, from Ottawa, Canada

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