February 2, 2004

Contempo February 2004

When the word came down that February was a special Miles Davis Tribute Issue, I had to chuckle. Its kind of like an oldies station declaring an All Elvis weekend when are oldies stations not in Elvis worship mode? And has there ever been an issue of Jazziz without at least one reverential mention of Miles? Like his fellow one name only icons Bird, Dizzy and Trane, Miles spirit and influence is as pervasive in jazz circles as the wind, even among smooth jazz artists. Not simply for his lyrical and romantic trumpet playing, but for his commitment to growth and innovation. Skeptics who get upset when artists do too many cover songs should realize the magic Miles brought to everything from "My Funny Valentine" to Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" (which appears on over 20 Miles CDs and compilations!).

MilesDavis.jpgI had an immediate fantasy of setting up a great panel discussion to talk about the enduring meaning of Miles. First would be actor/sometimes trumpeter Peter Robocop Weller, who got to hang out and travel some with Mr. Davis in his last year of touring. Weller once told me about his first meeting, when he walked backstage and Miles turned around slowly to him and muttered in his inimitable rasp, Robo-COP? But I have no idea how to get in touch with him now. Rick Braun, whose dashing Euro-inspired album Esperanto is one of the genre hits of the year, always got a kick out of that story, so he would be ideal, too. But he was on vacation in Germany visiting his in-laws as I wrote this. And Mark Isham, the great trumpeting film scorer whose snazzy-jazzy score for The Cooler on Commotion/Koch Records stands brilliantly on its own, once did a project called Miles Remembered: The Silent Way Project. Couldnt connect with him, either.

Fortunately, somewhere in between Dave Koz's Saxophonic and Christmas tours, Chris Botti was reachable for a moment at home in New York City. After world tours with Sting and Paul Simon, and a ten year strong career helping bring the trumpet into the mainstream of smooth jazz, the Oregon native finally got around to recording "My Funny Valentine" on his sultry as always new disc A Thousand Kisses Deep. The breezy first radio single "Indian Summer" is seducing listeners into the deeper treasures of the recording, but the spiritual heart is the tender, much space between the notes rendition of "Valentine", with only Billy Childs understated piano accompaniment.

Botti claims his musical life was changed as a kid when he first heard Miles 14 plus minute version of the song, played live in 1964 at the Avery Fisher Hall with George Coleman, future legend Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams.

Do I want to talk about Miles? Botti enthused. He's only the greatest musician who ever lived! That song just turned the key for me. What drew me in was his ability to soften the trumpet from its be-bop roots into something more beautiful, lyrical and haunting. He was much more sensual than my early heroes like Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown, and helped me appreciate the idea that melodies could be stronger if played with an economy of notes. As I developed my own playing style, listening to his recordings helped bring out a darker side of my playing, and I found the darkness to be quite beautiful. On a purely musical level, with anything that Ive done well in my career, I tip my cap to Miles.

Having told Botti that my fantasy panel didnt come together as planned, he happily obliged me with more quotables regarding his favorite subject. When he bought his first Manhattan apartment on 77th Street, he was floored that he shared a common wall with the building next door where his hero once lived. Not surprisingly, then, Botti sometimes referred to Miles in the present tense, as if his spirit has always been present even as the body has been absent for 12 years: Hes fearless and amazing, and no one has ever come close. Hes all about the way music could take you to a deep, emotional place, finding those real brooding emotions in the space between the notes. When people think of Miles, its never about high or low register or one particular song. Its his ability to communicate melodies and feelings. Romance was his driving force. His impact endures, and its a joy to turn my younger fans onto him when they ask who inspired me. I think hes the reason why I never played flugelhorn on any of my albums. From the first time I heard him, the trumpet was my sole obsession.


coverMEMORIES OF CATALINA: Several bright musical moments stand out from the second weekend of the 17th Annual Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival: what a fantastic live performer Mindi Abair has become (she performed there last year before the release of her hit debut It Just Happens That Way, and its success seems to have inspired a deeper confidence); what a soulful singer Hiroshima lead vocalist Terry Steele is; how much better the Lee Ritenour/Gerald Albright Twist of Motown tribute would have been had it been ALL Motown songs; how sad it is that the sizzling Denver ensemble Dotsero (featuring saxman Stephen Watts) has not achieved genre superstar status despite a sound this explosive; and how much more effective Dutch groovemaster and windplayer Praful's sexy beats and exotic melodies are in dance clubs (like the aftershow party at The Landing) than on center stage.


STOCKING STUFFERS: By the time you read this, youll be breaking your New Years resolution to lose that holiday weight, but why not trumpet the best new sounds of this past Christmas season? On Peace (Windham Hill), romantic piano sensation Jim Brickman did a sequel of sorts to 1997s classic The Gift, blending graceful piano renditions of carols and new songs with exciting, larger productions featuring The Blind Boys of Alabama, Kristy Starling and Collin Raye. The Yellowjackets get festive and moody on Peace Round (available only at their website www.yellowjackets.com). But its the surprises from lesser known artists that have best enduredthe sizzling and brassy pop-fusion energy of Florida-based funk-jazz ensemble Plan 9 tackling the classics on The 9 Days of Christmas (available via www.plan9theband.com); the jazzy-gospel flavored This Christmas by vocalist Clairdee (Declare Music); and Grammy nominated songstress Chris Bennett's subtle and sensuous mix of acoustic jazz and contemporary pop (including some emotional homespun originals), When I Think of Christmas (Rhombus).


coverMUSICAL VALENTINE: If your dance partner is a fan of Latin music, forget the Whitman Sampler hearts and embrace Armik's Romantic Dreams (Bolero Records). It's ironic that they released this disc to specially coincide with Valentine's Day 2004, as if it's presenting a different, more romantic side of the brilliant modern flamenco player's artistry. The truth is that while he's never gotten the attention of Ottmar Liebert, his music has been for ten years a vibrant and ultra sensuous part of the whole Nouveau Flamenco movement. The vibrant production colors help the guitarist keep grounded in a Latin setting, but the focus throughout is more on the picture perfect melodies and sweet atmospheres, which sometimes play like a film score to the listener's romantic daydreams.


WHAT IM LISTENING TO:

1) Seal, Seal IV (Warner Bros.) Love is indeed divine when its sung about by this sensuous voiced modern soul giant with the retro-ambient edge. If your faith in life, love and spirituality is waning, hes the cure. 2) The Cooler (Commotion/Koch) Jazzy soundtrack fun with a Mark Isham Score and performances by Bobby Caldwell and Diana Krall 3) The Red West (Atlantic) cool, thoughtful modern rock from a dynamic new West Coast band 4) Steve Tyrell, This Guy's in Love (Columbia) Speaking of musical valentines 5) Nnenna Freelon, Live (Concord Records) If you cant see this dynamic diva live, at least you'll have this very listenable facsimile.

Posted by Jonathan Widran at February 2, 2004 9:19 PM