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Miles Davis: Protean Musician

October 12, 2011

History is defined more clearly by those who record it than by those who experience it, for it’s through the lens of time and the context of subsequent occurrences that we better grasp the historical importance of a person, place or event.

Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis may have been both the exception and the rule. His protean nature defined a trajectory that, for the most part, prefigured the direction in which his genre was headed, as well as anticipating the cross-cultural and cross-genre music blending that we hear today. An evening with The Miles Davis Experience, which took the stage at Overture Center’s Capitol Theater Tuesday, helped a large and appreciative audience remember where it all began.

The Experience was not a tribute band in the traditional sense. The Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet played in the spirit, but not necessarily the notes of the group’s mentor, while large screens displayed historic photos of the East St. Louis, Ill.-born musician and recorded audio tracks shared Davis’ own thoughts, as well as those of other jazz luminaries. Announcer Donald Lacy added poetic, if not poignant narrative that contributed a spoken-word component to the two-hour performance.

The evening covered the period from 1949 (“The Birth of the Cool”) to 1959 (the seminal “Kind of Blue”), considered Davis’s most productive and creative period. If anything, the multi-generational audio-visual mash-up was itself a reinterpretation of Davis’ musical, intellectual and social influence, delivered in a way he would no doubt have considered “cool.”

Akinmusire’s trumpet scaled some impressive heights, channeling Davis through his own sensitivities and considerable capabilities on the horn. On tenor sax, Walter Scott III more often than not stood in as John Coltrane, a core element to the period’s “great quintet” and with Akinmusire delivered impressive solos and seamless ensemble performances.

Pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghaven and drummer Justin Brown stood in for a variety of historic players, each shining on his own solos. Brown’s late evening drum solo was delivered with aplomb and a frightful intensity that probably exceeded the capabilities of those he was emulating.

Miles Davis will arguably remain perhaps the most influencial jazz performer in the history of music. Whether the Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet comes anywhere close to that level remains to be the seen. But the young musicians have hitched their wagon to the right mentor’s star, and we all benefit from the wild ride. You dig?

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