Tributes can sometimes be lifeless, mere testimonials or acknowledgments of esteem. In music, tributes tend to rehash the genius of a master in an attempt to capture the magic that that individual left behind. Jazz tributes, in a way, are typically even worse because they tend to kill the very magic they’re trying to recapture. Jazz is about the fresh, the innovative, the spontaneous.
So when a jazz quintet takes on the challenge of paying tribute to two of the greatest jazz masters ever to play—Miles Davis and John Coltrane—drudgery seem imminent.
With 2001 marking the 75th anniversary of the births of both of these leviathans, a modern quintet is indeed touring with that focus. And in a manner that speaks ominously to the task at hand, the heading for the tour alone became a laborious tag: “Directions in Music: Miles Davis and John Coltrane—the 75th Birthday Celebration.”
It was while playing together in the ’50s and ’60s—the period when jazz began to take firm root in the American landscape—that Davis and Coltrane created essential foundations for modern jazz. With their distinct styles—Davis on his fluid trumpet infusing solos with as much timely silence as sound, and Coltrane on his mad sax running feverish solos that seemingly pushed the boundaries of time—these two marked the natural sounds of America’s finest musical stylings. If a tribute is in order, because they were masters of the sound, it doesn’t mean their music deserves a simple reiteration.
Luckily the quintet charged with the task is one that includes three modern greats, including Herbie Hancock. One man that wouldn’t let a stifling tribute keep him from retaining his own style and freshness, Hancock learned the scene while playing in one of Davis’ seminal ’60s quintets. He is known best for his wide artistic range, including the theme music for the cartoon Fat Albert, in which he expertly fused jazz and funk with his fellow Headhunters. Hancock carried the electronic-jazz torch, passed by Davis himself, on albums such as Dis is Da Drum, and yet still feels comfortable enough to lay down a recording of Gershwin tunes.
Rounding out trifecta of heavyweights in the quintet are Michael Brecker and Roy Hargrove—sax and trumpet respectively. Having begun playing other reed instruments, Brecker switched to Coltrane’s chosen tenor sax after hearing the master play and is now considered by many to be the apprentice turned prodigy. And for versatility, both Brecker and Hargrove dip their respective bells in as many genres and playing styles as possible. Brecker has recorded on over 600 albums, and 30-year-old Hargrove demonstrates his deftness by recording such extremes as Afro-Cuban explorations as well as ballad projects.
Such an evening of tribute is exactly what it could and should be. The audience gets modern masters of jazz retaining their own styles and identities, playing, as well as playing off of, the celebrated music of two legendary jazz greats. Any lesser group of musicians might very well have fallen into the tribute trap. It’s just as Davis and Coltrane would have originally approached the idea.