Though not exactly a ride in a time machine, The Miles Davis Experience: 1949-1959 does a superb job of re-creating the music of one of jazz's greatest artists while providing a smattering of historical and literary perspective on the decade. The production, part concert and part documentary, played to an appreciative and nearly full house Sunday at CSUN's, 18111 Nordhoff St.
Why Miles Davis? Though he died 20 years ago at age 65, Davis remains one of the most influential and innovative figures in jazz. Formally trained and exposed to the greatest jazz players of his day, Davis helped pioneer several key movements in jazz, including bebop, cool jazz, hard jazz, modal jazz and jazz fusion.
Why 1949-59? This was the period most jazz historians consider to be the apex of Davis' creativity and ingenuity. During the first half of this decade, his blue period, a heroin-addicted, somber and sometimes quick-tempered Davis pushed new forms but mostly played as a sideman. During the second half, he formed his own quintet and ultimately produced Kind of Blue, the best-selling and arguably the most important jazz album in history.
Davis' music was presented courtesy of the Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet which, rather than exactly duplicate Davis' signature style and tones, channeled the sound of the jazz master so that it was at once recognizable and fresh. In addition to Akinmusire on trumpet, the group is comprised of Walter Smith III on tenor sax, Sam Harris on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass and Justin Brown on drums.
Suspended panels with changing stills showed pictures of Davis and his contemporaries as well as historical photos of civil rights struggles and even newspaper clips reporting a New York policeman's assault of Davis in 1959.
Between each number, narrator Donald E. Lacy Jr. introduced taped remarks by Davis and others, recited relevant poetry by Langston Hughes or simply described the historical context that influenced the music. The words and visuals made for an effective backdrop to music that communicates through its impact on emotion and the senses.
Akinmusire is an apt choice to deliver Davis' style and selections. A rising figure in contemporary jazz, he studied under Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, both of whom achieved fame as members of Davis ensembles. In 2007, Akinmusire won the prestigious Theolonius Monk International Jazz Competition.
The smooth, harmonic jazz in "Round Midnight," a piece that won Davis plaudits at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, was evident in the rendition by Harris, Raghavan and Brown. Then, re-creating the sound of Davis' quintet when it included Johnny Coltrane, Smith contrasted his high-energy tenor sax with the longer melodic lines of Akinmusire's trumpet.
With the familiar Kind of Blue vinyl album cover projected overhead, Brown launched into a drum solo that was as amazing for its rhythms as it was for its technical artistry. Then, joined by Akinmusire, Harris and Raghavan, the four demonstrated the sound that made the album a classic—tantalizingly slow and measured and blue and thoughtfully punctuated by shrill notes and riffs.
Until the geniuses at Caltech manage to produce a time machine, this performance will do quite nicely.