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One Tribute That Works
One Tribute That Works Yes, we should honor our musical founding fathers, the remarkable creators who changed the face of music repeatedly with their profound and uniquely individual creations. However, in the past decade, there have been too many “tributes,” too many recordings that try and resurrect the past, hoping to capture some of that magic.

Heraclitus, a Greek sage, wrote that no man has entered twice the same river. Music, like water, flows, constantly being remade according to what’s happening in the moment. Accordingly, most tribute recordings, usually nothing more than tired musical retellings of oft-repeated anthems, end up on the scrap heap of oblivion. Obviously there are a few exceptions, but for the most part, tributes are boring and leave me wondering, why didn’t they write their own music and try something new?

So when I learned that five of my favorite musicians would come together for a series of concerts in tribute to the 75th Birthdays of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, I was somewhat concerned. Since these musicians are among the best instrumentalists extant, I knew that musical sparks were a possibility, yet sometimes, these so-called super groups just don’t generate the expected musical excitement.

Nevertheless, knowing that they were playing just a few moments from my new home in Tucson, at the University of Arizona’s Centennial Hall, how could I not attend? What else would I do on a Saturday night anyway, aside from watching Sabado Gigante. And since the musicians were Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, Roy Hargrove, John Patitucci and Brian Blade, the concert quickly sold out but luckily, thanks to my impeccable credentials, I was able to procure a choice seat, not from far the stage, where the vibrations could certainly be quite intense, if….

Before the concert, I emailed Michael Brecker, and he quickly got back to me, reporting that the band was “incredible.” But from previous experience, I knew that expectations of any nature were usually very dangerous, for both performance events, and in relationships. In 1997, Mr. Hancock toured and recorded with a band that included Mr. Brecker, John Scofield, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette and with that lineup, I thought, how could they go wrong. I still listen, occasionally, to the CD they recorded, “New Standard,” but the three concerts I attended in New York, and at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague, left me totally unsatisfied. From some reason, these giants just didn’t jell. They should have, but they didn’t.

Whatever doubts, concerns, or fears about this new Miles and Trane tribute and how these new giants might work together were set aside within the first two minutes they started to play. The music jumped off immediately and as the night went on, just got stronger and stronger.

Mr. Hancock made a point of explaining to the audience that they didn’t want to just do another tribute. Accordingly, they took some music associated with Miles and Trane and completely changed it. These weren’t just crafty arrangements, but instead, complete reworkings of the material, so that it sounded, and felt, totally different. Mr. Hancock’s thoughtful explanation help to frame the music and further involve the audience.

Miles and Trane would have wanted it that way. Mr. Hancock said it was their intention to play music from today’s perspective, using the inspiration that Miles and Trane continue to provide. New material was created as well, including an evocative ballad by Roy Hargrove, “Poet,” and Brecker’s invigorating “D Trane.”

The centerpiece of the concert was Coltrane’s immortal ballad, “Naima,” which Brecker played solo. Before he played, Brecker talked about Coltrane’s influence on his music, and about how he when he first heard Coltrane, he was somewhat confused, but after considerable listening, he “got it.”

And then Mr. Brecker proceded to play the tenor saxophone with a level of mastery that few ever attain. After more than twenty five years at the forefront of the tenor, it’s no secret that Michael Brecker has chops. And there’s only way to reach the upper echelon of chopdom, and that’s by practicing, incessantly, like Trane did, and like Sonny Rollins still does.

I once asked Mr. Brecker why, after all these years, he still put in so much time in the woodshed. “Because,” he told me, “you have to be there, when it comes through.”

But chops of this magnitude, and technical acumen are only a starting point, it’s still about imagination and that’s where Mr. Brecker really sets himself apart. His five minute solo performance of Naima stated the incredibly beautiful melody (Coltrane had the ability to compose simple, yet profound melodies), but quickly established a ying yang musical dialogue that was both intense, and sensitive. Mr. Brecker’s latest CD is “Nearness of You: The Ballad Book” and although he’s better known for the more powerful side of his playing, he can move a listener with his more calming and whimsical aspects, as well. Before the concert, backstage, Mr. Brecker told me he has solo saxophone concerts coming up in Europe. There aren’t many saxophonists who could do this.

As for Mr. Hancock, his playing was also memorable, marked by great authority and passion. As I sat there totally awed by my favorite pianist, I couldn’t help but think of the comparison between the music at the concert, and what I’d been listening to on his new CD, “Future 2 Future.” In fact, on the way to the concert, I was digging the CD in my car, a track called “Tony Williams,” which features Wayne Shorter’s serpentine soprano sax.

Mr. Hancock plays exclusively electric keyboards on his new CD, and although “Future 2 Future” isn’t one of his best works, I applaud his spirit of adventure. He continues to explore and mine new musical gems. In fact, Mr. Hancock’s life force informs everything he creates.

Roy Hargrove’s trumpet was particularly fiery at this concert. I hadn’t heard him live in a number of years and I’m happy to report he has added a new edge to his playing. Previously, I’d known him as someone whose solos were based on the sort of lyricism that Clifford Brown brought to the trumpet. But at this concert, everything he played seemed to be about pushing his horn to the outer limits.

Mr. Brecker told me before the gig that the members of the group felt lucky to have John Patitucci and Brian Blade in the band, and thanks to their recent appearances with Wayne Shorter, they were already locking up as a rhythm section. Yes, they were tight, that’s for sure. Yet in keeping with the level of musicianship, they didn’t settle, they kept pushing.

Accordingly, this was a night to remember. For those not lucky enough to present at this concert, or others taking place around the USA this month by the group, there is good news. Mr. Brecker revealed that the group plans to record, and tour Europe next summer. Amen.

Bret Primack

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Thu Oct 18 2001 (9:57:40 AM)


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