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Isham Approach Sheds Light on Miles Davis

Jazz Review

July 10, 1999|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Miles Davis' late-'60s transition into a hybrid music, combining elements of jazz, rock and funk enriched with a variety of electronic timbres, had a powerful effect on the jazz of the next few decades. And trumpeter-film composer Mark Isham is quick to acknowledge his own affection for, and indebtedness to, Davis' transformative efforts.

For the past year or so, Isham, with a band of similarly oriented players, has been exploring the Davis music of the period, first as a casual effort in joint creativity, later to create a live recording, "Miles Remembered: The Silent Way Project." On Thursday night, Isham displayed some of the resulting music in the opening set of a too-brief, two-night run at Catalina Bar & Grill.

Interestingly, the performance cast as much illumination upon the Davis transition as it did upon the specifics of the Isham performance. What became strikingly clear was the fact that, as Isham interpreted tunes such as "All Blue," "Spanish Key" and his own take on the Davis style, "Azael," it was music founded upon texture, trance and repetitive rhythms. Virtually everything played was expressed over repeated ostinato patterns or rhythmic vamps, with Isham's muted trumpet--intensely reminiscent of Davis--soaring above the mix. The effect was gripping, a kind of jazz/rock-based version of Middle Eastern qawwali music.

However, lacking the spiritual and poetic corollaries of qawwali, the music eventually wound into a kind of sameness, its emotional variations tracing primarily to the sudden shifts of energy generated by long, rock-styled guitar solos, mostly from Peter Maunu. And what was sacrificed, ultimately, was the sense of movement and development characteristic of chord-founded jazz improvisation.

Still, there was no denying the intensity of the performance, nor the imaginative collection of electronically modified sounds and effects produced by Isham and his players--Maunu, guitarist Nels Cline, bassist Doug Lunn and drummer Michael Barsimanto. In the process, their work thoroughly underscored the fact that the Davis music of the '60s and '70s is still an intriguing lode for musical inspiration.

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