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Music Review

Classic sparks

A Miles Davis-Gil Evans lineup at the Bowl shows jazz in high flight.

August 07, 2009|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

Here's where I get in trouble. Jazz hasn't figured out how to be a classical music, and I hope it never does.

At the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday night, extensive selections of three famous albums from the late '50s by Miles Davis and arranger Gil Evans -- "Miles Ahead," "Porgy and Bess" and "Sketches of Spain" -- were performed. This was in some ways the most sophisticated classical concert of the summer season. The program notes by Evans biographer Larry Hicock were longer, more detailed and more scholarly than those provided for the Los Angeles Philharmonic's classical series.

Though created for the occasion, the 20-piece jazz orchestra had the kind of connection with history that made it the Vienna Philharmonic of jazz. Drummer Jimmy Cobb joined in; he played on the original recordings. Tuba player Howard Johnson is an Evans alumnus. The band's musical director and one of Wednesday's soloists was Miles Evans, Gil Evans' son. Vince Mendoza conducted expertly. (Unfortunately, the band was jazz's Vienna Philharmonic in another way: The only women were the harpist and bassoonist.)

The three Davis-Evans recordings have been celebrated for expanding jazz forms. Each is a concerto in suite form for Davis as soloist and jazz orchestra. The mixture of composed music and improvisation is fluid and the extraordinary dialogue between Davis and Evans is unlike anything that has occurred in classical music or jazz. But the albums are also "composed," assembled from bits and pieces from many takes into a finished product.

Davis and Evans were never in doubt about what kind of masterpieces they had created, music that lived and breathed but that were also the first great works produced in album form. As Hicock's notes detail, they resisted performing this material live (and only did so on a couple of rare occasions). Meanwhile when Evans revisited any of the music later on without Davis, he changed it dramatically. Without Davis, the work became something else.

In theory, there should be no reason why these albums cannot survive as live music. In the 17th and 18th centuries, concertos were written for specific performers and were fluid compositions that included improvisation. Sometimes the music was written down only after the concerto was played. Mozart, performing his violin and pianos concertos, may have been the Miles of his day. Now we are happy trying to re-create those performances as best we can. Evans and Davis, on the other hand, gave us documentation for exactly how their music should be performed.

But that documentation is more problem than solution. This is work of personality. Evans, an orchestrator, had a unique orchestral sound that is written down and can be re-created as readily as Ravel's. But Davis, one of the most distinctive musicians in the history, was a different kind of personality. His sound can be imitated, but his playing, his improvisation and his amazing presence are not reproducible. Evans gave Davis a frame and subject matter, but Davis did the painting. You can put a mustache on the "Mona Lisa," but Da Vinci was Da Vinci.

To their credit, the two trumpet soloists at the Bowl, Terence Blanchard and Nicholas Payton, did a lot more than paint mustaches on "Porgy" or the "Concierto de Aranjuez." Each soloist was an individual and each contributed some exciting and moving playing. Blanchard took on most of the "Porgy" suite and made it his soulful, driving own. His "Summertime," for instance, turned on the heat, where Davis played in air conditioning.

Payton was cooler and more Miles-ish. His low notes are things of wonder, and he was particularly impressive in Evans' recomposition of the slow movement of Joaquin Rodrigo's "Aranjuez," which I think is Evans' greatest achievement. Bass player Christian McBride, who completed his three-year term as the L.A. Philharmonic's creative chair for jazz with this concert, served as its master of ceremonies Wednesday and told the audience that he credits the world music phenomenon beginning right here. Gunther Schuller, who played French horn on those sessions and who is now one of America's most distinguished classical composers, credits "Sketches of Spain" with initiating third stream, the fusion of jazz and classical music that Schuller spear-headed in the '60s.

But fine as much of the playing was -- and McBride, on bass, happened to be one of the standouts -- arrangements have a way of dating. Mahler's re-orchestrations of Beethoven or Stokowski's of Bach immediately announce their age in the way the original music does not. The same is true of Evans. He wrote for his time and his main man. Blanchard and Payton wore others' old clothes proudly and well, but each is more valuable to us on his own.

Indeed, the lasting legacy, besides the albums, is found in the work of great musicians who played with Evans and Davis and then went on to branch out -- pushing barriers in jazz and classical music. Schuller, it just so happens, has a new horn quintet that will be played at Summerfest chamber music festival in La Jolla on Aug. 16.

Jazz has its classics, but it operates best when it moves on, including giving classical music a regular kick in the pants.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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