It’s doubtful that Miles Davis would have had much interest in 4 Generations of Miles, retracing as it does the music of the jazz icon’s most straightforwardly jazz-oriented (and, not coincidentally, some would say, his best) years. The concept is an intriguing one: bring together four musicians from different groups under Miles’ leadership and have them take a crack at some of his repertoire. So we get a group comprised of Jimmy Cobb, the only surviving member of the Kind of Blue sessions, George Coleman, who played tenor with Davis for a year in the early ‘60s, Ron Carter, who was the bassist in Miles’ legendary late ‘60s quintet and who eventually presided over the bass chair on Davis’ first electric recordings, and Mike Stern, who played with Davis during his ‘80s comeback.
Obviously, there’s loads of talent here, and as you might expect, the group plays a really solid set. Perhaps it is a little surprising, as Chip Stern’s liner notes suggest, that these musicians, whose birth dates span a period from 1929 to 1953, should be able to gel this well together without having played together before, but then, their work with Miles certainly would have taught them to play in almost any situation without the level of discomfort that some musicians might feel under similar circumstances. The problem with the whole project is that it is so—well, ordinary. Not that four musicians playing well together should be a disappointment. But when the name of Miles Davis is invoked, one expects something a little less comfortable. Earlier this year, Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, and Roy Hargrove were able to bring new perspectives to the task of deconstructing some of the music of Davis and John Coltrane on their Directions In Music project, and one expects no less of the very talented musicians on this disc. But instead we get pretty straight-ahead rehashes of Davis material that, with the exception of Ron Carter’s composition “81”, were all significant parts of the trumpet player’s ‘50s repertoire. It’s very similar to one of Davis’ recordings from the early ‘60s, like Someday My Prince Will Come or Seven Steps to Heaven, that found him mired in material and approach, lacking the best elements of his work from the ‘50s, but unable to move forward in any significant way.
That said, there is no shortage of good jazz playing here. Coleman, who is a direct descendent of Charlie Parker as far as his harmonic approach and ability to play with amazing speed and accuracy, provides some breathtaking moments, such as his double-time solo break on “There Is No Greater Love” or his nonstop ostinato introduction, melodic statement, and subsequent solo on “On Green Dolphin Street”. Cobb is great throughout, providing the right combination of timekeeping and forward thrust to keep things always energetic and snappy. His work on “81”, while not as incendiary as that of Tony Williams, is soulful and provides just the right level of funky overtones. Carter, of course, is the consummate bassist, equally comfortable with providing the root of the group, soloing, and contributing to rhythmic complexity, though he less able to do so here in the absence of a piano. Mike Stern, known for his Hendrix-inspired electric roar, might seem the odd man out, but he has always shown the ability to fit into more traditional and less raucous bands. Here he uses chorused Telecaster with some echo that often allows him to compensate for the lack of a keyboard “bottom”, but the sound does become a tad monotonous at times. Still, he provides a excellent solo on “81” and does a nice Wes Montgomery-inspired turn on “If I Were A Bell.” The decision to include a rendition of “My Funny Valentine” was not a great idea—this is where Stern’s echo becomes rather annoying, and no one is going to provide a more intimate reading of the melody than Miles.
So, what we have here is a very good straight-ahead jazz album that purports to pay tribute to the memory of Miles Davis. Of course, not everyone is going to subscribe to Miles’ idea of not playing his old music just because they once played in a group with him, but it does seem a slightly funny way of honoring the memory of jazz music’s most restless innovator. I’d advise those who loved Miles’ 1950s music and found it impossible to move on with him into new sounds to check out 4 Generations of Miles. Actually, it’s a fine CD for anyone who likes great post-bop jazz and who wants to hear Coleman, in particular. Just don’t expect to hear anything really new.