By nature, I tend to be leery of all-star bands, or should I say recordings of all-star bands, especially when they exist primarily to pay tribute to other notable musicians. The bands are always short-lived and tend to sound amazingly competent, especially on recordings. Thus, I must confess I was a bit skeptical in approaching this disc. Each of the three headliners has taken rather disparate paths during their careers. Hancock, a Miles Davis Quintet alum on the piano, has made his mark as an innovator, bringing elements of hard dark funk, minimalism, and street-beat into his compositions; Brecker, on tenor sax, has been a force in the funk/groove jazz scene, along side his brother; and Hargrove has been identified with the vanguard of young neoclassical jazz musicians with his cookin’ hard bop/straight ahead chops. Even the two “sidemen” of the group, John Patitucci and Brian Blade, bass and drums respectively, have made such strong names for themselves that it almost seems unfair that they were not given top-billing spots as well. With all of this in mind, no wonder my all-star-band-suspicion trigger was on alert. Luckily, though, I didn’t have to pull it.
This ensemble toured to celebrate the music of Davis and Coltrane, and the disc is taken from their show at Massey Hall in Toronto, featured on CBC Radio’s Jazz Beat. The set is comprised of tunes written by or associated with the two legends, as well as new compositions in their memory. Evidently, as the group rehearsed for their tour, they seemed to have had similar concerns to mine. According to Hancock’s liner notes, they understood very well that if they had “just [taken] the arrangements [Davis and ‘Trane] were famous for and improvised on them, the audience might [have been] happy . . . because they’d be hearing what was familiar to them. But if Miles Davis and John Coltrane were here, they would not be very happy with this safe kind of approach.” The group decided that since the two masters they wished to honor were innovators and thrived on taking risks, they would “create [their] own new way of looking at the compositions, to allow new freedoms within the structures in order to stimulate and provoke spontaneity.”
The result of this approach is a refreshing tribute, not only to Davis and Coltrane themselves, but also to their notable ensembles, the Miles Davis Quintet and John Coltrane’s magnificent quartet. The disc’s first four tracks tend to sound more Davis-esque, with the first track being a Hancock composition entitled “The Sorcerer” and the second track, “The Poet”, being a tribute written by Hargrove, who plays fluegelhorn on it. “Miles Davis to me,” writes Hargrove in his liner notes, “is like a great poet. He was a master of using space and just playing all the right notes in the right places.” The third track, “So What/Impressions,” is a small medley of a Davis tune and a Coltrane tune back to back, while the fourth track, “Misstery,” was co-written by Hancock, Brecker, and Hargrove. What makes these four tracks intriguing is how they reflect different periods in the arc of Davis’ growth as a composer and bandleader. The first two sound like tunes that could have come off his Cookin’ or Relaxin’, while “So What” is a tune that Davis played with Coltrane, and “Misstery” sounds like something Miles would have recorded during his modal phase.
The final four tracks nod to Coltrane. In fact, Brecker plays a beautiful interpretation of the quintessential Coltrane composition, “Naima.” He does a tremendous job of invoking Coltrane’s sound and emulating his style, without trying to reproduce him. The sixth track, “Transition”, is another Coltrane composition. Interestingly enough, Hargrove takes the first solo on this song and manages to achieve a very Coltrane-esque sense of phrasing on the trumpet. For the next track, the group goes back to a tune associated with Davis, “My Ship”, a track from Miles Ahead. Again, Hargrove plays this track on a fluegelhorn; intriguingly, though, Brecker’s solos on this track sound very much like Coltrane’s more introspective and bluesy solos (think “Alabama”, or “Summertime”). The disc winds up with Brecker’s tribute to Coltrane, entitled “D Trane”.
Throughout the disc, of course, Hancock shows a remarkable stylistic range, without mechanically aping McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Winton Kelly, or any of the other pianists that played with Davis and Coltrane. Like Davis, Hancock has achieved a real statesman-like presence and his leadership on this project pervades, but does not dominate each track. Patitucci turns a beautiful performance on the bass, throwing in a real swinging solo at the beginning of “D Trane”. One of the most pleasant gems on this recording, though, is Brian Blade. His stickwork is always appropriate, and thoroughly his own, though he does pay homage to some of the great drummers of the era like Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, and Philly Joe Jones. What sets this disc apart from other all-star band recordings is the obvious love each player has for Davis and Coltrane, and their respect for one another as they cooperate, not compete, in creating rich, authentic music. On this recording, it is obvious that this was more than “just another gig” — indeed, they sound like an extraordinary, regular band, something both Davis and ‘Trane would really appreciate.