To Herbie Hancock, the presumed spark plug behind this touring tribute to Miles Davis and John Coltrane, we pose the single-word question: Why? He tried to answer that question as bravely as possible, citing the two icons who would have been 75 this year as shining examples of trust and risk-taking. Indeed, this quintet of supremely skilled musicians took a risk, trying to come up with new approaches to the Miles/’Trane repertoire while fending off memories of the past. Sadly, they couldn’t quite pull it off.
If the idea of a Hancock-anchored Davis tribute quintet sounds familiar, it should, for this is the direct descendant of the V.S.O.P. bands that toured sporadically from 1976 to 1992. Consisting of four-fifths of the Miles Davis Quintet (Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams), plus a succession of trumpeters, V.S.O.P. had great influence, touching off the acoustic jazz counterrevolution that later blossomed with Wynton Marsalis (a V.S.O.P. alum himself) and his followers. But the sudden death of the unique, meter-fracturing Williams in 1997 was a crippling blow to the idea of any further reunions.
Taking its name from the slogan on Davis’ late-’60s albums, the Directions in Music band plays with an almost entirely new deck. Hancock is the only V.S.O.P. holdover, with the blistering tenor of Michael Brecker, Roy Hargrove on trumpet and flugelhorn and the able rhythm section of John Patitucci (bass) and Brian Blade (drums) filling the slots.
This band tried very hard to be different, turning the frantic “Impressions” into a dreamlike dirge, rendering “Stella by Starlight” unrecognizable, leaving “Naima” to the unaccompanied devices of Brecker, who welded an encyclopedia of dynamic contrasts and arpeggios into a coherent whole. What you miss, though, is the telepathic interplay that animated the V.S.O.P. bands. Part of the problem is that Hancock is a much-changed pianist these days — relentlessly abstract, dissonant, disconnected from what the rhythm section is doing. He seems to be on his own cloud, and the others couldn’t find him.
The only number that really connected was the encore, in which everyone lowered his guard, started listening to each another and brought humor and cross-references to the table. After Brecker quoted Hancock’s “Chameleon,” Patitucci and Blade struck up the soft-focused groove of Davis’ “Shhh/Peaceful” and Hargrove fell in with the tune from “It’s About That Time” — a genuinely touching farewell to Davis.
The band will appear at the Blue Note in New York City on Dec. 18 and 19.