When future generations look at photos of Aug. 5’s Hollywood Bowl marquee emblazoned with the names Miles Davis and Gil Evans, they will wonder what year this was. Davis and Evans, of course, are long gone; they did share a Bowl booking in the early ’80s, but they brought separate bands and didn’t collaborate. On Wednesday, they finally did — posthumously — in an elaborate tribute concert that at times raised goose bumps and brought tears. Miles may have been beyond reach, but thanks to a brilliant ensemble, the spirit of Gil Evans was right there.
That these two geniuses still command the billing over a plethora of current jazz stars honoring them is an indication of how haunted by its history jazz is these days. This year, the fixation is on 1959; Columbia Legacy has issued 50th anniversary special editions of two Davis landmarks from that year, “Kind of Blue” and Davis/Evans’ “Sketches of Spain.” Accordingly, this concert contained extensive excerpts of most of “Sketches,” along with the other acknowledged Davis/Evans masterworks from 1957-58, “Miles Ahead” and “Porgy and Bess.”
Stacked with quick-reading studio pros, the orchestra duplicated the innovatively quirky instrumentation that Evans assembled for the albums — and, despite blasting amplification, often re-created the Evans sound with spine-tingling pungency. The most accurate performances were of “Springsville,” “New Rhumba” and, aided by the walk-on CSUN Jazz Band, an emotional “Saeta.” The biggest departure was on the hypnotic “Solea,” where the rhythm was altered and the pace too quick.
Rather than trying to imitate Davis, the three trumpet soloists wisely went their own ways for the most part. Terence Blanchard, whose new Concord CD “Choices” comes out Aug. 18, seemed reticent in the written parts yet bloomed in the improvs, with crackling extroverted bop much removed from Miles in the “Porgy” segment. By contrast, Nicholas Payton made a greater effort to adopt an introspective sound in “Sketches,” but in his own style. Evans’ son Miles Evans, alas, sounded off-form.
Drummer Jimmy Cobb, the last man standing from Miles’ now-iconic “Kind of Blue” sextet and also a participant on the “Porgy” and “Sketches” albums, was perfectly capable of driving this band hard as well, as did his superb drummer colleague Peter Erskine and rock-solid bassist Christian McBride.
What this often magical concert proved is that this wonderful music does have a life beyond the grooves of an LP. But it will never be the same life. In this music, Evans uniquely perceived and framed the soul of Miles Davis — a complex, curious, lonely, almost desperately plaintive figure who considered the arranger his best friend. Jazz rightly moves on, but Miles’ essence was poignantly missed.