Kind of Blue Barcelona

There was fast food like Catalonian baguette pizza with chorizo. Tapas like flash fried baby squid or crispy potatoes with olive oil mayo and tomato sauce. And then of course there was that robber baron Rupert Murdoch and his damnable tabloid The Sun which every morning has a half–naked twentysomething smiling at you from page two! Danni, 23, from Coventry was my personal favorite. Yes, Europe does have its advantages! And then there was the music, right, right, the music. A mini-theme of the 41st installment of the Barcelona Jazz Festival was the 50th anniversary of Kind of Blue. The idea, and it was an admirable one, was to turn three groups of musicians loose on Miles masterwork and then sit back and enjoy the contrasting approaches. Now that I’m back in the States and have had a few days to contemplate what I saw, it all sort of comes under the heading of: “The Mysterious Ways in Which a Musician’s Mind Works(?).” Or “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Drummers.”

Representing the forces of authenticity was Jimmy Cobb’s So What Band. At 80 years–old Cobb is a friggin’ miracle of modern science. The fact that he can fly over the Atlantic to play a string of dates in Europe that feature the music of a band whose members he’s outlived by decades is damned amazing. Unfortunately, Jimmy should consider staying home from now on. I understand that this is probably a lucrative gig for him, but he and his band gave a fairly tired, by rote reading of Kind of Blue. The crowd at Barcelona’s ungodly gorgeous concert hall, The Palau de la Musica, loved it—to it a point. Even they could sense that the energy levels were not overly high. Or that what they were hearing and seeing was a band going through the motions to pick up the cash. Very talented tenor player Javon Jackson, alto player Vince Herring and trumpeter Wallace Roney did a decent job imitating the Trane, Cannonball, Miles lineup on the original album. But none of them smiled once or made even the most feeble stage announcement. It was all silence and stone faces. In other words, bullshit. Roney, who is reputed to be Miles only trumpet student, who played with Davis before he died, and is often derided as a Miles imitator, looked particularly aggrieved throughout the evening. Rather than try and reproduce the original solos which would have been tantamount to suicide, they kept their solo flights near enough the originals to be recognizable while still playing in their own style. In the end however, this show was just plain flat.

Cuban pianist Omar Sosa who has lived in San Francisco and currently resides in Barcelona, decided to take the opposite path from Cobb. Instead of faithful renditions, Sosa went the opposite direction, taking the music from that landmark album places it has never been before and probably will never go again. One of the sweetest guys in jazz, Sosa clearly worked at adapting Miles’ music. His interpretations were nothing if not elaborate. The problem was that they were so over the top, rhythmically, dynamically, melodically (which in this case meant a lack of melody) that it came off as too insider, too exclusive. What was supposed to be the Afro-Cuban take on Kind of Blue became strangely disconnected and not the warm, super rhythmic thing that the term Afro-Cuban usually signifies.

The guest for this show was Bronx-born trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez who has lived in Madrid for most of the last decade. Once the leader of the Fort Apache Band, Gonzalez has grown into a crusty–as–hell MoFo, whose personality reminds you of a profane Popeye. His trumpet skills remain intact however and he played most of his solos in a Miles–like tone which worked and was probably the only obvious connection to Kind of Blue. Trying to compose music based on a masterpiece like KOB is damned near impossible no matter who you are and so Sosa gets points for certainly for even trying this kind of risky approach. In the end however it did not have much emotional impact.

The ace reliever in this trio of shows, the man who saved the day so to speak was Spanish pianist Chano Dominguez who’s flamenco interpretation of KOB, which actually sounded the strangest when I first read about the three on paper, ended up being a colossal success. His rearrangements which were recognizable as the songs they were, as well as lots of original music he wrote around those re–imaginings, was sprightly and joyous; sparkling and full of high spirits; all of it both something new and something that paid tribute to Miles. Not surprisingly, snappy rhythms predominated. “All Blues” for example, was organically turned into a clap your hands tune which it is decidedly not in its original form. Chano’s solos were fluid and ingenious. The evening’s dancer Tomasito was the icing. The short bursts of his flourishes, lascivious looks and foot stamping elan that studded the evening were absolutely perfect. It would be nice to hear that Chano planned on recording some these piece but alas I heard nothing like that while I was in Barcelona.

Strangely enough, in what is a semi-stroke of genius (attain international attention) the 41st Barcelona Jazz Festival ends in New York City at the Jazz Standard with a repeat of Chano’s performance. It should a fun night.

In the end, the old conundrum faced with playing, covering if you will, an unassailable masterpiece like KOB, the choice in other words between playing straight covers in a solemn tribute or taking that masterpiece and stretching it beyond all recognition, is a matter of personal taste and one that ultimately leaves you damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The collisions in Barcelona, between the two approaches, and something in between, was fascinating.

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