Recording of November 2002: 4 Generations of Miles

CARTER, COBB, COLEMAN, STERN: 4 Generations of Miles
George Coleman, tenor sax; Mike Stern, electric guitar; Ron Carter, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums
Chesky JD238 (CD). 2002. David Chesky, prod.; Barry Wolifson, eng.; Nicholas Prout, mastering. DDD. TT: 67:06
Performance ****½
Sonics *****

May 26, 2001—the 75th anniversary of the birth of Miles Davis—engendered an outpouring of celebrations and remembrances, from an all-day homage at Symphony Space on Manhattan's Upper West Side, to a bevy of reissue packages geared to both the collector and the new jazz listener.

4 Generations of Miles, recorded May 12, 2002, is a welcome addition to that musical bounty. A quartet of the trumpeter-composer-bandleader's top former sidemen gathered at Makor, the music club near New York City's Lincoln Center and the site of the March "Recording of the Month," Bucky Pizzarelli's Swing Live, to vigorously and thoughtfully render numbers Davis recorded between the mid-1950s and the early '60s. The program is made up of staples—"My Funny Valentine," "On Green Dolphin Street," "All Blues," etc.—but the vitality with which they're delivered proves that, in the hands of genuinely creative artists, even the most well-worn selections can sound fresh.

The lineup is intriguing, and not because there's neither a trumpet nor a keyboard—the latter a must for Davis—but because of the diverse styles of the two front-liners. Big-toned, supple-lined bassist Ron Carter, who played with Davis from 1963 to 1968 in his second great quintet, with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Tony Williams, fits hand-in-glove with Jimmy Cobb, the in-the-pocket drummer who was with Davis from 1958 to 1961 and drummed on Davis' best-selling album, 1959's Kind of Blue.

But wiry-sounding Mike Stern, whose electric-guitar style bounces from bop to fusion to rock, and a Davis man intermittently from 1981 to 1985, would seem an odd choice to share the lead with tenor saxophonist George Coleman, who worked with Davis from 1963 to 1964 and remains a no-holds-barred bebop-based improviser. However, both men are in the same mindset, working with amazing restraint and empathy, feeding off each other, and never losing the groove. In fact, given how Stern, Coleman, and their partners bring off these standards, this group sounds more like a working band than a one-time affair.

4 Generations is presented as a concert, one number flowing easily into the next, interspersed with applause and audience chatter. The opener, "There Is No Greater Love," sets the tone. Coleman, with a glowing, buoyant sound, states the theme, then solos. He has a simply remarkable technique that he often displays unabashedly, but only in a few moments here does he unleash lines that blur in the ear. For the most part, he stresses tunefulness, mixing bluesy elements with sweet-noted thoughts that, together, tell an engaging story. Stern eschews fusion in favor of bebop and beyond, his lines swinging and tantalizing the ear with a wide, ringing sound that could have been run through a phaser, or perhaps simply echoed a bit. Underneath, Cobb quietly pushes the beat as Carter walks with big notes. It's hard not to be moved, exhilarated, pleased.

"All Blues" has some down-home blues gruff and high shrieks from Coleman, whose bluesiness is deep-rooted: early on, he played with B.B. King and Lloyd Price. He also offers bullet-train-fast lines that still manage to sing. Stern's electric tone is in contrast, but the warmth and grit of his lines fit right in with Coleman. The calm "Blue in Green" finds Coleman's lingering, lyrical notes and occasional speedy gush backed by softly gleaming chords from Stern, who then, in his own solo, plays single-note lines with the same subtle sound. Here, Carter is more animated and energetic in support.

The bassist's appealing blues variant, "81," is as close to funky as this disc gets. Cobb kicks things up with a rousing pulse enlivened with charged cymbal and drum accents. Coleman again ardently blends blues feeling and modernity, and Stern is similarly inclined in high, ringing notes that are decidedly impactful. "My Funny Valentine," which Davis made an essential of the modern jazz repertoire, is a vehicle for Coleman's and Stern's warm, melodic sides, and Carter's improvisation is filled with choice notes played with firm rhythmic whammy. The closer, "Oleo," is a fast romp that spotlights a most musical solo from Cobb.

Makor is not a tremendously large space; the sound is life-size and lifelike, giving a realistic presentation of the room from a table about a quarter of the way back from the stage. There's depth to the soundstage, and air around the musicians. Despite a fully present band sound and the audience's responses, there's still plenty of detail. And the instrumental timbres are well-balanced—the more complex sounds of Stern's amplified guitar don't override Carter's bass throb or Cobb's cymbal wash.—Zan Stewart