Sketches of Blue reviewed by Rahsaan Clark Morris
Trumpeter Orbert Davis brought both a sextet and his ensemble, the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, to the Auditorium Theatre Thursday, April 14, as part of the ongoing Miles Davis Festival. The program, entitled “Sketches of Blue”, set up the daunting task of bringing two of the most famous works in Miles’ catalogue of albums to life: Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain.
The sextet opened the program. Comprised of Ari Brown on tenor sax, Ernest Khabeer Dawkins on alto, Ryan Cohan on piano, Stu Miller on bass, and Ernie Adams on drums, with Orbert leading on trumpet and Flugelhorn, the band kicked off with “So What”, following exactly the track selection of the famous Columbia Records release. And to the musicians credit, apart from the opening themes of each of the five tunes, that was about the only similarity these tunes had with the originals. Most of the audience probably knew the different solos from “So What” and “Freddie Freeloader” by heart, the record having been one of the best selling albums of all time, released in 1959. The album had been so important because of the collaborators on the date: the then-rising star John Coltrane was on tenor; a young Julian “Cannonball” Adderly had come out of Florida playing a burning alto; pianist Wynton Kelley and bassist Paul Chambers had been on many popular dates for Blue Note and Prestige Records at the time; and the other piano player on the date, Bill Evans, was just beginning to make a lyrical name for himself. So, in effect you had the makings of a jazz Super Group.
I don’t know if Orbert Davis could have picked better brass interpreters of these blue modes than Ari Brown and Khabeer Dawkins. Brown had come up listening to Coltrane in the late Fifties and throughout the Sixties, and ‘Trane’s brooding muscular tone was evident. And like Cannonball, Dawkins had heard the music of Charlie Parker and Johnny Hodges on alto, and incorporated all that into his playing. So much so that Dawkins created new lines during “So What” from the comping chords laid down by Cohan, so that Cannon’s lines were virtually unrecognizable. Indeed, such was the case for all the horn players throughout the set, so that each tune was brand new, which is the main point of Jazz.
“Blue in Green” followed the loping “Freddie Freeloader”, bringing just the right touch of intimacy and sensuality to that already sensuous ballad. After an audacious, blues wail-laden solo by Dawkins, Ari Brown came in with a sweet, late-night take on the theme, once again completely different from Coltrane’s prior loveliness on the tune. Orbert opened “All Blues” with the nasally-sounding Harmon mute on his trumpet, swinging right into the waltz-like coolness of the theme. Right after Cohan’s spare piano solo, Orbert came back on playing the full-bodied Flugelhorn. Khabeer Dawkins’ alto solo was another exercise in originality and spontaneity, so much so that drummer Adams could be seen nodding his head and saying “That was Bad!”
“Flamenco Sketches”, the blues-tinged Spanish ballad on the album, which ended the first half was the perfect lead-in to the second half, which was the CJP ensemble performing Sketches of Spain. Musically, Miles had the heart and soul of a matador on the recording and his attempt at juxtaposing beauty and sensitivity in such a muscular and macho setting was stunning for a jazz album back in the day. In other words, Miles and arranger Gil Evans were attempting what amounted to a concept album.
Disappointingly, there were a couple of ensemble passages in the opening CJP number “Concierto de Aranjuez” that could have used a little more rehearsal time. Kudos, though, have to be given to Orbert and his accomplished group for even attempting this music. Miles and Evans never performed this music live and there was a reason, over and above the logistics of putting the band together for such a performance: these were and are some of the most difficult passages in written music and to perform them without stopping for errors had to take a lot of courage. The musicianship of this ensemble shone through in the ensuing shorter compositions. The pieces, such as “Saeta” and “Solea”, were performed with great care and in the program, it was mentioned that Orbert had written some new string passages, never a part of the original album, that were accomplished with just the right amount of heft and support by the section which included veterans such as Sylvia de la Cerna and Talia Pavia. During the program, Davis mentioned that he had also written some new pieces for evening, “El Moreno” and “Albaicin” that were in the spirit of the shorter pieces which had been composed by Gil Evans.
Overall, the evening proved to be a great success and the quality of jazz musicianship of the principles involved in both acts was once again confirmed. Based on the strength and inventiveness of this and past programs, here’s hoping that there might soon be a Chicago Jazz Philharmonic series to attend in the upcoming months.