Jazz: Live - Imitate to innovate

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
YOU KNOW that moment when you hear something on the radio that's so compelling, so perfect, you have to drop whatever you're doing and listen hard? That's how I first heard Miles Davis. And that's how I felt when I heard Mark Isham's Miles Remembered: The Silent Way Project, while doing the washing-up the other day. The track clearly wasn't Miles but it wasn't not Miles; it had the late trumpeter's spirit running through it like the lettering in a stick of Blackpool rock. And Isham's band, playing at Ronnie Scott's all this week, sounds as good in person as it does on the new CD.

One of the endearing features of the club is that you can hear the most sublime creative music in what is both a jazz cathedral, its walls packed with devout David Redfern photographs; and a restaurant, a busy Soho joint complete with bustling, noiseless waitresses and swinging kitchen doors. For jazz musicians it's a great venue, because people come to listen and relax. There are two long sets that allow time to experiment and stretch out, to extend the fleeting moment in front of a largely knowledgeable and sympathetic audience. With music like this, a skilful integration of tradition and modernity, it's a place for the "long now" (to use Stewart Brand's useful term).

The night kicked off with "Right Off", Davis's 1970 theme from Jack Johnson, its shuffle groove expertly steered by drummer Michael Barsimanto. Isham directed the band with occasional hand signals for key and feel changes, and played dazzling trumpet breaks that would have surprised anyone who knew only his "new age" albums or his melodic movie scores. The trumpet was superbly amplified by a little microphone wired to the bell. Late- Nineties electronics mean that they can realise some of Davis's record- producer Teo Macero's studio techniques live. After a 20-minute jam or so, the band moved into "Internet", not a Davis track but a convincing pastiche of his late- Sixties style. Then we heard a moving hybrid of Joe Zawinul's "In a Silent Way" and Davis's "Milestones", followed by "Great Expectations", with its monster riff impressively wrangled by Doug Lunn on five-string bass.

The hard-driving "Ife" featured complex dual improvisations by the guitarists Peter Maunu and Steve Cardenas. At its best, the band followed the "we never solo, we always solo" ethic of early Weather Report, a dense but loose electric backdrop to the leader. Isham followed the tune's seven- note trumpet melody with rapid flurries of Miles-like squiggles and splatches. For this project Isham has transformed a Miles-influenced personal sound into direct imitation but the conceit works triumphantly.

At a recent conference about "play", the Canadian graphic designer Bruce Mau gave a heartfelt thumbs-up to imitation as a creative practice. "Don't be shy about it," he said. "Try to get as close as you can. You'll never get all the way and the separation might be truly remarkable. We have only to look at Richard Hamilton's version of Marcel Duchamp's Large Glass to see how rich, discredited and underused imitation is as a technique."

This is what Mark Isham and his band have done, to turn imitation, a "tribute band" of all things, into Art. And the "separation", the parts that are genuinely new, may be the most personal, and perfectly realised, work Isham has done to date.