Jazz: Sinfonietta's Miles Davis Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
'Barker and Soloff teed off each other and drove for the upper reaches'
Wednesday 06 March 1996
Admittedly, the German Bernd Alois Zimmermann's "Nobody Knows de Trouble I See" (1954) made noir-ish reference to jazz tonality, and was even scored to include a glum electric guitarist scrubbing away on a single chord during briefly sustained passages of orchestral boogie. Then pianist Joanna MacGregor spread herself elegantly over Monk's "Ask Me Now" (1951), without digging far into the root structure of the tune - Monk begins to come alive when the player starts to go guh-doing.
One suspects that the vast majority of a full QEH were only there anyway to see how trumpets Lew Soloff and Guy Barker, conductor Markus Stenz and the Sinfonietta's augmented wind section stood up to the task of getting inside some of the most roilsome extracts from the great collaborations of Miles Davis and Gil Evans. The entire second half of the programme was given over to a suite of tunes from Miles Ahead, and "The Pan Piper", "Saeta" and "Solea" from Sketches of Spain, in which Messrs Barker and Soloff would strive to explicate the genius of the Evans/Davis phenomenon while remaining steadfastly in possession of their own jazz voices.
The arrangements were faithful and attacked with some panache by the wind band, although the sucking and swelling motions characteristic of authentic Evans work were only nominally represented, Stenz being an upright German with loosely chopping hands. Gil Evans - a profoundly laid-back individual - preferred to conduct his players at an angle of 70 degrees while stroking a huge invisible dog.
Still, Soloff and Barker slipped into their routine gamely with the Miles Ahead suite, the older, more portly American clearly scheduled to do tight, brassy American things with his apportionment, Barker sticking to wistful lyricism and golden reflectiveness, as if the pair of them had agreed to divide the range of the piece according to national stereotype. Indeed, there were moments when the Englishman's wide-bore instrument vaulted right over the flugel soup to splash down in cornet shallows, which shifted gorgeously over open brass chording in "The Ship". One thought of Whitby under heavy cloud.
By and large, however, the Sketches of Spain material worked better because the rhythm section was no longer required to swing with quite the same pertinacity. And, in truth, it was a relief not to hear them try any more. Sketches is more dependent on formalised ensemble dynamics anyway, and without the imperative to move so jazzily the whole group settled comfortably into the sturdily churning march rhythm that characterises so much of Miles's least flexuous recording. It worked. Barker and Soloff teed off each other and drove for the upper reaches, Stenz visibly relaxed, and you sensed for the first time that everyone was really playing.
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