The celebrations of a half-century of Ronnie Scott's jazz club usefully coincide with two other 1959 landmarks, John Coltrane's Giant Steps and Miles Davis's Kind of Blue. The Mobo award-winning tenor saxophonist Denys Baptiste's quartet tackle the former, then return with bassist Gary Crosby for Davis's post-bop masterpiece. Music journalist Richard Williams has just written a book detailing how music would be unrecognisable without Kind of Blue's popularising of modal, contemplative improvisation. More traditional virtues will be uncovered tonight.
Ronnie Scott's seems like a very upmarket sort of dive, as attested by the foot-shuffling silence when Baptiste asks who attended London's Notting Hill Carnival. But the ambience warms up well enough as the night goes on. Baptiste stays broadly faithful to Coltrane's original, but interpolates Kenny Garrett's and Freddie Hubbard's versions of the title track. He announces "Countdown" as "one of the most challenging pieces of music in the jazz repertoire", before muttering to the band: "Let's get it out the way." Veteran Washington, DC drummer Rod Youngs stays steady behind him, till violent bass-drum whacks and cymbal-smashes erupt like a corridor of doors being shouldered in. Baptiste, meanwhile, is holding on to the tail of the intricate torrent of notes that made people castigate and venerate Coltrane. Peter Edwards has kept close to the clipped, quick phrases of Coltrane's various pianists all night. Joined by Crosby's stabbed bass and Youngs' long arms and high, flicking wrists barely brushing his drums, "Syeeda's Song Flute" is so staccato, with so much space, it seems about to disintegrate into the vacuum, until the tune's sinuous sax phrases return to rescue it. "Naima" can't match the breathlessly suspenseful original, Baptiste's soft, breathy melodies instead feeling like the air being let back in.
Kind of Blue is the greater challenge. Trumpeter Abram Wilson has none of Davis's mournful tone, but is a back-arching showman with some of his cockiness, offering a Dixieland rasp and hard-breathing attack on "Freddie Freeloader", and straining, violent effort on "All Blues". The band's long solos (a Coltrane innovation initially hated by Davis) rarely go anywhere extraordinary. But the way Edwards carries the bluesy load of the deathless melody in "So What" is typical of the band's feel for the older verities Davis tried to return to with his modal tunes. "Blue In Green" is beautifully timeless.
Edwards leads a late-night lament that Sinatra might have sung to at closing time. The band slow with the emotion of that hour. The trumpet is soft and sobbing, Baptiste's tone full and rich. It's the bluest music, with each musician aiming at emotion's heart. On the closing "Flamenco Sketches", Youngs' brushes circle like waves, the band descending into silence. It's the right kind of blue.