Jazz-trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, from Oakland, Calif., is truly a star on the rise—and it was a thrill to hear him and his band play on Sunday afternoon at the University of Arizona, despite the fact that the musicians were embedded in a somewhat ill-focused touring show dubbed The Miles Davis Experience.
Through the use of projected photographs, spoken word and live music, the event was intended to trace the career of Davis—the immortal trumpeter and composer who died 20 years ago—during his crucial formative years as a leader, from 1949 until 1959, when he released the legendary album Kind of Blue. The playing was uniformly excellent, but this presentation couldn't decide whether it was a lecture/demonstration, multimedia celebration or serious concert. It was a little bit of all of those—but never fully realized.
Part of the problem may have been the clumsy narration by actor Donald E. Lacy Jr. His overly dramatic delivery wasn't as bad as the directionless script, which leaned heavily on pseudo-hipster language and superfluous digressions. The visual images projected onto three screens behind the musicians were drawn mostly from stock archives and album covers, and the photos often were not contemporaneous with the music.
Nevertheless, the band sounded impeccable, covering nervous proto-bebop and laid-back cool jazz. Not only did Akinmusire capture Davis' famous pillowed tone; he also played some stabbing and searing solos. Tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III capably essayed the angular attack of Davis' mentor, Charlie Parker, and the union of melody and density unique to John Coltrane, the brilliant titan who came to fame in Davis' group.
The rhythm section of pianist Sam Harris, drummer Justin Brown and double-bassist Harish Raghavan balanced delicacy and headlong energy; they were especially effective while playing "'Round Midnight" as a trio. Harris also displayed the keen sense of vulnerability and melodic fearlessness that marked the work of Bill Evans, the pianist on most of Kind of Blue.
If the audience members were expecting a showcase for that album, though, they left disappointed. The only tune from it was a restrained interpretation of "Blue in Green."