Montreux Jazz Festival: Miles Davis Tribute
Words By Karen Dugan
Photos By Lionel Flusin & Karen Dugan (www.tinyrager.com)
Even though the Montreux Jazz Festival had been raging for over two weeks, The Miles Davis Tribute was the first show of the festival for Josh and I, having just arrived in Montreux, Switzerland, by way of Paris, France, earlier that morning.
This would be a unique performance for us and other Americans who were attending because this show was not making its way to the United States. Sad but true, which made this a very special performance for jazz heads like Josh and I.
We walked from our hotel to the gorgeous Auditorium Stravinsky, about a 15-minute walk along the gorgeous Lake Geneva, or Lake Léman, as the Swiss prefer to call it. Having been blessed with a amazing VIP package from the wonderful Sloane Family earlier in the year, we were so excited and didn't know what to expect! We had already been greeted upon arrival to our hotel by a Festival representative and been given a goodie bag full of Mac Cosmetics, two festival tee-shirts, a dual-disc sampler CD, Missoni pamphlets and more.
We found our way to the Protocole' Office where a most gracious staff took care of us. Vivian, Josephine and Helena were beyond wonderful!! Thank you ladies for your patience, giving us the best of care, making sure we weren't kicked out of our booth by the stars and reminding us how hospitality should be handled. New Yorkers need to recognize! The hospitality in Switzerland is absolutely unmatchable.
We were given two slips of thick paper and orange wrist bands that served as entry to the box seats. We were shown the way to the top of the venue, led down a little hallway and placed into Box #4. My magic number :) There were only six boxes total as far as our floor was concerned. If they had more, I never knew about them or saw them.
The below picture shows the stage from the left side box view. We were just the mirror image, same spot but our box was situated to the right of the stage. It was a phenomenal view of the show, albeit far away. There would be no front row raging during these performances.
The show was slated to begin at 8:00 PM but we all know what that means. Finally around 8:45pm, beginning fashionably late (pun intended and you'll see why later), Claude "Funky Claude" Nobs, the fonder and general manager of The Festival, and a few staff members came onstage to press festival merchandise. Claude led the pack, wearing multiple shirts, stripping away a layer at a time then throwing the shirts into the audience. Then came the introductions via Funky Claude.
Miles Davis Tribute produced by Marcus Miller
Herbie Hancock – Keys
Wayne Shorter – Saxophone
Marcus Miller – Bass
Sean Christopher Rickman - Drums
Sean Christopher Jones – Trumpet
Pianist and composer Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Marcus Miller are all alums of the school of Miles Davis, having had the pleasure of playing with Davis before he passed. The jazz great, whose statue stands proudly in a park next to Miles Davis Hall, performed 10 times at Montreux, the last time just two months before his death at age 65 in 1991.
Marcus Miller was introduced and came out in an all-white suit and his signature black hat. Herbie Hancock was introduced and came out rocking a MEGA Cosby Sweater to which Claude commented on how he liked it. Well, of course he did. Claude Nobs only wears Missioni! Y’all know the "interesting" $1,000+ designs that looks like ugly sweater patters? It's my least favorite store on Madison Avenue and here is this dude who only wears that brand. He rocked every piece :) It was made for Claude and all his fabulousness and, to be honest, I grew to like a few items during my trip. Wayne Shorter was next and in the tradition of Davis, the trio has brought in two young musicians to work with them, the trumpeter Sean Jones and the drummer Sean Rickman.
The two-hour concert, which stretched into the early hours of Thursday, was a highlight of the 45th annual Montreux Jazz Festival, "where Davis is still remembered for driving along Lake Geneva in a red Ferrari."
Some Day My Prince Will Come
Unsure of this song
Time After Time
The five-piece ensemble opened with "Walkin," the title track of Miles Davis's 1954 album. Herbie Hancock started the song out slowly, following through alternating from his piano and keyboards. During his solo, his face made the deepest of connections with the notes and you could see it in the way he contorted his mouth and eyes with feeling. There was gorgeous mournful trumpet and saxophone exchange between Sean Jones and Wayne Shorter respectively and then the "Blah, Blah, Blah" happened.
During the Marcus Miller workshop the following day, a question was asked about the set list and how it was formed. Miller spoke about how they picked the song.
He spoke about how they didn't want to do the songs the same and it was when they began to have fun with the songs that the "Blah, Blah, Blah" would happen. It was the "Blah, Blah, Blah" that made this experience its own and where the beauty in the performance was meant to show itself. So, during each song, the group would go off into "Blah, Blah, Blah" and that was when the magic happened.
Marcus Miller raged an amazing electric bass solo as he curled his fingers into the strings, creating a gorgeous texture of sound. There was no guitar on stage, yet it was so tight, so jazzy and full of notes and excitement that it filled the auditorium fully. During the "Blah, Blah, Blah" towards the end, Miller changed to a saxophone-looking instrument that layered a deep tone under the rest of the group.
It's at this point when I noticed movement in the box to my left. I see Esperanza Spalding being sat down on the second row with a few of her people. At first, I didn't think it was her but then who else rocks hair like that? It took all my power not to geek out. She is a musical goddess and we would be enjoying her performance only a few hours later for the Quincy Jones's Global Gumbo.
"Someday My Prince Will Come," from the 1961 album recorded with John Coltrane, was to follow. This is one of my all time favorite songs. A gorgeous song from Disney's 1937's Classic Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, it's impossible not to feel something as a female while listening to this song. My eyes immediately welled up and I know I was not alone in this emotional stirring of the soul.
Marcus Miller started the song with a slow bass solo then Sean Rickman and Herbie Hancock took over the stage. I had never seen Rickman or so I thought. He is actually the drummer from Garaj Mahal, a group I have not been able to see in a long time. He caught my ear. Most of the time drummers are not the artists who catch my ears in a project like this. He was superb and he looked to be having so much fun up there as his smile never once dropped, nor did his beat.
Then, a nice informative break in the show as Wayne Shorter engaged the audience with how the super group decided to approach this tribute.
During their first rehearsal, the five men did nothing but talk about how best to honor Miles’s spirit. They didn’t play a single note during the entire first rehearsal. Miller would later say in his Workshop that during that time of revelation, they would try to outdo each other by seeing who could come up with the most obscure Miles tunes. It was during this time, during this first rehearsal, that Miller said they became a band before a single note was ever played between them.
“In preparing for these concerts,” Mr. Hancock said, “we had many conversations about the interests of Miles outside of music like boxing and cooking. He was arguably a master chef. It adds more dimensions to him. We’ll embrace his spirit by being in the moment and creating a new perspective, sometimes on known themes.”
While putting together their set list, the one thing the group didn’t want to do was "play in the style in which it was originally done because we figured Miles would hate that." Miles was a man who always looks forward and so as they looked back at his music to play they knew that Miles would have wanted them to look forward, taking his music to new levels.
“Let's make it like a soundtrack to Miles's life! It doesn't feel like 20 years, it feels like 4 or 5. Miles's music is everywhere. This is dedicated to the spirit of Miles Davis, the most beautiful thing he gave us." ~ Marcus Miller
They spoke on how they felt Miles had only been dead four or five years, not the twenty years that we were celebrating that evening. They felt, and I agree, that this was because of the fact that Miles's music is still so very relevant today and the lingering spirit that resides in all the artists who played with him keep his spirit flowing through the scene and through the music.
Breaking into the third song, "TuTu," Wayne Shorter related to the audience that this portion of the show would represent Miles's childhood. The songs were playful which made sense and the "Blah, Blah, Blah” of this song became funky as the bass and horns led the pack. During the song, Hancock transformed his keyboards into human noises, each key making a different sound consisting of hoots and hollers sound bites from James Brown that said “Come on,” "Groove,” “Yeah,” and cat calls and yelps. The "Blah, Blah, Blah" had taken over.
There was another song thrown into the mix here that I just couldn't get the name of. We shall call it "Song Unknown" for now! I am hoping that Sean Rickman gets back to me on the set list. Marcus put down the electric bass and moved to the standup for this tune which changed the entire scenery of the sound in the room, almost big band-y. I knew it was a song from later in Miles's day. If I could only remember the name! The trumpets led the band during and the "Blah, Blah, Blah" of this song went on for minutes and ended in a standing ovation of the crowd.
Being on the big stage for this five-piece band was perfect. The artists onstage lined up for a bow and it was tearful moment for me. The music had been overwhelmingly different from anything I had expected to hear that night. I don' think I have experienced such a tight and wonderful jazz performance. The legends on that stage, the fact that it wasn’t being played in America, my appreciation for the moment, my appreciation for this tribute… it brought tears to my eyes.
I wasn't the only one who felt this way. The entire crowd was standing in ovation with respect for the super group who had just played the "Blah, Blah, Blah" out of the music! Taking the music to an entirely new level and doing EXACTLY what they had planned. After the ovation, Hancock strapped on a synthesizer keyboard for the first encore: "So What".
Hancock and Miller had fun during this tune, walking towards each other in the middle of the stage. Hancock bantered musically with the band throughout, each one playing a rip and Hancock coming back with his handheld. When it was Shorter’s turn, he blasted out a single note, laughter again erupted into the audience. All Wayne Shorter needs to play is a single note. So amazing!
Once again, they maneuvered to getting off the stage but this time they were stopped by Claude Nops, who requested another song. This time, the song that took us all by surprise, "Time After Time," a song made famous by Cyndi Lauper in the 80s, was played.
Marcus Miller was back on his deep saxophone and created a totally wormy sound from the instrument to take "Time after Time" to a different place. Without Hancock playing the melody shortly after, one might not have recognized the song. I recognized it immediately. There was even a Star Wars tease from Shorter on his saxophone. Completely playful and unique!
Later, during his workshop, Marcus Miller would speak about how Miles Davis could take a super cheesy song or a song that most musicians might view as cheesy and find the beauty in it. This was one of those songs. Miller felt that ending with a song that Miles Davis revamped was a perfect ending to this tribute, showing us how he could be the master of anything.
"Marcus produced a great concert," said Claude Nobs, founder of the Swiss festival now in its 45th year.