Miles Behind

When Keith Jarrett stepped to the microphone before his June 26 Carnegie Hall performance at the JVC Jazz Festival, it was obvious he had a score to settle. The pianist had been almost completely ignored in Ken Burns’s seventeen-hour jazz documentary, mentioned only as a sideman in Miles Davis’s early-seventies fusion period, which all but made him an accessory to the genre’s murder. To refute such charges, Jarrett summoned Davis from the grave. “Why would I want to talk to you,” Jarrett asked in an imitation of the trumpeter’s snarling rasp.

Shifting into an obsequious drone – his take on Burns – Jarrett replied, “I’m doing a story about jazz.”

Then he went back to channeling Davis: “Which story?”

According to Burns’s telling, jazz history screeched to a halt in 1968, when Davis went electric, abandoned traditional jazz rhythms, and, a few years later, hired Jarrett. Yet right after he conjured Davis’s ghost in the name of innovation, Jarrett led his acoustic trio through a tasteful reading of standards that wouldn’t have made Burns flinch. “Jazz is dead,” Davis declared in 1975, “the music of the museum.” A typical Davis provocation, no doubt, yet the JVC festival might as well have been a tour through the Miles Museum. A few nights later, the festival’s other big draw – a double bill of Miles alumni Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter – continued the séance.

Ten years after Davis’s death, this summer’s only major New York jazz festival is less focused on nurturing rising stars than on raising the dead. Until last year, Knitting Factory owner Michael Dorf staged a less predictable summer festival once called “What Is Jazz?” At the JVC festival, the question became “What was jazz?” When Jarrett, Corea, and Shorter were playing with Davis, jazz itself was an open question as fusion, depending on your point of view, either adapted or surrendered to rock and roll. To the relief of many fans, though, the festival found each of them back in acoustic mode, as if fusion had never happened.

Jarrett, who balked at Davis’s request that he play electric, has devoted himself to the piano ever since and deserves credit for restoring the instrument’s importance; in the spirit of the Prince of Darkness, he’s also aware of his own import. He crouched, hovered, and waged war with his instrument, often moaning in mid-performance in what could have been adenoidal ecstasy or cataclysmic pain. If only his performance had been as compelling as his facial expressions.

And so his playing was an inevitable letdown, a subdued variation of modal impressionism with a dash of free jazz – skillful but not far from what top-notch journeymen deliver in clubs. Jarrett revealed the most when he stepped out of his former leader’s shadow, but even then he mostly dug into other aspects of his musical past; the free-jazz interchanges reminiscent of a more melodic Paul Bley were one high point. Rewarding him with multiple standing ovations and goading him on to three encores, the audience seemed as satisfied with the performance as Jarrett was with himself.

At least Shorter built the Miles Museum a new wing. At a June 28 Avery Fisher Hall double bill, Corea and Shorter delivered more of the acoustic mea culpas they’ve been offering jazz audiences of late. They’ve come a long way since 1970, when both accompanied Davis on the recently released It’s About That Time: Live at the Fillmore East – March 7, 1970. To contemporary ears, Corea’s electric organ now sounds like a period piece, but their plugged-in performances – especially of Shorter’s Latin-tinged “Masqualero” – prove Miles’s genius, at least at first, could survive shock treatment. Most fusion wasn’t as hardy. Many of Shorter’s and Corea’s seventies shows sound less like vehicles for group improvisation than like meticulously rendered porn soundtracks. The less said about eighties fusion the better.

Eventually, Shorter and Corea realized it was better to unplug. When Shorter deigned to occasionally emerge from the fusion wilderness – with the VSOP quintet, the Round Midnight soundtrack, the Tribute to Miles band – his playing sounded like a faded Xerox of his sixties glories. Especially following 1+1, his first album of acoustic originals in three decades, his 1999 JVC appearance with fellow Miles alum Herbie Hancock was a virtuosic snooze.

No one was napping during Corea’s JVC appearance this year, but it wasn’t much of a wake-up call, either: impressionism, dexterity, a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Spain.” It was a well-run victory lap around familiar ground, but Corea sweats more when drummer Roy Haynes urges him on. The stakes were high for Shorter, who for the first time was leading a touring ensemble under his own name, filled not with former Miles colleagues but eager young guns – Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, Brian Blade. Shorter allegedly announced backstage that this wouldn’t be a nostalgia night, and though his set included several sixties tunes that have since become standards – “Valse Triste,” “Juju,” yet another take on “Masqua-lero” – he refused to conform to record-collector fetishes. Shorter is still most venerated for his oeuvre from 1964 to ‘68, when he was playing in Davis’s last acoustic (and universally admired) quintet and recording a string of albums for Blue Note under his own name that showed him acknowledging, but not following, the trends of free jazz. For Shorter, freedom was a more subtle concept than it was for Albert Ayler; it wasn’t about getting lost, but leading chords and rhythms to often exotic destinations.

It’s rare to see an artist – Bob Dylan comes to mind – who takes such risks with familiar material, taking imprinted memories and ingeniously throwing them off-kilter. The tunes may have been familiar, but the rhythmic territory wasn’t; Shorter, a practicing Buddhist, detached himself before a groove got too comfortable. Freed from the attachments of the past, facing the future with indeterminacy, the music was Zen jazz.

Shorter – who will be returning August 11 for a free concert on the Columbia University steps at JVC promoter George Wein’s Verizon Music Festival – concluded the trilogy of Miles séances by playing in the protean spirit of his former leader. With tenor playing that conjured shocking emotions with sustained notes, Shorter mined elusive rhythms, rare textures, and undefinable concepts. Some complained his decentered set didn’t swing hard enough, but he alone of the festival’s Miles graduates forced the audience to rethink the question “What is jazz?” At a festival that mostly celebrated the accomplishments of the past, Shorter’s performance assured us that the question could still be posed in the present tense.

JVC Jazz Festival
Various venues.
June 17 to June 30.

Miles Behind