LJC Picks: 10 Latin Jazz Perspectives On Miles Davis

by chipboaz on May 24, 2017

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Very few jazz artists have led as diverse and influential a career as the iconic trumpet player Miles Davis. Emerging during the bebop period, he cut his teeth on the harmonic and melodic language of the day, eventually earning a spot alongside the legendary sax player Charlie Parker. Davis struggled in the context of Parker’s blazingly fast music, so he developed a distinct approach to phrasing that set him apart from his peers. He found a soul mate in the Canadian arranger Gil Evans, who joined together with Davis in 1948 to record a nonet project – Birth of the Cool, a famous record that spawned the cool jazz movement. People started to notice Davis, allowing him to work as a bandleader, utilizing a rotating cast of musicians. During the 1950s, Davis gathered the musicians for his first classic quintet – saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. The core group recorded several influential albums, but over the years members rotated, which allowed for the entrance of pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and saxophonist Julian Cannonball Adderley. Davis and Bill Evans organized the music for one of the jazz world’s most influential recordings, Kind of Blue, which involved the Davis sextet investigating modal improvisation. At the same time, Davis continued to collaborate with Gil Evans on a number of lushly orchestrated jazz recordings that placed Davis’ warm tone and entrancing phrasing in an almost symphonic setting, including Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain. By the early 1960s, most of the members of Davis quintet had dispersed, and the trumpet player recruited bassist Ron Carter, pianist Herbie Hancock, drummer Tony Williams, and sax player George Coleman. The group recorded a few albums, but Coleman’s traditional approach clashed with the younger musicians, so Davis replaced him with Wayne Shorter, completing his second great quintet. This group started pushing Davis towards a more free and contemporary approach, rooted in Shorte’rs cutting edge compositions. Near the end of the 1960s, Davis recognized the growing prominence of electronic instruments and rock rhythms, which he combined with free improvisation on albums such as In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and On the Corner. His growing sound and rock star attitude introduced fusion into the world, inspiring a new generation of musicians to investigate jazz improvisation. Despite an unstoppable popularity, Davis took a five-year break from music, returning in 1981 for a series of pop tinged albums that pushing him into a critical mass of worldwide fame, including The Man With the Horn, You’re Under Arrest, Tutu, and Amandla. After 10 more years of touring and recording, Davis died in 1991, leaving an enormous amount of musical information for the world to digest.

Davis’ influence stands tall over the traditional jazz and fusion worlds with some aspect of his musical personality arising in many performances; while he presence is not as omnipotent in the Latin Jazz world, we certainly feel it. Improvisers display his influence at every turn, from his effective use of space to his uncanny sense of melodic development or his beautiful phrasing. Many trumpet players obviously display a strong study of Davis – his tone, licks, phrasing, and development strategies all arise in modern Latin Jazz trumpet playing. Most jazz musicians remember Davis for his innovative musical approaches and his distinct improvisational voice, but he composed a number of original pieces that have become standards over the years. These tunes are mainstays in the traditional jazz world, and they’ve also found a home in the Latin Jazz world. A number of musicians have re-arranged Davis work and fit it into the context of Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, and Argentinean rhythms – the results have been interesting and often inspiring. Davis changed the face of jazz extensively and the Latin Jazz world finds many opportunities to respect that influence in creative ways.

I’ve gathered ten Latin Jazz versions of Davis compositions that demonstrate his influence in the Latin Jazz world. While I’ve focused on the unique arrangements that these musicians applied to the Davis repertoire, take a listen to the ten tunes and search for more. There’s a massive influence on the improvisational approach, which you’ll hear reflected in these recordings. There’s also just a serious performance aesthetic that always came through Davis’ work that you’ll find here. Overall, the collection of ten tunes serves as a great listen, so check them out. Enjoy!

1. Freddie Freeloader – Another Kind of Blue: The Latin Side of Miles Davis, Conrad Herwig
More than any other Davis album, the classic recording Kind of Blue stands as the untouchable masterpiece – one of the most respected and best selling albums in Davis’ catalog, not to mention overall jazz history. Trombone player Conrad Herwig tackled the overwhelming task of recreating this album in a Latin Jazz context – a near impossible task considering the album’s massive popularity and its overbearing presence in jazz history. Herwig works wonders though, bringing together an all-star group of New York Latin Jazz musicians to record an impressive collection of arrangements on Another Kind of Blue: The Latin Side of Miles Davis. Each member of the band gets an opportunity to shine on “Freddie Freeloader,” originally a mid-tempo blues that has involved into a son montuno. After the main melody, the wind players take a unison ride through Davis influential solo from the original recording, arranged in clave. Flautist Dave Valentin follows the classic statement with a bluesy solo of his own that builds from short licks into an energetic journey through several choruses. Two of the strongest wind players in the genre, trumpet player Brian Lynch and Herwig, trade phrases, lighting up the group with a powerfully intensity as they intertwine lines. The band disappears, leaving bassist John Benitez and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera improvising through an album highlight performance filled with humor, jazz authenticity, and blues-drenched flavor. Benitez gets the opportunity to build his own solo, displaying his mastery of the instrument’s rhythmic language and his gift for melodic invention. Drummer Robbie Ameen explodes into a flurry of coloristic fills and syncopated ideas over a static montuno, driving the band back to the melody with an assertive creative push. Filled with authentic and informed references to Davis as well as an inspired set of performances, Another Kind of Blue: The Latin Side of Miles Davis may exist as the definitive look at Davis work through Latin Jazz lenses . . . with the exception of Herwig’s follow-up recording, another Latin Jazz Miles Davis tribute Sketches of Spain y Mas: The Latin Side of Miles Davis.

2. Tune Up – Brazilliance X4, Claudio Roditi
Davis’ up-tempo bebop romp “Tune Up,” originally challenged many musicians into new ideas – it inspired Coltrane to compose “Giant Steps” – but trumpet player Claudio Roditi takes this tune in a slightly different direction. Roditi gently winds the familiar melody around a mid-tempo bossa nova groove, smoothing out the edgy tune with the lush tone of his flugelhorn. As Roditi moves into his improvisation, he takes a cue from Davis, introspectively building phrases around space and note choice, pulling the most lyrical pieces of the harmony to the forefront. A bit of hard bop wisdom starts to inform Roditi’s melodies as he stretches over several choruses, using syncopated ideas to connect with the churning Brazilian rhythm in the background. Pianist Helio Alves cleverly combines rhythmically offset ideas with bits of the main melody, immediately basing his improvisation around both the bossa nova rhythm and the classic harmony of the Davis tune. While the rhythm section pushes the momentum with a quiet intensity, Alves display an uncanny gift for thematic development, twisting ideas into an endless stream of witty variations. At the same time, the pianist demonstrates a studied connection to Davis work with running hard bop lines, tastefully embellished with rhythmic accents directly from the language of Brazilian music. Roditi guides the group to a quiet conclusion, revisiting the melody with a subtle motion and subtle dynamic shape. While Roditi takes a distinctly different approach to the tune than Davis, he develops a strong version filled with his own artistic voice and a respectful tribute to the legendary jazz trumpet player.

3. Solar – New Conceptions, Chucho Valdés
Musical icons like Davis leave a trail of history and innovation; for most musicians this represents a lifetime of study, but when equally iconic musicians like pianist Chucho Valdés tackle this legacy, the results are breathtaking. After a brief unaccompanied statement, Valdés bursts directly into a smoldering vamp that sets an unbelievably quick tempo for the rhythm section. Saxophonist Irving Luichel Acao Tierra blazes through the melody with style and ease before flying into a strong improvisation anchored by his bold tenor tone. While the blistering tempo could intimidate some soloists, Tierra weaves through the changes comfortably, inserting rhythmic accents and short melodic phrases into open spaces. Once he lets loose, Tierra takes no prisoners though, tearing through long streams of bebop fueled ideas with a ferocious intensity that reveals a Coltrane influence. As Tierra closes his statement, Valdés doesn’t drop a beat with an awe-inspiring display of chops that shows constant lines of fast notes in his right hand while he embellishes the sound with complicated rhythmic comping from his left hand. The band disappears leaving only Valdés, who displays his true genius as he cleverly mutates the song into another Davis classic, “Four.” He takes the opportunity to play upon this song’s changes with a bluesy fire before an incomprehensible showing of independence between hands and inhuman technical ability leads the pianist back towards “Solar.” After Valdés takes us on an intriguing ride through solo piano mastery, the band explodes back into the changes, giving Valdés the opportunity to trade phrases with drummer Ramses Rodriguez Baralt and conguero Yaroldi Breu Robles. The musicians exchange thoughts before the group hands the spotlight to Robles, who demonstrates lessons learned from the master with a stunning display of virtuosity and musicianship. He also takes a turn improvising unaccompanied, and his statement sings with the tonal possibilities of the conga and the instrument’s rich cultural connection. Valdés guides the group back to the melody before giving Robles one more opportunity to make a statement before taking the song into a rousing finish. The depth of Davis’ vision cannot be fathomed on a quick listen through his work, but hearing a masterful musician like Valdés take a thorough knowledge of Davis and combine it with his own unique voice provides a new insight into the work.

4. All Blues – Goza Mi Timbal, Tito Puente
Davis showed a penchant throughout his career for creating unforgettable grooves and placing them at the heart of his songs – a feat that he accomplished with the catchy bass line behind “All Blues.” While this groove seems firmly attached to the smoldering 3/4 swing of the original recording, Marty Sheller’s arranging genius finds a way to coherently translate this tune into the burning Afro-Cuban 6/8 rhythm of Tito Puente’s band. Bassist Bobby Rodriguez establishes a variation upon the original line before the band bursts into the 6/8 rhythm and Sheller’s version of the main melody. Trumpet player David Rodriguez follows the melody with a slowly developed series of notes before inserting bits of rhythmic accents around the 6/8 structure. As he reaches his second chorus, Rodriguez shoots into the high register of his instrument, setting his solo on fire with a cutting intensity. Sheller inserts a rhythmic interlude after Rodriguez’s solo, providing pianist Sonny Bravo with a chance to insert some choice phrases. Saxophonist Mitch Frohman enters the mix with a bluesy intensity, cutting through the band with his instrument’s deep and growling tone. Frohman combines a solid knowledge of the style with a deeply rooted jazz sound, building his improvisation into an ear-catching climax. Sheller continues to work his arranging magic with a clever interlude that opens the sound of the chords with smart harmonies and extended notes. After a quick return to the main melody, Sheller ends the piece with a dramatic lick and a rhythmic phrase. The track shows that even with pieces so rooted in swing, like Davis’ “All Blues,” a smart Latin Jazz arranger like Sheller can take the essence of the tune and find the connection with Latin rhythms.

5. Blue In Green – Soundances, Diego Urcola
Early in his career, Davis displayed a strong affinity for ballad performance, and throughout his career, he demonstrated an unmatched ability to turn a classic ballad into a work of art. This famous piece from the Kind of Blue album reveals the influence of pianist Bill Evans, whose coloristic sense of harmony created a lush foundation for rich melody. In traditional performance, this piece resonates with space and flowing colors – a quality not easily translated effectively into the rhythmic world of Latin music. Yet trumpet player Diego Urcola finds the perfect connection for this piece as he translates Davis’ beautiful ballad into a stirring and passionate tango. Bandoneon player Juan Dargenton introduces the piece with a sensitive and introspective unaccompanied solo, expressing himself with one of the only instruments capable of capturing the color and beauty of Evans’ playing on the original recording. Urcola pays tribute to Davis, altering his instrument with a Harmon mute and thoughtfully moving through the melody with an expressive rhythmic freedom. Dargenton stays connected to Evans with carefully constructed chords behind Urcola, but he also maintains strong sense of tango with the bandoneon’s rhythmic propulsion. Bending the line between improvisation and melodic interpretation, Urcola stretches the original phrases into long runs of bluesy resolutions and chromatic explorations. The two musicians work around each other with a telepathic connection that allows them to revisit the original track’s deeply personal emotional content while making a modern statement. The resultant recording delivers a rich crossroads between authentic tango and Davis legacy – a solidly satisfying musical experience that would have pleased Davis himself.

6. Four/Como Fue – Trombone Man, Juan Pablo Torres
Davis built a career upon looking ahead at new musical trends and finding the connections between musical styles – from modal harmony to free improvisation and rock rhythms, Davis always saw the similarities as opposed to differences. Trombonist Juan Pablo Torres shows the same ability on his album Trombone Man; while he may not be looking at new trends, he certainly finds the connection between Davis and standard Cuban repertoire by bringing together the Davis composition “Four” and the Ernesto Duarte piece “Como Fue.” The wind players play through a cleverly arranged introduction that firmly establishes a medium tempo son montuno before Torres jumps into a vocal version of “Como Fue.” As Torres visits the Cuban classic, the rhythm section plays the changes to “Four” and Paquito D’Rivera inserts the melody on clarinet. D’Rivera demonstrates a similar cross-stylistic vision on his improvisation, playing solidly with the “Four” changes while subtly implying pieces of “Como Fue” Although he never plays it verbatim, D’Rivera’s sense of melodic construction keeps the theme clearly apparent. After a brief instrumental interlude, pianist Edward Simon leaps into his improvisation, staying firmly in the Davis camp with a lyrically intriguing statement. The group falls into another instrumental interlude, opening the door for a scat solo from Torres. Relishing the opportunity to vocalize, Torres rips through the changes with a playful intensity, using rapid-fire syllables to build his idea. The group never resolves into one song, moving out of Torres’ scat with a unison line that abruptly ends the track. Much of Davis’ success could be attributed to his ability to see past stylistic boundaries and build bridge, and Torres taps into that factor here with a distinctly original combination.

7. Milestones – Agua De Cuba, Francisco Aguabella
The long stretches of chords and rhythmic emphasis found in Davis’ modal playing often forms a strong connection with salsa and the open descaragas in the Latin Jazz tradition, a fact demonstrated powerfully in percussionist Francisco Aguabella’s interpretation of “Milestones.” Pianist Charlie Otwell introduces the tune with a leisurely unaccompanied stroll through the song’s basic vamp, stretching the time and coloring the harmony with the sustain pedal and quick flights of bluesy notes. Out of nowhere, the rhythm section flies into an up-tempo son montuno while saxophonist Charles Owens and trumpet player Ramon Flores attack the melody with a sharp rhythmic intensity. Aguabella displays a firm understanding of form, melody, and rhythmic context as he opens the standard tumbao into a stream of interactive phrases that compliment the melody and push it into an unstoppable momentum. Otwell rides this inertia into his own statement, letting the band race behind him as he places solidly constructed melodies and short rhythmic phrases over the chord structure. He pushes his idea into the midst of the momentum, building tension with pieces of montunos and rhythmic syncopation until the wind players move him forward with background lines. Owens disregards any sense of subtly as he charges into his improvisation with a fiery intensity that rips forward with virtuosic lines of rapid notes, rhythmic repetitions, and an underlying sense of urgency. This change of pace awakens Aguabella who flies into an interactive frenzy throughout Owens’ solo, finishing phrases, repeating rhythmic ideas, and commenting with quick licks. Intense but never overbearing, Aguabella helps Owens drive his solo to a powerful climax before the group returns to the original melody with a newfound purpose. Aguabella’s group finds a definite connection to this tune throughout their performance, demonstrating the inherent strength of Davis’ modal concept.

8. So What/Impressions – Chango’s Dance, Bobby Matos Afro-Cuban Ensemble
The collaboration between Miles Davis and John Coltrane stands as one of the most compelling relationships in modern jazz; the two musicians pushed and inspired each other during their time together, a fact that Matos recognizes with a dual arrangement of compositions from each musician. Both Davis’ “So What” and Coltrane’s “Impressions” utilize a 32-bar structure, filled with the same long stretches of single chord harmony, a reflection of their investigation into modal improvisation. The only real difference between the two songs lies within the opposing melodies, so Matos highlights this difference. Bassist Manny Silvera jumps right into the legendary low range melody of the Davis tune, accented by the sharp horn attacks from the original recording as a blistering son montuno charges through the background. The group shifts gears, led by pianist Ibrahim Parreno’s powerful montuno, into a driving rendition of Coltrane’s “Impressions,” led by the nimble sound of saxophonist Mike Turre and the dual charge of trombonists Dan Weinstein and Steve Baxter. Turre leaps directly into a fiery improvisation, tearing through the modal foundation with a strong musical idea and the inbreed intensity of his cutting tone. He utilizes the best quality of the modal changes on this tune, using the long stretches of chords to build coherent phrases and strongly rooted ideas. By the time the trombones enter with the traditional punches, Turre reaches a fire pitch that drives his improvisation into a stream of squelching notes and fast runs. Conguero Robertito Melendez takes a turn improvising over the changes with a mix of traditional licks and virtuosic rolls as Parreno establishes a blistering montuno. Melendez creates a unique relationship to the changes structuring his ideas and development around the few chord changes, making his improvisation potent and ear catching. Matos demonstrates knowledge of the Davis legacy by playing upon these two tunes, referencing the important collaboration between two of the jazz world’s most important voices.

9. Seven Steps To Heaven – Worldwide, Giovanni Hidalgo
Davis remained distinctly conscious of the powerful personalities found in each of his ensembles throughout his career, and during the 1960s, he often featured young drum wizard Tony Williams on the rhythmic piece “Seven Steps To Heaven.” As Davis’ work became a standard part of jazz cannon, this piece became a natural selection to feature talented percussionists – a perfect spot for one of the Latin Jazz world’s most virtuosic drummers, Giovanni Hidalgo. The song’s percussive emphasis becomes established immediately as Hidalgo opens the track with a chop busting unaccompanied conga solo. After an unbelievable onslaught of rapid-fire rolls and intriguing syncopations, Hidalgo starts a steady groove that leads the group into a manic introductory vamp. The band tears through the melody which leaves plenty of space for short but intense percussive statements from Hidalgo. Flautist Dave Valentin flies into an energetic solo that nimbly moves through the changes with a steady series of arpeggios and rhythmic accents, all held together by his fluid technique and a piercing tone. Saxophonist Craig Handy infuses his improvisation with a bluesy edge, taking a short but intense ride through the solo form with bebop intensity and a ferocious forward motion. There’s an engaging inertia in the band as trumpet player Lew Soloff squeaks out an intensity high note to introduce his improvisation before tearing through a quick display of hard bop fire. The group really opens behind Hidalgo, who delivers a breath-taking solo over the changes, constructing a solid statement that combines melody and form into a coherent percussive statement. After a strong return to the melody, the rhythm section explodes into a frenzied rumba, blasting wild improvisatory ideas behind a horn vamp. This song serves as a perfect feature for Hidalgo and stays perfectly in line with Davis’ original intentions for the tune – a great mix of personality and tradition.

10. Tutu – Humberto Ramirez Plays Miles Davis, Humberto Ramirez
The jazz world cherishes Davis early work with the 1950s classic quintet with a furious sense of pride while his later fusion period often gets viewed with a curious disdain and careless disregard. Davis did embrace the influence of popular music, integrating distorted guitars, rock rhythms, and thick synthesizer sounds, but he never lost sight of jazz improvisation and his intense creative drive. Still, his early compositions have found their way onto numerous Latin Jazz recordings, while the later fusion material rarely leaves the comfort of the original Davis recordings. Davis did deeply infuse these pieces with a strong connection to the backbeat and funky bass lines, making it difficult to arrange them around clave . . . but not impossible, as trumpet player Humberto Ramirez proves on his recording of “Tutu.” Bassist John Benitez maintains the heart of the song with a funky slap bass line as conguero Richie Flores keeps a guaguanco behind Horacio Hernandez’s broken funk backbeat. Ramirez plays the melody with authority and confidence, recalling Davis’ bold approach to fusion rhythms and the tight arrangement of the original album. Pianist Edward Simon winds through the tune with a mysterious vibe, adding color to the one chord vamp with implied harmonies and slightly outside melodies. Ramirez plays upon Davis’ understated phrasing before bursting into a more aggressive improvisatory style that driving the band into a driving funk momentum. Continuing this intensity, Ramirez works the rhythm section into a frenzy with distinctly outside note choices before they lower their dynamic once again for Benitez’s improvisation. The bassist displays ample funk chops on electric bass, spinning bluesy lines that simultaneously stay within the context of the song while referencing the underlying rumba. The group sets up a short vamp, allowing Hernandez to leap into a short improvisation before Ramirez returns with the main melody. Ramirez makes a bold statement on this track, looking at Davis’ full repertoire and validating the possibilities behind his later fusion pieces.

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