It has long been widely accepted that Kurt Elling is heir apparent to Mark Murphy. But an equally strong case can be made for Giacomo Gates. Indeed, while Elling has advanced to a somewhat distant—some might say higher—plateau, Gates remains truer to Murphy’s path. Nor is it surprising that Gates has, since joining Joe Fields’ Savant label in 2011, reached new levels of adventurism. It was, after all, during Murphy’s three-decade association with Fields that his musical boldness and creativity soared. Many would argue that Murphy’s mastery reached its apex with the Fields-produced Bop for Miles, recorded in 1990. Gates’ Miles Tones is very nearly as magnificent.
Though Gates has, like Murphy, achieved his greatest fame for his ability to brilliantly vocalize multiple instruments, particularly horns, the intent of Miles Tones is to focus on lyrics associated with or subsequently attached to 10 Davis-related selections. As such, the album is as much a tribute to the wordsmiths—Oscar Brown Jr., Jon Hendricks and Al Jarreau among them—whose sagely tailored lyrics Gates so skillfully navigates.
From the long, lean lines of his “All Blues” and loose, loping “Be-Bop Lives,” to his tightly coiled “Four” and dark, dense “’Long Comes Tutu,” Gates strikes a dexterous balance between veneration and fresh interpretive imaginativeness. Murphy first added lyrics to “Milestones” when he recorded it in 1962 (and again in 1990), but Gates opts for his own clever wordplay. He also comes closer than any of the myriad vocalists who have covered it to capturing the bone-deep loneliness of Davis’ “I Fall in Love Too Easily.” The penultimate track, an insistent “So What” hoisted like a raised middle finger to all Davis detractors, is truly the album’s endpoint. “Walkin’,” which follows, simply provides a breezy coda.