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Everything’s Great in Guelph — Unless You Ask Sainkho Namtchylak

Joe Locke

One of the great gifts that New York music lovers cherish each year is the gala Wall to Wall marathon that takes place at Symphony Space, the Upper West Side bastion of innovative programming. A free event that has been going strong since 1978, Wall to Wall focuses on presenting the music of a single artist for a span of 12 consecutive hours-noon until midnight-in the acoustically impeccable 800-seat theater. Past celebrants have included such iconic figures as Bach, Brahms and Beethoven from the classical world, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin from the American songbook along with such cutting-edge visionaries as John Cage, Charles Ives and Kurt Weill. The only jazz artist previously feted was Duke Ellington, who received his Wall to Wall celebration in 1991. This year, Symphony Space co-founder and artistic director Isaiah Sheffer along with curator Bill Bragin chose Miles Davis as their Wall to Wall honoree. Few other figures in jazz history, with the exception of Ellington and Charles Mingus, have produced such a remarkably varied body of work as Davis. And for this 12-hour Miles marathon, the full scope of his chameleonic career-bebop, cool, modal, orchestral, fusion, funk, hip-hop-was well represented by a rotating cast of jazz all-stars.

The marathon (which did not follow a chronological progression but rather jumped around to different points in Miles’ lengthy career) started off in dynamic fashion with a 20-minute set from Bobby Previte’s 11-piece Voodoo Down Orchestra interpreting music from Miles’ volcanic landmark from 1969, Bitches Brew. The vibe was suitably dense and intense (an odd choice for so early in the day) as Previte drove the groove accompanied by two electric keyboards, two bassists, two percussionists, three horns and a lone guitarist, Pete McCann, reprising the John McLaughlin role. Featured soloists in Previte’s sprawling ensemble included trombonist Ray Anderson, acoustic bassist Peter Herbert and fiery fusion guitarist McCann. Wisely, Previte chose to avoid any comparisons to Miles himself by not having a trumpet in the band.

One trumpeter who did conjure comparisons to Miles was the very talented Terrell Stafford, who delivered a straightforward reading of relaxed, early ’50s Miles material, accompanied by pianist George Colligan, bassist Ed Howard and drummer Victor Lewis. Throughout his brief set, Stafford reflected Miles’ brilliant use of space in his phrasing while also showcasing some beautiful muted trumpet on the ballad “It Could Happen to You.”

Olu Dara’s set was flawed by the singer’s seeming apathy on material from 1991’s Doo-Bop and excerpts from 1990’s The Hot Spot. Apparently, it was too early for Olu to get it together. Or perhaps he was still up from the previous night. Whatever the reason, his set was ragged and uninspired. His one humorous highlight came when he announced, “Miles liked silence,” and then proceed to stare silently at the audience for a span of a few minutes. All that dead space no doubt caused fits for the remote engineers from radio station WBGO, which broadcast the entire 12 hours to its listening audience.

Alto-sax burner Bobby Watson made up for Olu’s utter lack of energy with a blazing set of material from 1966’s Miles Smiles, accompanied by Stafford on trumpet, Lewis on drums, Curtis Lundy on bass and Edward Simon on piano. The highlight of their 20-minute set was a rousing rendition of Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.”

The Tim Hagans/Bob Belden band followed with a provocative, high volume drum ‘n’ bass reading of “Paraphernalia” from 1968’s Miles Smiles, featuring Zach Danzinger on drums, Scott Kinsey on keyboards, Hagans on trumpet, Belden on soprano sax, David Dyson on electric bass and DJ Kingsize on turntables. But it was trumpeter Steven Bernstein who delivered the knockout punch to this crowd of Miles Davis fanatics with an evocative interpretation of “Selim” from 1970’s Live/Evil by his band Sex Mob, featuring special guests Bill Frisell on guitar and DJ Logic on turntables.

A real novelty and crowd favorite of this Miles marathon was an unknown gospel group from Rochester, N.Y., called The Campbell Brothers. With Phil Campbell on guitar, brother Charles on pedal-steel guitar, brother Darick on lap-steel guitar, brother Carlton on drums and Malcolm Kirby on upright bass, they charmed the crowd with eerie, countrified renditions of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” from the 1961 album of the same name, and “All Blues,” from 1959’s Kind of Blue. With all the record company executives in the audience, The Campbell Brothers just may have earned themselves a recording contract with this high-exposure gig.

Another highlight at this Miles marathon include vocalist Nora York, who superimposed the music of “So What,” from Kind of Blue, with the lyrics of Jimi Hendrix’s “I Don’t Live Today,” cleverly drawing the connection between those two musical forces. Guitarist/journalist Greg Tate premiered his sprawling 17-piece Burnt Sugar Arkestra playing volatile material from 1973’s Get Up With It and 1970’s Black Beauty. Trumpeter Graham Haynes eschewed his usual electronics and loops for a haunting, straightforward reading of mellow material from 1949’s Birth of the Cool with his nonet. Bassist Ben Allison provided an African twist on “Seven Steps to Heaven,” from the 1963 album of the same name, by incorporating kora master Mamadou Diabate and balafon player Famoro Diabate into the mix of his trio featuring Mike Sarin on drums and Michael Blake on soprano sax.

One of only a few former Miles sidemen to appear on this marathon, drummer Jimmy Cobb, headed up a quintet featuring trumpeter Eddie Henderson, vibist Joe Lock, bassist Ed Howard and pianist Kevin Hays. Their renditions of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” from 1966’s Miles Smiles, and “On Green Dolphin Street” from ’58 Sessions, swung reverently and strictly in the tradition. Another Miles sideman and key figure from the electrified mid-’70s period, guitarist Pete Cosey sat Buddhalike centerstage with Melvin Gibb’s Liberation Theology and conjured up the spirit of the Dark Prince himself while switching back and forth from electric kalimba and sitar on densely textured material from 1972’s Big Fun and 1973’s Get Up With It. Special guest Joe Lovano stretched out on flute and soprano sax in this open-ended context, showing a far more edgy and experimental side of his musical makeup than he had revealed earlier in the day with his own quintet performing boppish material from the mid-’50s like “Oleo,” “Bags’ Groove” and “Airegin.”

Being a free event, the crowds filtered in and out all throughout the day, sampling different tastes from Miles’ massive oeuvre before bailing. And even though the rains came as evening set in, the line of Miles fans outside trying to get into this marathon wrapped around two city blocks. There was physically no way to catch all 12 hours. After hanging for eight, I later regretted bailing on Maria Schneider’s take on Sketches of Spain, featuring guest soloists Wallace Roney and Miles Evans. And I wish I would’ve caught Vernon Reid & Masque covering the earth-shaking rock anthem “Right Off” from 1970’s Jack Johnson But I was glad to catch George Wein filling up time during a set change, riffing on Miles like a stand-up comedian at a hip nightclub in the Catskills. Although he was captured on camera in Ken Burns’ Jazz saying, “I didn’t love Miles,” you could tell, as he spun humorous backstage tales of this jazz enigma and mimicked his signature rasp perfectly, that the elder impresario still has a soft spot in his heart for Miles. As did everyone who attended this great event.

Originally Published