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Herbie Hancock/Michael Brecker/Roy Hargrove: Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall

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Illustration of Michael Brecker, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Roy Hargrove, Miles Davis

Few album titles are as draped in jazz history as Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall. “Directions In Music” was a phrase stamped on truly epochal Miles Davis albums like In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Toronto’s Massey Hall was the site of what is generally regarded as the greatest jazz concert ever, the fabled 1953 meeting of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach.

Documenting a tour whose marketing angle was Davis and John Coltrane’s 75th birthdays, Directions in Music is neither a signal event like the Davis albums, nor will it be inflated to historical proportions after the current media cycle. But pianist Herbie Hancock, tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, trumpeter/flugelhornist Roy Hargrove, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade create enough compelling music to prompt serious discussion about retaining the vitality of one era’s innovations when they become the standard operational procedures of the next.

Opening the set with Hancock’s “The Sorcerer,” first recorded on the Davis album of roughly the same name, brings the issue into focus. This reading is surprisingly typical of how the subtleties of the legendary quintet’s music have been supplanted by a balder form of brinkmanship. The original has an alluring suppleness, with Shorter innocuously stating the theme alone, before being joined by Davis, who then banters with the saxophonist. When the horns give way to Hancock, the pianist leavens elliptical lines with an even attack and sparse left-hand underpinning to create a daring and elegant statement. In sharp contrast, the tension is significantly ratcheted for the present version, as the theme is all but pummeled. The rhythmic flexibility pioneered by Ron Carter and Tony Williams blurs with turbulence in the hands of Patitucci and Blade, yet triggers a disarming intensity in the solos of Hancock, Hargrove and Brecker. While the finer points of the original may be lost in this interpretation, the palpable sense of risk-taking in the current version is adequate compensation, a fair exchange of values.

An amalgamation of similarly structured Davis and Coltrane classics, “So What/Impressions” employs another gambit sure to pique some purists. Using neither the easy gait of the Davis tune nor the relentless drive of the Coltrane, Hancock and company build on a groove seemingly plucked from a transitional Davis album like Filles de Kilimanjaro. The beauty of the two originals lay in their shared stripped-down harmonic movement and their respective emotional constancy, making them fail-safe devices for deliberative modal improvisation. But the new piece takes a far more dramatic arc, moving from offhanded groove-mining to searing heat, before finally dissipating with the restatement of the thematic materials. Again, much of the playing is gripping, fueled by an appreciable sparring-match spirit where each musician is prodding the others to take it to the next level. Yet there is little to link the piece to Coltrane’s legacy beyond his retooled theme and the flecks of his lexicon reflected in Brecker’s work. Though the piece’s swell, apex and ebb is patented late ’60s/early ’70s Davis, the rawest moments of “So What/Impressions” will be reflexively tagged as Coltraneish in some quarters, reinforcing a pervasive misreading of his legacy.

Coltrane extracted the ecstatic from a constant output of energy, a concept eluding so many of his interpreters, who remain fixated on building incrementally toward half-baked notions of a cosmic climax. There was no foreplay in works like “Mr. P.C.” and “Chasin’ the Trane,” no tease in “Ascension.” It was flat-out exultancy from beginning to end. The present quintet has the good sense to recognize this in its version of Coltrane’s too rarely heard “Transition.” There is unflagging energy and inventiveness as well as a refreshing concision in the solos by Hargrove, Brecker and Hancock. Throughout this sequence, Blade is primed for an explosive solo, but he is unfortunately tethered to a short statement that cues the concluding ensemble. Still, “Transition” is all-star jazz at its best, and a welcomed reassertion of a neglected aspect of the Coltrane legacy. The quintet neither plays it safe, which they arguably do on Kurt Weill’s “My Ship,” nor attempts to reinvent the wheel, which Brecker does with mixed results in his arch unaccompanied take on “Naima.”

The bottom line is that Hancock, Brecker and Hargrove take real risks in the program, and some of them pay off handsomely. At an earlier point in their respective careers, such risks, regardless of results, would earn them praise. Perhaps they should be praised even more for taking them now.