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Steve Miller with Jimmie Vaughan: Live at JALC

Blues, roots and "Blue Skies"

Steve Miller and company perform in his "Out of This World" program at Jazz at Lincoln Center, April 2016
Mike Rodriguez, Brianna Thomas, Steve Miller and Jimmie Vaughan (from left) perform in Miller's "Out of This World" program at Jazz at Lincoln Center, April 2016
Jimmie Vaughan performs in Miller's "Out of This World" program at Jazz at Lincoln Center, April 2016
Steve Miller, Jimmie Vaughan and friends perform in Miller's "Out of This World" program at Jazz at Lincoln Center, April 2016
Steve Miller at Jazz at Lincoln Center in April 2016, backed by the horns of Craig Handy, Patrick Bartley and Mike Rodriguez (from left)

Given its reputation as jazz’s most conservative and canonical institution, Jazz at Lincoln Center has a surprising knack for creating a certain kind of surreality in its programming. You could have seen a good example on Wednesday at JALC’s Rose Theater, where Eric Harland, an unimpeachably hip jazz drummer and protégé-collaborator to Charles Lloyd, backed guitarist and vocalist Steve Miller, whose string of unavoidable ’70s hits signify something else: baby-boomers, including a few men with ponytails, kicking back with light beer on a suburban patio or, better yet, on the deck of a beachtown rental. There are many people, this writer included, who’ve pledged devotion to the sort of music Harland usually plays because they grew up hearing too much Steve Miller Band.

But that isn’t quite fair to Miller, 72, whose interesting personal history isn’t obvious from the singles that made him one of this year’s inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As he explained onstage, he was something of a prodigal blues and rock-and-roll entertainer, who garnered licks firsthand from family friends Les Paul (his godfather) and T-Bone Walker. He later paid dues in the heady prime of the Chicago blues scene, and fused heavy blues with Summer of Love psychedelia on early LPs that are still underrated. In recent years he’s returned to recording blues, but Wednesday’s program at JALC, called “Out of This World” with the subtitle “Ma Rainey Meets Miles Davis,” might be his most resolute showcase yet for the songs that ignited his musical life. (There are two more performances tonight at Jazz at Lincoln Center.)

Miller’s program was a brisk, enjoyable 90 minutes of blues, roots and standards, for which the headliner played ringleader more than main attraction. Among his collaborators was guitarist and singer Jimmie Vaughan, now an elder statesman of Texas blues and one of its truest-sounding practitioners, as well as Brianna Thomas, a young jazz singer whose earthy, tradition-focused chops gave credence to her interpretation of Ma Rainey. Filling out the ensemble was pianist and director Shelly Berg, whose arrangements were appropriately restrained; Vaughan’s regular organist, Mike Flanigin; bassist Yasushi Nakamura; and a horn section featuring tenor saxophonist Craig Handy, Patrick Bartley on alto and Mike Rodriguez on trumpet.

The anchor of Miller’s appeal exists in his songwriting-where roots elements were guided by shrewd pop craftsmanship-but only one self-penned Miller hit turned up here, “Take the Money and Run,” rearranged by Miller and Berg for the occasion as a loose midtempo swinger, touched by noir. His voice remains as enticingly casual as ever, with a kind of sunny, Californian optimism at its core, but in the acoustically pristine confines of Rose Theater its clarity also became a virtue. Toward the finale Miller tackled Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” a rare pop-guy-does-songbook concession among the well-curated blues program, and it was striking. With radio-orchestra horn surges undergirding Berg’s arrangement, there was none of the interpretive wit and little of the emotional candor you’d associate with jazz or cabaret singing, but a very, very familiar voice sounding just as it should, if not more vibrant. His guitar work, including a bit of atmospheric slide accompaniment and a lot of Chicago-style soloing, was fine enough, though Jimmie Vaughan’s playing eclipsed it.

Now 65, Vaughan is at that stage in the jazz or blues career when age can actually behoove a performer, adding gravity and wisdom to the phrasing and an imperial quality to the presence. If authenticity, as the critic Ben Ratliff has written, “could be defined as a set of limitations to which not everyone has equal access,” then Vaughan is one of the most authentic contemporary bluesmen on the planet, a through line to Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Albert Collins, Freddie King and T-Bone Walker; to say it again, he plays in and around a collection of midcentury blues and early rock-and-roll styles without turning the corner toward “blues-rock.” His singing, solid and steady with a wink of Texas twang, was an optimal complement here, and he certainly earned his near-co-billing.

With Harland proving that postbop masters can shuffle just as convincingly as career roots musicians, Vaughan impressed on blues-geek repertory like Rosco Gordon’s “Just a Little Bit” and Gatemouth Brown’s “Dirty Work at the Crossroads,” where his expressive, hard-boiled fingerstyle soloing saw a noticeable surge in applause. He let his tone, Flanigin’s organ swells and Slide Hampton’s beautiful, unembellished melody carry “Frame for the Blues,” another highlight.

This was clearly a special program with rough edges. Lyrics were read off music stands, a couple cues seemed sketchy, and at least one tune was called out of order, leaving Berg and others scrambling through sheet music. But other moments exhibited real deliberation, like a mashup of Miles’ “All Blues” with the lyrics of “C.C. Rider.” Over Jimmy Cobb swing flecked with bluesy shuffle-stomp, the horns got to stretch out. Miles’ expletive-laden distaste for Miller was laid bare in the most notorious jazz autobiography of all time, but this arrangement made you glad the singer-songwriter didn’t hold a grudge.

Originally Published