Barry Cleveland: Larry Coryell Burns as Miles Smiles at the Montreal Jazz Festival

| July 3, 2012

Miles Smiles is, of course, a seminal Miles Davis album released in 1967 featuring Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter, and Tony Williams. (Carter and Shorter both played at the Montreal Jazz Festival this week, as did the Williams-inspired Spectrum Road.)

The Miles Smiles that performed Monday evening, however, is a collective of stellar jazz musicians that celebrate Davis, while re-imagining his music. The lineup last night was guitarist Larry Coryell, saxophonist Bill Evans, bassist Darryl Jones, B-3 organist Joey DeFrancesco, drummer Omar Hakim, and trumpet player Wallace Roney. Most of these guys played with Davis at some point in his long career, and Roney was the trumpet maestro's only protégé.

Whereas the majority of Miles “tribute” projects have focused on the Davis' early-'70s fusion music, Miles Smiles taps his funkier, bluesier, and more R&B-informed periods.

Hakim and Jones grooved hard, but always with extraordinary finesse and taste, underpinning Roney and Evans' slinky melodies and mind-blowing improvisations with a deeply soulful foundation. Jones' bass work was particularly sublime, as he largely checked his monster chops in favor of playing more of a traditional R&B bassist role. Bits of virtuosity flashed through regularly, though, like when he tagged an insanely fast sax run in unison high on the fretboard before nailing the tonic on the downbeat a split second later.
DeFrancesco and Coryell, who go way back, enjoyed a special connection. Whether bouncing harmonic and rhythmical ideas back and forth or driving each other's solos into ever more inventive spaces, the two frequently traded wide smiles.

DeFrancesco's gospel-tinged playing ranged from nuanced, cool, and swinging to revival meeting intensity to orchestral-like timbral colorations. Coryell appeared to be having the time of his life, blissfully grooving along with the music—and I've never enjoyed his playing more. He seemed a bit uncomfortable for the first minute or two, but by the time he dug into his solo on the opening piece he was relaxed and in exceptional form, slowly constructing a bluesy solo with tasty, Lonnie Johnson-grade licks, before kicking in the overdrive and wah pedals and burning with full-on hard rock abandon. At other times he took things way out, blowing through impossibly angular arpeggios, lightning-fast runs, wicked bends, and cascading pinched harmonics. But the real kicker was his super-funky rhythm playing, which elicited repeated grins from Hakim. Coryell even referenced Bootsy Collins at the climax of one particularly syncopated solo!

I expected this show to be good, if only because I was familiar with the musicians and knew what they were capable of—but I wasn’t necessarily expecting to be blown away.

If Miles happened to be glancing down from that big gig in the sky, he was, no doubt, smiling.
Photos courtesy of Denis Alix.

There's a short video teaser here that will give you a taste, but doesn't really capture much of what I described.

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