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Vance ThompsonVance Thompson
There's never been anything like it in jazz, wrote one reviewer about “Kind of Blue,” the seminal Miles Davis album. Recorded in one take without rehearsals in 1959, it remains an enigmatic, epigrammatic marvel.
Inspired by the spare Japanese art form that uses single strokes of black paint to suggest the image, “Kind of Blue” is a collection of tunes that float unfettered by reality. In that one moment the musicians—pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, saxophonists Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb—transcended time and space. Coltrane, Evans and Adderley all went on to lead their own stellar ensembles. As, of course, did the ever-restless Miles; but, tellingly, he never revisited this sound.
So what was Knoxville-based trumpeter Vance Thompson thinking when he agreed to put together a band to play this and other tunes associated with the two legendary quintets led by Davis from the late ’50s through the late ’60s. Who knows, but he almost pulled it off at Barking Legs last Saturday night. Thompson put together a wonderfully simpatico quartet—pianist Keith Brown, saxophonist Greg Tardy, bassist Tommy Sauter and drummer Kinah Boto—and opened their set with the sublime “So What” from “Kind Of Blue.”
Both Thompson and Tardy are on the music school faculty at the University of Tennessee, but that’s where comparisons end. Thompson plays like someone who has studied the music, but couldn’t quite capture Miles’ quiet fire. The same could not be said of the barn-burning Tardy, who follows the advice of an older musician who told him, “It’s better to be felt than to be heard.”
The pianist Keith Brown was equally intense. Son of Donald Brown, a pianist with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers before joining the faculty at Berklee College in Boston and later UT, Brown played Wynton Kelly to Thompson’s Miles. Like Kelly, Brown’s approach is funkier, more gospel-rooted than Bill Evans’ cerebral abstractions and brought the three tunes they played from “Kind of Blue” a shade closer to the blues.
Tardy is noted for his passion for John Coltrane’s music. He was an aspiring classical clarinetist until he heard Coltrane. On Saturday evening he brought Coltrane’s assertive attack to the music, nicely complementing Brown’s funky drive. Brown tended to modify his style, playing punchy, percussive straight-ahead, hard bop on the tunes from the late ’50s and early ’60s, and on later compositions adding some nice Monk-ish abstractions to his solos. His playing was a deft delight bristling with energy and imagination.
The piano at Barking Legs is a vintage Steinway baby grand owned by Bruce Kaplan, the owner of the hall, and has been in his family for a couple of generations. According to family lore, it was originally at Birdland in New York City. Could it be that the ghosts of long gone giants inspired Brown?
The show was a huge success for the small venue. Kaplan originally bought the space for his wife to use as a dance studio (hence the name). But by the mid ’90s his deep love for music led him to partner with George Bright in booking acoustic roots musicians such as Norman Blake, Matt Flinner (coming back with his trio on Saturday, Feb. 4) and David Grier.
As much as he revels in the sound of that kind of music, Kaplan has an equally deep affection for jazz. It’s long been his ambition to bring jazz to the hall on a regular basis, but he’s been skeptical of its appeal. His soft-spoken diffidence belies his ardor, but he is also a pragmatist and has been reluctant to book musicians who might not draw a crowd. But after seeing the packed house on Saturday night he’s now cautiously optimistic, smiling as he mulled the prospect of the same musicians coming back to play a tribute to Coltrane.
According to Thompson, the original concept for the show had been a tribute to Coltrane and Davis. Tardy did play Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” giving us all a taste of the blistering tour de force to come.
I, for one, can’t wait.
Richard Winham is host and producer of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years. His column will appear regularly in this space.