On October 25th, 2001, Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, and Roy Hargrove walked onto the stage of Toronto's historic Massey Hall. These three stellar musicians, representing nearly three generations of jazz history, were there to pay tribute to Miles Davis and John Coltrane-who both would have turned 75 years old last year. The vision, virtuosity, chemistry, and respect with which they performed that night were captured on tape by Canadian Broadcasting. Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall is now proudly released by Verve Records.
The purpose of this concert-a date on a tour which was the biggest jazz event of the year playing to more than 200,000 concertgoers-was not to keep Davis and Coltrane on a pedestal as Hancock, Brecker, and Hargrove recapitulated familiar melodies, harmonics, and arrangements. What won critical acclaim and gives their Live at Massey Hall recording such emotional vibrancy is that the musicians trusted their talents to re-imagine some of the best-known works of these late legends in the spirit of adventure and exploration that characterized their art.
Had they not branched out from the paths first blazed by Davis and Coltrane, Hancock says, "we would have been doing a disservice to the people we were honoring. They were the ones that encouraged us to explore and discover new ways of treating music, new perspectives. That's what it was all about, to follow their lead, to take the very pieces they were associated with and put our own spin on it."
By doing so, Hancock, Brecker, and Hargrove not only revisited the legends of Davis and Coltrane, but they re-ignited passions that have been dormant in jazz during recent years. "We all felt a responsibility to those we were honoring and to music in general," continued Hancock. "We wanted to convey what Miles and 'Trane were all about: reaching beyond what you know and exploring the territory you don't know."
"We went into this with a sense of discovery, trying to find a way to shed some light on songs we identified with Miles and 'Trane," said Michael Brecker. "They each created music that reflected the time they lived in, and by doing so created music that was timeless. We wanted to find a way that would reflect our sensibilities and the times we live in."
The Directions in Music tour featured Hancock on piano, Brecker on saxophone, Hargrove on trumpet, and the rhythm section of Brian Blade (drums) and John Patitucci (bass). "John and Brian added so much to the mix-a very high level of creativity and imagination combined with complete virtuosity," Brecker said. "And then there is their incredible enthusiasm. They made every night an adventure."
For Hancock, some of the inspiration for this album came from personal experience, as he was, of course, the key man on keyboards for Davis, for five crucial years in the development of jazz, in a band that included Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. And for the amazingly versatile Brecker, who has played on more than 800 jazz, pop, and rock recordings, Coltrane-to whom he has been admiringly compared-has been a major inspiration.
Hargrove was a protege of Wynton Marsalis, whom the younger trumpeter met as a musical prodigy during high school in Waco, Texas. "This was the first time I ever toured with Michael or Herbie," Roy says. "I always get nervous around Herbie because he's such a big star. He's crossed so many boundaries, you know.The first time I played with him, I was so nervous I could hardly play."
Hargrove got over the nervousness soon enough. Hancock said, "I was really pleased by Roy's ability to rise to the occasion. I'm accustomed to hearing Roy play in settings that are more traditional, harmonically and melodically. It was a challenge for all of us, and Roy jumped in like he was born in it."
Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall features a number of tracks written by or associated with Davis and Coltrane. There is the reflective ballad "Naima," written by Coltrane and originally performed on his 1960 album Giant Steps. Also featured is the tumultuous "Transition," the title song from Coltrane's climate-changing 1965 album. The band delivers a clever pairing of Miles' "So What" from 1959's Kind of Blue with the title track of Coltrane's 1961 jaw-dropper Impressions. A stellar version of "My Ship," written by Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill and first recorded by Miles on his watershed 1957 album Miles Ahead/Miles +19 is also included.
Among the originals written for the tour was Michael Brecker's dedication to Coltrane, "D Trane." "I thought it was a composition that echoes Coltrane and Miles, while also being a fun vehicle to blow on," Brecker says. Also offering plenty of room for improvisation is "Transition," which steams for more than ten minutes and "So What/Impressions," which lasts for nearly thirteen. These provide a true treat for listeners to hear Brecker, Hancock, and Hargrove soar on a recording which operates on concert, rather than studio, time.
And then there is the original that is not quite an original, but an astonishing exercise in creative composition that Hancock learned from Davis about 35 years ago. The song in question, "Misstery," is credited to Hancock, Brecker, and Hargrove, and there is no mystery about the name of the Miss. Her name is Stella, as in "Stella by Starlight." Hancock explains: "When I was with Miles we'd usually have a rehearsal where everyone would bring their compositions, but for one rehearsal, nobody had anything to present. Miles had some manuscript on the piano with some chords on it; he wouldn't let me see the title, pointed to the middle and said, 'Start playing from there.' I started to play two bars from the middle, and he took my hands off the piano, then he pointed here and said, 'Play two bars before the middle.' and so on, until I got to the start of the piece, which was 'Drad Dog' from the album Someday My Prince Will Come. We called it 'Circle,' which was, in a convoluted way, the same musical material as 'Drad Dog.' The relationship of 'Drad Dog' to 'Circle' is exactly what 'Stella By Starlight' is to 'Misstery.'"
Hancock's "The Sorcerer" was the title track of the 1967 album Sorcerer which featured Davis with his historic second quintet. The title was one of Hancock's nicknames for Davis. "I made a new arrangement for the tour," said Hancock, "It's very different from the original, yet it still has that thread of Miles in it from my association with him when I was in my twenties."
Roy Hargrove-too much a veteran to still be a wunderkind, too young to be called "venerable"-composed his own tribute to Davis, called "The Poet." "I was thinking of the Miles Davis quintet from the 1960s when they started getting into a sound that was beyond regular structure," Hargrove says. "It was along in that vein I wrote the song and gave it to Herbie to reharmonize, and it became a whole different thing."
The Directions in Music concept was created by the tour's booking agent, Scott Southard. The live album was a fortuitous by-product of the tour, but the location of the recording adds a layer that was simply "destiny." Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall was recorded in the legendary Toronto venue where another historic moment in jazz was taped for the ages in 1953: Jazz at Massey Hall by "The Quintet" -Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), a sponsor of the October 25th Directions engagement in Toronto, taped the concert for later broadcast. Renowned for its outstanding remote recording facilities, CBC's best were on hand, along with the tour's ace sound engineer Rob Griffin, to document what the players agree was one the finest performances on the tour. The musicians listened to the recording and liked what they heard. Said Hancock, "We wondered if we could make it into a Verve release, because it was one of our better concerts, and it really represented what the tour was about. That great vibe from that old recording was still in the house."
As the approving roar of the crowd attests on Directions in Music:Live at Massey Hall, Hancock, Brecker, and Hargrove light a bonfire of a tribute to make living history in the venerable old hall once again.