Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra to Salute Miles Davis and Other Legends

Members of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra will perform Saturday at the National Museum of Natural History and Monday at Howard University.
Members of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra will perform Saturday at the National Museum of Natural History and Monday at Howard University.
By Mike Joyce
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 3, 2009

David Baker, artistic director for the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, will never forget the humbling summer of '59.

He and a few fellow musicians were attending the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts, where they encountered such creative, forward-thinking artists as George Russell, John Lewis, Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, Don Cherry and Bob Brookmeyer.

"We found out that we were old-fashioned even before we got a chance to be discovered," Baker says with a laugh, speaking from his home in Bloomington, Ind.

On Saturday evening and Monday afternoon, as part of the Smithsonian Institution's Jazz Appreciation Month, a septet drawn from the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra will salute that explosive era of jazz development with a 50th anniversary concert titled "Miles Davis's 'Kind of Blue' and His Modal Period." In addition to performances of all five tunes that appeared on the late trumpeter's 1959 landmark recording, the concerts will include contemporaneous pieces by Coleman, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane and Charles Mingus.

Just don't expect a series of rigidly faithful re-creations.

Founded in 1990 and originally co-led by Baker and Gunther Schuller, the Jazz Masterworks Orchestra at first received wide acclaim for its performances of meticulously transcribed arrangements drawn from the Smithsonian's vast Duke Ellington archive and elsewhere.

"Gunther was more concerned with having us play as close to the original as possible because you couldn't hear authentic Ellington played then," Baker explains. In recent years, though, the ensemble's sound has struck a welcome balance of fidelity and freedom.

"It was getting to the point where I thought the energy level of the band was beginning to be affected, because we weren't giving everyone the chance to do what jazz is all about -- that is, improvising," Baker says. Of course, he adds, when the band performs "All Blues," "Flamenco Sketches" and other tunes from "Kind of Blue," "it can't do too much without distorting the original recording." But the arrangements provide a lot of open space. "After the theme is out of the way, the soloists try to say who they are."

A National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, head of the Jazz Studies Department at Indiana University and a renowned composer, Baker likens the orchestra to a Shakespearean troupe. "You have the same people most of the time, and they know the music and how it's supposed to sound."

On tour and at home, the ensemble also conducts workshops for budding musicians. "The good thing about being in Washington and doing this outreach is that we have people who've played this music -- too often it's teachers teaching teachers teaching teachers, and none of them have playing experience."

With its wealth of local players, the nation's capital is an ideal home for the ensemble, Baker says. "Like they say in basketball, we have a deep bench."

But he cites a more significant and symbolic reason that the Smithsonian imprimatur is so important. "It speaks to how our nation looks at this aspect of our culture. We can send orchestras all over the world playing Prokofiev and Bartok -- and we should. But you shouldn't neglect one of the indigenous cultural gifts that we have."

Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Septet: "Miles Davis's 'Kind of Blue' and His Modal Period" Appearing Saturday at the National Museum of Natural History, Baird Auditorium (10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW). Show starts at 7:30 p.m. Also appearing Monday at Howard University, Childers Recital Hall (2400 Sixth St. NW), is the Masterworks Orchestra playing "Kind of Blue" and Dave Brubeck's "Time Out." Show starts at 1 p.m. Tickets: $25 for Saturday's show (202-633-3030). Free for Monday's show (202-806-7097). The Download: For a sampling of the music, check out: From Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra's "Tribute to a Generation": -- "Sepia Panorama" -- "Take the 'A' Train" From Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue": -- "Flamenco Sketches"

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