Any time an album by a new artist comes out, people interested in such things ask who he or she played with in the past. Previous alliances are often a good gauge of influences and styles, and a musician who's kept the right company has immediate credibility.
One man who has been the right company for a lot of extraordinary musicians in Miles Davis. It's hard to find a modern jazz artist of note who hasn't had something to do with Miles somewhere along the line. This weekend, Washington hosts what might be considered a Miles Davis alumni meeting, and the caliber of jazz should be as high as this city has heard in a long time.
Friday night, Ron Carter, McCoy Tyner and Sonny Rollins appear as an ensemble, with some brilliant solo moments sure to be included. Saturday night, Weather Report checks in for two shows. Aside from their varied musical directions, the two outfits have more in common than Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.
Carter, Tyner and Rollins are billed at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall as the Milestone Jazzstars, and "milestone" is an much a descriptive statement of the show as an allusion to their current record company. The trio has never appeared together, though Carter and Rollins both played with Miles Davis - bassist Carter from 1963 to 1968 and tenor saxophonist Rollins in 1951 - before it was fashionable. Tyner never was a Davis band member, but he gained his reputation as John Coltrane's panist and Coltrane played with Davis in what most people consider one of jazz's finest units.
Weather Report's concert at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium features Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul, both of whom played with - you guessed it - Miles Davis.
The two rosters get even more inter-related. Drummer Tony Williams, who's on two tracks of Weather Report's new album, "Mr. Gone," not only played with Miles, Davis but is the drummer on Sony Rollins' latest, "Don't Stop the Carnival."
Rollins left Miles Davis early on and established himself as a near-legend. His big-toned, earthy sound and powerful improvisation runs put him in the same class as John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon. But "The Way I Feel" in 1976 and last year's "Easy Living" contained material that was disco-oriented, and many of his long-time fans became disheartened. "Don't Stop the Carnival" should elevate their spirits in a hurry. The album is pure jazz, with Rollins obviously spurred on by the presence of Williams and trumpeter Donald Byrd.
On the title cut Rollins is lyrical, while on "Autumn Nocturne" he shows a torrid improvisational technique. When Byrd joins the proceedings, things get even hotter. With Williams driving them on, the two trade off runs to the delight of the crowd.
Some in that crowd may have come back to the same hall to hear McCoy Tyner record "The Greeting" with his sextet.
Tyner has always been an experimenter (his last album, "Inner Voices," used vocals for various effects) and "The Greeting" has a more primitive foundation than much of his other work. The album accents percussion and, at times, is reminiscent of the African modalities of Randy Weston. "Hand in Hand" is especially rhythmic, employing berimbau and orchestra bells.
Tyner also performs a reworked "Naima" as a tribute to its composer, John Coltrane (Tyner played it solo on his "Songs for a Friend" album) and two originals recorded for the first time: "Hand in Hand" and "Pictures." Though Tyner will join Carter and Rollins Friday night, he's scheduled to bring his own group to Blues Alley in late November, and might save some of this newer material for that engagement.
Ron Carter has almost single-handedly brought recognition to the bass as a lead instrument. Both Dave Holland and Charlie Hayden now play extended melody lines on their stand-ups, but Carter is the driving force. "On "Piccolo," Carter used a piccolo bass for melody and counterpoint, and on his latest, "A Song for You," he adds cellos.
The result is a pleasant, sometimes brilliant but more overtly orchestrated album. Leon Russell's title cut is played pretty straight, with Carter taking most of the lead. "Good Times" and "N.O. Blues" feature more traditional jazz playing, but - as usual - Carter manages to keep one foot in structured styles while the other takes on a constantly questioning musical stance.
The same constant striving for expanded musical boundaries has also been a trademark of Weather Report. On "Mr. Gone" the group proves that it still deserves the often misused adjective "progressive."
When rock/jazz fusion music was the rage, Weather Report often was lumped together with Return to Forever, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and George Duke. The fact is that, unlike most fusion bands, Weather Report is primarily a jazz band that occasionally uses rock progressions, and not one that does it the other way around.
Weather Report's high standing in the music community is due largely to its Miles Davis graduates. Saxophonist Shorter and keyboardist Zawinul are the focus of the ensemble, though bassist Jaco Pastorius is now a full-scale contributer to the organization. "Mr. Gone" is the first album that integrates Pastorius as well as earlier Weather Report albums integrated the now-departed Miroslav Vituos.
Aside from Tony Williams, the band uses Peter Erskine and Steve Gadd on drums and Manolo Badrena, pop star Deniece Williams and Earth, Wind and Fire's Maurice White on voice and vocals. (Weather Report makes a distinction between "voice" - used as an instrument -and "vocals," which express lyrics). The grab-bag of personnel should come as no surprise to fans who know that Weather Report changes supporting players the way most people change socks. However, Shorter, Zawinul and Pastorius comprise a formidable trio, probably as formidable as Rollins, Tyner and Carter. They all comprise a rather formidable weekend of jazz, no matter how you look at it - or who you look at.