Miles Davis, performing in public for the first time in five years, entered from stage left in Avery Fisher Hall Sunday night tipped beverage high to mouth and waved to the cheering throng without turning to look at them. He was dressed in khaki pants and jacket, white tank top, clogs and white visor cap.
Seated briefly at first at a sythesizer, he kicked off an hour-and-a-half set, one continuous piece that recalled -- in testure, thems and approach -- his sound of a dozen years ago.
Employing cordless mike with his horn and supported by a rock-style ensemble of amplified guitar and bass, songas, drums and tenor/soprano saxophone, Davis traversed stage front for solos that had him bent double with trumpet directed to the floor. When not playing he stationed himself toward the rear in front of the drummer with his back to the audience. Generally he seemed in high spirits and frequently acknowledged with gestures the positive response of the crowd.
Although he was immersed in a wall of sound, Davis' own playing was often of impressive quality if not innovative or original. The tone was characteristically his, from the pinched and whispered sotto voce with mute to the emotionally overpowering blasts and shrieks from his open horn. His blues wrenched on apart and his "Sketches of Spain" delivery was haunting and passionate. His chops are in excellent working order, evident especially when he ripped off rapid flutters or reached for the skies.
Why, then, has he encapsulated himself in a rock format with performers of rock leanings? Is he still trying to form the "greatest rock band ever"? Does he believe this is the artistic direction that jazz will or should take? Is his heart in this regurgitation of "Bitches' Brew"? Does he care or is he just putting us on? You pays your money and you takes your choice.
Not to imply that Davis' fellow players were without distinction or devoid of jazz knowledge. The basic vocabulary and harmonic language of jazz were sometimes present and the odd solo replied in kind to the leader's inimitable voice. Yet the thundering rhythm, the tidal wave of collective effort, and apocalptic descending chords were patterned on rock. Missing were the subtlety, indirectness and, yes, beauty that are the very soul of jazz. Instead we heard picks sliding up the guitar strings in screaming recreation of the late Jimi Hendrix and all the other old familiar distortions from the heavy-metal era.
It was, or course, an occasion and a spectacle. It elicited, on the one hand, cheers and screams from the SRO hall and a standing ovation at concert's end. Yet, on the other hand, there were those who applauded not a single note.