After a seven-year absence, Miles Davis returned to Washington last night at the Warner Theatre with basically the same sextet that recorded his new comeback album. With barely a nod to his past, Davis -- the man who helped pioneer bebop, cool jazz, modal jazz, and jazzrock -- showcased a sound so new it doesn't even have a label yet. Davis' new music goes a long way toward solving the perennial problem of joining the power of rock to the subtlety of jazz without falling into predictable patterns.
The Davis Sextet played a 45-minute piece, took 20-minute intermission, played a half-hour piece and then refused to play an encore despite an ovation. The pieces were based on tunes from the new album -- "Back Seat Betty" and "Aida" respectively -- but went far beyond the recorded versions. Every time the band seemed to be settling into a groove, Davis would force them out of it with an authoritative trumpet phrase, an abrupt electric piano chord or a conductor's hand gesture.
As a result, the pieces had a spectrum of moods and textures as wide as an epic novel. Some passages erupted into a frenzy of release with a Mike Stern rock'n' roll guitar riff and Davis' piercing trumpet calls. Other passages dwindled tothe aching whisper of Davis' muted trumpet and percussionist Mino Cinelu's bells. No passage, however, continued longer than necessary. As soon as the audience grasped one mood, Davis was off in a new direction.
The continuity of these surprises was maintained by the rhythm section of Cinelu, drummer Al Foster and bassist Marcus Miller. Their phrases were angular and agitated, but their well-placed pauses kept the ultimate pattern elusive.
Davis' own solos, especially the melancholy muted trumpet solos, balanced open spaces against compressed, emotional statements. Davis used a transmitter mike on his trumpet which allowed him to prowl in his white jumpsuit till he found the right place on the stage and the right place in the music to slump into a crouch with his trumpet pointed between his knees and blow the kind of short, beautiful phrases for which he's famous.