At first glance, the billing of B.B. King and Miles Davis together at Constitution Hall last night might have seemed a bit odd. After all, King is a technical virtuoso who has remained committed to the same blues tradition for 40 years. By contrast, Davis is a technically limited player who has relied on his imagination to overturn one jazz tradition after another. Moreover, King is a radiant charmer on stage, while Davis is a sullen, aloof presence. Nonetheless, these two men, born within nine months of each other 60 years ago, share much more than their legendary status in American music.
Last night's show illuminated their common roots in the blues and their similar minimalist styles. While King's blues roots were unmistakable, it took some attention to hear the 12-bar blues basis for many of Davis' rock-funk excursions, though his new music reflects rhythm & blues more than it ever did. Both King on guitar and Davis on trumpet made the most of the fewest possible notes. Both were exemplary models for young blues players who mistakenly believe the genre is a license for as many notes as possible. When King played "Darling, You Know I Love ld,10.1 You," his sharply executed phrases were set off by precise pauses to let it all sink in. When Davis played "Time After Time," his wistful, muted phrases were set off by similar pauses.
The show started an hour late and was plagued by sound problems. King was at the top of his form. Leading an octet of seasoned pros, he purred seductively on "One of Those Nights" and exploded on a rocking gospel arrangement of "Ain't Nobody's Business." Davis was not at top form, as he had problems with his tone and phrasing. Several times he fought his way through the first half of a song before finally finding the right feel and then carving out intuitive counterpoints to the theme and groove. His nonet was full of gifted if sometimes undisciplined players, but it offered no one who could challenge Davis as an equal.