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Show Preview: The Miles Davis Experience, 9/29/11 at Englert Theatre


The tradition vs. innovation dichotomy is certainly nothing new to fans of modern American jazz. Almost from its birth, Jazz as an art form has held this divide as part of its very identity and as a seemingly inescapable demand for every new player who wants to challenge tradition or bend the form to his or her own purposes. Even today, Jazz young bloods seem obliged to pay appropriate homage to the forebears of their chosen instrument before it is deemed appropriate for them to diverge from the well-trod path of the preceding heroes.

28-year-old Ambrose Akinmusire must find himself in this situation presently. Akinmusire is both a leader
of his own quintet, which has recently released an impressive sophomore effort for Blue Note, and is
currently performing the title role for the CAMI Music touring project, The Miles Davis Experience, which
will play the Englert on September 29th. If Akinmusire’s mother has been collecting his press clippings,
she has no doubt been pleased. Reviews of the new release, When the Heart Emerges Glistening, have been
overwhelmingly favorable and have included descriptions of Akinmusire as being ‘on the verge of jazz
stardom’ and even ‘on top of the jazz world‘. He was recently named ‘Up and Coming Artist of the Year’
by the Jazz Journalists Association, and consistently draws favorable comparisons to such luminaries as
Clifford Brown and Terrance Blanchard [though interestingly, not so much to Miles himself]. Though, in
interviews, Akinmusire pays the requisite props to these past jazz greats as well as to many of the classical
masters, he also references artists like Dirty Projectors, J Dilla, and Joanna Newsome. His approach to
playing is both homage and pastiche, a style which serves him well on the new record.

In playing Miles Davis’ catalogue at the Englert performance, Akinmusire will utilize most of his regular
crew, including Walter Smith on saxophone and Sam Harris on piano. The Miles Davis Experience is part
retrospective, part musical, and part documentary. It seeks to put Davis’ music into a broader historical
context and paint a portrait of some of the relevant social and artistic issues of the period, while at the
same time reminding you that there are ample re-issues of the relevant discography which Columbia and
its subsidiaries would be honored to sell to you. The show includes period film clips and photos, leftover
cover art from the Blue Note vaults, live music, and external narration in a ‘beat-poet style‘. It is explicitly
designed to familiarize a younger generation of record buyers with Miles and his prodigious contribution
to American musical culture. Older music lovers already familiar with the music and perhaps weary of
the ‘beat-poet style’ will still find some interesting questions which the MDE seems to pose. First, is the
material Miles recorded for Blue Note between roughly 1949 and 59 indeed his strongest, or at least his
longest period of sustained productive genius? (Birth of the Cool after all is brilliant, but likely not why
Miles Davis is in the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame.) Second, how should jazz fans view the Blue Note label
itself, a question that Ambrose Akinmusire’s presence will certainly suggest. Akinmusire and Norah Jones
notwithstanding, Blue Note is not today particularly known as a home for new music. If jazz is indeed to
foster a new generation of listeners, its seemingly unending project, how long should fans tolerate this
iconic label existing more as a museum than as a conduit for new art?

CAMI describes the purpose of the Miles Davis Experience as offering “a good opportunity to reintroduce
Miles to a younger audience and those unfamiliar with his legacy. It will also give the large base of his fans
a chance to experience and celebrate his music in a new live setting.” An admirable enough purpose to be
sure; one only hopes that there is, in the future, an opportunity for Iowa City to host Akinmusire’s band
playing its own innovative material. In the meantime, we must respectfully yield to tradition.


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