Sunday, August 11, 2013

Review: Circular Dreaming - Quest

Personnel: Dave Liebman: tenor and soprano saxophones; Richie Beirach: piano; Ron McClure: bass; Billy Hart: drums.

Circular Dreaming is a tribute to the Miles Davis group of the 60’s (you know, Wayne, Herbie, Ron, and Tony); except for Tony Williams’s “Hand Jive” and one original each from Liebman and Beirach, all the tunes are Wayne Shorter’s.  I thought I would follow the same procedure I used for Jonas Holgersson’s recording 4003 and revisit the original Miles performances to compare them with the new versions.  This makes for a longer review, but it’s an instructive exercise (for me, at least).

The recording starts with “Pinocchio,” originally from Nefertiti.  Miles’s version is a cool, mid-tempo swinger, with Miles and Shorter playing the infectious melody in unison.  The solos are tantalizingly brief, Miles starting them off with his clipped, no-nonsense phrases.  Shorter’s phrases are also somewhat clipped, which Williams picks up on and starts filling in the spaces, amounting to a duet between the drums and sax.  Hancock’s solo is more straightforward, with swinging, elegant lines.  On Quest’s version, Liebman, on soprano sax, plays the theme in unison with Beirach.  Happily, the solos here are more expansive, Beirach starting them with one that is lyrical, technically dazzling, and outstanding.  Liebman plays a careening but well-controlled solo.  In the background, Hart sounds great, dancing around the drum kit.  Liebman and Hart finish the cut with an improvised duet.  If you’re going to take on a classic jazz performance like Miles’s “Pinocchio,” this is the way to do it.

“Prince of Darkness” is up next, originally on the Sorcerer recording, an upper mid-tempo tune with a slightly Latin feel.  Miles’s playing is fairly hot here, with longer lines and high note stabs, and Shorter puts together an intriguing solo, full of twists and turns; Hancock lays out for both of the horn solos.  Hancock takes a thoughtful approach in his solo, with Carter and Williams following his every move beautifully, as natural as breathing.  Quest’s version is slower and softer-edged, with Liebman (again on soprano) gently reading the melody.  Beirach then plays a thoughtful, delicate solo, the notes reluctant to leave his fingers.  Then McClure plays a muscular and melodic bass solo.  Liebman’s solo has a lot of variety and ranges all over the horn, but it is very measured, like he’s trying to get every note just right.  (He’s pretty successful.)

Miles and Wayne give a quiet reading in harmony of the elegant, bittersweet melody of “Footprints,” from Miles Smiles.  Miles’s expansive solo begins tentatively, with shorter phrases, eventually moving into a double-time feel.  Shorter’s solo is filled with thorny, thoughtful phrases.  Hancock’s solo is chord-heavy.  Throughout the solos, the rhythm players show off amazing elasticity, changing direction on a dime and making it all seem effortless, more like wizards than timekeepers.  Quest’s version is faster and has a more driving feel.  Liebman is on tenor for this cut, and his excellent solo is high-energy and free-wheeling, with frequent use of altissimo screams.  Beirach appears to be having a blast twisting the structure of the tune in a variety of ways, Hart staying right with him.  Hart then contributes a melodic, engaging solo. 

“MD”, an original by Liebman, begins abstractly and slowly with Beirach by himself, musing at the keyboard, focusing on dissonant chords and phrases.  At about two minutes in, a sad, slow melody floats out of Liebman’s tenor sax.  After a brief Beirach interlude, Liebman begins improvising against an earthy background from the rhythm players, eventually increasing his intensity and forays in the upper register, keeping the tone of the performance dark and somber.  The piece ends with a brief restatement of the theme.

“Hand Jive” is a straightforward, upper mid-tempo tune by Tony Williams from the Nefertiti recording.  After a brief reading of the theme in unison with Shorter, Miles plays a fluid, thoughtful solo, with Williams closely following and feeding off of Miles’s lines.  Shorter’s solo is looser but also thoughtful and exploratory.  Hancock lays out for both of these solos.  The rhythm section is hard-driving throughout.  Hancock finally enters and plays a solo composed of single-note lines.  Quest’s version has a similar tempo, with Liebman back on soprano.  Liebman is in very good form here, alternating clean, logical lines with interval jumps, upper-register screams, and quicksilver runs.  Then Beirach plays a beautifully constructed solo.

On “Vonetta,” from Sorcerer, Miles and Shorter play the slow melody with understated background playing from the rhythm section.  When Miles solos, Williams locks into a series of march-like snare-drum rolls, branching out a bit when Shorter takes over.  Shorter’s velvety tone is particularly noticeable here, and his solo is exceptional.  On Quest’s version, unlike the somewhat detached reading of the theme by Miles and Wayne, Liebman (on tenor) treats the tune more like a ballad, employing more embellishment and emphasizing the tune’s prettiness.  Liebman’s improvisation bears a lot of resemblance to Shorter’s. 

“Nefertiti” famously has Miles and Wayne repeating the hypnotic theme periodically throughout the performance, both choosing not to improvise, except for the different ways they approach the repeated theme (e.g. variations in note bending, dynamics, articulation).  The rhythm section generally moves along with the horns, occasionally setting off some subtle fireworks around the melody (especially Williams).  The cut builds to a climax in the rhythm section’s playing and then comes to a quiet close.  On the Quest version, Liebman starts improvising (on soprano) even before he states the melody, with light accompaniment from Beirach.  The tune doesn’t start in earnest with the rest of the group until almost two minutes in.  After stating the theme, Liebman and Beirach trade the spotlight loosely, with the group in a nice swinging groove, the saxophonist and pianist just having a casual good time.

“Circular Dreaming” is an original composition by Beirach and begins with Liebman playing the languorous theme on soprano.  Beirach improvises a formal-sounding, well-grounded solo.  Liebman then plays a contemplative, carefully-constructed solo, with lush accompaniment from Beirach.  Liebman and Beirach put a lot of emotion in their final reading of the theme.  The performance is a good change of pace, slow and straightforward, with a pleasant, floating quality throughout. 

“Paraphernalia,” from Miles in the Sky, has a furtive feel, with an upper mid-tempo melody somewhat like the theme from a 60’s detective TV show and George Benson’s electric guitar providing a jumpy background pulse.  Miles’s solo is fluid and all business; Shorter’s is more oblique and contains more spaces.  Benson, like Shorter, is contemplative in his solo, with Miles and Wayne providing some background.  Hancock is assertive, punching out strong phrases and ringing chords.  As usual, the rhythm players are amazingly flexible.  Liebman (on tenor) and his crew take the tune at a faster tempo, stretching out the theme a bit, with the rhythm section providing a dense, somewhat frantic background.  Beirach plays a fluid, mainly linear solo; Liebman’s solo is loose and all over the horn, occasionally having a wild, hair-on-fire quality.  Hart’s solo, by contrast, is varied but well-controlled.  Overall, this version provides a nice high-energy close to the recording.

The original performances of the compositions on Circular Dreaming by the Davis group are more than groundbreaking episodes in the history of the jazz idiom--they have a timeless quality.  The peerless improvisations and the brilliance and elasticity of the rhythm section still sound fresh.  The performances on Circular Dreaming can’t, of course, match that standard, but they are interesting and engaging and fully stand on their own; there’s no let-down in listening first to the original and then to the Circular Dreaming version of these tunes.  The members of Quest are all masters of their craft and they’re playing as well as they’ve ever played; in particular, Liebman’s tenor playing is very strong, and his soprano playing is second to none.  The success of Circular Dreaming is significant but not surprising.  Take four great jazz musicians at the top of their game fully engaged in playing some of the best jazz compositions ever written…well, you do the math.  

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