By Izzy Yellen
Rarely can one attend a concert in which a group covers an entire album, but on Wednesday, Sept. 16, the Lawrence Jazz Faculty Quintet did just that, providing their interpretation of Miles Davis’s classic, “Kind of Blue.” With arrangements done by pianist and Lecturer of Music Bill Carrothers, and featuring saxophonist and Assistant Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies José Encarnación, cellist and Lecturer of Music Matt Turner, drummer and Professor of Music Dane Richeson, and bassist and Associate Professor of Music Mark Urness, the concert was a beautiful, dreamy experience, pulling in the largest crowd to Harper Hall I have seen thus far.
The concert, which began identically to the recording—which, if you haven’t yet heard, I urge you to listen to—quickly went in its own direction and became a collage of free sounds, swelling gradually with emotion. I enjoyed the whole concert, but I couldn’t stop smiling those first few minutes. Hearing this album come alive through these talented musicians was a spiritual experience—this is an album I have listened to countless times since I was born and have studied intently—and this concert evoked the same feelings as the album does.
The blend of recreating “Kind of Blue” live and reimagining it was a perfect ratio. The album, which is one of the highest-selling and critically-acclaimed jazz albums of all time, is known note for note by many listeners and musicians. Its improvised solos are among the most dissected and analyzed of any jazz album. Therefore, when the members of the quintet threw in short snippets of quotes, a large percent of the audience recognized them, even when they were altered. This created a gripping effect of hearing the new with the old.
This was not the Faculty Quintet playing Miles Davis like the Miles Davis Sextet, this was the Faculty Quintet playing Miles Davis like the Faculty Quintet. While outlining the changes, melodies and some licks, the Quintet was able to showcase their own voices and talents.
The variety of overall sounds and styles they had was incredible. While the album has a fairly cohesive feel throughout—breezy and light, among other qualities—the Quintet changed it up frequently. For example, their version of “All Blues” was much darker, more raw and fat, with a fire burning underneath it, pushing it and its energy forward.
It was preceded by “Blue in Green,” which foreshadowed the more ominous feeling prevalent in “All Blues.” While the original recording is bittersweet and beautiful, the Faculty Quintet’s version was that in addition to being haunting. With Turner’s vocal sound, Carrothers’ wide use of colorful notes and Encarnación’s soulful playing, the melodic instruments created a menagerie of emotional and dense voices. This was supported by Urness and Richeson playing a bolero feel, ebbing and flowing with the melodic voices.
While their original tunes are highly appreciated, the Faculty Quintet tackled such a well-known album with the upmost respect, ambition and desire to push the music forward. They created an experience that could be enjoyed by not only the avid jazz listener but also by someone who had never heard the art form before.
“Kind of Blue” is an album often recommended as an introduction to jazz. And for many Lawrence students—especially those not in the Conservatory—the faculty groups are the first jazz groups they’ll see. The superb combination of both these introductions will hopefully prove to be effective in getting others to listen to, or at least appreciate, jazz. A recording of the full concert can be heard on <soundcloud.com/mark-urness>.