Davis’s ‘Birth of Cool’

Amelia Perron

While classical music buffs have been ostentatiously celebrating the birthday years of Shostakovich and Mozart for the past season, Lawrence jazz faculty spent Monday night celebrating the 80th birthday of another great musician: Miles Davis.
Not only is 2006 the 80th anniversary of Davis’s birth, but 2007 will mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark recording “Miles Ahead,” making the 2006-07 season an important time to perform Davis’s music.
The Lawrence jazz faculty has seized the opportunity to perform great music and will be presenting Miles Davis’s music throughout the year. Lawrence jazz piano professor Lee Tomboulian said, “We hope to represent most of his innovations through concerts this year.”
The season began with last week’s concert, titled “Birth of the Cool,” a commemoration of Davis’s 1948 recording known by that name, made when Davis was only 22 years old. This recording “was the first of many ways that Miles Davis changed jazz,” says Tomboulian.
“The title is actually a prophetic term, since it predicts the arrival of the ‘cool school,’ or ‘West Coast’ style of jazz.”
The cool school style came directly after bebop and, before that, big band, but cool school added new aspects. Said director of jazz studies Fred Sturm, “These guys got together and said, ‘Let’s not do what bebop was doing.'”
Tomboulian said, “There is a lot of bebop in cool school, but the tempos are more moderate and it’s generally less frantic than bebop.”
Another change was the size of the ensemble. While big bands were a very recent memory and Davis would later form quintets, the group onstage Monday was in between the two with nine musicians.
The jazz instrumentalists for Lawrence’s performance included faculty members John Daniel, trumpet; Tom Washatka, alto sax; Nick Keelan, trombone; Woody Mankowski, baritone sax; Tomboulian, piano; Mark Urness, bass; and Dane Richeson, drums. Rounding out the nonet were Jim DeCorsey on French horn and Marty Erickson on tuba to fill out the harmonic possibilities.
Tomboulian cites economic reasons for the change. “After World War II, big bands were going out–hiring all those musicians was too expensive.”
The ensemble did have musical advantages, as Sturm pointed out. “This is real, true chamber jazz,” he said. “The instruments are closely spaced, so they can all play in a cool, understated, idiomatic range. The result is a creamy, spare sound. It’s more of a composer’s art than bebop, because it has so much harmonic potential.”
Of the music’s complex quality, Tomboulian said, “There are lots of parts flowing in and out. It’s dense, but transparent and very lovely.”
Tunes on Monday’s program included “Move” by Denzil Best, which Tomboulian describes as “an up-tempo romp. It’s fun.”
In an opinion apparently shared by the large and enthusiastic audience, Tomboulian also describes the music as “a treat for the ears.