On Monday night at the Hippodrome, the Salute to Miles Davis began with a meandering piano, a slight double bass, and sparse drums, which led softly into the sax and trumpet parts of "So What," the recognizable refrain that begins Miles Davis' groundbreaking 1959 album Kind of Blue.
As soon as the melody was set, trumpeter Kevin Hackler started his first solo, head cocked to one side, eyes closed. The trumpet blared notes with ease. Sax players Simon Harding and Mark Sterbank retreated to separate sides of the Hippodrome stage to give the soloist his spotlight.
Kind of Blue was a triumph of modal jazz — focused on music modes instead of chord progressions. The musicians had almost no rehearsal, with only basic sketches before performing. And the album influenced everyone from the Allman Brothers to Pink Floyd to Quincy Jones.
Sax player Simon Harding (as John Coltrane) organized a one-time performance of Kind of Blue. The local sextet also included trumpeter Kevin Hackler (as Miles Davis), sax player Mark Sterbank, pianist Richard White, bassist Ben Wells, and drummer Ron Wiltrout from Jazz Artists of Charleston collective.
These musicians embodied the music instead of merely performing it. Pianist Richard White turned "Blue In Green," the record's 24-second intro, into a more meandering solo. It helped set the pace for the slow, thin moan of the trumpet that yearns throughout the first section of the song. Drummer Wiltrout's oscillating brushes on the snare sounded like soft raindrops, adding to the longing.
The sextet performed with an intense but cool demeanor. Detached yet acutely aware. Individual pieces confident in their own but together a greater whole.
The soft breakdown halfway through "Blue in Green" almost went off the rails. Down to just the piano, bass, and drums, notes were sparse and seemingly random. The players didn't address the issue quickly. Softly and slowly they added notes and elements back into the mix. Hanging on the edge, Wells expertly pieced together bass notes into a scale to build the song back to life.
Harding, Hackler, and Sterbank formed a near-perfect trio of horns at the beginning of "All Blues." Notes swelled and fell in unison, never too loud or soft.
The 45-minute album was expanded to an hour-long performance without feeling drawn out. Solos were appropriately meandering and experimental within the themes. The concert felt Kind of Blue without mere mimicry.
After a short intermission, the musicians came back to perform four more Davis songs from different records. These were modal jazz tunes from the '50s and '60s, executed with similar precision and reverence.
The most unique number was an arrangement the cover of the '30s show tune "My Funny Valentine." On his record, Davis utilized a straightforward melody and soft rhythm section. The Charleston group approached the melody and mode obliquely. The three horns played the melody together as a patchwork, and even then only dancing around the original notes. Instead of the traditional solos, the horn players played runs in unison. This created a cacophony of notes, yet still conveyed the aching beauty of the original cover. An intense energy that brought "My Funny Valentine" into a new place.
The focused energy of the performance was a fitting salute to Davis' enduring legacy.