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Disc reviews: Miles Davis, all-star tribute to Muddy Waters, Finding Neverland

Jazz

Miles Davis

At Newport: 1955-1975

[Columbia Legacy]

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Sensational.

There will be no greater jazz box in 2015 than this four-disc collection of Miles Davis performances from the Newport Jazz Festival from 1955-1975.

What must be understood is that during this period, Davis was one of the greatest live performers in the history of jazz. Those who had only heard him on record were so often stunned by hearing Davis live – the violence and emotional extravagance of his performances, combined with the extraordinary influence it had on sidemen who quickly became a rollcall of some of the greatest jazz musicians of the time.

Things went on during the live performances of those groups that justified 100 times over, critic Whitney Balliett’s now-sedate characterization of jazz as “the sound of surprise.” His pianist Herbie Hancock always advised that Davis’ audiences for his “second quintet” come to the gig early to catch his first set. That, according to Hancock, is when Davis would pour out his accumulated furies and angers from the rest of the day and he would do it with ferocious, blistering eloquence.

Should anyone doubt it, these four discs prove that nowhere was that more self-evident than Davis’ performances during this era at the Newport Jazz Festival.

Newport creator George Wein said simply, “Year in and year out, he was always a major attraction for us and he created some of the most important music that ever happened at Newport.”

I’ll say.

Davis could be, by conservative estimate, as difficult an SOB as ever walked the face of the earth but, significantly, his ability to get along with some people was spectacular – his longtime producer Teo Macero, for one, Newport mogul Wein for another.

Davis, no doubt, thought that he owed Newport. It was his performance of Monk’s “Round Midnight” at Newport in 1955 that marked the beginning of his latter-day career where his mastery and musical influence were expanding and decisive everywhere jazz was played.

Says Wein of “Round Midnight” via the Voice of America: “Miles’ set with ‘Round Midnight’ became a bootleg in Europe long before it was released in America. ... Miles already was a god in Europe. Everybody knew us through the VOA.”

What you’ll hear in these discs are hours of music never released before as well as some that we’ve long known, from that classic performance, all the way through his amazing second quintet (with Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams), some mind-blowing “Bitches Brew” era performances and the music that came after. However much of the latter varied in quality due to his sidemen and his outrageous silences and experiments in form, Davis’ burn and furor is there to raze all feeble old expectations and raise listeners’ temperatures.

Wild chances are taken all through these four discs. The notes by Ashley Kahn are as fine as the liner notes to any jazz box you’re likely to find in this 21st century.

A box set that, in a sense, we waited five decades for. And well worth every minute of the wait.

– Jeff Simon

Blues

Various Artists

Muddy Waters 100

[Raisin’ Music]

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Producer Larry Skoller has this to say about this all-star tribute to the 100th anniversary of Muddy Waters’ birth: “It could be argued that Muddy Waters has had more influence on the sound of the popular American music that we hear coming out of our radios, computers, smartphones and tablets than any other single American artist of the 20th century.”

Less than a week after the Rolling Stones took over Ralph Wilson Stadium, that seems far less arguable than it might have been a month ago.

This is a very fine contemporary all-star tribute to Waters’ music from a band whose basic leader is Chicago blues stalwart John Primer who played with Waters until his death in 1983. Nor is he the only Waters alumnus here. You’ll also find James Cotton and Bob Margolin. You’ll even find Johnny Winter playing on the song “I’m Ready” just a few weeks before his own death in 2014.

How all-star is this tribute? Add Gary Clark Jr., Billy Branch, Shemekia Copland, Keb Mo’ and Derek Trucks.

Waters, who was born within weeks of another of 1915’s royalty, Billie Holiday, is an inspiration for all different kinds of versions of his songs. Annotater Robert Gordon argues “the whole story of the blues can be heard, felt, and learned in the life of Muddy Waters,” and this tribute disc is terrific all the way through, whether it’s practically a farewell guitar solo by Johnny Winter to the neo-traditional version of “Rosalie” with Steve Gibbons on fiddle.

The songs range from “Why Don’t You Live So God Can Use You,” which McKinley Morgenfield performed on one of Alan Lomax’s field recordings in 1942 to “Can’t Get No Grindin’” in 1972 to “I’m Ready” in 1978. (We won’t mention that the song has become background music for commercials for cures to men’s dysfunctions if you don’t).

The disc rises and falls on Primer’s ability to carry forth the torch of his old employer. And that he does in exemplary style.

– J.S.

Broadway

Finding Neverland The Album

Various artists

[Weinstein Entertainment]

The musical “Finding Neverland,” which stars Matthew Morrison as “Peter Pan” creator J.M. Barrie, is a Broadway version of the 2004 movie. It retains the Victorian costumes, though, and the themes of magic and imagination. I couldn’t reconcile any of that with the slop on this disc, no matter how hard these singers – some of our top pop artists – are trying to sell them to us.

Credit where credit is due: “What You Mean To Me,” sung by Jennifer Lopez and Trey Songz, reminded me of ’80s duets, which I liked. “Stars,” sung with crisp harmonies by Pentatonix, is made for collegiate a cappella. And Christina Aguilera does a bluesy job with the show’s signature ballad, “Anywhere But Here.” With its dreamy triplets, it reminded me of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” But what is with that song’s awkward, abrupt ending?

So much about this whole project sounds cheap, as if its writers thought they could just throw anything out there and people would still go. Every one of the songs is dumb, with heavy, predictable drumbeats and lousy lyrics. The Goo Goo Dolls get the last word on this disc, with “If the World Turned Upside Down” – but it’s a bore, too (“I just want to be free from limitations and rules”). Puzzled, I got on Google and tried to find some reviews of the show. It seems critics hate it, but audiences like it. Maybe you have to be there. I’m glad I’m not.

Mary Kunz Goldman

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