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I Am a Man, an album with seven compositions, all penned by Miles, is influenced by gospel, blues, and protest music from the Civil Rights era. The pieces are lyrical, understated, and beautiful. Like Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Miles was guided by the spiritual and uplifting – characteristics so needed today. Brimming with talent and top tier jazz experience, an all-star quintet brought this album to life on stage.
This was the first time this quintet played together. Each is a capable soloist; together, they maintained a sensitive quality in their playing, listening and sounding as if they had grown up together. And having collaborated with all of them in the past, Miles knew they were just the musicians for the music.
Opening with the title piece, "I Am a Man," Miles set the tone with a gentle, moderate pace. He showed his masterful playing, knowing when to hold back. Even blowing through the cornet sounded like a breeze – subtle yet ominous. Guitarist Bill Frisell, known as a go-to side man, followed his lead. The tune was passed around, returning to Miles, who closed with a long, sustained note. There was a palpable hush.
"The Gift That Keeps on Giving" opened with a blues statement played by the bass. Scott Colley, who has a rich jazz vocabulary and extraordinary technique, played with smooth assurance. Miles' melody, slowly and gently colored it purple. Pianist Jason Moran played the theme on top like a wave. Drummer Brian Blade was in his element; his syncopation disturbed the quiet. The audience approved!
I cannot nail down a favorite. Every piece is uniquely composed. But I loved the hymn-like quality of "Mother Juggler." The theme seems to say "don't rush me, I have something to say." The duets for cornet/guitar and piano/guitar were so perfect. The closing bars could be a lullaby. I held my breath.
There are moments of greater tension in the last two works ("Jasper" and "Is There Room in Your Heart for a Man like Me?"), as if to say "I'm angry, so listen up." But Miles resisted the explosive tendency of music like Archie Shepp's; I thought instead of music by Morton Feldman and Bill Evans. Carefully scored, Miles' work calls for space. He is soft spoken by nature, choosing the cornet for the mellowness of the sound. And like a good school teacher, he knows that if you want your audience to listen, speak softly.
The audience expressed great appreciation throughout the concert and provided a standing ovation, resulting in two encores. But I noticed the respectful silence as well. This was a concert to remember.
Miles and his band performed I Am a Man at the Kennedy Center on Feb. 2.