Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” is perhaps the most influential jazz record ever. Featuring Davis’ legendary lineup of pianist Bill Evans, drummer Jimmy Cobb, bassist Paul Chambers and saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, “Kind of Blue” was is one of two records released in 1959 (along with Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Time Out”) that introduced jazz to mainstream America.
It takes a highly confident player to cover a jazz icon like Miles Davis. Performing Davis’ seminal recording live requires an abundance of stage presence and an extraordinary level of musicianship; in his current tour titled “Kind of Blue, a tribute to Miles Davis,” Doug Woolverton demonstrates to jazz fans that he has both.
Woolverton grew up in Trenton, NJ and began playing the trumpet at age 7. He counts as musical influences his father, Rev. Paul Woolverton Jr., and his father’s band mates. A 2004 graduate of Northern State University with a Bachelors in trumpet performance, Woolverton credits Dr. Grant Manhart, his mentor and trumpet teacher, for helping shape the sound and tone that led to his becoming a professional musician. In 2008, Woolverton joined the internationally known and Grammy-nominated Roomful of Blues.
A long-time fan of Miles Davis, Woolverton has gained life-long inspiration from “Kind of Blue”.
“When I heard his modal sound and his tone, something connected internally and I knew I wanted to emulate that smooth sound,”said Woolverton. “‘Freddie Freeloader’ was the first song I ever transcribed; that’s how I learned to play melody with that Miles sound.”
Woolverton recruited A-level players for his “Kind of Blue” lineup; pianist Rusty Scott, drummer Chris Rivelli, bassist Jesse Williams and saxophonists Rich Lataille and Mark Earley. Woolverton’s band might aptly be called Roomful of Miles as the lineup, as all players except bassist Jesse Williams, are members of Roomful of Blues. When asked how he choose someone outside of Roomful to play bass, Woolverton explained: “The hard part about this show is all the different types of music we do. The bass player has to play upright bass as good as electric bass, something not a lot of players can do. Jesse has that ability.”
While the show features a performance of “Kind of Blue” in its entirety, it opens with selections performed by Miles pre-1959. Standouts included “Oleo” by Sonny Rollins, Davis’ “Milestones” and “Round Midnight” and “Bye Bye Blackbird”, a standard written in 1926 by Ray Dixon and Mort Henderson and reinterpreted over the years by numerous artists including John Coltrane and Joe Cocker.
After intermission, Woolverton and his band launched into “Kind of Blue”. From the opening piano notes of “So What” to the hauntingly muted trumpet sound of “Flamenco Sketches,” the performance was faithful to the original arrangements yet neither Woolverton nor his band mates played the solos note for note. The playing maintained the familiarity of what remains the top selling jazz record of all time while providing the players latitude to demonstrate improvisational skills during their solos. When asked how he struck the balance between authenticity of the 1959 studio sessions and improvisation, Woolverton explained:
“Arrangement was Miles’ genius. When you listen to the introduction of ‘So What’, you hear those piano notes and you know this is the beginning. Lots of times when that song is played out, they don’t start with those notes, but they are essential to how people know the song. So we start the song just like that. Miles’ arrangements were tight yet he gave his soloists their voices, and that’s how we kept it authentic.”
Though some might suggest it’s sacrilegious to say so, some of their solos were more enjoyable than those from the original sessions. Woolverton plays in a style and with a tone evocative of Davis without sounding like a copy cat and pianist Rusty Scott’s lyrical solo during “All Blues” was particularly crowd pleasing.
Following “Kind of Blue”, Woolverton and his band played songs from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, giving the audience a sampling of Davis’ evolving style over those four decades. Jesse Williams switched over to electric bass and laid down a very funky groove for “Jean-Pierre,” from the 1981 album “We Want Miles.” The band closed the show with “Human Nature,” a song from Michael Jackson’s album “Thriller,” which Davis covered in his 1985 release, “You’re Under Arrest.”
The Greenwich Odeum show on Saturday was Woolverton’s ninth performance of the Miles Davis tribute and so far as he is concerned, the show is just getting started.
“The first show we did was so well attended and people were so responsive and I thought ‘Wow, people really want to hear this,’”said Woolverton. “Last night was our first production with staging; I want jazz to be not only musically but visually appealing. We recorded the Greenwich Odeum performance and I’m going to shop it to club owners to get them to book the show. I want to take it on the road, to Europe and from coast to coast.”