Among the legends of jazz, Louis Armstrong still stands out as the best known of them all, but Miles Davis also has his unique place: as the greatest genius and innovator the art form has ever known. Born in St. Louis in 1926, the trumpeter was not just an instantly recognizable figure, he was a visionary who repeatedly gave new, decisive impulses to modern jazz, starting in the early 1940s while still in his teens, when he was at the heart of the invention of bebop. Then, in 1949, he countered the heat of bebop with cool jazz. And when the groundbreaking recordings of this period were released on “Birth of the Cool“ as late as 1957, Miles Davis, together with the masterly arranger Gil Evans, was already anticipating the next mini-revolution: modal jazz. Between 1957 and 1959, three epoch-making albums in this idiom were produced in quick succession: “Miles Ahead”, “Milestones” and “Kind of Blue”, the last of which became the most successful jazz album of all time.
At this time, Miles Davis, still in his early 30s, was still to take his art in yet more new directions with hard bop, fusion jazz and jazz rock. Davis also had an uncanny and unerring knack for identifying talent. Throughout his career, he consistently brought the very best up-and-coming musicians into his bands, people who frequently went on to become stars in their own right: John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul and many more. By the time Miles Davis died in Santa Monica in 1991 at the age of just 65, he had become one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.
Miles Davis performed at the Philharmonie at the first Jazzfest Berlin in 1964, returning there as headliner a total of eight times. In memory of this lasting connection, and also to mark 30 years since Miles’ death, Siggi Loch, curator of the “Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic” series, devised a homage to this musical genius with “Sketches of Miles”. The spirit of Miles Davis was once again in the air on 27 November 2021 at the hallowed hall, where it palpably inspired and energized the participants in this unique concert. The Theo Croker Quartet and members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Magnus Lindgren were clearly stepping into mighty shoes, and yet the tribute they produced to one of the great icons of jazz is constantly dazzling. As is the case for all of the “Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic” concerts, the line-up was a complete one-off. The first part of the programme focused on highlights from recordings by Miles Davis‘ band, whereas in the second, members of the Berlin Philharmonic joined the Theo Croker Quartet on stage to perform three suites from the orchestral albums, “Miles Ahead”, “Porgy and Bess” and “Sketches of Spain”. The arrangements were especially commissioned for the concert.
To take on the role of trumpeter in a Miles Davis tribute could be an unnerving experience, but not so for Theo Croker, who is consistently impressive. Born in Florida in 1985, he is now one of the most respected jazz musicians of his generation. The Süddeutsche Zeitung has called him a “visionary of post-hiphop jazz” and praised his “accomplished grasp of the entire history of African-American music.” Croker has many of the Miles Davis hallmarks, and the band behind him is excellent too: pianist Danny Grissett has been in Tom Harrell’s band since 2006 and also released six highly acclaimed albums as leader. Bassist Joshua Ginsburg has been a fixture on the New York jazz scene for almost two decades. Finally, 51-year-old Gregory Hutchinson, “the drummer of his generation” (Jazz Magazine), has played with almost all the greats of jazz.
The members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, alongside their regular work as the “world’s greatest orchestra”, are always prepared to step into small ensemble combinations and to throw their energies into new musical adventures. Under Magnus Lindgren’s direction, and with the Theo Croker Quartet, we hear a resoundingly “symphonic” Miles Davis. The Swede has developed a speciality of jazz-meets-classical projects. He recently delved into the works of another of the greats of jazz: in “Bird Lives” with the SWR Big Band and John Beasley, he marked the Charlie Parker centenary. Here, in collaboration with his compatriot Hans Ek, best known as the creator of the E.S.T. Symphony, he excelled again in the role of arranger.
“Sketches of Miles” was an evening which will echo and resonate for a long time. The Theo Croker Quartet, together with members of the Berlin Philharmonic and Magnus Lindgren didn’t only walk in the footsteps of a genius, they also left their own indelible imprint.