In 1959, Miles Davis entered Columbia’s 30th Street Studio in New York, with his sextet, and recorded what many consider to be the greatest jazz album of all time: Kind of Blue. It was an inspired idea to program a performance of this music, in celebration of the album’s sixtieth anniversary, at the twenty-second Melbourne International Jazz Festival (MIJF). And yet, it begged the question: how do you begin to meddle with perfection?
Ross James Irwin, of Cat Empire fame, was given the unenviable task of musically arranging this performance, cleverly billed as ‘Reflections on a Miles Davis Masterpiece’. Rather than tinker at the edges, Irwin’s arrangements, scored for an eleven-piece ensemble, radically reinterpreted and reshaped this music. The obvious pitfall would have been to reverently score the album’s five songs in the voicings of Gil Evans’s masterful arrangements for Miles Davis’s Porgy and Bess (1958) and Sketches of Spain (1960); but it was clear, from the opening bass lines of ‘So What’, that Irwin was striking out for new territory. If anything, he appeared to draw inspiration from Gil Evans’s 1970s ensembles, with their rich coloration of electronic sounds. The ensemble’s front line of trumpeter Mat Jodrell and saxophonists Phil Noy and Julien Wilson – assuming the original roles of Miles, Cannonball Adderley, and John Coltrane respectively – played brilliantly throughout, particularly on a ferocious reading of ‘All Blues’. Perhaps Irwin’s masterstroke was his dramatic use of Simon Mavin’s otherworldly electronic keyboards, which provided stark contrast with Bill Evans’s flawless pianistic minimalism heard on the original recording. Drawing on a rich tonal palette throughout – including tuba, French horn, and flugelhorn – Irwin’s bold reimagining of Miles Davis’s masterwork, both respectful and audacious, was a triumph in every way.