The Arsht Center’s six-part 2016 – 2017 Jazz Roots Concert Series concluded on Friday, April 7 at the Knight Concert Hall in the Arsht Center with "From Ma Rainey to Miles Davis: A Blues Journey."
Fronted by two formidable rock-blues guitarists, Steve Miller and Jimmie Vaughan, the show was musically exhilarating, as well as serving as an informative recounting of how jazz evolved out of the blues.
It’s a story that can be told through the perspective of a particular instrument, the saxophone or trumpet, for example, but since, in this case, our storyteller/guides were guitarists, the show focused on the works and legacy of seminal blues and jazz guitarist/songwriters, legends such as Robert Johnson, Gatemouth Brown, Guitar Watson and, especially, T-Bone Walker. Fully a third of the numbers were rousing renditions of songs by Walker, who Vaughan described as "the bridge between the blues and jazz" in terms of the guitar.
The Walker songs ranged from well-known standards like “Stormy Monday” to less remembered gems like “Wichita Falls Blues.” The concert ended with a “mash-up” artfully melding Ma Rainey’s “See See Rider” with “Freddie Freeloader” from Miles Davis’ "Kind of Blue," thus closing the circle of the evening’s journey through the blues.
If you only know him for his string of Top 40 hits in the 1970s – “Rock’n Me,” “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Space Cowboy,” “Take the Money and Run” – now Oldies station mainstays, you might not realize what an amazingly proficient guitarist Miller is. I didn’t, until I saw his playing on television's "Austin City Limits" a while back.
Watching him playing blues and, especially, jazz guitar at the Arsht Center show only deepened my appreciation of the musician as a truly great guitarist. He also has to be one of the truly great pop/rock singers, one who’s probably not given his due as a vocalist because of the laid back, easy-going quality of his style. His singing of the standard, “Blue Skies,” in this show was a thing of wondrous subtlety and vocal artistry.
Vaughan impressed as a dedicated blues man, deeply immersed in the music, who can really bring it both vocally and on the guitar.
Miller and Vaughan were backed by the Frost School of Music's Henry Mancini Institute Big Band, with Shelly Berg, dean of the Frost School of Music, at the piano. Berg, who has been involved as a collaborator on Jazz Roots since its inception, expanded his role to include assisting with creative direction for the series following the death of Larry Rosen, co-founder and co-creator of Larry Rosen. Berg now serves as artistic advisor of the series.
One of the evening’s chief enjoyments was watching and hearing the big band in action, especially seeing the young jazzmen standing up in turn to take inspired, impassioned solos. Also on the bill were silkily soulful songstress Brianna Thomas, daughter of drummer-vocalist Charlie Thomas, who came on for a number of warmly received numbers, and Mike Flanigin on the Hammond B3 organ, who contributed some quirkily eccentric solos.
The most lasting impression of the evening is of those young jazz musicians of the Henry Mancini Institute Big Band keeping our great big band legacy alive. How cool is that?