Is there any value to reprising great works of the jazz repertory, when recordings by the masters are so easily available?
It's a nagging question that won't go away. But Saturday night at Benaroya Hall, in a triumphant rendering of the music of Miles Davis' "Birth of the Cool" period, the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra answered it with a resounding - but, of course, cool - "yes."
The 5-year-old ensemble also suggested, through its strengths and weaknesses, some factors that contribute to repertory success.
Putting aside for a moment all issues of blend, attack, feeling or tempos, this night, quite simply, belonged to trumpeter Jay Thomas. From his opening solo on Gerry Mulligan's "Rocker," on which he gave the last chorus just the right ride, to his smooth, golden-toned, Miles-quoting solo on Dave Brubeck's "The Duke," Thomas played with a breathtaking combination of lightness and logic, restraint and momentum that virtually defined "cool jazz."
Baritone saxophonist Bill Ramsay and tenor saxophonist Dan Greenblatt helped bring home the point that invigorating, original soloists - and not slavishly imitative ones - are what make jazz repertory worth the effort.
That said, the ensemble as a whole was immaculately prepared. Miles' "cool" music, arranged in collaboration with the great Gil Evans for nine-piece chamber group, requires great delicacy and precision, without which it sounds incomplete, or downright peculiar.
On "Rocker," "Jeru," and "Venus de Milo" the orchestra captured this balance in spades, playing with an elan that made the music its own, and not a wooden recital.
"Moon Dreams," Evans' lush tone poem (and blueprint for the muted-brass, film-music style of Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones), was particularly impressive.
Ramsay and tuba player Dan Marcus rendered the unusual baritone sax and tuba lead on "Godchild" with aplomb, though the ensemble balance was a trifle rugged. Ditto for "Boplicity," where the tempo dragged, and some stiffness crept in.
Seattle's jazz granddaddy, trumpeter Floyd Standifer, who came up in the cool/hard bop era, didn't have a great night, though his chuffing tone and sweet turns of phrase on the beautiful "My Ship" were effective.