Wednesday, July 22, 2009
MILES & COLTRANE: BLUE (.)
Every year at this time I discover a little gem or two in 59E59 Theaters’ EAST TO EDINBURGH Festival. This year it was MILES & COLTRANE: BLUE (.) by Concrete Generation, a Charlotte, NC-based collection of artists representing all artistic mediums. The show played three performances last week.
It was simply done, just actors telling the story and musicians playing the music -- no props or scenery, and that was just fine. Davis (Sultan Omar El-Amin/Randolph Ward) slouches in a folding chair on the left side of the stage, sullen and gravel-voiced. On the right is “Trane” (Quentin “Q” Talley), his spiritual counterpart who repeatedly proclaims that he wants “to be a saint” and considers music to be prayer. “I sing praise the only way I know how, through the music.”
They tell of their lives -- the drugs, the women, but most of all, the music. Davis’ mother played the piano and expected him to do the same, but he wanted the trumpet and when he got one when he was 12, he was “happier than a runaway slave.” He started taking lessons and “ran everywhere I went to increase my wind. It became an obsession.” He played in the band at his high school in St. Louis, where he also became a teenage dad, or as he says “a teenage dad on the move.” He left the girl and the child behind to attend Juilliard, but left that too because of the racist attitudes at the time. He started playing the clubs in New York and “pimpin’” when he needed more money.
Coltrane admits to being addicted “since long before I ever took my first warm shot of moonshine in the backwood of Carolina.” For him, “addiction is my first memory.” It’s “where holding notes longer than you’re supposed to comes from.” When he tried to kick the habit, “I was drinkin’ two fifths of bourbon a day to stop the trembling, to stop the demons sneakin’ into my withdraw.”
Writer/director Talley told me after the show that he developed the script based on biographies, interviews and his own imagination. It’s told in few monologues, rather it’s more stream of consciousness, giving the feel of meeting these men in a smoky jazz dive and gradually getting to know them.
Their music, stirringly played by the Stephen Gordon Quintet, intersperses throughout, as does modern dance. The dance was fabulous, but I wasn’t sure why it was there, except perhaps to lift the men’s artistry to a higher level. Those scenes gave the work a bit of a disjointed feel, and I say that not in a negative way. Disjointed is an appropriate word for two artists who were brilliant, but whose lives were deeply troubled with their drug addictions. Talley has put the show together well.
The cast also includes Chris Pennix, Charles “CP Maze” Perry, Filmore Johnson, Boris “Bluz” Rogers, Kendrea “Mekkah” Griffith, Carlos Robson, Sherry “Swan” Cole.
The Stephen Gordon Quintet includes Lynn Grissett (trumpet), Tom Morimoto (saxophone), John Colianni (piano), Gray Hackleman (bass) and Gordon (drums).
At the end of the 70-minute show, The Narrator (Johnson) sums up the life of the two gifted but tormented men. “And it came to pass that two men as different as night and day came together to create the dawn of the future. One driven by the darkness of demons, greatness spawned by a ego that constantly needed to be relevant, who in the end his only sin was that he wanted to be true to himself, everything and everybody was just secondary. The other always the angel in training, trapped in this prison we call the flesh, he showed us that we need not verbalize prayers. That the sax was a sacred voice box that spoke of Hinduism, kabbala, Judaism, Yoruba, African history, math science, Plato, Aristotle, Christianity. He didn’t play music, he played cosmic conversations with God.”
Davis (in photo) died in 1991 at the age of 65; Coltrane in 1967 at 40.
“In their own way, they showed us through their music that in life the only thing that separates the here and now from the future is not to repeat the past,” Johnson continues. “So as we come to the present we realize both achieved what they wanted. Miles, you’re still relevant in your music and in the spirit of your ego. You were both beauty and the beast, the complexity of black manhood.
“John, those conversations with God are a lot closer now and with your music you left us all the blueprint to become saints. As for the future of music, well, to quote Miles Davis, ‘just play the goddamn tapes.’ Listen closely and you can hear the future for it has already come to pass.”
I’m glad this show made a stopover here in New York before heading to Edinburgh, and grateful as always for the chance to see some of what will be presented each year. Created as a way to help shows get on their feet before flying off to Scotland, EAST TO EDINBURGH, now in its sixth year, simulates the same production constraints that all shows experience during the Festival, while giving them space to fine-tune their productions. This whirlwind three-week festival gives New York audiences a small sampling of the cultural extravaganza that is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
The EAST TO EDINBURGH festival runs through Aug. 2 at 59E59 Theaters (between Park and Madison Avenues). Tickets can be purchased by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or online at www.ticketcentral.com. Visit www.59e59.org or www.easttoedinburgh.com for more details.
This year, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe launches on Aug. 7 and runs through Aug. 31. With a record-breaking 2,098 shows descending on the Scottish city for three weeks, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the largest and most famous arts festival in the world. For more information on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, visit www.edfringe.com.