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Houston Musicians Bring Back the Cool

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To be cool doesn't mean to be cold and indifferent. Being cool means possessing the character to remain strong under pressure. To be generous when times are tight. To find confidence inside of yourself even when a society is treating you like you're not even human. In his book Flash of the Spirit, Robert Farris Thompson traces the definition of "cool" back to the Yoruba people of Africa for whom coolness has always been "...the correct way you represent yourself to a human being." Thompson goes on: "To the degree that we live generously and discreetly, exhibiting grace under pressure (i.e. keep cool), our appearance and our acts gradually assume virtual royal power."

When trumpeter Miles Davis recorded the music on the 1957 album Birth of the Cool, he probably didn't anticipate that years afterward everyone's least favorite jazz critic Stanley Crouch - a writer very few jazz musicians seem to respect, let alone like - would decry the album as "...little more than primers for television writing...another failed attempt to marry jazz to European devices." Then again, Davis always knew when he was pushing boundaries be they musical or societal. The recordings - made up of "nonet" (nine instrument) ensembles with instrumentation that includes french horn and tuba, and players both black and white - not only announced the "birth" of a new way of writing, arranging, and playing, but would also influence musicians for years to come. With all of this in mind, it's worthwhile to revisit the music on Birth of the Cool and consider what made "cool" such a provocative word circa 1950. Enter Houston bassist Thomas Helton.

On Sunday, January 9th, 7 p.m. at Ovations 2356 Times Blvd., Thomas Helton presents a performance of Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool. Performing as the nonet will be Ralph Stivison (trumpet), Will Samson (tuba), Chris Shelburne (french horn), Ryan Gabbart (trombone), Martin Langford (baritone sax), Woody Witt (alto sax), Robert Boston (piano), Bobby Adams (drums), and Helton himself (bass). The performance is part of an ongoing series of "tribute" performances by Helton and collaborators of pivotal jazz recordings or musicians. Past tribute concerts presented the music of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, Charles Mingus, Clifford Brown, and Max Roach.

There was only one studio recording and documentation of just a handful of performances of Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool nonet. So will Sunday's performance be an experience similar to hearing a period ensemble playing Early Music? Helton tells us: "...when I was filling out the ensemble, I took great care in finding guys that I knew could recreate the sound and feel of the original. Although the improvised sections are purely their own, I know that the musicians are interested in, and more than capable of, presenting a period-specific sound." And just what is that specific sound? "Solo development is generally slower, meaning that rather than come out of the gate with all your tricks, time is taken to 'work out' an idea or thought," he says. "Even on the fast pieces there is a sense of patience."

Of the Birth of the Cool recording itself, Helton says: "You can listen to it over and over and (still) find something new and amazing about the compositions, the solos, and the arrangements." Those familiar with the classic recording should get a kick out of hearing Sunday's performance of the original arrangements and soloists taking the music into the 21st century.

Helton is well known in Houston's jazz and avant-garde/experimental music scenes, and agrees there's potential for even more collaboration among musicians that run in different circles. What can prevent collaboration - among musicians of all styles - is fear. "Fear of change," Helton says. "Fear of the unknown, almost a fear of trying. And that goes for all the 'scenes.' You know, the 'noise' guys don't like to be boxed in to any preconceived ideas of what music is supposed to be, and musicians that spent years honing their craft and technique, sometimes in school, don't want to compromise all they have worked for. As for me, I want it all."

Sunday's 7pm concert is free but donations are welcome. For more info visit the Ovations website.

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