Robert "Baabe" Irving
Tribute to Miles Davis

Velvet Lounge, Chicago, IL
Friday, May 25, 2009

Story and Photos by James Walker

Robert "Baabe" Irving's 83rd birthday tribute to his former "boss" Miles Davis at the legendary Velvet Lounge on the near South Side was akin to being in a classroom during a graduate class while being immersed into the sounds of one of the world's most creative jazz musicians.

Baabe is not only an exceptional musician, composer and arranger, he also teaches his audience the nuances of his subject between each selection. This writer always leaves his sets more knowledgeable about jazz than before. He has such a wealth of information about jazz in general and Miles in particular. And why wouldn't he since he directed Miles' band for almost 10 years beginning in 1983.

Accompanying keyboardist Baabe on this occasion was some of Chicago finest musicians, Larry Gray on bass, James Perkins on reeds, and Walter Henderson on trumpet. His son Jeremy also joined the "party" during the 2nd set for some spoken word.

Walter Henderson took the lead on the first number as each ensemble member followed with solid solos. If this first selection is any indication, the audience is in for a treat on this evening. These professionals appear to be in top form after the first song.

Baabe discussed how he wrote "Out of Limits" for Miles' "Man With the Horn" album in 1983 which Miles ultimately renamed "Decoy". This was the beginning of Miles's "electric" period when he began using electronics with his music. Miles was constantly exploring new ventures in music , refusing to allow anyone to define his destiny. On this number bassist Gray put down the upright bass and seemed just as comfortable as he plucked away on the electric bass. James Perkins lived up to his nickname "Perculator" during this selection, as he was "cooking" on the tenor, as he rocked back and forth while sitting in a chair. Again Walter Henderson was superb on his solo.

After touring with Miles in Poland in 1983, Miles asked Baabe to be his musical director. Baabe indicated that Miles hated sound checks and rehearsals, and depended on Baabe to perform these important tasks.

"ESP" was the next selection with Henderson again taking the lead. Henderson is probably the least known of this esteemed group, but on this night, he made a name for himself. He was on point during this number and all night long. Perkins put on the "after burners" while Baabe got everyone's attention and this SRO crowd loved it.

The group slowed the pace down with "Portia," from the "Tu Tu" album. Henderson used the muted horn with effect while the rhythm section was jamming in the background. Again Perkins rocked back and forth on this beautiful mid-tempo number.

The first set was concluded with "Eighty One", a number that allowed all to shine. Drummer Ernie Adams had his finest moment with the drum kit as he took complete charge on his long extended solo. Perkins picked up the soprano demonstrating his proficiency with this reed instrument as he had done all night with the tenor. Gray used his upright to perfection on this song making it "sing" a sweet melody. This overflow crowd responded with a rousing ovation as they concluded this 90 minute first set.

The second set was highlighted by Miles's "Seven Steps to Heaven"(written by Wayne Shorter), which Baabe "de-arranged". He described this process as an evolution of a number from the beginning of one of their tours, to its conclusion. The number was constantly changing from night to night because Miles was such a spontaneous person. He lived for the moment. This was another spectacular moment for Ernie Adams.

The last couple of numbers included "spoken word" by Baabe's son Jeremy as drummer Charles "Rick" Heath, Baabe's cousin sat in also. Heath, touring with the musical production "Color Purple", had to get a piece of the action.

Baabe concluded this three plus hour evening of Miles Davis music with "Pacific Express", a number he arranged for Miles. A nice way to end a splendid birthday celebration for Miles Davis.

This set at the Velvet was a session where "Professor" Robert "Baabe" Irving, H's lecture was taken from the "Book of Miles" Davis that is. Baabe not only performed well, he also undertook the role of teacher. He was insightful, and thoughtful, as he enlighted those assembled with his "gift" on Miles' 83rd birthday.

Baabe intends to make this an annual affair on Miles Birthday week, so be sure to mark your calenders for next year's event at the Velvet. For detailed information about future Velvet events, refer to their website at www.velvet.net.

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Contact James Walker and JazzChicago.net at jwjazz@awb.us

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