Posted by jeff on Dec 20, 2016 in Jazz
, Song Of the week
Hi Everyone out in SongofTheWeekland. As I’m sure all of you remember, way back in SoTW 035, we made a promise to stroll through Miles Davis’ remarkable voyage through the 1950s.
In 035 we talked about the reactionary revolution of his “Tuba Band” of 1947, better known as “Birth of the Cool”. Then in 041 we visited his remarkable series of albums with his first quintet, focusing on melodic, sweet, laid-back treatments of standards. And in 055, we took a look at “Sketches in Spain”, one of three stunning large-canvas collaborations with Gil Evans (who was also an inspiring force behind “Birth of the Cool”). We even recently dug up the first bud of what was to come in SoTW 244, ‘Green Dolphin Street‘, Miles’ very first recording of note with his brand-new replacement for pianist Red Garland, a young Caucasian dude named Bill Evans, precursing by 10 months the album we’re discussing. (And just a bit of subtle foreshadowing, way back in SoTW 003 we wrote about Jerry Garcia & Dave Grisman’s version of ‘So What’.)
We’ve been getting piles of letters asking for some sort of closure to this cliffhanger, so this week we’re going to close the decade with the masterpiece of masterpieces, the coup de grace of the whole shmeer, “Kind of Blue”.
How good is this album? A few quotes:
Duane Allman: “I haven’t hardly listened to anything else for the last couple of years.”
Chick Corea: “It’s one thing to just play a tune, or play a program of music, but it’s another thing to practically create a new language of music.”
Hip hop artist and rapper Q-Tip: “It’s like the Bible—you just have one in your house.”
US House of Representatives: “A national treasure.”
But my favorite appraisal is from critic Robert Palmer (liner notes from a remastered re-release):
[For music fans and critics] “no ‘great work’ is sacrosanct. Not all rock aficionados share a high opinion of Sgt. Pepper; to some, it’s uneven, self-indulgent, overproduced, underwritten—and dated.” But “Kind of Blue” is unique, he says. It has no detractors.
It’s universally acknowledged to be a masterpiece. By rockers, by rappers, by jazzists, by aficionados and snobs, by layfolk and casual listeners. By those of wooden ears. By elevator riders. It’s the prettiest background music you’ll ever not listen to. But if you do, it’s a monolith of lyric beauty and depth.
It is perfect.
It is so subtle, so nuanced, that you can listen to it several trillion times (as many have) with it sounding wholly fresh and vital every time. Ask Q-Tip.
Miles’ 1955 quintet was still playing in the throes of post bebop, complex, dense, chord-laden music, which Miles now labeled “thick”. His band was falling apart, due to a fatal mix of drugs and ego. Pianist Red Garland went his way. Drummer Philly Joe Jones was grooving in his own vein. John Coltrane was bounced from the band for abuse and unreliability. While Miles was in France, Coltrane served a tour of duty with Thelonious Monk and got himself clean. Miles returned, rehired all three in addition to new-on-the-scene alto sax Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, recording with them the experimental album “Milestones,” and then fired the drummer and pianist. So we’re left with Miles on trumpet, Coltrane on tenor, Cannonball on alto, and good old Paul Chambers on bass. Jimmy Cobb came in on drums.
L to R: Cobb, Adderley, Evans, Davis, Coltrane
Via Gil Evans, Miles had read and been deeply influenced by a book called “The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization”, which posited an entirely new approach to what notes are played. It created Modal jazz. Jazz prior to this had been based on chord changes. Modal music talked about playing within a scale, free of the fetters of chords. The artist improvises melody, without the strictures of the over-evolved, ‘thick’ post-bebop music. Think of Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’. No chords, just a series of modulating scales. Miles:
“No chords … gives you a lot more freedom and space to hear things. When you go this way, you can go on forever. You don’t have to worry about changes and you can do more with the [melody] line. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically innovative you can be. When you’re based on chords, you know at the end of 32 bars that the chords have run out and there’s nothing to do but repeat what you’ve just done—with variations. I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional string of chords… there will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.”
Okay, that may be a bit dry for a lot of normal people. But listen to this! “The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization” was written by George Russell, a 25-year old black drummer who was hospitalized in 1945 for 16 months with tuberculosis. To wile away the time, he wrote this theoretical work. Gil Evans turned all the cool young musicians onto it. So now, in 1958, Miles asked George Russell to recommend a pianist who could play this modal stuff. (Russell had just finished recording a jazz concept album/composition entitled “New York, N.Y.” Participating in the session were Art Farmer, Bob Brookmeyer, Hal McKusick, John Coltrane, Milt Hinton, Barry Galbraith, Jon Hendricks, Phil Woods, Al Cohn, Max Roach, and Benny Golson, Oh, yeah, and a young honky pianist named Bill Evans.) Russell:
I recommended Bill.
“Is he white?” asked Miles.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“Does he wear glasses?”
“I know that motherfucker. I heard him at Birdland—he can play his ass off. Bring him over to the Colony in Brooklyn on Thursday night.”
The club was in Bedford Stuyvesant, a neighborhood whites didn’t ordinarily enter. But George and Bill did, Bill sat in and got his white ass hired, and the classically-trained wimp became the pianist for the coolest jazz band in the world. Miles:
When Bill Evans—we sometimes called him Moe—first got with the band, he was so quiet, man. One day, just to see what he could do, I told him [and you have to know Miles’ raspy whisper to really appreciate this], “Bill, you know what you have to do, don’t you, to be in this band?”
He looked at me all puzzled and shit and shook his head and said, “No, Miles, what do I have to do?”
I said, “Bill, now you know we all brothers and shit and everybody’s in this thing together and so what I came up with for you is that you got to make it with everybody, you know what I mean? You got to fuck the band.” Now, I was kidding, but Bill was real serious, like Trane.
He thought about it for about fifteen minutes and then came back and told me, “Miles, I thought about what you said and I just can’t do it, I just can’t do that. I’d like to please everyone and make everyone happy here, but I just can’t do that.”
I looked at him and smiled and said, “My man!” And then he knew I was teasing.
Bill brought a great knowledge of classical music, people like Rachmaninoff and Ravel. He was the one who told me to listen to the Italian pianist Arturo Michelangeli, so I did and fell in love with his playing. Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall. I had to change the way the band sounded again for Bill’s style by playing different tunes, softer ones at first. Bill played underneath the rhythm and I liked that, the way he played scales with the band. Red’s playing had carried the rhythm but Bill underplayed it and for what I was doing now with the modal thing, I liked what Bill was doing better.
This Miles Davis sextet played standards and material from “Milestones” through most of 1958 without making any significant recordings. Miles:
Some of the things that caused Bill to leave the band hurt me, like that shit some black people put on him about being a white boy in our band. Many blacks felt that since I had the top small group in jazz and was paying the most money that I should have a black piano player. Now, I don’t go for that kind of shit; I have always wanted just the best players in my group and I don’t care about whether they’re black, white, blue, red or yellow. As long as they can play what I want that’s it. But I know this stuff got up under Bill’s skin and made him feel bad. Bill was a very sensitive person it didn’t take much to set him off.”
Bill wanted desperately to please everybody and to fit in. So although he didn’t actually service the guys, what he did learn during that time was how to shoot heroin. After seven months, he’d had it with the road. He was replaced in the band by the very competent if uninspired blues-oriented pianist Wynton Kelly. In March, 1959, Miles brought Evans back for a couple of recording sessions. Wynton was the sitting pianist in the group—Miles liked to do that, to set one band member near another, to get them nervous. Fun guy, that Miles Davis.
Only hours before the session, Miles wrote down some sketches and taught them to the musicians during the sessions themselves. No rehearsals. Here’s the modal framework, go. Five songs for release in six takes.
The very eloquent Bill Evans, from the original liner notes of “Kind of Blue” (you’ll pardon me for the extensive quote, but I have read these words hundreds of times, and find them an unplumbable source of wisdom and inspiration):
“There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.
The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.
This conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful reflections, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician.
Group improvisation is a further challenge. Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result. This most difficult problem, I think, is beautifully met and solved on this recording.
As the painter needs his framework of parchment, the improvising musical group needs its framework in time. Miles Davis presents here frameworks which are exquisite in their simplicity and yet contain all that is necessary to stimulate performance with sure reference to the primary conception.
Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a “take.”
I’m not going to wax poetic here trying to replicate in mere words the beauty that is “Kind of Blue.” If you want to read more about it, Ashley Kahn wrote an entire book called “The Making of ‘Kind of Blue’“. But if you don’t own the album, you really should. Remember what Q-Tip said? One phrase of the first song on the album, ‘So What’, is worth a thousand words. The entire song is worth a book. The album is worth a library. It’s an education in itself. And if, as one assumes, you do own the album, give it a spin. It will sound as fresh as it always does. And thanks be to He Who Created jazz musicians for instilling in these six guys the talent to create such magical beauty. Humans creating perfection. Not something you run into everyday.
Posted by jeff on Aug 26, 2016 in Jazz
, Song Of the week
‘On Green Dolphin Street’, the Miles Davis quintet (1958), featuring Bill Evans
‘Alice in Wonderland’, the Bill Evans Trio, evening set 2
I learned a new word this week. “Moledro”.
Well, it’s not really a word (apparently there’s a really cool guy who makes up these emotionally-laden situation-specific terms based on authentic etemologies) and I didn’t really learn it (keep mixing up the consonants), but it’s a zinger, especially when you’re in a Bill Evans state of mind:
n. a feeling of resonant connection with an author or artist you’ll never meet, who may have lived centuries ago and thousands of miles away but can still get inside your head and leave behind morsels of their experience, like the little piles of stones left by hikers that mark a hidden path through unfamiliar territory.
That sure resonates.
I was introduced to the word by M.E., a new reader who’s been sharing with me her experiences of digging deeper and deeper into Evans’ ouvre, into his soul. I sure appreciate her passion for Bill’s music, and it’s been a pleasure to have my own flame for him fanned.
Young Bill with glasses and shadow.
Bill Evans is a stable staple of my musical diet, the soundtrack to the first couple of hours of most of my days. Those are the colors of the world I choose to inhabit (when life allows me the choice).
I find myself listening more and more exclusively to a small number of his works, from the very beginning and the very end of his career. I’m going to share a few somewhat disparate thoughts with you today:
- 4 cuts Evans made as brand-new pianist for the Miles Davis quintet, 10 months before “Kind of Blue”
- The background noise in “Live at the Village Vanguard”
- A comparison of Evans last two bassists, Eddie Gomez (1966-77) and Marc Johnson (1978-80)
Adult Bill with glasses and shadow.
This ain’t the place for Evans beginners. I’ve blabbered on about him at length, covering all the basses:
Bill Evans was with Miles’ band from April till October, 1958, replacing Red Garland, the pianist of The First Quintet. He quit the band (tired of the racial prejudice against a white boy in a black environment and exhausted from his new junk habit), but was called back in March, 1959, for the “Kind of Blue” sessions. The working band recorded one live session at a Columbia records party, never intended for release (rightfully so).
So we have the Mile-Evans meeting of colossi, resulting in the indelible “Kind of Blue”, universally acclaimed as one of the most significant works of art of our time. Miles was at the top of his game, Bill was a virtual unknown, just beginning to make a name for himself in the New York jazz scene.
Many people have spent many hours and pages deliberating over that meeting of minds. The relatively well-known live session from September, 1958, “Jazz at the Plaza”, an exercise in gratuitous blowing, offers only frustration.
But then I recently rediscovered four tracks the same group had recorded in May, 1958, which I had previously glossed over. The tracks have been buried on a bunch of minor Miles compilation albums, so I’m guessing I’m not the only one to have overlooked them.
‘Stella By Starlight’ and ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ are stunning. ‘Love for Sale’ and ‘Fran-Dance’ ain’t bad. It’s tracks like this that feed our compulsive impulses, that give ‘trolling the trash’ a good name.
From Peter Pettinger’s indespensible musical biography, “How My Heart Sings”:
“For all kinds of reasons the musicians coalesced in an extraordinary way. Evans’ burning message – lyrical, textural, sensual – had to be released; it had long been smoldering within him, the very core of his musicality. His first studio setup with Davis gave him the freedom to express himself with some refinement away from the rough and tumble of the bandstand, and this, along with a fresh repertoire of intriguing chord sequences, lent the atmosphere an air of untapped promise. Until this moment, the world did not know the magic that Evas was holding. Perhaps only Davis suspected.”
‘On Green Dolphin Street’ (from the 1947 film of almost the same name, here in Jimmy Dorsey’s original) was introduced to the jazz repertoire in this session.
Miles’ first quintet was a seminal band, creating a stunning corpus of standards written by Jews and Cole Porter, presented in a refined but innovatively soulful context. Listen to Red Garland’s piano on a similarly melancholy tune, ‘It Never Entered My Mind’. Now listen to Evans’ piano on ‘On Green Dolphin Street’. It’s the difference between dexterity and depth, goodness and greatness, professionalism and profundity.
Four cuts from an obscure session. This isn’t a trivial pursuit. It’s a diamond in the rough, precursor of an iconic visit to the divine. Now go listen to “Kind of Blue”
I’ve discussed Evans’ first trio’s “Live at the Village Vanguard” at some length. As have many other people. (Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, 2001; Michael Bailey in All About Jazz; Orrin Keepnews, producer of the recording, in a video interview).
If I could take one album to a desert island, it would be this one, hands down. I don’t have words to describe the solace, inspiration, utter astonishment at sheer beauty that I’ve gotten from these recordings.
Well, perhaps I do. Moledero.
Throughout these recordings, two afternoon and three evening sets from June 25, 1961, you can hear the audience chatting, tittering, clinking martini glasses. Check out ‘Alice in Wonderland’, written by Sammy Fain for the 1951 Disney movie, introduced to jazz by Dave Brubeck in 1957.
Lots of great jazz was created spontaneously (duh). Both “Kind of Blue” and the Village Voice recordings were “just another date”. So I suppose it’s hard to blame that lady with the beehive hair, red nails and lips, for clinking and tittering, unaware of the momentousness of the moment. That’s nothing new.
Icarus tried to fly, fashioning wings made of feathers and wax. But he flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, and he drowned. The difference between Icarus and Bill Evans is that the former didn’t wear glasses.
In Bruegel’s famous painting (circa 1560), Icarus plunges into the sea unnoticed by the ploughman digging his earth with his horse, both equally unaware of anything beyond the current furrow, placid in their ignorance. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Evans’ music is so subtle, so restrained, so gentle and quiet – would I not have been drinking a martini on that evening? Would I not have shared a joke with my friends? Ah, Icarus.
Eddie Gomez was Bill Evans’ bassist for 12 years, more than half of his career as a band leader. They were also the nadir of his career. Students of Evans have long asked who’s to blame. Did Gomez drag Evans down, a sin of commission? Did he fail to inspire him, a sin of omission? Or does the blame lie with Evans himself and his monkey? Perhaps Gomez deserves mountains of credit for keeping Evans going during those long years of self-abusive addiction?
I don’t know, and I certainly have no interesting in bashing Gomez’s sterling reputation. But the confluence of their association and Evans’ doldrums is a fact. As is Evans’ musical rejuvenation when Marc Johnson came in, with Joe LaBarbera forming The Last Trio.
I can’t help but mention here the very talented, very beautiful Brazilian/American pianist/singer Eliane Elias, who has had intimate relationships with both Gomez and Johnson and recorded a tribute album to Bill Evans. She gets my vote as Most Committed Evans Fan Ever.
I have written an exhaustive piece on Evans’ treatment of ‘Nardis’ throughout his career, especially as the showpiece of the last trio, beginning with Bill’s solo introductions (some of the most moving, harrowing music ever recorded), followed by a bass and then a drum solo.
I recently revisited this fine video of Evans, Gomez and Marty Morell in a home concert in Helsinki, 1970. It includes an extended ‘Nardis’ (after a great interview), complete with a somewhat extended solo piano intro, followed by a 3-minute bass solo, the earliest such treatment I’ve found.
Compare Gomez’s solo there to Johnson’s here, also ‘Nardis’ in Helsinki, 1980. There’s a quantum difference. I don’t want to diss Eddie Gomez. You listen and judge.
Bass solos are tough. There’s never been a bassist who could fill a hall playing solo – not Jaco, not Ron Carter, not Mingus. (McCartney comes close here.) But Marc Johnson here? He’s got game. It’s worth listening to.
So, thanks to M.E. for inspiring me to a renewed turn around the dance floor with some of my favorite music in the world. Thanks to Bill Evans and associates for making the music. And thanks to the guy for putting a word to the experience.
Posted by jeff on Dec 10, 2015 in Classical
, Song Of the week
Thanks this week to my friend MK, who has so generously and virulently argued with me over the last couple of weeks about the sanctity and inviolability of classical music. She believes in all her heart and soul that it’s legitimate to cover Bruce Springsteen but not Bob Schumann. You know, I pretty much agree with her. Just not in this case.
A while back I undertook to take a walk through Miles Davis’ music of the 1950s. Today’s SoTW is the third in a series of four. We’ll be taking a look at the cut ‘Concierto de Aranjuez‘ from the album “Sketches of Spain” by Miles Davis, arranged and conducted by Gil Evans. Thom Jurek, a critic whose effusiveness pales even mine called this cut “…one of the most memorable works to come from popular culture in the 20th century…To listen to it in the 21st century is still a spine-tingling experience, as one encounters a multitude of timbres, tonalities, and harmonic structures seldom found in the music called jazz.” Whoo, them’s some high-falutin’ words. Sure sounds like this is worth listening to, right?
So let’s get some terminology in order here. A concerto is a large-scale orchestral composition of three movements featuring a solo instrument. Aranjuez is a small town 50 km south of Madrid. Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) was a blind Spanish composer whose ‘Concierto de Aranjuez for Guitar‘ is one of the most popular orchestral works of that century. The piece is widely believed to have been inspired by the atrocities of Guernica, but after decades of silence Mrs Rodrigo said that it reflected both their honeymoon and the composer’s devastation at her miscarriage. Miles Davis (1926-1991) was a spoiled junkie trumpeter of limited technique who played as an 18-year old in the quintet of Charlie Parker, alto sax luminary of bebop. He came under the influence of visionary of the Cool big-band arranger Gil Evans (1912-1988). Together, they created in 1949 the stunning “Birth of the Cool” sessions (see SoTW 35). Miles descended into heroin, came out to make a series of seminal genteel albums for Prestige (see SoTW 41). In 1957 he was at the top of his game, signed to a lucrative new contract with Columbia – fame, fortune, acclaim, boxing gloves (he was a serious pugilist), Ferraris, and lots of beautiful women in the pockets of his elegantly tailored Italian suits. Columbia suggested that Davis work with an arranger. He turned to Evans, and the resulting collaborations, most notably “Miles Ahead” (1957, in this stunning clip), “Porgy and Bess” (1958), and “Sketches of Spain” (1960) (as well as Evans’ “Out of the Cool” from 1960, very much in the same vein) are indeed among the greatest achievements of modern jazz.
All four albums sound more Evans than Miles. Not to diminish Miles’ contribution, but he’s there more as a collaborative artist than as a soloist. Nowhere on the three collaborations do you really sit up and notice Miles’ playing. You’re immersed in the orchestration, the gestalt of the sound. So much so that “Out of the Cool”, even without Miles’ participation, is part and parcel of this group.
One more issue we need to clarify here, orchestration vs bandization. Rodrigo writes for the ‘classical’ concert idiom, i.e., the symphony orchestra, which is a mix of up to 80-90 woodwinds, brass, percussion, and predominantly strings. Evans’ instrument is a small concert band —about 20 musicians sans strings. The former is by nature softer, the latter typically harder–the difference between catgut on wood and a Bronx cheer amplified on brass.
The four albums from the Evans/Davis group always pair up in my ears: “Miles Ahead” and “Out of the Cool” together, brassy, brash and bright, upbeat, energetic, gleeful, glowing. Music to Grin To. But “Porgy and Bess” and “Sketches of Spain” are soft, floating, contemplative, stunning intricate tapestries of Evans’ trademark nimbus-like concert bands and brass/wind ensembles.
What Gil Evans did in this piece was to re-cast the second movement (‘Adagio‘, i.e., slow and graceful) of Rodrigo’s concerto. From what I can figure out, he uses almost the entire original notation but re-orchestrates it, the brass and woodwinds replacing the strings. But it’s so much more than that. He rebuilds the harmonic texture of the original. It’s the same but oh, so different.
Let’s dissect one small part, the very beginning of the two pieces.
The very first section begins with a statement of the main melodic theme a number of times in different harmonic contexts, both minor and major. (As far as I can figure out the piece is written in B minor, but I wouldn’t bet the family farm on that or any of the technical gobbledygook I’m throwing out below.)
In the original, it begins with a guitar strumming the chords, the English horn playing the melody, strings providing sustained chords based on the (minor) tonic. The sentence is then repeated, with the guitar playing the melody. Then up to the (major) dominant, the guitar against the sustained strings with a bass providing a steady pulse on the first beat of each measure, just to keep things in order.
Gil Evans’ version is so similar, but so wholly other. We’re way, way beyond the coherent world of beat-on-the-one. From the get-go, the backdrop is a very high tinkling piano and some indefinable chirping instrument supercharged with a manic, jittery clattery castanet that allows scarce respite throughout the entire piece. The melody is stated not by one instrument but by two, Miles on his muted flugelhorn (much like a trumpet, but with a softer, gentler tone) and another brass below him.
The sustained chords accompanying them are not the stately, classical minors of the original, but a restless, hungry body of harmony menacingly shadowing the melody. There’s a tuba (I think), then later Paul Chambers’ bass, providing a tense, lurking line independent of the rhythm of the melody, searching, probing, a fierceness in its eyes. Of course in a normal listen to the piece you don’t consciously hear these underlying lines. But they have a profound psychological effect, one of menace, impending conflict, dark clouds on the horizon and a still heaviness in the air.
The backdrop accompaniment of Evans’ brass and woodwinds are utilizing the same chord progression, as far as these untrained ears can discern, but with a rich retinue of bizarre embellishments. Not embellishments, enrichments. Heaven is in the details.
That’s the heart of the difference to my ears. In Rodrigo’s original, the sustained chords providing the fabric of the piece are orderly minors, clear, recognizable, calming. In Evans, this backdrop is full of internal tensions, oblique jazz notes creating a complex, inscrutable tapestry contrasted upon which the melodic line couched. The juxtaposition of the clear, beautiful melody creates–for me–a rich, evocative dialogue which doesn’t exist in the original. That’s why I prefer “Sketches in Spain” to the original.
But MK, thanks a lot for arguing with me. It sure did help me clarify things for myself.
Posted by jeff on Aug 31, 2015 in Jazz
, Song Of the week
A few weeks ago (SoTW 35) we promised a series of posts which would walk through Miles Davis’ career in the 1950s. Well, we aim to keep that promise, so here goes the second installment.
In 1955 Miles Davis was 29 years old. At 18 he had begun playing second fiddle (well, trumpet actually, second lead voice to Bird’s alto sax) to Charlie Parker, the acknowledged genius and leading light of modern jazz. At 22, overwhelmed by Bird’s degenerate lifestyle, Miles struck out on his own and coalesced the Birth of the Cool nonet (along with Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan and others), recording one ultra-white LP, one of the most beautiful and most influential records in all of modern music.
Then in 1951, Miles – the son of a wealthy, cultured St. Louis dentist – finally succumbed to drug addiction. For several years he wallowed in heroin, recording for the Prestige label the occasional desultory session with flashes of brilliance. Then he took himself to a small apartment above the stable on his father’s horse farm, went cold turkey all by himself. Clean, he returned to New York in 1955, aged 28, an ex-star bursting with arrogant self-confidence.
Jazz was having a heyday. Bird had just died (at 35). Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro were the leading trumpeters of the day (with Chet Baker beginning to make a name out in California); the Modern Jazz Quartet was playing elegant, classically-influenced jazz in concert halls wearing tuxedos; the Dave Brubeck quartet was bringing jazz to college campuses and the living rooms of respectable suburban (white) homes; the Newport Jazz Festival was serving as an annual focal point and showcase for the leading acts.
It was there that Columbia Records heard Miles, was knocked out by his great charisma, and signed him to a contract. But he had no working group, and he owed Prestige 4 records on his old contract, the money for which had long disappeared into the black holes in his veins.
The standard modern jazz combo consists of two lead voices—saxophone and trumpet—backed by a rhythm section of piano (which could also serve as a melodic, lead voice), bass, and drums.
So Miles gathered around him a group of upstarts (“Coleman Hawkins told me never to play with someone older than me”). One veteran, Philly Joe Jones, a wily old polyrhythmic fox, crony of Miles, a musician’s musician; Red Garland, a young Texan pianist, influenced by Ahmad Jamal’s cocktail piano repertoire and style; Paul Chambers, a 19-year old bassist; and John Coltrane, a young saxophonist from Philadelphia. All four were junkies.
Coltrane’s playing was harsh, squeaky and often out-of-tune. His solos started and stopped in fits. He was technically limited, but a serious musician (he would practice endlessly), a genius in an early, chaotic stage in his development. He was widely criticized at the time as an inferior musician, but Miles stuck with him. The parallel with his own past was remarkable.
In 1946, Charlie Parker was at the top of his game, but his trumpeter, Dizzie Gillespie had left him (couldn’t take Bird’s addictions). To replace him, Bird hired Miles – a young, unproven, greenhorn, with limited technique and a promise of genius that only Bird himself could detect. Ten years later, Miles did the same for Coltrane. Like Miles, it would be several years of addiction, coming clean, and remarkable musical growth, before Coltrane would become Coltrane.
But at the time, in 1956, perhaps what attracted Miles was that the hard edge of Coltrane’s tone made his own sound that much more sensuous. And sensuous it was.
So before he could start recording for Columbia, Miles owed Prestige 4 albums. What he did was to take this new quintet for 2 marathon sessions at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. This group is today known as ‘The First Miles Davis Quintet’. These 2 sessions were eventually packaged as 4 LPs: “Workin’/Cookin’/Steamin’/Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet”. They contain a wealth of material that is generally considered to be one of the pinnacles of modern jazz.
Unembellished story: When I was just learning this music, about a dozen years ago, I was riding the bus back from the big city, where I had purchased one of the CDs. I was reading the liner notes when the bus stopped and a few people got off. One soldier saw me holding the CD and said, “Ah, Miles’ first quintet, great stuff.” The soldier behind him said, “How can you say that? They can’t compare to the second quintet.”
This is time-capsule music, in the sense that if I had to play one single cut to a Martian music lover to show him what ‘jazz’ is, it would be almost any cut from this group. It’s maddeningly ‘standard’. Medium tempo, musically conservative. The repertoire is some popular tunes, some restrained blues, but mostly standards from the Great American Songbook, which we look forward to discussing some other time. Suffice it to say here that these songs are elegant, sophisticated, commercially appealing, of Jewish authorship, and most of all WHITE.
Which leads one to ask why Miles Davis, a belligerent black ex-junkie would choose this material. Well, because for all his belligerent bravado, Miles (at this period at least) was playing the most poignant, melodic, romantic music imaginable. Music of a tender sweetness that has rarely been matched in the popular idiom.
I think Miles was a closet Republican. He used the $4000 advance he got from Columbia on a fancy apartment on 57th Street, a white Ferrari, imported Italian suits and shoes. He was cultivating a persona as far from Bird as possible, both personally and musically.
Everything about this music is conservative. It’s the standard bebop quintet, standard repertoire, standard format – Miles’ statement of the theme, trumpet solo, sax solo, piano solo, bass and/or drum solos, restatement of theme, and ‘Bye, baby’. The two lead instruments almost never play together. Everything at an unhurried medium tempo. But Miles mutes his trumpet, and he makes love to the microphone. The rhythm section is the epitome of restrained, focused, beautiful musicianship. Everybody knows that it was Bird who first broke the sound barrier, several years before Chuck Yaeger. Well, Miles had graduated from Birdschool: “Man, you don’t have to play a whole lot of notes. You just have to play the pretty ones.”
The dynamics of the group are pretty intriguing. Miles never told other players what to do. In concert, he would play his solo (often with his back to the audience), then leave the stage with no directions as to how to continue; but as his musicians attested, his presence remained on the stage. Sometimes, when one soloist was playing, he would go up to another member of the band and whisper in his ear. It was to make the soloist nervous, what was Miles saying about him? Done to keep everyone on edge. Sweet guy, that Miles.
The 25 or so songs recorded in those two marathon sessions were almost all done in a single take. Miles felt it gave the music a creative tension, if the players knew there was no going back to correct mistakes.
The song we’ve chosen here is ‘It Never Entered My Mind‘, by Rogers and Hart, originally from the 1940 musical “Higher and Higher”. (There are many, many lovely treatments of the song–here’s Johnny Hartman singing it.) Coltrane doesn’t play a single note on it, so it’s perhaps not the most representative recording from these sessions. But it’s a piece of such heartrending beauty that I figure you’ll forgive me.
But do go listen to lots of these recordings. Some of my other favorites are ‘Diane‘, ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’, ‘My Funny Valentine‘, ‘The Surrey with the Fringe on Top‘. Everyone has their own favorites from these four CDs. And no one is impervious to their very special beauty.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:
035: Miles Davis, ‘Boplicity’ (“Birth of the Cool”)
055: Miles Davis/Gil Evans, ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’
079: Miles Davis, ‘So What’ (“Kind of Blue”)