Posted by jeff on Dec 10, 2010 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 the inspiring force behind “Birth of the Cool”). (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.
L to R: Coltrane, Adderley, Davis, Evans
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 Jun 13, 2010 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’ (Part One, Part Two) 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 (Gil Evans talking about Miles and conducting him), 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 it’s 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 Apr 8, 2010 in Jazz
, Song Of the week
Hi gang. Thanks for all the responses to last week’s posting of “Walk On By.” We do enjoy hearing from you, so keep ‘em coming.
This week we’re going to make our first stop in a planned series (though not consecutive), following Miles Davis’ remarkable voyage through the 1950s.
Let’s take 1947 as our starting point, when the WWII swing bands were dropping like brontosauri (all the young folk who had frequented clubs were staying at home nights parenting us baby-boom babies). The music that was thriving on 52nd street was bebop–fast, frenetic, insolent, wild and witty, indulgent, brilliant, and not to be danced to! The Man was Charlie (Bird) Parker (b 1920), whose music and life were the epitome of freedom – loose, unconstrained abandon.
Miles Davis (b 1926) was raised in the very bourgeois home of a St Louis dentist. Much to his father’s chagrin, he took to jazz trumpet. A tender 18-year old in 1944, he joined the traveling Billy Eckstine big band in which Bird was playing alto sax. When they finally landed in New York, Charlie wanted to rebuild his old bebop quintet (here on film). But his old playmate Dizzy Gillespie refused to play with him any more because of Bird’s impossibly dissolute lifestyle, so Bird gave young Miles his big break.
Miles was never the greatest trumpeter around. He had very limited technique, so he stuck to playing select notes in the middle register of his trumpet simply because he couldn’t play as fast or as high as many of his contemporaries. Bird apparently didn’t mind, and Miles was happy to be in the company of the most renowned jazz musician of the era. Throughout the two years he played with Bird, Miles stayed clear of drugs and booze (though not of women). But Bird’s penchant for damaging himself and those around him was as great as his genius as a musician, and Miles left him in 1949.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Claude Thornhill was a dinosaur in the post-WWII years, maintaining a Swing-era style dance band whose distinguishing style was slow, dreamy ballads. Gil Evans (b 1912), wanted to write an arrangement of a Bird song for Thornhill, (here’s Bird’s version of “Anthropology”, here’s Gil Evans’ arrangement) and approached Miles to get some help with the charts. So began a legendary partnership.
In 1948, Miles was hanging out with a group of young musicians at Gil Evans’ apartment behind a Chinese laundry. They exchanged ideas and played together informally. Evans was the guru, Miles was the driving force, but the music was a group effort according to the many accounts. They played a couple of gigs opening for Count Basie, and recorded 12 sides. They were so insignificant commercially that they had no real name (The Miles Davis Group, The Miles Davis Nonet, The Miles Davis Tuba Band). But over the years this effort became a legend, known as The Birth of the Cool.
The 12 cuts recorded in 3 sessions in 1949 were originally released as 78 RPM singles; 8 of them were released on a 10″ record in 1954, 11 of them on a 12″ LP in 1957 under name “Birth of the Cool”. Numerous versions have been released since. In 1998 they were released together with the (inferior) live performances, called “The Complete Birth of the Cool”. In recent years, Gerry Mulligan created a “The Rebirth of the Cool” group; the reconstructed scores were released in book form; and bands and combos all over the world play the charts regularly.
Miles Davis was an angry young man. He fought with police and the white music business establishment. In the early 1950s he displayed angry Black Pride almost a generation before that mindset gained wide currency. And yet, paradoxically, his great music from the 1950s was sweet, poignant, romantic, a monumental marriage of the black jazz tradition with white European music.
I don’t know how to explain that. Critics don’t address the subject very much. But the music, all agree, is heavenly. It’s also commonly called ‘pivotal’ and ‘seminal’, because it pretty much single-handedly established Cool Jazz–the predominant mindset of modern jazz.
Miles (and Evans) used a nonet for these recordings–trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, alto sax, baritone sax, piano, bass and drums. (as opposed to the typical bebop quintet or swing band of at least 16 musicians). The use of French horn and a tuba for tonal breadth was unique in jazz, the latter employed for the first time not as a bass/rhythm instrument, but as a melodic one. In reaction to both bebop and swing, the sound they created displayed a light, vibratoless tonality, subtle rhythm, pure tone, legato phrasing. They stressed the seamless integration of scored sections with improvised elements.
The song we’ve chosen from the collection is “Boplicity”, written by Miles (under his mother’s maiden name, Cleo Henry) and Evans (uncredited), arranged by Evans. Solos are (in order) by Mulligan (baritone sax), Miles, and John Lewis (piano).
The influence of these recordings cannot be overstated. Gerry Mulligan soon split for California (a la Jack Kerouac), forming there a pianoless quartet with young Chet Baker and starting the first school of white jazz, West Coast cool. John Lewis formed the Modern Jazz Quartet. Lee Konitz, the only musician participating in all three recording sessions, has had a magnificently varied career, and is still going strong at 82. (He’s one of my favorite musicians, and you’ll surely be hearing a lot more of him.) Miles had already begun dabbling in heroin at this time, and would soon sink into a 3-year abyss. But he would go cold turkey on his father’s horse farm and return to form his first quintet (with young John Coltrane), and record 2 masterpieces in collaboration with Gil Evans (‘Porgy and Bess’ and ‘Sketches of Spain’) and one of the great albums of modern music, ‘Kind of Blue’–all before the decade was out.
But we get ahead of ourselves. Let’s just pause for a moment here and treat ourselves to 2’58″ of heaven.
Posted by jeff on Mar 28, 2010 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”)