Posted by jeff on Mar 24, 2017 in Jazz
, New Acoustic
, Song Of the week
Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Marcie’
Joni Mitchell — ‘Marcie’
Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’
Bob Dylan — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’
I’ve made it a guiding principle of this blog to focus on music I love. Hence, you only know the jolly, positive, coddling Jeff.
Alas, there’s an alter ego lurking in the nether depths of my Critic’s Psyche: the censorious, condemnatory, disparaging, judgmental Jeff, the one those near and dear to me have the misfortune of suffering through.
So this week I’m going to share with you not one but two! new covers of great songs from not one but two! artists I greatly admire. Except I’m going to step on some toes and sour-milk some sacred cows along the way. Bear with me, I promise there will be a happy ending.
Chris Thile (b. 1981) and Brad Mehldau (b. 1970) just released a double CD. I have great admiration for the former, the preeminent jazz pianist around today; immense respect for the latter, a certified MacArthur wunderkind. But I find it a mediocre disk, even boring. I’ve listened to it maybe 25 times in the last two weeks, and most of it still just wafts past my ears.
Perhaps it’s something in the sound of the mandolin. Say what you want, it sounds to me like a toy guitar from the Ozarks, no matter how brilliant the notes are.
Perhaps it’s the fact that Mehldau tends to disappear in collaboration, displaying excessive modesty when he should be leading the band.
That’s why I always prefer listening to him solo. Nowhere to hide, Brad – it’s all painfully vulnerable, exposed, grave and seriously profound, whether he’s playing Bach or Radiohead.
However, there are two cuts on the album that made my head spin. Both are covers of great songs by great artists. And in one way or another, both improve on the original.
# # #
‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, from Dylan’s first real album (of originals).
I don’t say that lightly. The very idea of someone improving on Dylan’s treatment of his own song is fundamentally questionable. “No one sings Dylan like Dylan.” In one of our first SoTWs we wrote about exactly such a case—Fairport Convention singing ‘I’ll Keep It with Mine’. But there, if you’ll pardon the hairsplitting, it’s more Dylan’s fault than Sandy Denny’s achievement. He wrote a gentle, intriguing song and shouted it out, banging on the piano. Fairport just laid back and gave it a suitable, straightforward reading.
Not so with ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, one of Dylan’s first ‘hits’ (popularized by the fine Peter, Paul and Mary cover from late 1963, half a year after the release of “Freewheelin’”). Dylan “borrowed” a lot of the song from fellow folkie Paul Clayton’s ‘Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons’, but the scathing, caustic dismissal of the girl (in retrospect, of course) and the relationship they did/didn’t have is all Dylan aged 22 par excellence. Dylan raised snide, furious, finger-pointing name-calling to a Nobel Prize-level art form.
Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is ironic. He doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t think twice. He’s beating her up verbally, machine-gunning her with his esprits de l’escalier, getting in all the last punches beneath the belt after the bell has rung. It’s all condescension and self-righteousness. He means that he’s going to leave her with a pummeling that will make her regret losing the wonderful Him 10,000 times a day while she’s recuperating.
Chris Thile tells a very different story. It’s all insouciance, nonchalance, cool. What we adults call indifference. There’s no recrimination, no great regrets, because, really, who cares? Who needs a real relationship? Who wants commitment? We were together, it’s getting messy, I’m out of here before I get anything sticky on me.
When Dylan sings “We never did too much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘little you wasn’t capable of entering a dialogue with wonderful me.”
When Thile sings “But we never really did that much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘What’s the big deal? It’s not like we talked or anything.”
When Dylan sings “I gave her my heart by she wanted my soul”, he’s accusing her of predatory rapaciousness.
When Thile sings it, with a wonderfully expressive squeal, he’s saying ‘Hey, she tried to scratch my Teflon, man! I’m out of here!’
Now, the question is whether the song holds the potential for both readings. Admittedly, Chris has the distinct advantage of coming from a generation that doesn’t give a fuck about anything.
Want to hear my opinion? I have a lot of respect for Chris’s reading. Dylan’s is a perfect example of why I admire him so much and have no affection for him. He’s really quite obnoxious in his self-righteousness. Chris? He may be as uncommitted as a jellyfish, but at least there are no pretentions about it.
# # #
Photo: Rod Pennington
‘Marcie’, from Joni Mitchell’s first album
I’ve written a series of postings about Joni’s early albums: ‘Cactus Tree’ from the first album; ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ from the second; ‘For Free’ and ‘Woodstock’ from the third; ‘Blue’ and ‘River’ from the fourth. Someday I’ll get to the enigmatic, elusive ‘For the Roses’.
The first album occupies a place in my heart for a number of reasons, as I wrote in SoTW 106: She was unknown, she was mine. It was the first collaboration of David Crosby (producer) and Stephen Stills (bass), a harbinger of things to come. It was the music she was singing when I met her in Nashville with Bob Dylan on the Johnny Cash show.
It’s a groundbreaking album. Together with Laura Nyro (who released her first album in February, 1967, and her masterpiece “Eli & the 13th Confession” the same month as Joni’s first, March 1968) they gave a new voice to the nascent new womanhood.
But most of all, it’s just a very fine album. Every song on Joni’s first album is a perfectly crafted gem of a vignette from her first taste of independence as a newly liberated woman, Greenwich Village.
I sat up straight and smiled broadly when I first heard Chris Thile’s ‘Marcie’. It was for me an utterly refreshing look at an old friend. It’s a fine example of the justification for covers, shining new light on great music. Not a revelation, perhaps, but certainly a revealing of truths I had previously not seen.
If ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is all about Thile’s plinky mandolin, here it’s Brad’s elegant, legato accompaniment that carries the arrangement. Even Thile’s vocal is serving the tone set by Brad.
Thile/Mehldau’s reading isn’t so different from the original. It’s the same girl with the same predicament – living her life, but thinking only of the man not calling. But it does shed light some of the limitations of Joni’s music. That’s not a criticism – Joni’s reading is full, convincing, unassailable, memorable. But you’ve always got the road not taken – every choice you make means passing on the alternative, never to be explored. At least until someone comes along and covers your song.
Chris’s treatment is so much more intimate, fraught with so much empathy. In contrast, Joni sounds removed, distant. As painfully confessional as Joni is at her best, the exposure is in the lyrics. Her carefully controlled tremelo sounds just a little standoffish in comparison with Chris’s candor. She is here at her most precious –just a little too delicate, too refined. She’s presenting a finely crafted portrait. Chris is lamenting the predicament of a Marcie he feels for.
Still, he’s singing Joni’s song. It’s the difference between a creative artist and a performing artist. You gotta give the nod to creator. You just got to.
# # #
You don’t need “Chris Thile/Brad Mehldau” to justify the standing of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. People will be singing their praises and their songs “somewhere ages and ages hence”. But they are not the end of even their own story. They’ve given us – and Brad and Chris – a legacy to explore, to build on, and maybe even here and there to serve as an inspiration for genuine and new readings that amplify and enhance the originals.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
Brad Mehldau SoTWs
Chris Thile SoTWs
Bob Dylan SoTWs
Joni Mitchell SoTWs
Posted by jeff on Jan 13, 2017 in Jazz
, Song Of the week
Vince Guaraldi — ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’
We Five — ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’`
Vince Guaraldi — ‘Samba de Orfeo’
Vince Guaraldi — ‘Manha de Carnaval’
Vince Guaraldi — ‘Moon River’
Vince Guaraldi — ‘Since I Fell for You’
We Five — ‘You Were On My Mind’
We Five — ‘Make Someone Happy’Let’s Get Together
Life, as you may have noticed, can be quirky. For example, have you ever noticed that phenomenon where a small detail in your distant past becomes a crucial focal point many years on?
My wife and I figured out we were at the same local fair in the city where she lived, the day the Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan – years before we met.
N.R. was a girl in my 8th grade home room class whom I never spoke to, never thought of speaking to. Years later, on the other side of the physical, mental and spiritual world, her older brother became my guru and close friend.
That lady I worked with for a year or two way back when? Thirty years later, in a whole different place, my son would house-sit for her and write his dissertation there.
They say “What goes around comes around”, which I’ve never really understood beyond “Watch out for pigeons shitting on you when you walk under a ladder to avoid being crossed by a black cat.”
I was once shat upon three times in a single day. Some say that’s very good luck. Some say I should have figured out more quickly not to sit under a ledge where pigeons were roosting.
But what I did figure out is that you’d better let that girl next to you go ahead of you to throw the baseball at the bowling pins, because you just might wind up married to her, and if you didn’t let her cut in, you’re going to hear about it from here to eternity.
I admit, those are fairly feeble phenomena for flouting the fickle finger of fate. But they’re taken from real life, where I’m always on shaky ground. I do much better within the confines of my record collection.
It’s the late 1960s, I’m a college student, and I’ve got the best record collection in the Midwest, I think. It started with me beg-borrow-and-stealing every nickel I could get my hands on as a tweenie to stockpile 45s, and then LPs from the cutout bin. If you looked hard enough, among the “101 Strings Plays Liberace” and “Lawrence Welk Goes All Bubbly” you could find an early Roy Orbison or “Bobby Rydell’s Greatest Hits Vol. 6”.
For four summers I worked in a Pepsi Cola factory. On Friday I’d get my paycheck ($35, a kingly sum for me) and head straight for this one K-Mart out in the boondocks that for some reason kept getting the most extensive stock of new records in the entire metropolitan area. There was no love among the stockboys for the LPs. They’d just stuff ‘em into whatever bin had room. Which necessitated me lying on the floor for half an hour every week to finger through the nether recesses of the back bins on the bottom (floor) level.
LPs cost $2.99 a piece back then. Most weeks I’d buy two or three or four, digging, dusting, exploring and piecing together shards of information. I should have become a musical archaeologist. Or maybe I did.
Then I started writing record reviews for the college paper. There were over 20,000 students, a record-buying public, and I soon learned that the record distributors were more than happy to ply me with their goods and their goodies (prime tickets for shows of visiting artists, interviews). So I accumulated one heck of a record collection. It took up about 20% of the floor space of my little pad and about 80% of my waking hours (hey, a guy’s got to eat, doesn’t he?).
I used to spend two to three rigorous hours a day reclining on my bed with headphones a-set, eyes a-closed, and mind a-focused, rotating my position between prone, prostrate, recumbent and supine. I didn’t believe in stacking records, so I would actually stand up once every twenty minutes or so to flip the disc or engage in some other necessary technical task.
At first glance, you (and my parents) might ask, “Exactly how did this prepare you for life, Jeff?”
Well, here we are, almost half a century later, mining that very same compressed coal seam. If I ran into my wife at that fair, I sure hope I was polite.
I ostensibly listened to rock, rock and roll. Certainly not jazz. Yet it happens that I occasionally trip over a piece of music that I knew from my record collection of back then, something so obscure, so off-my-beaten path, that I ask myself how in the world I had the fortune, prescience or just plain dumb blind circumstantiality to have gotten exposed to it.
I just tripped over a lovely clip of my main man Bill Evans playing with guitarist Kenny Burrell. Had a Kenny Burrell album. I knew “Kind of Blue.” I listened to Ravi Shankar even before I knew who his daughter would be. I had stolen two Israeli albums (the Dudaim and Yaffa Yarkoni) from my sister which I still remember well and have served me in good stead over the years. Hell, I even listened to the soundtrack from “Orpheu Negro”.
And I guess that all started from Vince Guaraldi’s album, “Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus”, later retitled “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” (1962).
In 1959, French director Marcel Camus made a Brazilian film called “Black Orpheus” (“Orfeu Negro“), an allegorical treatment of the Orpheus myth set during Carnival in a shanty town. The film featured music that ranged from samba to bossa nova, written partly by Antonio Carlos Jobim, and included a couple of songs by Luiz Bonfá, including the famous ‘Manhã de Carnaval’.
The movie was a big hit in Brazil, and even made some impact in North America. But the big impact occurred with two bossa-inspired American jazz LPs. The first was “Jazz Samba” (1962) by saxophonist Stan Getz and guitarist Charlie Byrd. Its most famous tracks are ‘Desafinado’ (‘Slightly Out of Tune’) and ‘Samba de Uma Nota Só‘ (‘One Note Samba’). Then the LP that really took the world by storm, and still maintains a central role as progenitor of a legitimate, fruitful style half a century later, “Getz/Gilberto”. The music was Getz on sax, João Gilberto on guitar and vocals, and Tom Jobim (piano and composition of almost all the songs), with help on vocals on a couple of songs (‘The Girl from Ipanema’, ‘Corcovado’) by Gilberto’s wife Astrud, who wasn’t really a singer but was the only one of the Brazilians present who knew enough English to get through the songs. Her recording sold several trillion records, and inspired her to have an affair with Stan and divorce João. Boy, what goes on behind that laid-back music!
At the time I was of course aware of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ and probably the whole “Getz/Gilberto” album. But the really quirky part was the Vince Guaraldi connection. Vince (1922-76) was a well-respected jazz pianist from San Francisco whose earliest claim to very modest fame was as a collaborator of vibraphonist Cal Tjader. His maternal uncle was whistler Muzzy Marcellino, just in case you were wondering. In 1962, Vince recorded one side of “jazz impressions of Black Orhpeus”, a very tasteful attempt to hop on the bossa bandwagon, contemporary with Mr Getz and everyone else in the world.
Vince Guaraldi — ‘Samba de Orfeo’
Vince Guaraldi — ‘Manha de Carnaval’
Those four cuts eventually made such a deep impression on me that I delved into the soundtrack the “Orpheu Negro” soundtrack when I was a mere lad of about 15. Sometimes I impress myself in retrospect.
But how did I get to that Vince Guaraldi album? you may ask (I am aware of the fact that you may not actually be asking that question, but I’m going to tell you anyway, just in case).
Vince had one side of “Black Orpheus”, and filled out Side B with lovely covers of Mancini’s ‘Moon River’ and Buddy Johnson’s 1945 blues ballad ‘Since I Fell for You’ (soon to be a #4 pop hit in 1963 for Lenny Welch), subsequently covered by the likes of Van Morrison, B.B. King, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Barbra Streisand, Tom Waits,Brad Mehldau!, Dinah Washington, Etta James and many others.
But Vince was still lacking a filler, so he composed “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”, released as the B-side of ‘Samba de Orpheus’, inexplicably becoming a jazz song on the pop charts (#10) and a Grammy winner as Best Original Jazz Composition, beating out stellar works that year by Art Blakey, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Andrew Hill, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk.
I admit it might not rightfully replace ‘Take the A-Train’ or ‘Giant Steps’ in the jazz pantheon, but it was a lovely tune back then, and still is today. Unlike many songwriters who grow weary of their biggest hits, Guaraldi never minded taking requests to play it when he appeared live. “It’s like signing the back of a check”.
Of course, Vince went on to sign a lot more checks from his Charlie Brown projects. They’re charming, inoffensive, but we’re going to be taking a road ‘less traveled by’, which of course makes all the difference.
I’d like to take this opportunity to note that my copy of “Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus”/”Cast Your Fate to the Wind” was a transparent red vinyl LP, the only one in my record collection (I can’t remember where my passport is, but I do remember that). I’m not sure what the significance of that is, but if I every have that 0.9-second “my life flashed before my eyes” experience, that record may well have its very own frame there.
‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’ has had a few covers—a diluted pop success by Sounds Orchestral, a clunky closer for Scorcese’s “Wolf of Wall Street” as covered by Allan Toussaint, a decent if uninspired one by Quincy Jones, and a vocal (with lyrics by Carel Werber) by Mel Torme with a pretty embarrassing arrangement by Marty Paich, who should have known better.
But there was one which made an indelible impression on me, that by We Five. They have been called the first electric group from San Francisco. They were five young folkies led by excellent vocalist Beverly Bivens and singer/guitarist/banjoist Mike Stewart, brother of Kingston Trio member John Stewart (‘Gold’, ‘Daydream Believer’ for the Monkees). We Five’s big hit, ‘You Were On My Mind’, was written by Sylvia Fricker of (husband and wife Canadians) Ian (Tyson) & Sylvia, early stalwarts of the folk movement of the early ‘60s. Here’s their original. And here’s We Five’s version.
We Five began to juice up folk music—precursors of what would become folk-rock – just like contemporaries The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, the Mamas and the Papas, and Spanky and Our Gang.
We Five’s first album (1966) was a seminal one for me. In addition to ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’, it included covers of ‘My Favorite Things’ (associated in my mind with “The Sound of Music” more than with Coltrane), ‘Small World’ (Johnny Mathis in 5/4), ‘Let’s Get Together’ (to become a hippie anthem by Jefferson Airplane and The Youngbloods), ‘High Flying Bird’ (good old Richie Havens) and a really lovely ‘Make Someone Happy’.
They were cast in an electric, eclectic folk setting with a beat, with focus on the vocals. I’ve remembered the album fondly for many years. I recently took a relisten to it. What can I tell you? It hasn’t aged all that well; finer stuff was done by others (look no further than the Mamas and the Papas). But credit where credit is due—a mix of jazz and pop covers recast in a vocal setting, with a pinch of a rock sensibility—this became the sonic world from which my current passion of modern a cappella drew no little inspiration.
What’s the moral of this very strange narrative? Beats me. Cast your listening habits to the wind, because you never know who’s going to turn up decades later to bite you on the ankle. Or kiss you on the neck.
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 Sep 14, 2016 in Jazz
, Song Of the week
We here at SoTW love getting readers’ letters. Well, usually we do. Last week we received one which we didn’t make us feel too good:
“Dear SoTW, Jeez, you know dude, you can really be a pain in the butt with all your talk and ideas and analyzing and history and shit. I mean, you know a lot of stuff and all, and it can even be a little interesting on occasion, but what happened to the music? You’re so heavy, man. Can’t you ever just kick off your shoes, lean back, and enjoy some music? And your choices? Where do you live? Don’t you get it that not everyone is into Bulgarian women’s choirs or albino Brazilian mystics or WWII contortionists? How about some NICE music for a change? Just something PLEASANT? Do you even know those words? How the hell do the people around you put up with you? Yours truly, F.Y.”
Ok, granted, F.Y. has a point or two there, although I don’t think he really needed to get that abusive or personal. But we really do take seriously what our loyal readers have to say, and F.Y. seems to be one of them. So, F. (you don’t mind if I call you that?), this week we’re going for NICE.
And there’s nothing NICEr than a pretty girl singing a pretty song, right? And there’s definitely no one prettier than the very lovely Miss Norah Jones (b. 1979).
Everyone says so. She’s a really big star, and justifiably so. Her first album, 2001’s “Come Away With Me” won all the Grammies in the world and remains the Blue Note label’s biggest-selling album. It includes the megahit ‘Don’t Know Why‘, as well as a whole bunch of other fine songs, and is probably the best ultrapopular and most listenable album by an intelligent female artist since Carol King’s “Tapestry”.
Norah Jones often sounds familiar, a refugee of the 70s, but she’s only 31, and her style really is her own—country jazz, with a twist of blues and an ample dose of pop hooks. Ear candy that doesn’t insult the brain. Not to mention a pair of lips and a pair of eyes and a figure and an attitude that can make a man lose sleep at night. A fetching beauty with a catchy song. What more could one ask for?
Here’s a video clip of the song ‘Sunrise’ that I for one would certainly prefer watching a whole lot more than reading what I have to say about her. I think it’s witty and charming and she’s breathtakingly sexy. It’s from her second album, “Feels Like Home,” which was just as successful as the first.
Who is this Norah Jones? Well, surprisingly, she’s not just a pretty face. For one, she was raised in Texas by her dancer/nurse/concert promoter mother, Sue, who had had a nine-year relationship with Ravi Shankar, towards the end of which Norah was born.
Ravi Shankar (b. 1920), of course, introduced classical Indian sitar music to Yehudi Menuhin, John Coltrane, George Harrison, and the rest of the Western world. He was one of the stars of the Woodstock Festival (I’m not imagining that, I saw him there). Norah was born Geethali Norah Jones Shankar (or in the original Bengali: গীথালি নরাহ জন্স শঙ্কর)). She only saw her father a few times a year until she was nine, and then not until she was 18, when he introduced her to her 16-year-old half-sister Anoushka, now a successful Shankar-trained sitar player.
Norah plays down the father connection, but she has pursued lots of other musical directions. She recorded “The Fall” at home in 2009, a darker, more personal, laid-back album, including ‘Chasing Pirates‘. Last month (Nov 2010) she released ” …Featuring Norah Jones,” a collection of 18 duets she’s made over the last few years with artists such as Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, Herbie Hancock, Foo Fighters and Q-Tip. That’s one eclectic broad.
She’s even starred in a very respectable movie, “My Blueberry Nights,” directed by Wong Kar-Wai with supporting roles from Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz. And with all of that, Norah Jones seems determined to avoid the pitfalls of celebrity and stardom. In spite of her incredible box office and cash register appeal, she consistently involves herself in small, personal, quality projects. Well, more power to you Norah. Not only an eclectic broad, but apparently a very spiffy and tasteful one.
For our SoTW, we’re going to a pretty obscure cut of hers, a collaboration that didn’t even make it onto her collaboration CD. But to get there, we’re going to have to go on a little detour (okay, FY, F.Y.).
Tim Ries (b. circa 1959) is a very respectable jazz soprano saxophonist who’s studied under Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman and Bob Brookmeyer. He’s played with everyone from Steely Dan to Stevie Wonder to Paul Simon, as well as one of my very favorite musicians, Maria Schneider. He’s currently a professor of jazz at the University of Toronto. In 1999 he gigged in the horn section (and occasional keyboards) on The Rolling Stones No Security tour. After the tour, he recorded three Stones’ songs to see how they’d sound in a jazz context. He gave them the demo. Keith Richards:
I thought what Tim recorded was amazing, and I’m sort of jealous of him. When we wrote those songs, there was a lot of pressure on us to keep them as short as possible for the singles market. With what Tim does, he has the luxury to stretch out the melodies and play with the different chords and harmonies. Instead of the sketches that we basically recorded, Tim’s versions are more like fully finished things. The playing is beautiful too. Tim always has such a beautiful sound.
The Stones enthusiastically supported the project, which gave birth to 2 CDs, “The Rolling Stones Project” (2005) and the double-CD “Stones World” (2008). Pitching in were Bill Frisell, Milton Nascimento, Eddie Palmieri, Jack DeJohnette, Bill Frisell, Bernard Fowler, the divine Luciana Souza, Sheryl Crow, John Scofield, and Wayne Shorter’s bass-drum team John Patitucci and Brian Blade. Oh, and The Rolling Stones themselves. Here’s Watts/Wood/Richards and Sheryl Crow helping Tim Ries out on ‘Slipping Away.’
And here’s Bernard Fowler singing ‘Wild Horses’ live on a Tim Ries tour, a bit overdone for my tastes. Here’s a better clip, Tim Ries talking about the project and the recording session from the studio of a flamenco-informed ‘Jumping Jack Flash’. Fellas, if you’ve ever taken my advice about anything, watch this clip. If it doesn’t make your blood boil, you’re probably dead. And here’s Tim Ries recorded version of ‘Paint It Black’, and you’ll find lots more live performances from the project on YouTube. Here’s ‘Salt of the Earth’, sung in a number of languages and styles by a number of singers, one of whom is Ahinoam Nini’s sister Odeya doing Stones in Hebrew!
And here’s my pick of the lot, Norah Jones singing ‘Wild Horses’, backed by Bill Frisell and the whole Tim Ries crew. It’s not the best cut from Tim Ries’ Rolling Stones Project, and it’s not Norah Jones’ best cut. But it’s a really, really NICE cut, and I hope F.Y. and everyone else out there enjoys it as much as I do. So there!
Childhood living is easy to do
The things you want
ed I bought them for you
Graceless lady, you know who I am
You know I can’t let you slide through my hands
Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.
I watched you suffer a dull aching pain
Now you’ve decided to show me the same
But no sweet, vain exits or offstage lines
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind
Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.
I know I dreamed you a sin and a lie
I have my freedom, but I don’t have much time
Faith has been broken, tears must be cried
Let’s do some living after love dies
Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.