055: Miles Davis/Gil Evans, ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’

Posted by jeff on Jun 13, 2010 in Classical, Jazz, 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.


051: The Ross Sisters, ‘Solid Potato Salad’

Posted by jeff on May 26, 2010 in Other, Song Of the week, Vocalists

The Ross Sisters, ‘Solid Potato Salad’
Well, isn’t life strange?

Here, I spent the whole morning writing SoTW, thoughtful and insightful, informed and informative, witty and wise, all for your reading and listening edification.

And then this email came in with a YouTube link that’s been viewed at the time of writing by 6,263,870 people, probably within the last 24 hours [since changed–JM]. So this week I’m just a link-mover. I’ll be original next week.

Well, it is music, this clip. 1944, second-rate Andrews Sisters style. Three wholesome sisters, tight clothes, tight smiles, tight harmonies. What my parents really went for, back in The(ir) Day.

The Ross Sisters went by the names of Aggie, Elmira and Maggie, but their real Christian names were Veda Victoria, Dixie Jewel and Betsy Ann. From Colorado City, Roscoe and Loraine, Texas, respectively and I’m sure respectfully. Rosses, all of them.

The farmer said to his spud, your skin looks slightly pallid…
This clip is from the MGM Technicolor film ‘Broadway Rhythm’, WWII. So here they are, ladies and gentlemen, the wunnerful Ross Sisters singing and, um, performing the song ‘Solid Potato Salad’. You gotta stay for the second minute of the clip to get the point.

It’s so off-the-wall that 23,000 people have watched a clip of a the jaw-dropping reactions of some kids watching the misses Ross. [Thanks, Scott.]

Solid potato salad, that’s solid salad, Jack!
Solid potato salad, boy, take a plate, fill it up, bring it right back!
Solid potato salad, and let’s have no “yak-yak!”.
Solid potato salad, boy, take a plate, fill it up, bring it right back!

 The farmer said to the spud, “You’re skin looks slighty pallid,
So I’ll dig you later, bud, for some solid – poatao salad!”.

Solid potato salad, it’s a groovie, movie salad, Jack.
Solid potato salad, boy, ta-too-da, bring it right back.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

105: The Boswell Sisters, ‘Crazy People’

083: Ezio Pinza, ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ (“South Pacific”)

057: Anita O’Day, ‘Tea for Two




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050: The Rolling Stones, ‘Gimme Shelter’ (Kent State)

Posted by jeff on May 26, 2010 in History, Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

The Rolling Stones, ‘Gimme Shelter’

I wrote a few weeks ago (SoTW 46, James Taylor’s ‘Never Die Young’) that by a bizarre alignment of the stars (and with the generous support of Facebook), my three college buddies and I have renewed contact after 40 years. The four of us spent the years 1968-1970 together. I suppose all old fogies think their Day was special. But it seems pretty obvious and indisputable to me that those years of flower power, Sgt Pepper, and Woodstock hold an interest above and beyond the norm. Last year I gave a lecture to a group of very bright undergrads (on the other side of the world from where the aforementioned events took place) about those times and their music, and the degree of the kids’ expertise was really quite outstanding. They’ve memorized the Jimi Hendrix canon, pored over the Woodstock outtakes films, purchased and re-mastered The Beatles Remastered. Colorful, heady, memorable times, those late ’60s.

But if we’re going to be truthful, all this nostalgia has its ugly underbelly. The Woodstock nation didn’t come into being spontaneously. It was fueled, yes, by babyboomers moving out of the house and into the realms of burgeoning sexual freedom, self-exploration, and idealism. But there was one unsypathetic devil lurking behind all those jingle-jangle mornings—The Draft.

There was a war going on, in Vietnam, and Richard Nixon was trying to get me to go over there and get myself killed. Here, let’s try to build a scaffolding of pertinent facts.

Throughout 1969, American soldiers were being killed in Vietnam at a rate of 223 a week. Thirty-two soldiers a day. 53% of Americans approved of Nixon’s handling of the war, 30% disapproved. My friends and I were being pursued by the draft to join those figures. Guess what? We were among the unbathed minority who disapproved of the war.

In August, 1969, half a million hippies showed up at Woodstock, seemingly out of nowhere, for 3 days of peace and love and music.

In December, 1969, promoters organized an attempt at a free ‘Woodstock West’ at the Altamont Racetrack in northern California, with The Rolling Stones as headliners. Hell’s Angels were right in front of the stage – according to most versions hired to enforce order, an oxymoronic plan if there ever was one. There was a lot of scuffling and fighting, reaching its peak during the Stones’ set when one Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death. He may have been brandishing a gun. Or not. But it was one ugly scene, documented in the movie Gimme Shelter.

On April 30, 1970, Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia. Protest strikes broke out on campuses across the country. The strikes were mostly non-violent, and included marches, disruption of classes, and sit-ins in college administration buildings. On May 4 – 40 years ago this week – at Kent State University in northern Ohio, National Guard troops opened fire on protesting students, killing four and wounding 9 others. A week later, two more students were shot and killed at Jackson State College in Mississippi. A wave of violent and non-violent protests swept the country, involving four million students closing more than 450 colleges and sparking marches of 100,000 in Washington and 150,000 in San Francisco. (Thanks for the picture above of the march to my buddie Rod Pennington.)

It has never been conclusively determined if the Guardsmen fired on orders or spontaneously out of frustration.

The Kent State massacre was a trauma for us. Our university (in southern Ohio) was shut down immediately, students running as fast and as far as they could. I was reminded of the depth and the extent of the trauma by this article which I stumbled across recently, relating that universities are now hosting belated graduation ceremonies for the Class of ’70. Well, that’s my class, but I won’t be attending. I hardly remember the graduation ceremony, only that the university was opened especially for that event just for the day, probably sometime in June or July. But by then, I was already packing for a country where I felt wanted.

My most vivid memory of the events is, of course, musical. Not, as you might expect, Neil Young’s song ‘Ohio’, which was composed immediately and released only weeks after the events. My memory came in the form of what I believe was a ‘musical hallucination.’ Oliver Sacks devotes an entire long chapter to this phenomenon in his fine book Musicophilia. He asks a patient why she spoke of musical “hallucinations” rather than musical “imagery.” “They are completely unlike each other! They are as different as thinking of music and actually hearing it,” she answered.

It was the morning after the shootings. I was walking onto campus from my nearby apartment, going towards the administration building to see if it was still being occupied by the protestors. But the campus was abandoned, and my mind was a turmoil of outrage, shock and fear. That’s when I heard the opening bars of the Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter‘.

It’s a remarkable song, demonic, apocalyptic, emblematic of all the evil and ugliness embodied in the events described above.

Oh, a storm is threatening my very life today; If I don’t get some shelter, oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away

War, children, it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away…Love, sister, it’s just a kiss away, It’s just a kiss away

The song opens the Stones album “Let It Bleed”, released in November, 1969. It was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards together. According to Jagger, “The use of the female voice was the producer’s idea. It would be one of those moments along the lines of ‘I hear a girl on this track – get one on the phone.'” The girl they found was a professional backup singer, Merry Clayton (who at 15 had sung the original version of ‘The Shoop Shoop Song [It’s in His Kiss], which became a hit by Betty Everett and Cher. She had sung on records by Elvis Presley, Burt Bacharach, Tom Jones, Joe Cocker and Carole King. She was one of Ray Charles’ Raelets (“because you have to let Ray…”).  Merry was 21 at the recording of ‘Gimme Shelter’.

Jagger plays harmonica on it, Nicky Hopkins piano. Brian Jones was already gone. There’s an unreleased version with Richards singing lead. And here’s the song as performed at Altamont. But it’s the end-of-the-world album version that is #38 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It shows up everywhere, from The Simpsons to a video game to three Scorcese Mafia movies to That 70s Show to American Idol.

What’s the song’s connection to the shootings at Kent State? None, really. Other than I actually heard it, in the Aftermath of the event. And because it’s become universally accepted in the minds of me and my friends and the entire Woodstock nation as emblematic of that terrible time when American soldiers killed American citizens.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

080: Tim Ries w. Norah Jones, ‘Wild Horses’

078: Paul Simon, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’

049: Chrysalis (J. Spider Barbour), “Summer in Your Savage Eyes”


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047: Bobby McFerrin, ‘The Garden’ (“VOCAbuLarieS”)

Posted by jeff on Apr 19, 2010 in A Cappella, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Segments of songs from “VOCAbuLarieS”, Official clip of the song “Say Ladeo”

I’m probably going to step on some toes (again) this week. So I apologize in advance.

I really have no convincing defense against the charge that I’m a musical snob. Do you think it’s fun being a snob? Let me tell you, it’s not. We effete prigs get to sit in the corner and be judgmental while everyone else is having fun clapping hands and dancing. And what’s worse, is that this time I’m even stepping on my own toes.

Because Bobby McFerrin is a really nice guy. He’s neat and cool and creative and serious about his art. And about as talented in his craft as Michael Jordan and Leo DaVinci were in theirs. You know, the physical and technical and creative ability to do things that according to the laws of physics shouldn’t oughta be able to be done?

Just to get us on the same page – Bobby McFerrin (b. 1950) is hands-down the greatest vocal artist around today. Since 1982 he’s released about a dozen major CDs, focusing on a cappella vocals (both solo and multi-tracked) and collaborations, with classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma and with jazz pianist Chick Corea and others. He has the distinction of begetting not only a phrase, but also a cultural mindset with his most famous recording, ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’. He appears extensively as a solo artist and as a conductor/singer with many leading symphony orchestras. The guy doesn’t rest.

And everyone, including yours truly, is saying that his new CD, “VOCAbuLarieS“, released just a couple of weeks ago, is the CD we’ve been waiting for from him.

“VOCAbuLarieS” is seven tracks longs, a pastiche of some 1400 vocal tracks recorded by 50 singers–a tapestry of symphonic richness, much fuller than the 1997 improvised outing “Circle Songs”. It’s almost purely a cappella, with the exception of an occasional dash of soprano sax and a little support from some friendly bongos, congas, kalimbas and whatever.

The music is a dream–a snatch of lyric, a waft of melody, elusive, ephemeral, incredibly intricate and amazingly colorful and detailed, floating, free of the fetters of gravity. Like a dream, natural or chemically-induced, it is wondrous and ineffable. You wake up serene and smiling and peaceful and wowing–and then you try to tell the dream, and it dissipates, slipping through the gaps between your words.

So it is with “VOCAbuLarieS”. All seven songs are modal, and all morph from theme to theme, lilting and lovely and uplifting. The sound palette is that of the universe–McFerrin and his collaborator composer/arranger/producer Roger Treece have created a fusion of sounds drawing from South Africa (especially in “In the Garden”), Danish rhythm choirs (“Wailers”), world-mix (“He Ran to the Train”), Arvo Part neo-Gregorian (“Brief Eternity”) and Disney soundtrack (“Baby”). But all the tracks meld and slide from one world to another, and the overall effect is the space travel between them.

Outer space. No melody, no chord progression, no fetters. No gravity. Is being gravity-free an empirically desirable state? Isn’t ‘vapid’ a synonym for gravity-free? What about gravitas? Some grit? Some irony? Some intellectual toughness? “And there was day and there was night, And there was dark and there was light” and the melodic equivalents? Cmon! I’ll readily admit that Bobby McFerrin really is a spiritual person. But spiritual people usually make me uncomfortable.

I have some sense of the technical achievement of this CD. I’m probably the only person on my block who listens to the vocal jazz Scandinavian groups and choirs (Rajaton, The Real Group, and especially Vocal Line). That’s where I go to find rich group vocal experimentation. And “VOCAbuLarieS” has just upped the bar. In terms of the wealth and depth of vocal textures, it’s a masterpiece. I think any sympathetic lay listener will get that, and it’s no mean accomplishment. I myself am impressed, amazed, overwhelmed.

I’ve been having some issues lately about not going to concerts. A surprising number of artists I admire have or are about to visit our fair shores–Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello, The Swingle Singers, Chick Corea. I’m not going to any of them. The shlep and the commonality turn me off. Like I said, an unsufferable snob. I’d certainly go see Bobby McFerrin in concert, even though his CDs get relegated to background music in my playlist universe.

He does some remarkable things live. Here’s a very popular clip in which he “Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale” to the World Science Festival. It’s fine and funny, how he non-verbally ‘explains’ to scientists how the language of music works. But here’s a clip I like much more–a spontaneous, musical audience participation improvisation. It includes a similar demonstration of the innate hardwiring of the language of the pentatonic scale, but kicks it up a level into real music. Want some more? Here’s a mock-baroque duet with the Azerbaijani singer/pianist Aziza Mustafa Zada; my guess is that this is based on a piece I don’t recognize–no humans can improvise on this level out of their heads. Here they’re scatting on Carmen.

And here’s one I like even better, one of his better-known songs, ‘I Got a Feelin”. But you have to watch it to the end. He may be spiritual, but he apparently knows the world of the flesh as well, and has a very wicked sense of humor.

But, meanwhile, back at SoTW–the song we’ve picked is the fifth cut, ‘The Garden’ (of Eden). He wrote it for his 1990 CD, “Medicine Music.” Here’s the original version. It was kicked up a few levels by in 2008 by the incredible Danish jazz choir Vocal Line, under direction of the very talented Jens Johansen.  Here they are showing their stuff in a live performance the song. It could well be that they’re backing Mr McF here. I did read that they’re going to NY to help him present “VOCAbuLarieS” in concert. Apparently there has been some cross-pollination going on between Mr McFerrin and Vocal Line. Sure wish I knew when and where and how that happened.

And I sure do hope that more of the very talented American luminaries interact more and more with the wonderful vocal group music that’s being made in The Northern Countries. In the meantime, we’ll enjoy the accomplishment of “VOCAbuLarieS”.

I’m sorry I didn’t have this CD to listen to back in my heady college days, when I was more in a state of head to float with it. Today, I’ll have to make due with being blown away by it, rather than moved. Well, ‘blown away’ isn’t such faint praise, is it?


Say Ladeo



The Garden

He Ran to the Train

Brief Eternity

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

174: Vocal Line, ‘Don’t Give Up’
173: The Real Group, ‘Nature Boy’
172: Anúna, ‘Jerusalem’

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