—Although these pages are filled with who I consider to be tremendously talented artists, musicians, and performers, I might call someone brilliant but it is rare that I’ll actually label someone a genius. The subject of my last post, Bob Dylan is one, and today I bring you another post on another genius in the field of music.—
If he had not died on September 28, 1991—May 26 would have marked the 86th birthday of Miles Davis. To my mind, Miles is single-handedly more responsible for the evolution of modern Jazz than any other artist; and he was so goddamn cool while he did so too! So, in tribute I present four of my favorite tracks by this brilliant trumpeter and eccentric bandleader:
On March 9th of 1958 Miles Davis would enter Van Gelder Studio in Hackensack, New Jersey—with a talented ensemble of musicians that included pianist Hank Jones, “hard-bop” drummer Art Blakey, and bassist Sam Jones—to record alto sax player Julian “Cannonball” Adderly’s debut album for the Blue Note label: Somethin’ Else. Although Davis here is billed as a sideman in Cannonball’s quintet (a rarity for the man who notoriously refused to play second-fiddle for anyone) many debate that Miles in fact creatively helmed this record. Miles himself stated that he “did it as a favor” for the man who had already been playing as a member of his own sextet for the past several months. Regardless of who here truly deserves the title of “band leader,” each musician’s dexterity for improvisational expression just shines; particularly on my personal favorite, album opener: “Autumn Leaves.”
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A languid treatment of a standard (of French origin, “Les Feuilles Mortes” was made popular in 1946 by actor, singer, and one of my grandmother’s favorites—Yves Montand),
this composition’s inherent melodic potentialities are explored on a spacious framework that allows each member of the quintet to elaborate, some with a more stately and straight approach than others. I’ve always loved how Hank Jones’ brooding piano intro tows in the rhythm section accompanied by the ominous horns before Miles and Adderly trade sweet solos, with the trumpeter leaping from shrill, metallic notes down into deep, sonorous melodies and back again to create an emotional mood evocative of sensuality and the odd comfort to be found in sadness.
Miles Davis would further explore this emphasis on mood a year later for his masterpiece of “modal jazz,” Kind of Blue, from which comes our second track for today.
Nearly everyone has put in their two cents on this best-selling album, so I won’t pitch in more than a penny.
Creating only a series of sketches for each composition, which served as scale parameters for each performer to improvise within, Miles assembled some of the finest musicians of his day (and brilliant producer Teo Macero) to participate in this exploration of musical possibility: Cannonball Adderly, alto saxophone; Paul Chambers, double bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums; John Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, piano.
With this work Miles fully abandoned bebop’s foundations, placing the music’s focus on melody, economy, and mood rather than on rhythm, speed, and chord progressions. One fine example of this is the cerulean vapor that is the Bill Evans co-written ballad: “Blue in Green.”
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Ten years ago at the age of twenty-one, wallowing in post-break-up anguish in the weeks that followed 9/11, I once spent an entire weekend (AM-PM) listening to this album on loop while writing a long-form poem that I’ve always considered my essential “break-through,” in terms of my creativity. Kind of Blue contained the only music that could match frequencies with the sullen, yet reticent emotions that I had roiling inside me. I would end up entitling the book-length poem The Cartoon Menace, while as a subtitle in parenthesis (Blue-in-Green). Although I’ve never needed that album in quite that way since, I cant help but feel that some furtive spasm in Miles’ psyche had me and my predicament in mind when creating this astonishing work. That’s the thing, Miles music lends itself to a belief in things unseen, a belief in that there is more than just all this.
From his “Blue Period” we jump on to the era when Miles burst through the last remaining formal barriers of what was commonly considered jazz, and birthed a new musical expression that at times can be described as sublime, and at others, could only be described as sounding like pure fucking evil; not malicious, not devious or angry, but the sound of voodoo evoked evil. The best example of the latter is certainly the 1970 2xLP masterpiece Bitches Brew.
It’s as if during those three days in August of 1969, he and his crew of musicians (regular sidemen Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette augmented with Bennie Maupin, Larry Young, Harvey Brooks, Lenny White, Don Alias, Airto Moreira, and Jim Riley) had opened a portal to some Lovecraftian dimension, however, instead of being inhabited by tentacled elder-gods it was a realm filled with music to make you tap your foot, bob your head, and slowly lose your mind.
Influenced by the sonic territories opened up by the bombastic blues and acid rock of Jimi Hendrix and the intelligent funk of Sly Stone, as well the being introduced to the cultural milieu of the late-sixties by his new wife Betty (herself a musician, releasing some heavy lascivious funk records that you definitely should pick up) Miles’ was both creatively and stylistically electrified.
The innovative intensity of the jazz-rock fusion first explored on Bitches Brew would carry over to his live concerts and would help propel him on a creative edge through a decade marred by massive depression, cocaine and sex addictions, osteoarthritis, bursitis, and sickle-cell anemia.
Our third cut for today, however, comes from a recording session Miles held just a few months after the ones that produced Bitches Brew. Returning to the studio with a similar cast of musicians, Miles further explored his new approach of gnarled phrasing and warped effects twisting over polyrhythmic textures by introducing elements of Indian music, such as Khalil Balakrishna’s sitar and Bihari Sharima’s tabla and tamboura. The results would exhibit a much mellower mood that nevertheless retained an assertive “dark magus” edge.
The majority of these recordings would not be released until 1974’s Big Fun.
But one track, “Guinnevere,” would not see light until the end of the decade on the outtake collection: Circle in the Round. “Guinnevere” is a David Crosby song first released on super-group Crosby, Stills & Nash’s eponymous debut album of 1969.
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The song is essentially in the “Albion folk” tradition but is rendered with a mystic hippy serenity through Crosby’s talent for strange time signatures and peculiar tuning; and it is these elements that Miles and company delve into on their lush, extended rendition:
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Over the next couple of years Miles’ music would place an emphasis on the more electric funk elements hinted at in his earlier work, and it is from this era I present the final song for today’s tribute.
In June and July of 1972 Miles recorded the landmark (but critically derided at the time) album On the Corner. Incorporating the psychedelic-funk styles of Sly and the Family Stone with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronic music, and inspirations taken from classic composer Paul Buckmaster, and “free-jazz” visionary Ornette Coleman—all filtered through a musique concrète approach pioneered by Miles and producer Teo Macero—On The Corner is a jazz album that you can just almost dance to, if you didn’t find yourself missing a few too many of the appendages required to maintain the groove. With its wah-wah and echoplex trumpet, afro-centric rhythms alternately sinuous and convulsive, and tape manipulations (the album was created by cutting and pasting recordings made of extended improvisational jam sessions) Miles had this to say regarding his intentions with this music:
The music was about spacing, about free association
Of musical ideas to a core kind of rhythm and vamps
And bass line. A music where you could tap your feet
to get another bass line (Belden, 2000).
The concise centerpiece for this album is the mysterious and cyclical gem of condensed funk: “Black Satin.” This slice of “street” jazz is simply captivating:
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Miles Davis – electric trumpet with wah-wah
Dave Liebman – soprano saxophone
Herbie Hancock – electric piano, synthesizer
Harold I. Williams – organ, synthesizer
David Creamer – electric guitar
Michael Henderson – electric bass with Wah Wah
Khalil Balakrishna – electric sitar
Badal Roy – tabla
Jack DeJohnette, Al Foster – drums
Jabali Billy Hart – drums, bongos
James “Mtume” Foreman, Don Alias – percussion
Paul Buckmaster – cello, arrangements
Well, there you have it; four of my favorite tracks from the hundreds produced by this genius over his lifetime. —The man played it cool right up to the end and it’s a shame he’s not here today to celebrate his 86th birthday.
[I have to mention, the most entertaining biography I’ve ever read is Miles’ autobiography: Miles: The Autobiography by Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe.
Written in his distinct cadence, you get to hear him—whether in praise or disgust—call absolutely everyone a “mother fucker.” Highly, highly recommended.