Tag Archives: jazz

A Miles Davis primer.

A few years ago, I made an annotated mix CD for a friend who was unfamiliar with the work of Miles Davis. For some reason, I’ve decided to make a Spotify playlist based on that CD and post my original notes for his mix. 

My notes aren’t (obviously) intended to be exhaustive, just a few observations about some of the songs. This was never intended to be an all-time greatest hits playlist, as his label has already released several best-of collections. Additionally, the songs are not presented in chronological or preferential order. I merely aimed to create a listenable track order with some of my favorite tunes.

I hope this helps as you discover the music of Miles Davis.

1 — “Joshua”
To me, “Joshua” is Miles’ big pop song from the 60’s: catchy, succinct and upbeat. And it starts with finger-snaps!

2 — “Eighty-One”
I remember finding E.S.P. for cheap in college. I loved the album from the start, but I wondered why it seemed no one talked about it. (Maybe I just don’t talk to the right people.) To me, “Eighty-One” is a perfect song. It’s complex, swinging and catchy. Tony Williams is the star of the song. His ride playing gives it so much character; it instantly drew me in.

3 — “So What”
Everybody in the world owns a copy of Kind of Blue, right? Enough ink has been spilled about that record, but I could still write a book about Coltrane’s solo in “So What.”

I don’t know anything about jazz piano, but I love Bill Evans. In fact, one of my favorite records of all time is his album, Conversations with Myself. Even farther down the rabbit trail, his albums with Tony Bennett in the early 70’s are essential listening.

4 — “Seven Steps to Heaven”
I love it when songs start on the bass!

Seven Steps to Heaven marks the beginning of Miles’ famed second great quartet. While it’s tempting to listen to the album and think that the band hit the ground running with clarity and cohesion, researching the recording process proves otherwise.

He began with roughly the same band that recorded Kind of Blue, but jettisoned some players and added super-young guys like Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams. (To be fair, ex-band members consistently remarked that Miles never fired anyone; everyone left when it was his time.) Miles then re-recorded several cuts with his new band. I feel this, the title cut, is the strongest of the bunch and a clear indication where the band would go on the next few records.

5 — “Black Comedy”
I haven’t changed much since I was young and pre-judged albums by their cover art. When I saw Miles in the Sky in a documentary on 60’s music, I knew I must own the album. With its bright, psychedelic design, it looked more like a Jimi Hendrix album than a jazz record. I was intrigued.

When I first listened to it, my head exploded. Apart from big band recordings by Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie or Glenn Miller, I had never heard a jazz album. Certainly none by a jazz combo. Half-way in, my head was already a mess, then Tony Williams’ “Black Comedy” blew me away. I didn’t even have to check the credits to know the drummer wrote it. This piece just feels like an amazing seven-minute drum fill.

6 — “Masqualero”
This is such a strange, meandering song. The vibe is certainly cool, but I don’t know if I could follow the tune if it weren’t for the drums. And Tony Williams just nails it on this track. The song wanders around a Spanish/quasi-twentieth century classical piano motif, but the drums explode and launch into orbit.

7 — “Little One”
This is a perfect example of why I love Herbie Hancock’s work in the 60’s. The chord changes are so…lyrical? The changes are so good that the melody just seems to write itself. It’s a commonly-held belief that Wayne Shorter was a better writer than improviser. While this may be pretty accurate, I feel that his work with Hancock on this song is perfection. They just seem to get one another.

8 — “Prince of Darkness”
I bought Sorcerer on a whim. At the time, I only had a few Miles albums, and this didn’t seem to have any notable songs on it. Since it was in the bargain bin at Half Price Books, I took the gamble. “Prince of Darkness” kicks off the record in a huge way. It got me into an album that features (mostly) moody and mid-tempo tunes. I doubt that I, at that point in my musical discovery, would have had the patience to wade through the rest of the record if it hadn’t been for the opener.

While it’s a Wayne Shorter tune (and he is known for elaborate song structures), it is rather straightforward in its construction. It is Ron Carter’s bass line that does it for me. He seems to work against the Tony Williams at times, creating tension that makes the song more interesting.

9 — “Once Upon a Summertime”
While Quiet Nights is clearly not a perfect record (critics and even Miles himself agreed on this), I feel it has its moments. Maybe I’m just a sucker for bossa nova, but I think Gil Evans arrangements might be better suited for Brazilian music than Spanish.

Gil Evans is one of those rare guys with whom I feel a connection, at least musically. He seemed to be as interested in creating soundscapes as he was serving the melody. This was such a rare thing in the 50’s and early 60’s. Remember, this was before Philip Glass, Weather Report or Brian Eno. Evans made Miles’ solos more interesting; he didn’t just write some counterpoint. Whenever I write horn arrangements, I think of Evans and this song in particular.

10 — “Milestones”
I know, I know…this is a standard. I’m sure you’ve played it, but it has to make this mix. I’m in love with the head to this piece. It seems split into two eight-bar sections, and I love how Miles constantly switches his phrasing in the second, legato section. I don’t think he ever repeats himself. It’s amazing. And maybe it’s too much information for you, but I should mention that we were listening to “Milestones” in the hospital when our son was born.

11 — “Circle”
Sixteen years ago, I attended a Robert Deeble concert at a church in Overland Park. My family was crumbling, and I was on the brink of depression. The show was soothing, cathartic, melancholy, quiet and hopeful. It was everything I needed. When I walked in, the sound man was playing a compilation of Miles’ ballads. The first song I heard was “Circle.” That was the first time I heard Miles Davis.

The song just had that perfect sound. In fact, I don’t really know how objective I can be about this. It may be a sub-par tune, but I wouldn’t know it. It just sounds like the sum of my college experiences, both in school and with my family. Longing. That’s what I heard.

12 — “Gone Gone Gone”
If you listen to any song on this mix to understand why I love Miles Davis, this is it. There’s something about his tone and phrasing that shows intentionality and feels like the longing I’ve felt at so many stages in my life.

I’ve already gushed over Gil Evans’ arrangements. While Quiet Nights seemed pastoral, he worked with a similar ensemble to create a bombastic, nearly orchestral sound on Porgy and Bess. This is the exception, a quiet, reflective tune. It’s my favorite on that album and, I feel, a great way to end the mix.

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Discovering Satchidananda.

I played alto and baritone saxophone in jazz bands through high school and into early college but rarely listened to jazz for enjoyment.  Early in college, when I started listening to Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie for fun, I discovered the Red Hot on Impulse compilation from Impulse Records.  Looking back, this should have been an insane leap for me, but it completely made sense at the time.  See, I loved the music of Charlie Peacock, he loved John Coltrane, this CD featured music by both John and Alice Coltrane, and it was in the record stores bargain bin.

Red Hot on Impulse opens with Alice Coltrane’s “Journey in Satchidananda.”  At that formative time in my discovery of music, I had never heard free jazz, I only knew of sleigh bells in Christmas music, and the only context I had for sitar was Indian music (this was before I listened to The Beatles).  The collision of jazz and world music was unlike anything I had ever heard before.

Pharoah Sanders’ solo in “Journey in Satchidananda” is captivating. Quite possibly my favorite tenor sax solo of all time.  Effortlessly bridging bebop, free and out there astral jazz, he weaves together nearly a quarter century of jazz history with cascading arpeggios.  Sanders’ solo is one of longing, searching, yearning.

His restraint and melody are especially uncharacteristic, especially after all his experimenting with John Coltrane’s quartet and sprawling work on his own solo albums.  Although his playing on Don Cherry’s Symphony for the Improvisers was memorable and breathtaking, it’s not especially melodic.

Anyway, I feel the term spiritual is thrown around too freely when describing the music of John or Alice Coltrane.  While they both had spiritual motivations and wanted to convey spiritual lessons, perhaps visceral is a more accurate term in describing much of their music that eludes easy description.  Sanders’ solo isn’t merely an academic exercise; it’s. His solo has to be felt.

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The most important Miles Davis record (for me).

During my last few years in college, I’d occasionally housesit for a professor and his wife. These jobs provided opportunities to escape my stressful home life and for me to catch up on reading and cable television. During one of my stays at their River Market loft, I watched a documentary on sixties’ psychedelia. I don’t remember much about that VH1 show, except a closing montage of classic psychedelic albums. Taking its place among the famous British invasion albums was Miles in the Sky. At that point, I knew nothing about Miles Davis, except that he played trumpet. But the cover was so cool that I knew I needed to locate it right away.

When I found the CD, I was shocked by what I encountered. The drums in stereo sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. Perhaps, more precisely, Tony Williams’ cymbal playing was unlike anything I had heard before. At times, it almost sounded like the band had two drummers.

While not my favorite Davis record, it’s certainly the most important for me. It propelled me into his and his bandmates’ catalogs. It also introduced me to long songs; this was at least two years before I discovered progressive rock. Unlike most albums, the surprising thing about Miles in the Sky is that I can listen to it today and have some of the same impressions as when I first played it.

The first track, “Stuff,” was my first encounter with jazz fusion. It was also Miles’ first real foray into fusion, with electric keyboard and bass. Wayne Shorter’s tenor saxophone sounds so distant, so cold and harsh. (Later, I’d learn he was playing through an amp.) Ron Carter’s bass playing on this track still blows my mind. Playing more in the mid-range of the instrument, he often implies the groove instead of explicitly stating it.

“Paraphernalia” was my first dive into the deep pool of Wayne Shorter compositions. Now, it sounds to me like so many of his other great compositions. Back then, however, its floating, esoteric melody just seemed weird. Inviting, but still weird. I believe too much ink has been spilled debating whether he’s a better writer or improviser; this song proves he’s great at both. I think his solo may be as memorable as the head. Of course, it helps that he uses the old trick of restating bits of the melody in his solo, which helps ground his improvisation.

The most swinging cut on the album, “Black Comedy,” inspired me to play drums. I’m sure I’ll never play like Tony Williams, but I sure can pretend. I was immediately taken by his overuse of the high-hat and weird turnarounds. Probably the most accessible (or short) track on the album, this track found its way onto numerous mix tapes in college.

The last song, “Country Son,” is so weird. Without any discernible melody, the master and alternate takes included on the CD sound completely different. The meandering feel of the composition seems emphasized by Davis and Shorter, who sound like they’re wandering around the studio as they play.

All that said, maybe Miles in the Sky sucks and you should check out Kind of Blue or Bitches Brew first. I just feel too close to the record to be objective. Because it was in constant rotation around the time my parents split, it just sounds to me like their divorce. I feel a longing in its grooves and an aching transcendence in its melodies. And that’s why, after amassing most of his catalog, it continues to the most important Miles Davis record for me.

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10 jazz records you should own

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Herbie Hancock and The Headhunters, his band for his 1974 album, Thrust

Some friends have indicated that they just don’t know where to start when it comes to jazz records.  Some of them feel it would be valuable for me to offer a list of recommendations.  I understand that Jazz can be intimidating, as it often evolves into a cerebral exercises.  You know, dudes will solo in a particular mode in a certain time signature while the rhythm section plays in another time signature and, truthfully, it’s no longer even tuneful or moving.

Before I begin, a little concerning my history with jazz might be helpful.  I played alto saxophone until my freshman year of college.  I also played baritone saxophone for three years in high school.  Between the busyness of life and the intonation problems of my student-issue horn, I stopped playing and pursued songwriting and rock instruments.  During this time, I sought out mostly rock recordings, as well.  This gap, however unfortunate it may be perceived, gave me a different perspective on jazz recordings when I finally returned to them later in college.  While I can appreciate technical prowess, I’m a bigger fan of sounds and melodies.  I also prefer small groups, or combos, to overblown big bands.

Obviously this list is not exhaustive; I’m leaving out some real heavy-hitters.  I just hope the annotated list offers a place to start and doesn’t get too technical (for lay people who just want to discover cool music).

1.  Thrust – Herbie Hancock (Columbia / 1974)

Thrust is the follow-up to Herbie’s big, funky, fusion break-out record, Headhunters.  Simply put, I like this one better.  The grooves are more tight and the drumming more precise.  I feel like Herbie and his backing band, The Headhunters, have gelled with this record.  Probably the most accessible album on this list to start with.

2.  Kind of Blue – Miles Davis (Columbia / 1959)

Miles was like only a handful of career artists who constantly evolved and reinvented themselves.  (Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, David Bowie and Elvis Costello also come to mind.)  This record finds Miles and his bandmates embracing modal soloing.  Don’t worry about what that means, just know that it opens up the bebop sound.  He pieced together a stellar band of dudes  who really listened to one another and were, themselves, on the cusp of true greatness.  I know, I know, this is an obvious, big album in Miles’ catalog (and in all of music) but it’s still a great starting point.

3.  House on Hill – Brad Mehldau (Nonsuch / 2006)

The most recent album in the list.  I love Brad Mehldau’s airy style (reminiscent of Keith Jarrett, but I’d say Mehldau is usually more accessible), and I feel this record finds him at his best.  A great album to play as you watch the rain fall.

4.  Red Clay – Freddie Hubbard (CTI / 1970)

The funkiest fusion record you will ever find.  It’s a collision of funk, soul and jazz.  Lenny White’s drumming is so crisp and precise.  Some great playing and comping, too, but I don’t want to get too technical.  Like so many releases on CTI, this seems intended for vinyl.  The drums sounds perfect and warm on wax; the gate-fold artwork is gorgeous.

5.  Off-Limits – The Francy Boland/Kenny Clarke Big Band (Polydor / 1970)

I’m not usually a fan of big band recordings.  (Playing in bands, on the other hand, was pretty fun.)  This is the only big band to make my list, and it’s quite impressive.  The group has two drummers, hard-panned left and right, and the horn lines swoop in and out in a dizzying manner.  It’s hard to keep up with it all, but it’s beautiful.  With everything going on, it’s surprising that the best moments are quiet and autumnal.  Hard to describe, but it’s a must-have.

6.  Moon Germs – Joe Farrell (CTI / 1973)

Farrell is a criminally-overlooked tenor sax player.  In fact, I recommended him to a friend who just graduated with a degree in tenor sax performance, and he had never heard of the guy.  Playing with some of Miles Davis’ late-60s band, this album finds Farrell at his most funky.  It’s worth getting this record for the drum break in “Great Gorge,” alone–it feels like the drummer (DeJohnette) predicts the future of 80s hip-hop with just that one break.

7.  Conversations with Myself – Bill Evans (Verve / 1963)

I think Bill Evans is my favorite pianist.  I won’t gush about his beautifully-voiced chords, but they are beautiful.  Trust me.  Just get this record and be amazed.  It’s a solo piano record without precedent.  Evans accompanies himself, one piano track on the left and another, overdubbed part on the right.  Occasionally, he even adds a third piano down the middle.  Great tunes and an inventive (for the time) delivery.

8.  Search for the New Land – Lee Morgan (Blue Note / 1964)

Much like Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan was a trumpet player whose legacy is often overshadowed by Miles Davis’.  This album is well-balanced between swinging bop and new sounds of the 60s.  I especially love the title track, as it explores that expansive (airy?) vibe that Coltrane and Miles were after, as well. It’s as close to psychedelia as many acoustic jazz musicians got without tape manipulation and overdubbing.

9.  Timeless – John Abercrombie (ECM / 1974)

I really don’t care for many fusion guitarists.  Trading style for wankery, these dudes seem only concerned with impressing the listener (or themselves).  While that can be fun, it usually just gets old.  Throughout his career, Abercrombie occasionally nailed it, delivering cool vibe and melodies.  This is it.  Oh yeah, and check out the crazy breakdown with synth bass and drums (same dude who drummed on the aforementioned Joe Farrell record) nine minutes into “Lungs”.  That sick track, alone, makes most DJ Shadow records obsolete.

10.  Speak Like a Child – Herbie Hancock (Blue Note / 1968)

Before he became a jazz/funk rockstar, Herbie was on the verge of becoming a first-rate jazz composer.  Speak Like a Child and The Prisoner feature fantastic horn arrangements.  This record, in particular, is especially solid and would make for a great film noir soundtrack.  Very few songs make me cry, and “Goodbye to Childhood” has brought me to tears, twice.

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Rotation (1/21/13)

Long before last.fm, Instagram and Facebook sharing, an important tool in musical discovery on the internet was through the sharing of rotations on message boards and email discussion lists. Inspired by radio stations that would post the singles currently in rotation, people would share lists of recently played albums.

While they could be perceived as exercises in elitism or narcissism, these lists also served as recommendations (for albums that required years of scouring local record stores). Hopefully this list is helpful, as not everything I listen to can be scrobbled.

Just a list, in no particular order, of what I’ve been listening to over the past two weeks or so.

10. The Bears for Lunch – Guided by Voices (Guided by Voices / 2012)
9. Coltrane – John Coltrane (Impulse! / 1962)
8. Opus de Jazz – Milt Jackson (Savoy / 1956)
7. Third Stream Music – The Modern Jazz Quartet + Guests (Atlantic / 1960)
6. Out of the Woods – Tracey Thorn (Astralwerks / 2007)
5. It’s a Jungle in Here – Medeski, Martin and Wood (Ryko / 1993)
4. Car Alarm – The Sea and Cake (Thrill Jockey / 2008)
3. A Smattering of Outtakes and Rarities – Yo La Tengo (Matador / 2005)
2. Low – David Bowie (RCA / 1977)
1. Stage – David Bowie (RCA / 1978)

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Episode 102: Milestones

I can still remember the day I coerced Tim into buying his first Miles Davis album. We were visiting Earwaxx Records, and I showed him to a couple crates in the back filled with 60’s and 70’s jazz records. Most were marginal efforts by washed-up cats trying to make a go at the easy listening market, but I had found a few gems. One such gem was Bitches Brew, Miles’ head-first dive into fusion and tape edits and manipulation. The double album was only $12, and I knew my friend needed it.


Several records sit next to Tim’s turntable. It gives a peek into what he’s recently played or, like the radio stations of yore, his heavy rotation. While the stack always changes, one constant remains: Bitches Brew. He told me he has to listen to it once a week. (He listens to it so much, in fact, that he bought another copy!)

It probably didn’t take you 101 episodes to realize I’m excited to help others discover an artist. I’m especially happy when it’s a jazz artist. See, anxiety seems to mount when the discussion turns from post-punk (or whatever I’m blathering about at the time) to jazz. It’s almost as if jazz is a menu at an Ethiopian restaurant: no one knows what he’s ordering, and no one knows what to do with it once it arrives.

I certainly get people’s trepidation; jazz can be heady. In the 20 years after World War II, virtually all big bands went the way of the dinosaur. Small combos took their place, allowing artist-composers freedom to write more complex tunes. Eventually, jazz became polarized. Either the artists played free or they boasted in their ability to improve in a certain mode and in a time signature in opposition to the rhythm section. Either extreme scares off most of my friends.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, and I think Miles Davis’ work proves this. He could be, at once, complex and accessible. The problem with his vast catalog is knowing where to start. Hopefully I can give you a few starting points this week. Enjoy.

  1. “Circle” – Miles Davis Quintet (Miles Smiles | Columbia | 1967)
  2. “Milestones” – Miles Davis (Milestones | Columbia | 1958)
  3. “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” – Miles Davis (Bitches Brew | Columbia | 1970)
  4. “Prelude (Part One)” – Miles Davis (Agharta | Columbia | 1975)

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/1415312/102radiofreeraytown.mp3″

Radio Free Raytown – Episode #102 (4/27/12)

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Far Away

I’ve played Freddie Hubbard’s “Far Away” three times in a row tonight.  And that’s saying a lot, since it’s over 10 minutes long.  I love Joe Chambers’ drum solo.  Dig it.  (Because YouTube videos can’t be more than 10 minutes, this is just the second half of the song.)

 

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