Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Listening to Miles

Mostl of what people say about Miles Davis concentrates on his place in the history of music. You know, he was there for the earliest recordings of bebop, for the birth of the cool, for the invention of modal jazz, for the beginning of fusion. The guy was so mercurial, so forward-thinking, so determined to keep pushing the music in new directions.

All that’s important to know, but it can be easy to forget that in between all those high water marks, Miles Davis simply made breathtaking music. Jump back to April 21, 1961. I was 2 and a half years old at the time, but luckily, the tapes were rolling at a little jazz club, and I can listen to “Friday Night: Miles Davis In Person at the Blackhawk, San Francisco Complete” any time I want. (There is a Saturday Night release, too, but I can’t listen to that one until I actually buy it.)

This was a couple years after Miles made history with “Kind of Blue” and a couple years before the classic mid-sixties Quintet pushed his acoustic music as far as it could go without going electric. In other words, this was as non-historic a period for Miles as we can ever find. Most short histories of jazz skip right over these years, as if they didn’t exist. (In fact, most histories of music in general like to ignore the years between 1959 and 1963, mainly because the stuff you can actually listen to from that time has a nasty tendency to destroy every neatly structured theory of stop and start musical history you’ve ever read. That period was no more dead and empty than any other. It wasn’t all Fabian, you know.)

While John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman were taking all the great leaps forward, Davis was, well, not exactly consolidating his gains so much as simply seeing how far his ideas could go. Listen to “Walkin’,” one of his most famous tunes, played here at a speed much more akin to serious runnin’. Miles jibs, jabs, punches, ducks, dances, and basically uses all the other boxing metaphors I don’t know because I don’t follow that sport. Now, you can say a lot of things about most of the music Miles Davis made in his career, but you won’t very often say that it sounds like he’s having fun, that it’s really all in the spirit of playfulness. On this performance, he sounds downright giddy with the things he can do.

I can’t forget to point out that his interaction with the rhythm section of pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb, honed by several years of live performance, could make anybody giddy. The swing never leaves this thing, even as Chambers and Kelly bounce ideas off each other, prod Davis and in turn are prodded by him, and generally zip in and out of the forefront whenever he gives them a chance. Tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley – one of a string of major-league players who sat in the chair in between John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter – may not have been with them as long, but he’s clearly inspired by the company. His solo on “Walkin’” is blistering and hard as a feather, if that makes any sense. He’s not boxing. It’s more like he’s throwing a javelin for several miles, and playing notes that follow its flight path up and down in the air.

Davis was recording a lot more modal material, but live, he was sticking to familiar hits and standards. That doesn’t mean he was sucking up to the crowd. Take the version of “Bye Bye Blackbird” from the same show. Right from the beginning, he assumes the audience knows what he’s playing because the arrangement is lifted from the studio recording he’d done a couple years before. So, he doesn’t bother to play the whole melody. The empty space at the end of each line, the part where you would be singing “Bye Bye Blackbird,” is startling at first, then riveting. What will he replace next? Once the solo starts, you’ll know he’ll replace virtually anything and everything, with a soaring burst of muted notes that recall the rhythm of the original melody, but not often the tune. He and Kelly are virtually mind-melded on this one, too, which makes Mobley’s brief contribution even more remarkable, as he shifts gears to a harder feel and Kelly is right there with him.

Two CDs capture the complete performance of three sets from this band on this night. The release about two years ago is part of Columbia Legacy’s ongoing amazing remastering of Davis’s catalogue. Back in the 60s, when these albums were originally released, they were cut out of sequence, and missing many of the tunes performed. Now, you get tremendous sound and every bit of the music. My recommendation is you avoid any Miles Davis CD issued before 1999, and snap up every one of them issued after that. Learn the history because it’s fascinating to know how one thing led to another. But, listen to all the music because it’s so full of pleasure, and spirit.


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