30 July 2008


Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue

Like any other art, jazz has had its fair share of artistic controversies. Think of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and the creation of bebop. Or Ornette Coleman's 1959 debut at the Five Spot in New York. No controversy compares, though, to the one that greeted Miles Davis when he decided to incorporate electronic instruments and rock-and-roll rhythms into his music at the end of the 1960s. It is in this context that filmmaker Murray Lerner presents Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue. Lerner, through interviews with former bandmates and footage of Davis' performances, seeks to examine Davis' shift from jazz titan to rock star, pairing his short documentary with a complete take of Davis' 38-minute performance at the 1970 Isle of White festival.

The film opens with two opposing views of Davis the Rock Star. Carlos Santana describes Miles as the ultimate searcher, looking for new avenues of "musical orgasm," as he quotes Davis. He is followed by Stanley Crouch, who essentially calls bullshit, and argues that Miles turned to jazz-rock fusion simply for the money and popularity. After presenting the controversy that surrounded Davis at the time and afterwards, Lerner largely leaves this narrative behind, instead focusing on the ins and outs of Davis' then-new style. The film is littered with interviews with a variety of Davis associates from that era: Santana, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Dave Liebman, Gary Bartz, Dave Holland, and more. These musicians together describe and dissect different aspects of Davis' music at this time. After 35 minutes of dissection, Lerner concludes the film with Davis' Isle of White performance.

Clip from Davis' Isle of Wight Performance

The film is at its best when Lerner's interview subjects discuss what it was like to play with Miles at this time. Hancock, Corea, and Keith Jarrett all describe their experiences as Davis forced them to play electronic instruments in his band; Hancock remembers that he had never seen an electric piano before Miles brought one into the studio for him one day. Santana describes Davis' relationship with himself, Jimi Hendrix, and other young lions of the late-sixties rock world as a symbiotic one, noting that just as Hendrix intrigued Davis with his sprawling psychedelic rock, so did Davis shake up Hendrix when he recorded A Tribute to Jack Johnson. All these musicians describe Davis both as an astute, if laconic, teacher, who guided their development of a new sound and instilled a necessary sense of fearlessness into their artistic selves.

Davis in 1973 with Dave Liebman, left, and Michael Henderson, background

Where this documentary falls short, however, is in its incomplete portrayal of the uproar which accompanied Davis' turn to jazz-rock fusion. Aside from two clips of Crouch (Crouch entertainingly tells of how he listened to Bitches Brew in various states of consciousness in an effort to like the music), Lerner does not include any critical commentary on Davis' music from this period. This poses two problems, the first being that the film assumes the viewer already knows about both the controversy and Davis' own stature and history up to the late sixties. Lerner could do better by explaining how Miles had come to represent the epitome of sophistication and cool by the mid-sixties, both through his music and style. There is no context relative to the rest of the jazz world in the film. Is it not too much to ask for even a cursory discussion of the state of jazz in the late-sixties?

Secondly, Lerner's skimping on the Miles Davis controversy presents to much of a dichotomous depiction of Davis' music: it is either groundbreaking art, as Santana argues, or pop-shlock, as Crouch argues. A more nuanced portrayal would have served Lerner well here. Many people (including Crouch) have noted that Davis was wary of turning into a nostalgia act, but as John Szwed notes in So What, it is tough to charge Miles Davis with trying to make a quick buck when he was releasing albums with tracks that would stretch on for ten minutes or more. Davis' Isle of Wight performance consists solely of a 38-minute long jam that ebbs and flows in and out of tonality and melody. Were he totally selling out, surely he would have presented less challenging music on stage than that. Also, unlike the Tony Williams Emergency, John McLaughlin's Mahvishnu Orchestra, or other fusion bands of the era, Miles spliced songs together out of different group improvisations cut in the studio, tunes which did not translate into a stage repertoire. Of course, you would not know that from watching Miles Electric.

Lerner also does himself a disservice by presenting Stanley Crouch as the stand-in for all criticism of Davis. While he presents an important vantage point in the jazz wars (his essay on the post-Bitches Brew Davis is a must-read for the student of jazz history), by no means is his view gospel for the anti-fusion factions in the jazz wars. We also don't hear from any of his associates from the sixties who avoided fusion and electronic jazz; there is no Ron Carter, for instance. Certainly, the debates that still rage about Davis' turn to fusion are one of the reasons his music from this period remains so captivating today. At an hour and thirteen minutes, there is certainly more time in the documentary to hear more of the critical take on Miles Davis.

24 July 2008


Despite the widespread popularity and critical successes of Pat Metheny Group, his collaboration with the pianist Lyle Mays, much of Pat Metheny's greatest work has come in a trio setting. Beginning with Bright Size Life, his first album which also featured Jaco Pastorious, Metheny has thrived in the setting. This is partly because he has surrounded himself with the ablest of sidemen, including Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins, Bill Stewart, Dave Holland, and Roy Haynes, among others. However, while Metheny is undoubtedly spurred on by his skilled sidemen, one cannot understate how well-suited he is to the trio setting. Because Metheny is such a free player, both melodically and rhythmically, the bass-and-drums trio setting allows him ample room to explore, which he does to a very satisfying effect. He explores the outer limits of harmony and rhythm much like Ornette Coleman, one of his chief influences. Of all living musicians, only Coleman and Sonny Rollins are on par with Metheny's skill in the trio setting. Metheny's trio albums (including Bright Size Life, Rejoicing, Question and Answer, and Trio 99 → 00) are among the highlights of late-twentieth-century postbop.

With that in mind, you can imagine how much Tokyo Day Trip, piqued my interest. The EP is comprised of various live recordings originally issued as bonus tracks on different projects. Metheny is accompanied by the same men on his recent critical success, Day Trip, bassist Christian McBride and Mexican wunderkind Antonio Sanchez. I saw this trio in Florida when I was still in college, and the experience remains one of the five best concerts I have ever attended. McBride is one of the few bassists who can keep up with Metheny, and a giant of jazz in his own right, while Sanchez is a master at layering complex rhythms against Metheny's melodic lines.

The EP, comprised completely of Metheny compositions, is pretty evenly balanced between slower lyrical pieces and uptempo barnburners. The slower pieces, "Tromsø," "Inori," and "The Night Becomes You," are all well-done tunes full of expression by Metheny and company. But the real highlights of the set are "Traveling Fast" and "Back Arm & Backcharge." Traveling Fast opens up with a series of open fifths that harken back to Metheny's first album, Bright Size Life. After quickly dispensing with the melody, Metheny works into a frenetic solo which exhibits the characteristic Metheny sound: furious runs and tricky intervals in a display of dexterous fingerwork combined with sophisticated harmony. Not to be outdone, McBride presents an impressive solo himself before Sanchez gives a melodic drum solo reminiscent of Max Roach's inimitable style. Metheny and company close out the tune with a slow fade, juxtaposed against the thrilling previous ten minutes.

"Back Arm and Backcharge" opens with a flurry of hard strumming by Metheny and McBride, and commences with a thoroughly energetic and serpentine melody. The tune itself is a series of convoluted figures landing on the same root, giving the disorienting melody a sense of grounding. The melody works into a spontaneous exploration of harmony before reasserting the opening figure. Afterwards, Metheny plays a solo that combines Ornette Coleman's adventurous harmonic exploration with a melodic construction that could only come from his own mind. Simply put, this solo is among the most exhilarating ever put down in the history of jazz; on par with Charlie Parker's solo on "Koko" and John Coltrane's solo on "Giant Steps." Simply thinking about the solo gives me goosebumps. Much like Tommy Flanagan on "Giant Steps," Christian McBride is given the task of following the master. Also like Flanagan, McBride asserts himself with authority, with assistance from Metheny's comping, which evokes both Jimi Hendrix and Herbie Hancock. All the more impressive is the fact that McBride can match Metheny's overdriven intensity on an acoustic bass. Underlying the two are Sanchez's deft polyrhythms. Just as soon as it has started, though, the tune is over, as Metheny, McBride, and Sanchez are content to leave you wanting more rather than overdoing it.

Fans of Metheny have been given a rare treat by Metheny and his record label, Nonesuch. Tokyo Day Trip exhibits one of the best working groups in jazz today in its natural setting, creating art of the highest order.

Personnel: Pat Metheny, guitars; Christian McBride, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums
Track Listing: Tromsø ; Traveling Fast; Inori; Back Arm & Blackcharge; The Night Becomes You

18 July 2008

Friday Album Cover: Monk and Mirrors

Thelonious Monk
Brilliant Corners

On the docket this week we have two strangely similar Thelonious Monk album covers. The first, from 1956, is Brilliant Corners, one of his most celebrated albums. Monk is playing with an outstanding group of sidemen, including Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Clark Terry, and Oscar Pettiford. For the cover, Riverside Records selected a simple photo of Monk sitting in a corner created by two mirrors. It is a surprisingly apt representation of Monk's style, as his improvisations often resembled thematic reworkings of his tunes. These solos gave his listeners a look at a particular tune from every angle, much as this cover art presents Monk from multiple angles at once. It is not a brilliant album cover, but nonetheless it fits the material.

In 1963, Columbia records released Monk's album Criss Cross, his second for the label. On the album cover, the staff at Columbia used a similar mirror image to that presented on Brilliant Corners, using a photo of Monk playing at a grand piano in the studio. In this case, instead of presenting Monk from both angles, the album cover creates a new image out of the familiar lines created by the piano. Again, this resembles Monk's improvised solos. After presenting his material in the opening of a tune, Monk reworks the melody into something new. Not terribly imaginative (especially considering the fact that it had already been done), but it gets the point across.

The real question posed by these covers is why Riverside Records (who produced Brilliant Corners) never sued Columbia. Not too hard to imagine how things would have gone differently had these albums had been put out in the 90s...

17 July 2008


Jazz Profiles with Nancy Wilson

A recent search through the podcast section of the iTunes store brought me to Jazz Profiles, a weekly series on "the greatest performers who have influenced the history of jazz," according to NPR's website. I subscribed to the podcast to check it out. I was sure that since it is produced by NPR, it would be at least good enough to add to my podcast routine, and probably quite enjoyable. I have listened to three episodes so far, and am pleased to say that it exceeded my expectations. Jazz Profiles provides an in-depth portrait of a different performer every week, using interviews with the performer and his or her contemporaries and students, along with generous samples of music.

The first episodes I listened to were a two-part series on Charles Mingus. The episodes spanned a good portion of his career, from his early days in Los Angeles, to the Jazz Composers Workshop of the mid-1950s, to his later years and the posthumous debut of his massive work "Epitaph." The episodes also delved into his legendary personality, presenting a few interviews to describe his fights with sidemen Jackie McLean and Jimmy Knepper. Series narrator Nancy Wilson also delved into the particularities of Mingus' bass style, something that often gets lost in discussions of his compositions and place in jazz history. In between are plenty of great samples of Mingus recordings, sometimes running for five minutes without any commentary. Listeners are given the chance to hear what made Mingus so great without any commentary over the music.

I also listened to an episode featuring the legendary (if somewhat obscure to casual listeners) stride pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith. Like the Mingus episodes, the Smith episode is full of listening samples from Smith's long career. Nancy Wilson also describes the Harlem rent parties of the 1920s which incubated the stride-piano style of Smith and his contemporaries. This socio-economic context fills in the technical discussion of Smith's style presented by one of his former students, Dick Hyman. Again, I was treated to some extensive recording samples of Smith's playing, as well as audio clips of Smith talking about his upbringing and the development of his style.

The episode on Smith represents the most redeeming aspect of Jazz Profiles. Whereas jazz history is often depicted as a series of evolutions at the hands of Great Men, Jazz Profiles (though it spends time discussing musicians from the pantheon of Great Men) fills in the gaps, exposing listeners to lesser figures like Smith, Gerry Mulligan, or Tommy Flanagan, who provided bridges between different genres while filling out and diversifying the jazz community. These figures, which are often not even mentioned in other venues of jazz appreciation, are often just as captivating and entertaining as the Parkers and Coltranes that frame most histories of jazz.

Jazz Profiles is highly recommended to jazz listeners who have learned the basics of the music, but are yearning for more information. Nancy Wilson is a more-than-capable narrator, presenting the information in a pleasing tone without sounding pedantic. Jazz Profiles will not provide the definitive take on any the artists profiled, but the program serves as a very helpful introduction and resource to some of the most important, and least appreciated, musicians in jazz.

Must Read

Darcy James Argue (of the Secret Society) posted an article on NewMusicBox declaring the end of the Jazz Wars. Highly recommended.

11 July 2008

Friday Album Cover: 2-For-1 Special

Note: Since I did not post a Friday Album Cover last week, I give you two Miles Davis album covers this week.

Miles Davis
'Round About Midnight
'Round About Midnight was Miles Davis' debut album with Columbia, then the largest and preeminent record label in America. The signing of Davis was a coup both for Columbia and Davis; Columbia gained the rights to a brilliant (and popular) artist and relentless self-promoter who would remain at the forefronts of jazz and middlebrow American style for years to come, while Davis gained entry to a promotional vehicle worthy of his own self-image.

The cover to 'Round About Midnight set the Davis archetype for the next fifteen years. Miles is presented as the Dark Prince: bathed in mysterious red light, hidden behind his trademark dark sunglasses, exquisitely dressed in a custom-tailored suit ("Cleaner than a broke-dick dog," as Davis recounts the saying of his youth in his autobiography), shielding himself from vision with his music (represented by his trumpet), and with the mysterious facial expression that is equal parts depression, rage, and contempt. The picture suits Davis' reputation as an enigmatic hothead, who would dismiss any fan who dared speaking to him, mouth off to trigger-happy policemen, and criticize any musician in interviews.

At the same time, the image connotes a knowingness about Davis. He seems perfectly content to scare off others. He has his art, and that seems to be enough (though anyone familiar with his life story knows by now that art was never nearly enough for Miles). As much as I like this album, the cover is even more intriguing in the way it cemented Davis' reputation as the mercurial genius of jazz, a Zeus-figure if ever there was one.

Miles David
A Tribute to Jack Johnson

Fifteen years after recording 'Round About Midnight, Davis and his controversial electrified band put down the sessions that would be edited into A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Miles' self-styled tribute to the legendary turn-of-the-century boxer. Whereas 'Round About Midnight featured Miles the suave Brooks Brothers devotee, Jack Johnson presents the rock-and-roll Miles, sporting bell bottoms and a muscle-revealing tank top. Miles' stance is also significant here, it evokes both the delicate balance required of a boxer (Miles was a noted boxing enthusiast as well as an amateur boxer himself) and the tortured performance poses of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone (whom Miles so badly wanted to emulate during this period).

Just as 'Round About Midnight cemented Davis' Dark Prince archetype, so too did Jack Johnson solidify the image of Davis the Rock Star. Gone were the days of playing standards at the Five Spot, now he was opening for the Grateful Dead and Santana at the Fillmore. Exit Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter, enter John McLaughlin and Michael Henderson. Perhaps not coincidentally, Jack Johnson was also one of his best albums recorded after he began mixing rock and jazz. No longer content to play what he considered to be a dying art, Miles charged forcefully into new territory, and for awhile at least, produced some captivating music.

05 July 2008

Under The Radar: The Far East Suite

Duke Ellington
Far East Suite

There is perhaps no body of work more deserving of wider recognition than late-period Duke Ellington. While his remaining peers, with a few exceptions, had fallen into ambassadorial status, infrequently touring for nostalgic fans, Ellington and his writing partner Billy Strayhorn were producing some of their finest work. Alongside old hands like Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, the Ellington band toured the globe and produced some of the finest jazz ever put on record.

In an essay written for Slate a few years ago, Stanley Crouch rightly noted, "Ellington's late work is largely a secret treasure." Challenging the conventional wisdom that Ellington reached his peak in the early 1940s, Crouch argues that Ellington "achieved a remarkable range and authority," producing an array of sophisticated and challenging works.

Of Ellington's later work, The Far East Suite stands as a monument to his genius and inventiveness. Recorded in 1966, the album consists of nine tunes written in reaction to Ellington's 1963 tour of the Middle East and Far East sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Ellington and Strayhorn expanded upon their four-movement suite Impressions of the Far East, writing nine tunes intended as snapshot's of Ellington and Strayhorn's experiences in Asia, combined with their own familiar language of jazz and the blues.

Whereas other works by jazz artists signifying on Asian themes used Asian forms explicitly as a jumping-off point for jazz explorations (think John Coltrane's A Love Supreme or, more recently, Kenny Garrett's Beyond the Wall), Ellington and Strayhorn employ their own style to relate an impression of Asia as seen through their eyes. The opening track, "Tourist Point of View," emphasizes this perspective, and alludes to the bustle of the growing urban areas of South Asia. The song opens with a cacauphony of cluster chords in the brass, connoting a disoriented feel with much going on in the background. This leads to an series of exotic melodies in the reeds, led by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, and revealing an elegance and beauty to the at-first new confusing landscape. Ellington changes gears midway through, inserting a screaming solo by the inimitable trumpeter Cat Anderson to bring the newness of the scene back to the forefront. The tune closes with Gonsalves and bassist John Lamb calmly riffing on his earlier melody over the resurgent cluster chord.

The highlight of the album is the Johnny Hodges feature "Isfahan." Hodges plays the alto with characteristic warmth and soulfulness. Listen to the way he bends pitches and accents his triplets; he plays a ballad the way it should be played. This recording of Hodges is probably the best example of his distinctive style on record, both because of the quality of Hodges' playing and the fidelity of the recording.

Other highlights of the record include "Mount Harissa," a bluesy homage to the Lebanese pilgrimage site, and "Amad," in which trombonist Lawrence Brown evokes the Muslim call to prayer using the familiar language of the blues augmented with flatted seconds. Recorded just a year before the death of arranger Billy Strayhorn, The Far East Suite is significant also because it represents one of the final collaborations between Ellington and Strayhorn, the most prolific creative duo of the twentieth century. Even in the winter of their years, the two were still more than capable of producing sophisticated music which built on their past foundations with new and exciting foils, keeping the sound of surprise lively and rewarding.

Track Listing: Tourist Point of View; Bluebird of Delhi (Mynah); Isfahan; Depk; Mount Harissa; Blue Pepper (Far East of the Blues); Agra; Amad; Ad Lib on Nippon
Personnel: Harry Carney, Paul Gonsalves, Jimmy Hamilton, Johnny Hodges, Russell Procope, reeds; Cat Anderson, Mercer Ellington, Herbie Jones, Cootie Williams, trumpet; Lawrence Brown, Chuck Connors, Buster Cooper, trombone; Duke Ellington, piano; John Lamb, bass; Rufus "Speedy" Jones, drums