Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Miles Davis

I love second hand book shops and I love flea market CD stalls. In either one can find amazing bargains and copies of books or albums that are no longer easily available in your mainstream book or CD stores and often one can come across an obscurity that catches the eye and the attention and turns out to be a marvel.

In late December 2011 my wife and I were in Montagu for a couple of days and one our last day, on our way out of town, we stopped at a second books shop about a block from our hotel because my wife was looking for a religious book as Christmas present for her brother . The bookshop is quite large and would have made wonderful browsing for a book fanatic and previously I would happily have spent an hour picking through the stock but I don't do that these days, as I have too many unread books at home.

I did however take the time to look over the small stock of second hand CDs on display in the front of the shop. They were mostly classical music albums but there was some jazz there too. The one jazz album I bought is a live recording of the guitarists Charlie Byrd, Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis.

The other jazz album I bought is Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (1959) in a digitally remastered version.

I do not have a particularly close relationship to jazz and especially not to the kind of jazz played by the various Miles Davis groups over the years or, simply put, modern jazz as whole, which mostly sounds like background mood music to me. The style of jazz I like the most and have liked since I first heard it on records borrowed from the Stellenbosch municipal library is the hot music made by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five and Hot Seven groups of the Twenties and Thirties. This is visceral music that makes me wanna get up and holler. Miles Davis may make music of utmost genius but ultimately it hardly moves my soul.

My mate Sean Rosenberg has a handful of Miles Davis albums he'd bought when he was a student, mostly the classic records from the late Fifties and early Sixties, well before the fusion excursions of the late Sixties. I guess Sean's musical tastes as student were much more sophisticated than mine. Although jazz is deeply rooted in blues it is not the expression of blues I prefer and certainly did not prefer when I was in my early twenties. As I've said, this stuff sounds like dinner party music you play to set a quiet mood in the background. My kind of blues has to be played loudly to work for me.

Back in the early Seventies the Stellenbosch municipal library did not have many modern jazz records and I do not recall any albums by Miles Davis. The library did, however, have John Coltrane's A Love Supreme (1965), which I borrowed, because I knew the name of the artist (and had the impression of him that he was an iconoclastic, revolutionary saxophone player) and listened to a bunch.

The album consisted of two longish tracks on the first side and a 17 minute long track on the second side. This was challenging for me who was very much into short, sharp stabs of rock or blues and my overall impression of the music and my recollection of it after all these years, was that Coltrane had an abrasive, confrontational style of squawks and honks and endlessly spiralling harsh notes that did not sound very musical to me and absolutely not remotely comforting or soothing. This, to me, was anti-jazz, in relation to the type of modern jazz, for example Dave Brubeck or the Modern Jazz Quartet that I had been exposed to at the time. On the one hand this stuff made no sense to me, as I was not musically trained and could therefore not understand or appreciate the intricacies of what Coltrane was doing, yet on the other hand this stuff was so "in yer face" aggressive I made me think of it as jazz with a punk (circa 1976) attitude that made it quite cool to like simply because it was not pretty.

I have listened to a lot of jazz over the years, mostly incidental to other activities and my thoughts on the subject have not changed much. It is still a music I can only appreciate on an intellectual level and it is a music that often, where I have encountered it as a live music, has come across as fussy, technical and highly irritating because the musicians take the music and themselves so seriously. I believe one can study jazz in the same way that one can study classical music, and nowadays can study rock music. Jazz is meant to be an improvisational music and it seems to me to be counterproductive to study it; surely the magic of jazz is in the moment of creation?

I find modern jazz, the acoustic, small group variety, palatable enough. For some reason, though, jazz fusion, whether with classical music, rock or funk, is one of my pet musical hates. The level of virtuosity may be boundless yet the vacuity is often as boundless. One of the worst listening experiences of my life was a record with John McLaughlin and some noted jazz drummer. I could not distinguish between the tracks. To my untutored, primitive ear, each performance sounded the same as the previous or next one on the album, and each of them was pretty dire. The playing was obviously of a high professional standard and the tempos were frenetic yet the emotional impact was nil. It was a pointless record as far as I was concerned.

Many years ago I bought a biography of Miles Davis and more recently I bought a book on the making of Kind of Blue. Although I have not pursued a jazz path, it is always important to have more information on one of the most important jazz artists of my lifetime.

Now, finally, I own a copy of what is thought of as one of the most important records of all times in all genres. There are 5 tracks, all of them over 5 minutes in length; three exceed 9 minutes and one track is longer than 11 minutes. That's a lot of improvisation.

On first listen it seems that the first two tracks, "So What" and "Freddie Freeloader", are based around the same intro theme and are differentiated only by what the musicians do to that theme over the length of two different takes.

"Blue In Green" sounds like the soundtrack to a scene where movie character meanders introspectively down a beach at a cold dawn. It is very pretty and doleful and perhaps it is a million movie soundtrack clich├ęs that brings this visual accompaniment to mind. It is no good listening to even the most revolutionary of music about 53 years after it was recorded, as time and many imitations usually blunts the impact considerably and probably does an injustice to the original purpose and sense of the music. Having said that, I cannot believe that Kind of Blue truly served as some kind of call to arms for a revolution in jazz.

I guess it would help to know something about music to have a complete understanding of what it is that I am listening to. The untutored, primitive ear just hears the superficialities of mood and texture and probably cannot comprehend the complexities of the musical innovation or subtleties of the infinite variations on chord, melody and mode run by the musicians. On the other hand, I know what I like and why I like it and I know why something grips and engages me when it does, and why it does not. One does not have to understand the technique a painter employs to appreciate the work of art and one does not have to know how to read music to feel the visceral attraction of a particular piece.

I find it interesting that for the most part the performances consist of horn solos over the backing of a muted rhythm section of piano, bass and drums. This is quite unlike the busy, sometimes frenetic, style of the Louis Armstrong Hot Five or Hot Seven combos where it seems that all the instrumentalists are fighting it out for space in the tune, none giving way to the others yet none getting in the way of the others. That is a way of playing that is akin to the electric blues band Muddy Waters put together in Chicago in the early Fifties.

In the Miles Davis approach, the soloist has all the space while his fellow horn players lay out, possibly with the intention to listen to his solo more carefully than if they were also playing at the same time, but this method also adds to the feeling of enervation and lethargy. It would have been nice, for example, to hear a duel between Adderley en Coltrane, given that they have such diametrically opposed styles. I guess that kind of thing was reserved for R & B style honkers and was the farthest away from what Miles Davis would possibly have wanted any of his groups to sound like.

Nothing on Kind of Blue sounds out of the ordinary to me. On the face of it, this music is of a piece with all manner of different jazz records released in the Fifties in the so-called cool jazz style. Maybe musical conventions I know nothing of were broken but I can hardly listen to this record and believe that it was anything as important as, say, those first recordings Elvis Presley made for Sun Records, many of which were quite conventional, with only a handful standing out as truly a breakthrough from country and blues to rock and roll.

I can see where Miles Davis achieved commercial success with this music. It is not offensive or weird and would make the perfect background for a hot, lazy day by the pool or a cold evening by the fire, whether you are indolently happy or neurotically depressed. Unfortunately it still comes down to the perception I have of this type of jazz as background music and not music that is interesting or engaging enough to make me sit up an listen intently.

I have come to Kind of Blue as an adult, with a wide and varied interest in music, as evidenced by my very eclectic collection, and it has been a long time since any piece of music affected me to the extent where I became obsessed with it or the artist's output, or where hearing a song for the first time was a light bulb moment. If I choose to explore the music of Miles Davis now, it will be a pursuit driven by curiosity rather than passion.



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