The title track here represents just about the peak of Miles’ second great quintet. With Miles and Wayne Shorter playing a weary melody at a rather slow tempo, Tony Williams punctuates the song with sudden, quick fills and accents that seem to transform the entire song into a sketch of something great and elusive, beyond the ennui suggested by the horns. Miles and Shorter mostly play the same melodic line over and over and over again, shifting registers and shifting harmonics in a way that tends toward the dissonant and existential. Herbie Hancock‘s accompaniment is perfectly spare, appearing as if out of nowhere to play exactly and only the right notes. Ron Carter on bass is active and unmoored from any sort of role as a mere timekeeper in the rhythm section. There is a looseness to the performance, clearly influenced by the free jazz movement, but still bounded and organized. Most significantly, the structure mediates the interactions of the players so that the lines between open (free) improvisation and pre-written composition blur, and all the players seem to have an equal –if still varied — role. It’s a magnificent recording. I have never completely warmed up to the album as a whole, mostly because of the songwriting featured in the latter part of the album, but I can’t deny this is a great offering. To get a complete picture of Miles and his many groups, you’ll need investigate Nefertiti at some point, but Miles Smiles and E.S.P. should perhaps be investigated first.
This is an album I never quite understood, at least until recently. Future Davis sideman Tony Williams loved it; I think he said it was a favorite. Others love it too. But why? For the most part, it’s fairly straightforward hard bop. I guess, in retrospect, the late 1950s weren’t exactly a fertile time for jazz music (other than for the likes of Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, that is, none of whom achieved any meaningful commercial success). It was generally a low point. Sure, there were some good albums that appeared at that time, but most players were still milking either hard bop or cool styles for all they were worth. The free players who hit big in the sixties either hadn’t fully developed their styles yet, or, more importantly, hadn’t found many recording or performance opportunities yet. Coltrane is here. Yet Coltrane was a good but unremarkable player in Davis’ first great quintet. He is starting to show signs of what he achieved on early albums like Giant Steps, but it was a few years after Milestones that Coltrane really became Coltrane.
What occurred to me recently was that this album represents and complacency and bourgeois aspirations of Miles and his associates. While the rollicking “Two Bass Hit” features a fun and playful riff, most of the material here relies on up-tempo rhythms to mask simplistic and thin ideas. Above all this music presents itself as the pinnacle of something — rather than, as history would later prove it to be, an anachronistic holdover from the be-bop era, sustained only by the suppression of the likes of Ornette Coleman. Put another way, this music presents a linear view of history as a linear march of progress in a particular direction, and obscures how it really is music that participates in a system of institutional/tribal power hierarchies. When Miles landed at Columbia Records, he was merely promoted within a fixed universe of possibilities. To put this criticism in a more substantive context, this is music still clinging to the model of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, in which a black man like Miles was trying to prove himself to be talented, within an established institutional framework, whereas in the future, after the legal end of the Jim Crow era in America, there would be a great recognition that individual accomplishment within the existing system wasn’t enough — the whole system needed to be changed. Of course, eventually Miles got bored with this, and his boredom led to much better things that did challenge the whole system.
Miles’ first album for Columbia Records is a winner. While not quite as inspired as his last recordings for Prestige, which included excellent Cookin’, Relaxin’ and Workin’ discs and for contractual reasons were released only later, this is a mere step behind them, and benefits from more high fidelity recording technology. The great benefit of the Prestige sessions is that they sound like those of a band that has nothing to lose and everything to gain from superb, heartfelt performances that follow their own muse. By contrast, ‘Round About Midnight sound more like the work of a talented band seeking to prove that the performers are worthy of the “big time”, so they show more deference. Anyway, this remains a very worthy collection of hard bop jazz — and album jacket covers hardly get cooler than this one.
A collection of mostly standards. John Gilmore‘s playing on tenor sax is just lovely. The title track, “My Favorite Things,” “Nature Boy” and “Tenderly” are particularly notable. If you liked Bad and Beautiful this should also please you. What happens here, though, is that more Ra-isms are thrown into the mix. Often that is achieved with jumps between styles. So, for instance, exotic collective percussion is set starkly against mellow soloing. The group may only be blowing off steam with these tunes, but this is still eminently pleasant if slightly off-kilter jazz.
Relaxin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet is an unlikely candidate to be one of Davis’s best albums. But it ends up being precisely that. It was drawn from two 1956 recording sessions that spawned a total of four With the Miles Davis Quintet albums made to fulfill a recording contract as Davis jumped to a major label (and kicked off one of the most productive and inspired artist-label relationships, well, ever). There are a few people who rate Cookin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet as the best. But, to put it bluntly, they are wrong! Cookin’ blasts through more up-tempo numbers, but lacks the all-star firepower of Bags Groove.
This album is rooted in the hard bop tradition, but with a more laid-back and sophisticated demeanor. Yet it doesn’t ever truly venture into “cool jazz” territory. Relaxin’ is basically a perfect title for it. This is just exceptionally cool (read: hip) music.
The record label Prestige had a somewhat ignoble history and shady reputation. Its publishing policies were unfavorable to musician songwriters, so most Prestige albums feature all standards. The label also did not pay for rehearsals, so their albums leaned toward a “live in the studio” approach. Davis’ 1956 Prestige sessions lack nothing despite the absence of rehearsals. They featured Davis’ working group and they played these songs with a familiarity and solid improvisational rapport.
This band became known as Miles’ “first great quintet”. The rhythm section of “Philly” Joe Jones (d), Paul Chambers (b), and Red Garland (p) was the very definition of “solid”. There is no egocentric showiness. They just show up and play these songs like motherfuckers. Notably, Garland had a distinctive style that pared back the chord blocking and focused on more minimal and melodic lines, closer to the wind instruments.
John Coltrane (ts) is here, and of his early recordings as a sideman this is one that more than most points toward what he achieved later in his solo career. That is to say that he has an unobtrusive confidence and sense of wonder in his playing that is wonderfully effective, even if he plays merely a tangential role here and those qualities are just starting to peek out.
Miles, for his part, plays decisively while retaining a sensitive touch. His Harmon (wah-wah) mute, played stemless, features prominently. Davis always had a fiery, stubborn attitude, subdued somewhat by an introverted personality. He channels all that raging energy into this batch of songs in a way that displays an absolute mastery of conventional devices and an impeccable sensitivity to tone/mood. Perhaps it was the context of recording songs in a large volume that gave Miles the chance to playing without having to prove anything to anybody — otherwise something that seemed like a major preoccupation of his in his early career.
Basically, if the opener “If I Were a Bell” grabs you, get ready for a whole album with much the same effect. Frankly, all but the album Steamin’ from these sessions are great albums — and even that lesser one is good enough. For what it is worth, this reviewer reaches for Relaxin’ far more than any other pre-1960s Davis album. Maybe you will too.
Another rather lo-fi live Arkestra recording from the 1970s. The percussion and the horns en masse sound particularly muddy, which does the music no favors. You have to be patient with this one, as it starts rather inauspiciously. The highlights are some smoking solos from Sun Ra on synthesizer, plus some vocals and sax soloing. The most intriguing moments come mostly in the middle of the album, on “Journey Through the Outer Darkness,” the perennial favorite “Enlightenment,” and “Unknown Kohoutek.” The vocals really kick in at the tail end of the album too, being the driving force on “Outer Space E.M (Emergency).” Some very good stuff here for fans, especially those who go for the noisier elements of Sun Ra’s work, though the unconverted will probably want to look elsewhere as, thankfully, you can find even better Arkestra recordings not unlike this fairly easily these days.
A “producer” album that pairs R.L. Burnside’s weary blues with trip hop electronics. It actually works on a few songs, notably the opener “Hard Time Killing Floor” plus “Bad Luck City.” It really is a bizarre pairing. When this first came out it was so far removed from Burnside’s usual stuff — though he had dabbled with electronics prior to this album — that I hated it. Looking back more than a decade and a half later, it clearly has its merits, mainly in the way it presents Burnside in a bleak and hazy urban setting. But at the same time the electronics are a little lazy. The repetitive riffing of Burnside’s hill country blues might seem to call for repetitive electronic beats, but that turns out to not be the case. Burnside was in somewhat failing health when this album was made, so he sings but doesn’t play guitar. There is nothing essential here, but this is passable stuff for the most part.
Slick, polished blues albums are some of the most unlistenable pieces of trash imaginable; this is well known. That bit of wisdom is something RL Burnside certainly has not forgotten. His albums are sometimes a mixed bag though. His experiments mashing up electronics and blues were marginally interesting. A collaborative punk-blues outing proved inspired. Gimmicks aside, there always was a talented juke joint veteran lurking inside. A man swigging whiskey on the side and strumming out the hypnotic vamps the devil bestowed upon the North Mississippi hill country decades ago. Recorded in Portland and San Francisco, this live disc, recorded at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon, scrapes away all but the very essence of RL Burnside. It leaves only the raw and ragged embodiment of modern blues. This is essential Burnside — probably the best place to start in his catalog.
This old man rocks and reels without belying his age. Burnside on Burnside is a gritty little record with attitude. “Skinny Woman” is the best Burnside track you’ll find anywhere. It takes a swaggering stance that just might knock you off your seat. Burnside sings of liquor and women by praising them as his salvations. The substance isn’t in his words. You have to listen to his moans and what lies in between.
Burnside’s classic repertoire here, from “Snake Drive” to “Goin’ Down South” to is“Shake ‘Em On Down.” Give the band credit for not over-thinking these tunes. They play unadulterated blues and work in a mean fervor. Slide guitar wiz Kenny Brown belts out a sloppy heap of passionate growls. A Burnside compatriot since 1971, Brown is like an “adopted son.” RL’s grandson Cedric, a minimally-competent drummer, keeps the attitude irreverent and fresh. The drones explode with minimalist textures. On stage they looked goofy with RL in his suspenders and/or plaid flannel, Cedric in his hi-top sneakers and Kenny just looking out of place; but they sound fine.
While all this rambling unleashes itself on the album, you can still picture RL seated to the side, plucking his guitar. What makes Burnside so remarkable is — like Howlin’ Wolf — his ultra-modern usage of primitive (meaning old-timey and non-complex) forms. The simple brilliance can make your head swim. These live numbers stick to the group’s strengths. Nothing is too unusual, but even “basic” RL Burnside purrs like a vintage Cadillac that never goes out of style.
More or less an Os Mutantes album that was supposedly released under singer Rita Lee’s name when the band’s record label balked at the band releasing too much material in close succession. While for many the band was at its peak in the late 1960s, I find their early recordings to be too ornate, crammed full of showy and self-indulgent flights of (absurdist) fancy — they were better backing other stars of Tropicália. Going in a quite different direction, Hoje é o primeiro dia do resto da sua vida (English translation: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life”) sounds like an early 1970s Doors album that is better, and quirkier, than what the Doors could manage.
The Red Krayola (originally, The Red Crayola) were formed in the late 1960s and quickly became one of the most forward-thinking rock groups of their era. Their debut album, The Parable of Arable Land, is rather unimpressive, and didn’t yet establish the group’s (mostly) unique approach to music. A significant problem with the debut is that it alternates between “songs” by the band and free-form hippie freakouts performed with random hangers on who showed up at the recording studio. This highlights an important error in the goals of the band — and like-minded musicians — early on. While there is a catharsis involved in participating in free-form musical freakouts, and there is something to be said — on paper at least — for conveying to audiences that free-form freakouts are possible and desirable, why bother to record them and release the recordings on an album? This latter question gets glossed over. But it is the crux of the problem. The freakouts have little or no listening value to audiences. Never fear though! Upon some urging from their record label, their second album [after an intended follow-up, Coconut Hotel, was rejected by their label], God Bless The Red Krayola and All Who Wail With It, established the a new and different format that provided an answer to the the lingering question from the first album while still realizing the band’s basic objectives. As Mayo Thompson once put it, “God Bless picks its way through the rubble looking for feeling and meaning, senses of share.”
First off, what were the band’s objectives? This question can be best explained in relation to historical context. The late 1960s were the time of the so-called “New Left”, when left-leaning politics were on the rise and, in the United States and Western Europe, were increasingly centered around students (college students mostly). The band was named The Red Crayola, then changed their name to The Red Krayola (after a largely baseless legal threat from a crayon manufacturer), but kept the word “Red” in the name all along. This was not coincidence or an arbitrary choice of color. The band named themselves in reference to the color historically associated with the political left. The band’s objective remained “musical socialism”.
With the understanding that there was an explicitly leftist political slant to The Red Krayola’s music, their musical techniques can be better understood against the larger backdrop of Twentieth Century art history. Many artists in a variety of media who have sought to pursue leftist ends have adopted techniques that revolve around the use of “montage”. This includes cinematic montage, photomontage, dadism (and offshoots from surrealism to pop art to fluxus, assorted neo-dadaism and even culture jamming), literary endeavors from the Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibalist Manifesto) to “cut ups”, and more.
The term “montage” has been used to describe a number of different musical practices, not all of them similar to The Red Krayola’s, and often in the context of a substantively different “collage” approach. So, here I will use my own term “Diogenic Montage,” in reference to the cynic philosopher Diogenes, whose shamelessly insolent yet witty and outspoken approach to critiquing the powerful has a close kinship with the specific style at hand. (This might equally be called “Kynicist Montage” after Peter Sloterdijk‘s term “kynicism”). Just to illustrate what the philosopher Diogenes stood for, there is a story about him being sold into slavery in Crete, and the slave auctioneer asked what Diogenes was proficient in. He replied, “In ruling men.” He then added, “Sell me to this man [Xeniades]; he needs a master.” The essence of “Diogenic Montage” is to deploy multivalent meanings in a way that is both reverent and irreverent at the same time, with an affinity for the use of “kitsch” and things considered “lowbrow” or in “bad taste” in a framework in which some thing else is either present or suggested, thereby subverting the very basis for highbrow/middlebrow/lowbrow distinctions. There is typically banal ridicule offered, and aspects of French playwright/actor Antonin Artaud‘s “Theater of Cruelty” find their way in as well, although humor appears more often than shocking “cruelty” and Bertold Brecht‘s “epic theater” might make a closer comparison in The Red Krayola’s instance at least.
One journalist recounted a joke Mayo Thompson frequently told that quite succinctly sums up the kind of humor found in The Red Krayola’s approach to music:
“There’s an anecdote that Red Krayola singer-guitarist Mayo Thompson likes to tell about philosopher of science Sydney Morgenbesser. ‘He’s at some philosophical conference,’ Thompson begins, ‘and some linguist is up there saying, ‘A double negative is always a positive, but there’s no language where a double positive is a negative,’ and Morgenbesser calls out from the back: ‘Yeah, yeah.'”
Diogenic Montage emphasizes symbolic and cultural content, not simply literal and explicit materials, which is why the approach is different from, say, the use of samples in hip-hop music (which could fall in the category, but doesn’t necessarily do so just by the use of samples). Put another way, this is not merely a mechanical technique of juxtaposing and pasting together different elements in any manner, but rather is about pasting together certain elements in certain ways in order to ridicule the supposed “truth” of the referenced/appropriated symbolic content and expose the egotistical self-interest and tautological claims to power behind its conventional use. This was very much the approach of the Berlin faction of the dadaists who utilized photomontage techniques “as a subversion of the myth of the photograph as truth.” This results in the reuse or re-deployment of existing constructs in a different value system, thereby demonstrating the implied symbolic meaning of the “acceptable”/mainstream/official sources. There is a naive/childish/insolent attitude of announcing publicly what is — from the viewpoint of the powerful and dominant — mutually agreed to be kept out of explicit public discourse. In this way it reveals the hidden foundations of power embedded in such practices and exposing them to discussion — and ridicule. What this accomplishes is the dissolution of the separation between levels. Rather than there being separate public and private views, they are merged and important positions necessary for functioning of the entire system cannot be hidden away from public scrutiny in a purely private arena.
As Mayo Thompson once put it in an interview:
“With this tension between revolutionary thought and revolutionary practice, there’s always a kind of contradiction. After a while I realised that for my own purposes the contradiction was in keeping with that Left idea, to jack up the volume of the contradictions. Make them sharper, make ’em deeper, make ’em tougher, make ’em harder, make ’em more real, make ’em more powerful, make ’em inescapable, undeniable.”
But he also added:
“Pop songs are really free-standing things, and they can be surrounded by other things which are unlike them. Life’s a jukebox. Programme it. Have fun.”
One of the fathers of the “New Left”, the western marxist C. Wright Mills was described as endorsing precisely the sorts of elements that ended up in this music by Michael Denning in his book The Cultural Front. Denning discussed the gradual break-up of the socialist “Cultural Front” in the mid-Twentieth Century and the eventual emergence of the “New Left” in its place, explaining how Mills advocated and endorsed a kind of synthesis of some of the otherwise antagonistic hack, commercial and avant-garde elements of the older Cultural Front in an effort to “repossess” cultural apparatuses (including media institutions). They key was to see artists as working with elements that are not entirely individualist and within their exclusive control. These sorts of concepts gained a lot of traction within the New Left movement. Mills’ comments very much look forward to the sort of music made by The Red Krayola.
Another reference point would be the work of Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, who wrote The Social Construction of Reality. Berger in particular was a political conservative who spent most of the rest of his career fighting against the use of his theories by the New Left. Though much of the theory became obsolete, in a sense, when the leftist French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu rose to prominence in the 1970s and combined a similar theory that revolved around the concepts of “habitus” and different kinds of “capital” (all formulated within a framework heavily influenced by Einstein‘s theory of relativity and Maxwell‘s equations), with novel quantitative/statistical methods. For that matter, Berger and Luckmann’s sociological theory ended up being slightly redundant with the work of French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan from the 1950s.
Just to drive home how this is typically a politically leftist approach to art and music, consider these words from V. I. Lenin‘s last article in Pravda before his death, “Better Fewer, But Better” (March 4, 1923):
“Indeed, why not combine pleasure with utility? Why not resort to some humourous or semi-humorous trick to expose something ridiculous, something harmful, something semi-ridiculous, semi-harmful, etc.?”
That is really quite close to the frame of mind needed to appreciate The Red Krayola’s music. There is much more than just the tiniest particle of the old in their music, but the the band certainly uses the ridiculous and the humorous to piece together something new and useful out of bits of the old. It is above all a battle for meaning. They wanted all new meaning. And they were building an aesthetic dimension out of old trashy musical elements!
These points rely upon a recognition of something often lost in ordinary discourse. Some people divide statements and beliefs into a binary classification of objective and subjective, with objective things being beyond or outside that of individual people and with subjective things being entirely in the head of individuals. But this is overly simplistic. There are also social constructs, which are socially determined beyond the control of any one individual person, but nonetheless are socially arbitrary and not “objective” scientific facts — this idea has a parallel in the so-called “Veblenian dichotomy” of institutional economics. It is precisely in this realm of “social constructs” that The Red Krayola’s music directed most of its effort.
The Red Krayola certainly weren’t the only musicians attempting something along these lines. Similar approaches appear in Brazilian Tropicália (Tom Zé, Rogério Duprat), psychedelic folk (Godz), some Krautrock (Faust), British Canterbury Scene rock (Robert Wyatt), certain indie rock (early Beck) and Hypnagogic Pop (Ariel Pink‘s Haunted Graffiti), and even avante garde composition (Charles Ives, Van Dyke Parks), etc. Of particular note is the fact that The Mothers of Invention were possibly the first rock/pop group to have dabbled in this, with inconsistent results. Mayo Thompson specifically credits Frank Zappa (of The Mothers of Invention) with being one of the first to employ this approach in the rock/pop music realm. Yet Zappa didn’t stick with the approach. Thompson stated in an interview,
“Zappa started off, and his records were handled as comedy, the labels that he dealt with. Zappa is like an analog for us in a certain sense. He also, I think, thought hippies were stupid and foolish, and kidding themselves, and congratulating themselves on how hip they were, but only by keeping their eyes closed, not noticing what anybody else was doing. At the same time, he recognizes that humor was one of his most powerful devices. But it ate at him to the point that he wanted actually to be taken seriously. So that became more important to him than anything.
“I would say that the difference between me and the people (from past underground rock movements) is that I have no commitments to any one form, or style, or anything else like that. I’m interested in music because it’s self-activating, to some extent. I’m interested in art — the democratic aspect of it. I don’t mean like, gee whiz, democracy, either. I mean like democracy as democratic expression of a sense of individual human beings getting their own crap together.”
When it comes to the music on Hazel, it is clearly an update on the style of God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It. Mayo Thompson has said — maybe not entirely accurately — that every theoretical innovation he and The Red Krayola devised was already articulated in the 1960s:
“In terms of what passes for theory in music, with regard to material potential, I think I did all my theoretical work on musical possibility in the ’60s. The first five records sum up everything I ever had to say in theoretical terms.”
What is amazing is not the just the durability of the God Bless style, which still sounds ahead of the curve roughly three decades later, but that the band is able to use the same conceptual style while heeding the passage of almost thirty years worth of pop music. Hazel doesn’t rely on all the same bits of source music as God Bless the Red Krayola — though some things bear similarities, like the atonal, sing-speak female vocals (like the second tracks on each album: “Duck & Cover” here, “Music” on God Bless). There is much more emphasis here on easy listening music. That ends up being the crazy glue (pun very much intended) that holds all this together. There was an interview with Iman on some TV talk show long ago, and she discussed how her husband David Bowie would sing at home all the time. Though she corrected the host by saying that rather than his famous songs he would sing nonsense, just little mundane melodies. In other words, pure kitsch. That is precisely the kind of old musical source The Red Krayola mine on Hazel. It is evident on songs like “I’m so Blasé” and “Duke of Newcastle.”
From a process standpoint, these songs were built up through the contributions of the assorted performers in a way that resembled the surrealist exquisite corpse parlor game, in which a story is assembled by each participant sequentially adding something, usually only aware of the immediately prior contributor’s material rather than the whole. David Grubbs said in an interview,
“Frequently, it was like an exquisite corpse game where somebody lays something down, then somebody else overdubs on that, one at a time. Each song grew into these absolutely strange, collage-like creations.”
The band also followed a strictly collective approach. Regardless of who contributed what, every song is credited only to the entire group, collectively. Emphasis on specific individual contributions and hierarchy was discouraged.
A few of the songs here have start-stop structures, without any sort of syncopation (just as on God Bless) . “Decaf the Planet” and “5123881” are examples. Though this shows up in parts of other songs too (“GAO,” “Boogie,” etc.). On the other hand, some songs are built principally around grooves and repeating riffs, like “Larking,” “Hollywood” and “Another Song, Another Satan.”
The use of folk music elements is something new for The Red Krayola. “Falls” has a banjo solo. There is a fair amount of acoustic guitar throughout the album too.
Hazel is one of The Red Krayola’s finest albums. It delivers (serious) lyrics about leftist politics with (unserious) cartoonish vocal affectations, and dissembles and adds noise to old musical elements that aren’t as politically neutral as they seem. This is above all music that gains meaning from dynamic movement. Any one element might be subject to multiple interpretations, and the movement in the context of the songs and album as a whole make clear that meaning is flexible, relative. The Red Krayola do their best to fashion a utopian leftist vision of a vaguely classless society where musicians can do whatever they want, and fashion their own meaning.