Tag Archives: Jazz

Miles Davis – Nefertiti

Nefertiti

Miles DavisNefertiti Columbia CS 9594 (1968)


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.

Miles Davis – Milestones……

Milestones......

Miles DavisMilestones…… Columbia CL 1193 (1958)


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 Davis – ‘Round About Midnight

'Round About Midnight

Miles Davis‘Round About Midnight  Columbia CL 949 (1957)


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.

Sun Ra and His Arkestra – Some Blues But Not the Kind Thats Blue

Some Blues But Not the Kind Thats Blue

Sun Ra and His ArkestraSome Blues But Not the Kind Thats Blue El Saturn 101477 (1978)


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.

The Miles Davis Quintet – Relaxin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet

Relaxin' With the Miles Davis Quintet

The Miles Davis QuintetRelaxin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet Prestige PRLP 7129 (1958)


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.

Sun Ra – Concert for the Comet Kohoutek

Concert for the Comet Kohoutek

Sun RaConcert for the Comet Kohoutek XYZ Music ESP 3033-2 (1993)


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.

Andrew Hill – Smokestack

Smokestack

Andrew HillSmokestack Blue Note BLP 4160 (1964)


Hmmm. Quite an interesting album.  It was Hill’s second set recorded for Blue Note records, but was kept on the shelf for a few years before release.  The results are successful, but not entirely so.  The most striking feature of the album is the use of double bassist Richard Davis as a lead voice, a position in jazz combos most commonly held by wind instruments or piano.  On songs like “Wailing Wail”, “Not So”, “The Day After” and “Verne”, the effect is spectacular, providing deep shading to Hill’s typically intriguing compositions.  However, Davis is sometimes buried in the mix, and cannot clearly be heard over Hill and drummer Roy Haynes on “Smoke Stack” and other cuts.  To further complicate matters, Haynes seems just a bit ill at ease here.  A hallmark of Hill compositions is, despite complex structures and arrangements, a strong dominant theme running through his songs.  In that respect it is more interesting to compare Hill with Albert Ayler or Cecil Taylor than more traditional post-bop players or the previous generation of jazz composers.  Here Haynes uses a bit too much space in his drumming, and he is so loud in the mix that this tends to obscure the main themes.  That is one of the main difficulties for a listener approaching this album for the first time.  Haynes was spectacularly effective on Black Fire.  In all, a great set of performances frequently marred by sloppy production, making this just slightly less enjoyable than other Hill recordings from the same time period.

Andrew Hill & Chico Hamilton – Dreams Come True

Dreams Come True

Andrew Hill & Chico HamiltonDreams Come True Joyous Shout! JS10010 (2008)


What a sorry album.  This was recorded back in 1993 and then released in 2008 in the wake of Andrew Hill’s death.  It should have stayed in the vaults.  It’s clearly just a crass attempt to cash in on the publicity surrounding Hill’s death.  The music is dull.  Hill’s playing is aimless, and there are pointless drum fills from Chico Hamilton littered everywhere.  One gets the sense the performers are trying to be too deferential to each other, to the point that neither steps up to take charge.  So there is a definite lack of purpose in the music — like this is merely a recorded practice session.  Take for instance “Watch That Dream,” which is a composition with plenty of potential, but Hamilton banging away on a tambourine is really too distracting to allow a listener to engage with the lovely melody.  This recording is probably best ignored in the catalogs of both performers.

Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath – Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath

Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath

Chris McGregor’ Brotherhood of BreathChris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath Neon NE 2 (1971)


Feels like Sun Ra-lite.  A blend of somewhat mainstream jazz with more abstract ethno-grooves and a rock-tinged beat.  “Night Poem” is the centerpiece of the album, where they take the basic concept the furtherest.  The album can be a bit uneven though because of the overly mannered playing (the bane of so much British music — to the extent you can call this “British”).

The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz

The mithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz

Various ArtistsThe Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz Smithsonian A5 19477 (1997)


A fantastic overview of jazz from its birth through the early 1960s .  There is probably no better introduction to the genre than this set (this remastered CD version tracks the “revised” edition that came out in 1987).  Granted, at only five CDs (the original, unrevised edition was 6 LPs), it can still only briefly touch on many major periods, and so, for instance, things cut out at the appearance of “free jazz” and only a handful of tracks are from later than 1962.  But there is not a single track on here that is less than fantastic.  Probably one of the best box sets ever assembled, right up there alongside Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.  As authoritative as a good dictionary.