Monday, July 25, 2005

Miles Ahead

So Chris Lydon pinged me yesterday about a show he was putting together on Miles Davis tonight. He obviously knew that Miles is like an old friend to me and a litmus test I use to compare up-and-coming artists.

The original hook was "How to listen to Miles Davis... and Why?", it has since morphed into Miles Davis: Early, Late, Real, Yours. As The Times points out today, A Radio Program Turns to a Blog to Cull Ideas, this is a very interactive way to put a program together and the pre-show comments tell the tale about how it can engage the audience and shape the focus of the show. Participatory radio is the thing these days and the feedback loop that the two-way web allows is refreshing. You should be able to listen to it live on radio, via streaming or download the archived show.

I've been nursing a sore throat and have mostly lost my voice thus I'm not sure that I'll be able to call in and participate what with George Wein, Marcus Miller and George Cole now added to the menu.

Still here are some jumbled thoughts that I sent his way. We are both enthusiasts on this front.

So much to say about Miles and so many ways to look at him...

For some he's just a good introduction to jazz. For most people, Kind of Blue is the first jazz album they'll buy much like Bob Marley's Legend is the normal introduction to reggae.

Thus we have Miles as the Gateway Drug, the Taste of Blue which will lead to Something Else and Someday My Prince Will Come and then to Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal and Wynton Kelly. Maybe we need a Miles Czar or War on Miles to prevent young people from getting hooked?

There's the bandleader who always surrounded himself with great musicians and (mostly) run a tight ship. Think of Monk, Duke, Mingus or Blakey or Horace Silver whose bands were similarly proving grounds.

The list of those who passed through his band is astounding from Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley in the 50s through Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter in the 60s, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Dave Holland, Michael Henderson, George Duke and Marcus Miller etc. He caught them young, stepped back and let them shine playing a kind of zone offense (to mix my metaphors) whatever the style of music was played.

There's the competition of the bop years, the blowing sessions with Bird and Diz. Who blew better, faster, higher? Diz? Clifford Brown? Lee Morgan? Roy Eldridge?

Then there's the First Great Quintet that I alluded to when Cookin with Rokia Traoré - the Rhythm Section indeed.

There's the Taste of Miles: he immediately recognized the artistry of Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and others. Impeccable taste in short.

The various eras of Miles like you suggest. Everybody has their own favourite era and I change every six months. Of late I've been going with the work with Gil Evans and especially Miles Ahead which verges on the orchestral blues.

Style - Nobody does it better than Miles

Competitive - He was always listening to other sounds and wanted to compete. Think of the reaction to James Brown and especially to Sly Stone in the early 70s.

Tradition vrs Modernity - respectful at times but refusing to go with the academy. As an example of the academy at work, a recent (or current?) cover of Jazz Times has a piece on Wes Montgomery in proximity to the phrase Sellout. The nerve of it! Is jazz a living music or did it end with Filles De Kilimanjaro as Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis would have it?

Ego - Miles refused to be ignored and was very sensitive to perceived slights.

Provocative - how else to describe Bitches Brew or say On The Corner?

Hubris - there was that and we must admit it

Race - since race is still very close to the fabric of this society one can talk about the kind of additional scrutiny that falls on prominent blacks from Jack Johnson to Muhammed Ali and how they negotiate it.

Sex - there is much to say about his attitude towards women. e.g. Misogyny at times, exploitative at times (pimp episodes). Is that par for the course?

There's also another aspect of Miles and sex that is worth pointing out. Why is it that when you start playing some laidback Miles (say Bags Groove with Milt Jackson) that members of the opposite sex immediately assume that your intentions, are how to put it, single-minded (e.g. Miles as a Gateway to Seduction). I suppose it's like the notion that Henry Ford could never have assumed that the back of a car would become a cultural signifier in the sexual life of teenagers in America and the rest of the world.

Drugs - must one suffer for one's art like so many jazz musicians did?

Money - well that's also worth a discussion. Did he go commercial?

Miles in twilight - I'm very interested in what he recorded with Prince and Chaka Khan in the late 80s - very little of which has been released. He had become terse, preferring concentrated bursts of trumpet and emotion rather than virtuosity. It is clear though that his influence was crucial in bringing horn-inflected sounds to His Royal Badness (the Minneapolis purple one). If you're one of those afflicted with the purple obsession you'll have somehow acquired the bootleg of the New Year's Eve jam at Paisley Park in 1987.

And it continues with the rappers today, they may not sample him (since the record companies charge so absurdly these days) but they name-check him. Think of Digable Planets or of A Tribe Called Quest in the past decade (The Low End Theory is just a matter of vibing with Ron Carter and hence Miles). The late era of any musician is always interesting, think of the pathos of Lady Day in autumn, the voice ravaged but note also the emotion of The End of the Affair.

Above all there's the music and we are lucky to have so much of it available on record. Still it is the music that happens after the show that I've been interested in, the blowing sessions much venerated in soul jazz, the little moments that stay in one's memory.

Mission: music. Glad you found Inamorata, I love tomorrow.

I subsequently noticed that the comments on the show's entry on the web site also spoke of Kind of Blue as being the Gateway Drug to jazz... Thus this is quite a meme. And it is true...

If you hear Miles play It Never Entered My Mind, you'll indubitably be led to Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins' version and from there you'll branch to Duke Ellington then all bets are off, you'll get to Count Basie, you'll think of Lester Young and then you'll get to Robert Altman's Kansas City and then you come full circle with all those young lions cutting each other, James Carter, Nicolas Payton, Joshua Redman, Christian McBride etc.

There should be a Six Degrees of Miles parlour game.

As I leave you, I'm listening to Blues For Pablo and sipping some ginger tea with honey.

Miles Ahead

Miles Ahead like they said.

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