Thursday, September 25, 2008

Book Review: "Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece," by Ashley Kahn

"Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece," by Ashley Kahn, 2000.
John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans at the session for "Kind of Blue," 1959.
I just finished Ashley Kahn's 2000 book, "Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece." It's a terrific read, and I would recommend it to any jazz fan, or anyone who is interested in learning more about how this remarkable album was created.

To anyone who doesn't know, Miles Davis's 1959 album "Kind of Blue" is widely regarded as the greatest jazz album ever. It's a landmark of small group jazz improvisation as its finest. The band Miles assembled was one of the greatest ever. On the album, Miles started to explore modal jazz, a very different way of playing jazz. In his book, Kahn explores Miles's career during the 1950's, and what led him to make the album.

Kahn did a great job of researching this book, and he interviewed Columbia Records photographer Don Huntstein and drummer Jimmy Cobb, the only two people still alive who actually witnessed the recording sessions. Sadly, when pianist Bill Evans died in 1980, just twenty-one years after the album was recorded, that left only Miles and Jimmy Cobb still alive from the "Blue" band. Which is really odd, considering that Miles was the oldest member of the band in 1959, at just 32 years old. John Coltrane died at age 40 of liver cancer in 1967, bassist Paul Chambers died at just 33 of tuberculosis in 1969, Wynton Kelly died at 39 in 1971, and Cannonball Adderley died in 1975 at 46.

Kahn should be praised just for the simple fact that we actually get some insight as to how this classic album was made. The answer is, pretty easily, at just two recording sessions. There was only one complete alternate take from the sessions, an earlier version of "Flamenco Sketches." But that doesn't mean that these were all first-take performances, despite what Bill Evans claimed in the liner notes. Miles would end takes if they weren't going well, giving the players terse directions.

Pianist Bill Evans is probably the person other than Miles most responsible for how "Kind of Blue" sounds. Miles even said, "I wrote that album around Bill Evans's piano playing," even though Evans had quit as a member of Miles's working band by the time of the sessions. Both Evans and Davis loved classical music, even though Evans had more classical training. (Miles had quit Juilliard after just one year.) Davis would often spend time checking out classical scores from museums and libraries, and didn't understand why he couldn't get other jazz musicians to accompany him. But in Evans he found someone similar to explore his ideas with. Miles wrote of Evans in his autobiography, "Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall." Which would also be an accurate way of describing Miles's playing style in the late 50's. Since Miles was not an explosive bop virtuoso like Dizzy Gillespie, he had to get his playing across in a different way. So he started using space more in his solos, (influenced by the pianist Ahmad Jamal) and playing fewer notes to get the emotion of a piece across. He also started playing in the middle register of the trumpet more, as opposed to players like Dizzy who would fire off a rapid series of extremely high notes. Miles also started using a Harmon mute on ballads, which gave his playing a breathy, smoky, late-night sound.

According to Evans, he and Miles wrote "Blue In Green" and "Flamenco Sketches" together, despite the credits on the album listing Davis as the sole writer of all the tracks. When Evans recorded a version of "Blue In Green" for his own album, "Portrait in Jazz," he insisted that his name be listed alongside Davis's as co-writer. Both songs sound like Evans, and it would seem likely that he got screwed out of his writing credit. But Evans also kind of screwed himself out of his credits, as he wrote the liner notes to "Kind of Blue," and in them doesn't make any mention of his co-writing role. Who knows what really happened between Davis and Evans, but a telling factor would be that Miles never performed "Blue In Green" and "Flamenco Sketches" live, at least not on any known recordings. (He also never did "Freddie Freeloader" live, which seems odd because of its bluesy structure.)

The alchemy that made "Kind of Blue" possible never came together again. Evans had left Miles to form his own trio, and within a year Cannonball and Coltrane had each formed their own groups. And Miles didn't seem interested in revisiting former glories by trying to record another album with the same sound. "Kind of Blue" would remain a unique masterpiece in jazz history. And thanks to Ashley Kahn's book, we get to feel like we were there at the creation.

Kinks Box Set!

Don't hold your breath Kinks fans, but a 6-CD box set is scheduled to come out in the UK on December1st! I read about it on, here's the link to the article:

Apparently, it will include more than 100 tracks, and significant rarities. Woo-hoo! It's about time! Hopefully it will actually come out in the's so going on my Christmas list! And, according to the blog, it was none other than Ron Sexsmith who alerted the writer to the box set. (Go buy Ron's new CD, "Exit Strategy of the Soul," it's excellent.) Maybe this box set will make people think about the Kinks' amazing back catalogue in a different way, it'll be nice to see the full progression of the band across different labels and eras.

Ramsey Lewis, "Appassionata"

Ramsey Lewis led one of my favorite jazz trios of the 1950's and 1960's, the appropriately named Ramsey Lewis Trio. Playing with bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt, he recorded one of the most popular jazz records of the 1960's, "The In Crowd," which has the distinction of being a Top Ten hit single and also a Top Ten hit album. His interplay with Young and Holt was remarkable. Lewis was influenced by classical music and rhythm and blues, creating a unique and different sound. One of the first records the trio made in 1956 was a jazzy version of the "Habanera" aria from Bizet's opera "Carmen." Their version of the pop hit "The In Crowd" was a funky and catchy mixture of soul-jazz that found the live audience clapping along. But as Lewis's records gained in popularity, the jazz quotient went down. By the 90's, he was making smooth jazz records, devoid of the talent he had earlier brought to his piano playing.

But in 1999, Lewis returned to the acoustic jazz trio setting for a fine record, "Appassionata." (It's one of my CD's I've had for ages, but haven't gotten around to listening to it until recently.) "Appassionata" shows that Lewis still has the goods on piano, and it mixes classical and gospel influences. He performs versions of Puccini pieces, and a medley of gospel songs, "A Moment Spiritual." Lewis is backed by Ernie Adams on drums, and Larry Gray on bass, who are both fantastic. For anyone who is a fan of Lewis's classic trio recordings, this is a welcome addition to those recordings.

Unfortunately, there are many Ramsey Lewis Trio albums from the 50's and 60's that have not been reissued on CD. But one that has is "Down to Earth," from 1959. It's an excellent jazz trio album. Young gets to solo on "Decisions," and the Trio does a stellar version of "Billy Boy," which I think was recorded by every jazz trio in the 50's. (Miles Davis included a version of it on his 1958 album "Milestones," and he doesn't even play on it!) If you like piano trios, give Ramsey Lewis a try.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Miles Ahead: An Essay on the Music of Miles Davis

Miles Davis
Miles Davis was an incredible musician. Okay, now we're finished with the understatement of the day. I'm reading Ashley Kahn's book "Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece," and I'm amazed by the success Miles had in so many different styles of jazz. He certainly wasn't content to rest on his laurels. As soon as he had success in one field of jazz, he was on to a different challenge. He was on the cutting edge of jazz for 20 years, pioneering several important jazz movements.

Miles started out playing with Charlie Parker in the late 1940's. Parker was one of bebop's biggest stars at the time, and Miles was some kid just out of East St. Louis. But Parker took Miles under his wing. But just as Miles was making his ascendancy in the world of bebop, he changed styles. He made the album, "The Birth of the Cool" in 1949-50 that ushered in a quieter, more subdued style of jazz called "cool jazz" or "West Coast jazz." Miles was heavily influenced by classical music, and the "Birth of the Cool" sessions are the antithesis of the frenzied bebop soloing. One of the featured members of the "Birth of the Cool" band was Gerry Mulligan, who formed a group with the trumpeter Chet Baker that achieved great success in the early 1950's. But Miles didn't make any more records like "Birth of the Cool," at least not until his sessions with Gil Evans. (Who arranged some of the "Cool" sides.) Once Miles got his act together again, and kicked his heroin addiction, the records he made in 1954-55 pointed the way towards hard bop, which was in some ways a reaction to the prevailing West Coast "cool" style that Miles himself had helped usher in. He lead all-star sessions for Prestige records that produced classics like "Bag's Groove." The lineup on "Bag's Groove" is a who's who of 50's jazz: Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Milt Jackson, Horace Silver, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke. Wow.

In 1955, Miles set about putting together a steady group he could lead. He found one of the greatest rhythm sections in jazz history; pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. And he took a chance on a journeyman tenor sax man from Philadelphia: John Coltrane. Miles and Trane's partnership would change the course of jazz history. This band was known as Miles's first "Classic Quintet," and the recordings they made together set the standard for hard bop playing. And then Miles fired Coltrane because of his heroin addiction. (Trane got clean in 1957, played with Monk for 6 months, and then Miles re-hired him.) Miles also made the decision to record an album with a large ensemble arranged by Gil Evans, it would be called "Miles Ahead." The albums Miles made with Gil Evans aren't my favorites, but the people who like them really like them, and they are considered the best albums of their kind. Miles was changing things up yet again.

On his 1958 album "Milestones," Miles added alto sax player Cannonball Adderley to the group, and started the path towards modal jazz, which led to "Kind of Blue." I can't claim to totally understand all the differences between modal jazz and non-modal jazz, but I think it boils down to this: in modal jazz, you improvise with or against the scales, not the chords, as in most styles of jazz. In a modal song, you might only have two chords, so you can't improvise with or against the chord changes. This was the opposite of bebop, where the chord changes were everything. It was a totally different way of improvising. (This really sounds like I know what I'm talking about, doesn't it?) Anyway, from what Kahn says in his book, that's how I understand it.

The gold standard for modal jazz was Miles's 1959 album "Kind of Blue." It's regularly cited as the greatest jazz album ever, and even shows up in rock magazine polls of great albums. If you haven't heard it, go out and buy a copy. Right now. When you've finished listening to it, please return to this blog entry and keep reading. I'll wait for you...done? Wow, wasn't it great? Again, Miles put together an amazing band full of musicians who would continue to make great jazz as solo artists. The "Kind of Blue" group was: Miles, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. Wow. Within a year, Cannonball and Coltrane had both formed their own groups, as had Bill Evans. (Evans technically left Miles's group in late 1958, but returned for the "Kind of Blue" recording.)

But rather than keep plowing the modal fields until nothing was left, Miles kept changing his sound. He never made another album that sounded like "Kind of Blue." In 1963, Wynton Kelly left, taking Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb with him to form their own trio. Miles had to form a new band, from the ground up. Eventually, in 1964, the new lineup became Wayne Shorter on tenor, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. This group became known as Miles's second "Classic Quintet." Miles's playing became harsher during this period, as some of that ballad softness seemed to slip away. By 1968-69, Miles was experimenting with more open song structures, electric pianos, and grooves influenced by James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. It was the start of fusion, heralded by Miles's albums "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches' Brew." I have to confess, I don't like fusion. I don't really get it. But I can understand that it was an important movement in jazz, and once again, Miles was on the front line, leading the charge.

Miles's music post-1969 doesn't hold a lot of appeal for me, and from what I've read, it doesn't sound like he broke a lot of new ground after fusion. But that really doesn't matter, because in twenty years at the forefront of nearly every major movement in jazz, Miles had broken enough boundaries for many lifetimes. Honestly, most artists, in any genre, don't get to say they started or heavily influenced as many different styles as Miles did.

So those are some of my thoughts on Miles Davis, one of my favorite jazz musicians. I'm just intrigued by the way he kept searching, kept moving. He could have tried to make 10 albums just like "Kind of Blue," but he didn't, which I admire. Miles did not do things the easy way, and he definitely did them his way.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford

Ford Madox Ford's modernist novel The Good Solider begins with the line, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." And so the reader is thrown into a difficult, twisting narrative. Our unreliable narrator is the American expatriate John Dowell. (Extra points if you actually know this, as his name is mentioned only once or twice in the text.) Dowell lives in Europe with his wife, Florence, who has a bad heart, and thus they summer in Nauheim in Germany. It is there that they meet Edward Ashburnham and his wife Leonora, in the summer of 1904. The Ashburnhams are English; Edward is a member of the landed gentry. Soon Edward and Florence begin an affair, under the nose of the seemingly oblivious John.

The novel is not so much about the story, as it is about storytelling, and the way the story is told. It's very ahead of it's time in that regard, more post-modern than modern. Dowell jumps backwards and forwards in time, few things happen chronologically, and everything is colored by his own scattershot memories. At times he seems to have been aware of the affair from the beginning, at other times he seems blissfully unaware. (Or not so blissfully, as no one is really happy in this novel.) Dowell will lavish praise on Edward, and how he is a good person, and then he will turn around and excoriate him. He says on page 17, "I don't want you to think that I am writing Teddy Ashburnham down a brute. I don't believe he was." On page 31 he says, "Good God, what did they all see in him? For I swear there was all there was of him, inside and out; though they said he was a good soldier...How could he arouse anything like a sentiment, in anybody?" Dowell clearly has a love/hate relationship with Edward. It's a difficult book to negotiate because of the constantly shifting chronology. It's difficult to tell if Dowell actually knows something, or if he is going back and revising his own memories, to make himself seem less clueless.

There's very little dialogue in The Good Soldier, as most of it is Dowell's recounting of events, which cuts us off from knowing the characters better. It blocks us, which could well be the point, as we only see characters through the eyes of the narrator. We only know what the narrator chooses to tell us. Which is true of every story, no matter how it's told, but it's taken to an extreme here. It's particularly frustrating in regards to Edward, as I still don't have any feeling for who he was. He seems boring to me, dull and ordinary, not the dashing figure that the narrator wants us to believe he was. There must have been something besides his looks that drew Florence in to him, but we don't get to see it.

Dowell also never comes across as American to me. I know that Americans spoke differently in 1915, the year the book came out, than they do now, but Dowell's sentence construction is extremely British. Which fits, of course, because Ford Madox Ford was British. Here's a typical sentence: "But the inconvenient-well, hang it all, I will say it-the damnable nuisance of the whole thing is, that with all the taking for granted, you never really get an inch deeper than the things I have catalogued." That just sounds British to me. "Hang it all," "damnable nuisance," those are so British! And the stereotype of Americans, more so in 1915 than now, was that they were brash, loud, more open than the stuffy British. Yet the narrator is none of these things. If anything, he is even MORE stuffy than the British. I think that part of the reason Dowell admires Edward, or professes to, anyway, is because Edward is British, and that makes him different, and therefore interesting. If Dowell were British, he would know within 15 minutes of meeting Edward all about him, exactly where he fit into the class system, what school he went to, and if he made 5,000 pounds a year or 10,000.

As the novel progresses, and the characters move inexorably along on their tragic trajectories, Ford shows us the cracks in the mirror of Edwardian society. No one is really honest with anyone else, and in the end, no one gets what they truly wanted. It is indeed, a sad story.

The Great Minnesota Get-Together!

It's that time of year, as summer begins to turn to autumn, and the kids go back to school, for the Great Minnesota Get-Together. No, I'm not talking about the Republican National Convention. I'm talking about the Minnesota State Fair, which ended it's 12-day run on Labor Day. To those of you who may not be familiar with the Minnesota State Fair, it's one of the largest State Fairs in the country, and usually a subject of immense pride for Minnesotans. According to Wikipedia, that venerated fount of knowledge, it's probably the largest in average daily attendance, as some 1.6 million Minnesotans attended this year's Fair. (Okay, some Wisconsinians and Iowans probably snuck in too.)

The Minnesota State Fair boasts more farm animals than you can shake a stick at, rides for all the kiddies, exhibits of everything from prize-winning honey to crop art, and any kind of fried food you can imagine, usually placed on a stick. (I'm not kidding, there's even deep-fried candy bars on a stick. Ew.) I've been going to the Fair since I was a kid, so it's a tradition that is deeply ingrained in me. I love the Fair. I know, it doesn't change much from year to year. Yes, the corn dogs and pronto pups still taste the same, yes, I've seen all the same Heritage Square buildings for years, but we have to go see them again this year! The Fair does change, it's just very gradual. When I was a kid, there were all kinds of big tractors in the area called "Machinery Hill." And you could actually climb up and sit in them! How cool! Now, there's still "Machinery Hill," but all the big tractors are gone. About the biggest thing you can sit in is a John Deere Gator. Wow. The gradual changing of the Fair is a little bit like life itself. Life usually doesn't change radically, but slowly, almost imperceptibly, not day to day, but year to year.

The Fair is really the last hurrah of summer, before kids have to go back to school, before all the leaves change and winter sets in. Here in Minnesota we have hot, humid summers, and long, cold, snowy winters, and not much inbetween. So you have to make the most of the nice weather. And the weather here is always a topic of conversation. Usually because something weird is happening, like it's snowing in May, or something like that.

The best time to go to the Fair is early in the morning, before the crowds get there. It's quiet, almost peaceful. And then you look out at the streets at about 2PM, and it's just a teeming mass of people. Give me your poor, your huddled masses yearning for fried foods...

This year at the Fair I petted a donkey, saw a 500-pound pumpkin, saw crop art bashing Republicans, ate a corn dog, (they're better than Pronto Pups) drank a milkshake from the dairy building, saw goats chewing on their metal pens, saw the biggest boar in the state, (over 1,000 pounds) saw a breathtaking photo of the 35-W bridge collapse in the Fine Arts building, walked a kajillion miles, cursed huge crowds of slow-moving people with strollers...where else could I do all this? Only at the Fair.