Following These Footprints

Check this out.

A few years back I opined that the second great Miles Davis quintet was the greatest group of musicians ever assembled in one collective. I stand by that, and reprint the piece, below.

Listening to what they do on the seminal Wayne Shorter composition, “Footprints”, is as good a case that can be made for their sublime status.

Even after 20+ years, I find myself out-and-out marveling at what Tony Williams does on this track. The double-time, the outside-the-pocket pyrotechnics, the swing and the mother-loving soul. This is, truly, as good as it gets.

Miles Davis.

Herbie Hancock.

Wayne Shorter.

Tony Williams.

Ron Carter.

Those men, individually, are some of the most important and brilliant musicians of the last century. Together? Forget about it. This quintet (Davis’s second famous fivesome) was an unstoppable force and they made some of the greatest albums. In jazz music? In any music.

Miles and Herbie need little, if any introduction or elaboration. They were gods then and they remain gods, now. Seriously, you could spend years studying and absorbing the almost overwhelming volume of music they’ve made. And while the sheer quantity is impressive, the quality is astonishing.

Ron Carter (who, like Hancock and Shorter, is still with us) is certainly one of the best loved and highly regarded bassists. He also plays a mean cello (check him out making some of the most beautifully odd, or oddly beautiful music you’re ever likely to hear with the immaculate Eric Dolphy on Out There). To get a handle on his legacy, take a peak at his Wikipedia page. Just look at the number of albums –and the variety of brilliant musicians– his name is associated with.

Wayne Shorter is, for my money, possibly the most underrated genius in any genre of music. To be sure, he gets plenty of props within jazz circles and the people who know really know. And in his wise, humble way, he is probably cool with that. But his name does not come up quickly enough, or often enough in discussions of the true masters. And aside from his considerable proficiency on the horn(s), he is also among the most distinctive and consistently satisfying composers. And while Miles, who was without peer in assembling talent, had the vision and deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit (he was the lion, after all), a good chunk of the material on those second quintet sessions was written by Shorter. And here’s where it gets unbelievable: all through the mid-to-late ’60s –at the same time they were in The Quintet– he (as well as Hancock) was dropping epic masterpieces on the Blue Note label (think Maiden Voyage, Speak Like A Child, JuJu, Speak No Evil –for starters).

And finally, the wunderkind. If you were to make a short list –and I will, someday soon– of the best drummers (I won’t say “in jazz” because the best drummers in jazz are, virtually without exception, the best drummers period), Williams would be difficult to top. He is generally regarded as one of the most exciting and original drummers (and if you think the invocation of the word “original” –that most unoriginal of invocations– is facile, just listen to him: few, if any, drummers could change tempos and go from smooth to scorching like him). Discovered by (the great) Jackie McLean, he played on his first session as a sixteen year old (on Vertigo, along with Herbie Hancock). Check him out on McLean’s next album, One Step Beyond:

Whenever the topic of Jazz comes up (why I love it; why anyone else should like it), I invariably mention John Coltrane since he is, in many regards, the ideal starting point and the one you always, always come back to. And then there is Mingus. And Monk. And many others (obviously).

But aside from John Coltrane’s classic quartet, there is no jazz band that can hold a candle to the second Miles Davis quintet. And if their time together was brief (relatively speaking), they more than made the most of their partnership. And, needless to say, they all went on to make several more decades of miraculous music.

Here is a quintet, from the quintet.

(Wait, I’m not going to elaborate on why this music is exceptional or what makes it indelible? Of course not. I’m not inclined to embarrass myself, or the musicians, attempting to unravel the inscrutable or explain the lightning-in-a-recording-studio chemistry that blessed these sessions. And, as (the great) Dewey Redman said, it’s all, ultimately, in “The Ear of the Behearer”.)

If this is the first time you are hearing this music, do yourself a favor and make sure it’s not your last. But I don’t need to tell you that, right?

“Circle”, from Miles Smiles:

“Pinocchio” from Nefertiti:

“Water Babies”, from Water Babies:

“Black Comedy” from Miles In The Sky:

“Agitation”, from E.S.P. (live):

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What’s It All About, Then? Part Two: Jazz, Featuring Wayne Shorter (Revisited)

Wayne Shorter is about to turn 80.

He continues to record, play and inspire.

Of the many musicians I admire and seek in some way to emulate (as artists, as people), Shorter is near the top of the list.

His dedication to his craft, his modesty and the astonishing body of work he continues to produce make him a natural source of good natured envy.

How does he do it? A recent piece in the New York Times sheds some excellent insight (check out the article HERE).

Shorter is always a peaceful, yet powerful force (in his playing, in his life) and his meditations on mortality and musicianship are never trite or typical:

To me there’s no such thing as beginning or end,” Mr. Shorter said. “I always say don’t discard the past completely because you have to bring with you the most valuable elements of experience, to be sort of like a flashlight. A flashlight into the unknown.”

A quote like that goes a long way to elucidating some of what moves this amazing man, but as usual, we need only to listen to the sounds to be reminded what some of us are capable of achieving.

6/8/2010:

There are not many people who have any idea what it’s like to be this cool. Even Wayne Shorter does not know, because he is too cool to stop and consider how cool he is. That’s what people like me are here for. And along with his partner in crime Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter has been one of the coolest dudes on the planet for more than half a century.

It was only last week, while talking about the (second) Miles Davis Quintet, i.e., the best working band to ever make music, that I had this to say about Wayne Shorter:

Wayne Shorter is, for my money, possibly the most underrated genius in any genre of music. To be sure, he gets plenty of props within jazz circles and the people who know really know. And in his wise, humble way, he is probably cool with that. But his name does not come up quickly enough, or often enough in discussions of the true masters. And aside from his considerable proficiency on the horn(s), he is also among the most distinctive and consistently satisfying composers. And while Miles, who was without peer in assembling talent, had the vision and deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit (he was the lion, after all), a good chunk of the material on those second quintet sessions was written by Shorter. And here’s where it gets unbelievable: all through the mid-to-late ’60s –at the same time they were in The Quintet– he (as well as Hancock) was dropping epic masterpieces on the Blue Note label (think Maiden Voyage, Speak Like A Child, JuJu, Speak No Evil –for starters).

It occurs to me that while I occassionally wax ecstatic about jazz music (in general) and some of my all-time musical heroes (in particular), I have recently and with good reason invoked both the heavyweight champion John Coltrane and the man I unashamedly use words like “immortal” and “saint” to describe, Eric Dolphy. But I realize, when it comes to sax players and accessibility, perhaps I’ve been remiss to not put Wayne Shorter at the top of the list. Not that either Coltrane or Dolphy are necessarily intimidating, but they tend to both be acquired tastes (and by acquired taste I mean once you get it, you are on board for life and you won’t be satisfied until you own everything either man ever did –even the stuff like late-period Coltrane which you may never even listen to but you still must possess, for all the right and obvious reasons).

Wayne Shorter, on the other hand, is like imported dark chocolate. Or fresh Kona coffee beans. Or a 2004 Brunello (or a 1964 Brunello for that matter). Or whatever type of car people who appreciate cars get excited about. You get the picture. Wayne Shorter is, in other words, the authentic item that aficionados savor, but whom virtually anyone with unpolluted ears can immediately appreciate. We odd and admittedly obsessed folks who really love jazz have no agenda. Really. (I’m not talking about the aesthetic prigs who have nothing good to say about anything other than the music they endorse; that is a certain type of poseur who has always been amongst us, whether the topic is music, literature, movies or wine or food or coffee or, especially these days, beer, et cetera.) All we care about is disabusing opinionated but clueless blowhards of the notion that jazz is (insert cliche here: to include “old-fashioned dance music”, “boring”, “musical masturbation”, “shrieking”, “easy listening” (!!!), “overwhelming”, et cetera) what it is or, put another way, what it is so manifestly not.

Life is too short to try and pick up something you simply can’t appreciate. But if you’re willing to give it a shot you just might be surprised. So consider this five song sampler from Wayne Shorter a win/win: if you don’t like this, you don’t like jazz; if you do like it, welcome to the rest of your life.

“Deluge”, from JuJu:

“Speak No Evil”, from Speak No Evil:

“502 Blues (Drinkin’ and Drivin’)”, from Adam’s Apple:

“Miyako”, from Schizophrenia:

“De Pois Do Amor, O Vazio”, from Odyssey of Iska:

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Beauty is a Rare Thing: Celebrating International Jazz Day (Revisited)

All hope is not lost. At least enough people are still making –and listening to– jazz that we can even attempt to initiate what hopefully becomes an ongoing occasion.

In a piece celebrating one of my heroes, Eric Dolphy, I made an honest attempt to address what jazz music means to me and why I consider it an obligation to share this passion (full piece here):

I know that jazz music has made my life approximately a million times more satisfying and enriching than it would have been had I never been fortunate enough to discover, study and savor it.

During the last 4-5 years, I’ve had (or taken) the opportunity to write in some detail about, to name a relative handful, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, John Zorn, Henry Threadgill and Herbie Hancock. This has been important to me, because I feel that in some small way, if I can help other people better appreciate, or discover any (or all) of these artists, I will be sharing something bigger and better than anything I alone am capable of creating.

Before this blog (and PopMatters, where virtually all of my music writing appears), and during the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested, now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particuarly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

I have, in short, done my best to provide context and articulate why some of us continue to worship at this altar of organic American music. Naturally that discussion has included Miles, Mingus, Monk. And of course, Coltrane. With any honest discussion of jazz we can quickly get dragged into an abyss of snobbishness (however unintentional), trivial footnoting and the self-sabotaging desire (however well-intended) to include all the key characters. So for the novice, it’s not necessary to begin at the very beginning. Indeed, it might be advised to get a taste of Coltrane, who is at once accessible and imperative. Here’s my .02:

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he is among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and his unsurpassed proficiency in its simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone.

Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Entire piece here. Also, this:

The title of this post comes courtesy of the brilliant Ornette Coleman (speaking of misunderstood geniuses; to call him an iconoclast is like calling Marine Boy a good swimmer). More on him here and a crucial preview of the shape of jazz that came, below:

Jazz is not only fun to listen to (duh), it’s fun to analyze and obsess over. For instance, a short treatise on some of the more sublime sax solos can be found here. A case is made for the best jazz outfit ever assembled, here.

And a loving ode to contemporary jazz (for all the haters who won’t acknowledge it and the uninitiated who are entirely unaware of it). A taste:

What happened next is, again depending on one’s perspective, the languid death march of America’s music or a continuation of an art that seamlessly integrates virtually every noise and culture from around the globe. A certain, and predictable, cadre of critics submerged their heads in the sand and bitched about better days. The awake and aware folks who make and receive these offerings celebrate an ever-evolving music that resists boundaries and is capable of communication transcending language and explanation. At its best it is an ideal synergy of expression and integrity.

Anyone who knows anything understands that some of the best jazz music ever was created in the ’70s (no, really) and a great deal of amazing music was made in the ’80s (seriously). But in the ’90s and into the ’00s we’ve seen jazz music consistently –and successfully– embrace other forms of music (rock, rap, electronica, etc.) and end up somewhere that remains jazz, yet something else altogether. There are myriad examples, of course, but this small sampler of five selections might be illustrative, and enlightening. The uninitiated may be surprised, even astonished, at how alive and accessible this “other” music really is.

One could (and should) say more about artists such as Lester Bowie, Jamie Saft, Marco Benevento, The Bad Plus, Critters Buggin, Garage a Trois and Mostly Other People Do The Killing, all of whom have incorporated our (increasingly) info-overload existence into their sound. Slack-jawed and stale-souled haters may demur at even calling this Jazz, or course. And of course the last laugh is on them because most of these musicians would care less than a little what you call it. They understand that the shape of jazz that came is always turning into what we’ll be listening to tomorrow.

The entire thing, with some very tasty audio samples, here.

For now, this (which does more to convey the ecstasy of improvisation and community, not to mention solidarity and soul, than a billion blog posts ever could):

In the end, jazz is always about now and the wonderful possibilities of tomorrow, but it also achieves what the best music of any genre does, and brings us back, always, to the beginning.

To be continued…

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Beauty is a Rare Thing: Celebrating International Jazz Day

All hope is not lost. At least enough people are still making –and listening to– jazz that we can even attempt to initiate what hopefully becomes an ongoing occasion.

In a piece celebrating one of my heroes, Eric Dolphy, I made an honest attempt to address what jazz music means to me and why I consider it an obligation to share this passion (full piece here):

I know that jazz music has made my life approximately a million times more satisfying and enriching than it would have been had I never been fortunate enough to discover, study and savor it.

During the last 4-5 years, I’ve had (or taken) the opportunity to write in some detail about, to name a relative handful, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, John Zorn, Henry Threadgill and Herbie Hancock. This has been important to me, because I feel that in some small way, if I can help other people better appreciate, or discover any (or all) of these artists, I will be sharing something bigger and better than anything I alone am capable of creating.

Before this blog (and PopMatters, where virtually all of my music writing appears), and during the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested, now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particuarly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

I have, in short, done my best to provide context and articulate why some of us continue to worship at this altar of organic American music. Naturally that discussion has included Miles, Mingus, Monk. And of course, Coltrane. With any honest discussion of jazz we can quickly get dragged into an abyss of snobbishness (however unintentional), trivial footnoting and the self-sabotaging desire (however well-intended) to include all the key characters. So for the novice, it’s not necessary to begin at the very beginning. Indeed, it might be advised to get a taste of Coltrane, who is at once accessible and imperative. Here’s my .02:

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he is among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and his unsurpassed proficiency in its simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone.

Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Entire piece here. Also, this:

The title of this post comes courtesy of the brilliant Ornette Coleman (speaking of misunderstood geniuses; to call him an iconoclast is like calling Marine Boy a good swimmer). More on him here and a crucial preview of the shape of jazz that came, below:

Jazz is not only fun to listen to (duh), it’s fun to analyze and obsess over. For instance, a short treatise on some of the more sublime sax solos can be found here. A case is made for the best jazz outfit ever assembled, here.

And a loving ode to contemporary jazz (for all the haters who won’t acknowledge it and the uninitiated who are entirely unaware of it). A taste:

What happened next is, again depending on one’s perspective, the languid death march of America’s music or a continuation of an art that seamlessly integrates virtually every noise and culture from around the globe. A certain, and predictable, cadre of critics submerged their heads in the sand and bitched about better days. The awake and aware folks who make and receive these offerings celebrate an ever-evolving music that resists boundaries and is capable of communication transcending language and explanation. At its best it is an ideal synergy of expression and integrity.

Anyone who knows anything understands that some of the best jazz music ever was created in the ’70s (no, really) and a great deal of amazing music was made in the ’80s (seriously). But in the ’90s and into the ’00s we’ve seen jazz music consistently –and successfully– embrace other forms of music (rock, rap, electronica, etc.) and end up somewhere that remains jazz, yet something else altogether. There are myriad examples, of course, but this small sampler of five selections might be illustrative, and enlightening. The uninitiated may be surprised, even astonished, at how alive and accessible this “other” music really is.

One could (and should) say more about artists such as Lester Bowie, Jamie Saft, Marco Benevento, The Bad Plus, Critters Buggin, Garage a Trois and Mostly Other People Do The Killing, all of whom have incorporated our (increasingly) info-overload existence into their sound. Slack-jawed and stale-souled haters may demur at even calling this Jazz, or course. And of course the last laugh is on them because most of these musicians would care less than a little what you call it. They understand that the shape of jazz that came is always turning into what we’ll be listening to tomorrow.

The entire thing, with some very tasty audio samples, here.

For now, this (which does more to convey the ecstasy of improvisation and community, not to mention solidarity and soul, than a billion blog posts ever could):

In the end, jazz is always about now and the wonderful possibilities of tomorrow, but it also achieves what the best music of any genre does, and brings us back, always, to the beginning.

To be continued…

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In Defense of Good Sax, Part Two

Wherein five jazz saxophonists “slum” and make truly indelible contributions to five well-loved and much-played rock songs.

Considering one of the all-time ALL TIME greats (Sonny Rollins) is on this list, an anecdote from the sessions seems in order:

MICK JAGGER: “I had a lot of trepidation about working with Sonny Rollins. This guy’s a giant of the saxophone. Charlie said, ‘He’s never going to want to play on a Rolling Stones record!’ I said, ‘Yes he is going to want to.’ And he did and he was wonderful. I said, ‘Would you like me to stay out there in the studio?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you tell me where you want me to play and DANCE the part out.’ So I did that. And that’s very important: communication in hand, dance, whatever. You don’t have to do a whole ballet, but sometimes that movement of the shoulder tells the guy to kick in on the beat.”

5. Ronnie Ross on Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”:

4. Dick Parry on Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them”:

3. David Sanborn on David Bowie’s “Young Americans”:

2. Wayne Shorter on Steely Dan’s “Aja”:

1. Sonny Rollins on The Rolling Stones’ “Waiting on a Friend”:

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What’s It All About, Then? Part Four: Jazz, Featuring McCoy Tyner

It occurs to me that I’ve said little, on the record, about McCoy Tyner.

This is a shame, since he is one of my all-time favorite musicians and a case could be made that he has, pound for pound, been the most prolific, consistently brilliant and straight-out important jazz musician of the last half-century.

That he made music (and history) as part of the “Classic Quartet” with John Coltrane is enough to ensure his immortality in jazz circles. That he simultaneously was making remarkable albums under his own name only adds to his legend. That he was also appearing with compatriots (like Wayne Shorter) and appearing on masterpiece after masterpiece for the Blue Note label would seal the deal. But that all occurred in the ’60s. Not enough people know that Tyner continued to make astonishing music into the ’70s and has not slowed down since. Indeed, his streak of albums from the late ’60s (starting with Expansions through the mid-to-late ’70s with Trident) represents a body of work that, by itself, can stand alongside anything anyone has ever done (in any genre, by the way).

Hyperbole? Hardly. Tyner epitomizes the restless spirit and inspiration that characterizes all of our great artists: he was already a master (for whatever that’s worth –and for the purposes of any discussion about jazz, it’s worth a great deal) by the mid-’60s; his work with Coltrane could be studied and analyzed the way entire catalogs of music get dissected by critics. He was neither sated nor satisfied, so he kept pushing and his work became increasingly ambitious, wide in scope and rewarding. His playing on albums like Expansions, Extensions, Enlightenment or Sahara is extraordinary, combining the proficiency and power with the uniquely affirmative expression he ceaselessly conjures up and conveys. It does, at times, sound like two people are playing two different pianos: there is so much going on, such emotion and feeling, but with little if any of the harshness or imperial perfection of late Coltrane. Similar in this regard to Mingus, there is a constant intensity and enormity in the playing, but instead of overwhelming it buoys you and carries you along.

In the ’70s, he began incorporating a far-reaching (literally) sensibility into his compositions, and there are traces of Africa and the far East interwoven into the mix. This is World music with a capital-W and much of the material on the aforementioned Asante and Sahara (both revealing titles on multiple levels) sound less like jazz and more like an uncategorizable other type of music: deeply spiritual and incredibly powerful, yet engaging and even, at times, ebullient.

Here is a brief tour of the progressions Tyner was making from the late ’60s through the mid-’70s. Enjoy the ride and go seek more.

Peresina (1968):

Message from the Nile (1970):

Asante (1970):

Valley of Life (1972)

Once I Loved (1976):

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The Shock Heard ‘Round the World: ‘Bitches Brew’ Turns 40

Shortly before his death in 1991, Miles Davis remarked “You don’t change music, music changes you.” While that statement is unassailable regarding the vast majority of artists, no matter how influential, Miles Davis was definitely an exception. Indeed, the Man with the Horn was being uncharacteristically modest, and he knew it. He did, after all, actually change music several times, and he was normally the first person to remind doubters and neophytes of this fact. His ultimate achievement—beyond the staggering scope of his recorded works—may have been providing a forum where the best players could congregate. In this creative cauldron that he tended to over the better part of four decades, Miles served as inventor, instigator and mentor. The list of legends that cut their teeth in his employ remains astounding: John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and John McLaughlin, just to name a handful.

Here was a man that could have coasted on a richly-deserved reputation, and even if he’d never strayed far from the formula he perfected in the mid-‘50s, or late ‘50s, or mid-‘60s (get the picture?), he would have undoubtedly made remarkable music. Of course, Miles scoffed at the notion of playing it safe, and constantly created challenges for himself. Like any exceptional artist, Miles was restless and did not (or could not allow himself to) care about yesterday. His legacy might be best summed up by suggesting that he was not interested merely in excellence; he wanted to matter. Having gone from being the young buck riding shotgun into bebop eternity with Charlie Parker in the ‘40s, to assembling some of the better players on the scene to form his first great quintet in the mid-‘50s, to surrounding himself with a young gang of geniuses almost half his age (his second great quintet in the mid-‘60s), the moves Miles made as the ‘70s began seem, with the benefit of hindsight, like magnetic fields pulling him into the future—and taking music with him.

At no point did Miles risk more—while most profoundly influencing the shape of jazz to come—than in the second half of 1969, when he oversaw the sessions that would eventually drop Bitches Brew on a wide-eyed world. Perhaps the grandest irony of all the misguided hot air surrounding the origins, intent and influence of Bitches Brew is the chuckleheaded charge that Miles had somehow “sold out”. Sure, 20-minute psychedelic funk mash-ups through the amp darkly were squarely aimed at the pop consumer circles. It was a ludicrous charge, then and it remains more than a little offensive, today.

Certainly, the fact that jazz and rock took a few pages from this script only augments the lightning Miles snared in his recording studio. The subsequent misfortune that an increasingly watered-down devolution of this sound mutated into the saccharine miasma called “smooth jazz” should be laid at Davis’s doorstep about as reasonably as we can blame Einstein for man’s detonation of nuclear weapons. This album found its audience the second it hit the streets and it continues to attract new converts every day. It does not receive the universal approbation accorded to Birth of the Cool or Kind of Blue, and it was not necessarily intended to. Miles was happy with it, the fans remain infatuated with it, and like any worthwhile work of art, it can—and does—speak for itself.

A few words are nevertheless warranted for the folks who, opportunistically or ignorantly, dismiss the album and consider it a blight that signaled the beginning of the end of a so-called golden era of jazz. The problem here lies mainly with the self-appointed culture cops, our ever-shrinking jazz intelligentsia and the hipper-than-thou historians who won’t accept that they simply don’t get it. Let’s name names: cantankerous blowhards like Stanley Crouch and clueless if influential neophytes like Ken Burns have either damned Bitches Brew (and post-‘60s Miles work in general) with faint praise or dismissed it altogether. For a lot of the critics with whom this work never registered, Bitches Brew signified the first time a butterfly turned back into a caterpillar.

And here we are, forty years later, celebrating what is commonly considered one of the seminal long-players in all music. All of which simply illustrates that Miles was miles ahead of the crowd, as usual. As always, he was less interested in following trends as he was in establishing them. Finally, as it relates to jazz music, this is where B.C. becomes A.D.

Here’s the thing: it wasn’t as though Davis dropped Bitches Brew on an unsuspecting public. Unprepared, possibly; but anyone who had listened to the previous three albums knew Miles was up to something. Certainly, someone who had not followed his work after Seven Steps to Heaven was in for a nice surprise; even anyone unfamiliar with the albums that came after 1968’s Nefertiti could not have been adequately up to speed. In actuality, the albums that led up to Bitches Brew are like a trail of breadcrumbs tracing the path to an inevitable house party. The twenty-six minute “Circle in the Round” made it clear that Miles would—and could—stretch out to ecstatic effect. The electric piano (and electric guitar) on Miles in the Sky were harbingers of the (semi) plugged-in and sustained compositions on Filles de Kilimanjaro. The languid pace, “modern” instrumentation and incorporation of rock and R&B (James Brown, Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix were all implicit and explicit—and important—sources of inspiration) elements set in place the template for the new formula. This approach reached a preliminary apex during the In A Silent Way sessions, which saw the pace turn cool bordering on glacial. Despite the augmented band and instrumentation, the sound is crystalline (the triple-keyboard assault of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul remains revelatory): listening to any section of this album is still a bit like walking barefoot in the dark on a frozen lake—only warmer. All of which is to say Bitches Brew may not have been a predictable next step, but it was the inexorable one.

And this all went down forty years ago, which means The Age of Aquarius is officially middle-aged (never mind how old the young and middle-aged hippies who rang it in have become). Perhaps the world’s ears have matured—and heard—enough over these decades to understand—and appreciate—Bitches Brew. Either way, if any album obliges the by-now requisite milestone/anniversary reissue, it’s this one. The great news is that this 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition has all the original (remastered) tracks, some bonus cuts and two extra discs. The first is a live set recorded at Tanglewood in August, 1970. The second is a DVD featuring a never-before-seen concert from November, 1969. Needless to say, for jazz fans, Miles freaks and music aficionados, this must be considered an imperative acquisition.

And for the uninitiated? There is no better time to jump in; this brew tastes as good as it ever did. And regarding the stylistic and cultural changes that have ensued since late ’69, what might have once sounded scary should seem almost accessible. To listeners who have absorbed progressive rock, world music, trip-hop and the ambient dreamscapes that drugs and technology have helped create, this experience might impart the shock of recognition: this is the primordial stew that all of these advancements oozed out of. (For the full and unfettered experience, you need to acquire the box set that includes the complete Bitches Brew sessions, which was released several years back.)

Start with the artwork. Innovative and incendiary then, this double-gatefold LP—which would have (and still could) convey an insider’s sort of solidarity if taped to a dorm-room wall—could now be respectably framed in an office or living room. Miles, utilizing the considerable skills of artist Abdul Mati Klarwein, took James Brown one step further and the immediate visual message here shouts out Say it once, say it loud, I am African and I’m proud. Of course the mission statement above the title declaring that this effort signifies “Directions In Music By Miles Davis” is both a boast and a simple declaration of fact. If we no longer sit around and stare at album covers while we absorb the sounds (we may still stare at album covers but do we absorb the sounds?), we always have YouTube.

Regarding these “new directions”, music was already changing (it always is); Miles was clever enough to understand the new possibilities being made possible by the aforementioned Mr. Brown, as well as Sly Stone and especially Jimi Hendrix. Miles, always trusting his ever-keen instincts, incorporated some of this freedom into his approach; he just happened to have the biggest and boldest freak flag, and as such he was able—and obliged—to fly it higher than anyone else. In the process he dragged jazz music, kicking and screeching, into the ‘70s—and beyond.

Let’s look at a few of the elements that were so innovative (if unsettling, or both) circa 1970. The wah-wah effects Miles used to create a surreal but visceral—even intense—sound with his horn. The 27-minute title track is “Exhibit A” of this experiment, and it is one that remains boundary-busting and slightly intimidating. The funk elements inch their way to the forefront (they would arguably reach a fruition during the subsequent Jack Johnson sessions), incorporating the R&B-meets-Rock & Roll approach epitomized by Miles’s extended reworking of Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” on Filles de Kilimanjaro’s “Mademoiselle Mabry”. These elements are all channeled through a sprawling, pan-cultural perspective on tracks like “Pharaoh’s Dance” and “Spanish Key.”

Producer Teo Macero (ever reliable, patient and encouraging—as the hysterical studio chatter before the “Part Something” take of “Corrado”, from the Complete Bitches Brew Sessions box set illustrates: (Teo) “Okay, is this gonna’ be part two, or…?” (Miles, hissing) “It’s gonna’ be PART NINE WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE MUTHAFUCKA?”) continues the heavy lifting he did during the post-recording edits for In A Silent Way. Like George Martin with The Beatles, enough can never be said about how crucial Macero’s contributions were to the final products. The extended, but never aimless improvisatory jams were meticulously multi-tracked, then spliced, and resorted, providing both boundary and momentum (if not necessarily any sort of musical “logic” that contemporary ears were accustomed to).

The augmented personnel impart an obvious heft to the proceedings, but it never feels crowded. Indeed, it never even feels busy, primarily because Miles was always after feeling above all else, and no musician other than the young Coltrane ever attempted to “overplay” in his presence. For instance, Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet adds a beefy bottom, underneath the bass, giving this postmodern music an almost prehistoric vibe. Young drummer Lenny White was brought in to (as Miles dictated) serve as the “salt and spices” to accompany Jack DeJohnette’s muscular groove. Dave Holland provides an anchor for this rollicking ship with his acoustic bass, while Harvey Brooks bobs and weaves around the rhythm with his Fender Bass. Chick Corea provides ongoing color commentary via electric piano, and is joined by Joe Zawinul and Larry Young (each also using electric pianos) on several tracks. John McLaughlin is the secret weapon throughout, consistently providing subtle but unmistakable embellishment. Most of these moving parts mingle to sublime effect on the beyond-cool “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down”, where the band stalks the groove like a snake, moving calmly and assuredly by instinct through the darkening woods.

The star, besides Miles, remains the stalwart Wayne Shorter who, at this point in his career, continued (however improbably) to astonish each time out. His ethereal soprano saxophone on In A Silent Way would seem unimprovable, but here he lends a grace and class that elevates what would otherwise only be a near-perfect recording. Like Miles, Shorter (a master composer himself) was obsessed with texture and atmosphere. His presence makes a track like “Spanish Key” almost impossible to dislike: his graceful runs soar above the din and certainly point the way toward the truly gorgeous work he would do on Moto Grosso Feio and The Odyssey of Iska the following year.  The mood over the course of the first five songs is alternately foreboding and restless, like a massive storm slowly building. It finally breaks on the magisterial album-closer, “Sanctuary”, which finally provides a manner of relief—however tentative. The song sounds like a plugged-in outtake from Sketches of Spain, and features some of Davis and Shorter’s greatest work. If most of the proceedings remain music that one can’t (shouldn’t?) listen to on a regular rotation, “Sanctuary” sits near the summit and can subsist in peace alongside anything else Miles ever did (you got that, Stanley Crouch?).

Still on the fence? The one-two punch of live material bookend this material brilliantly, and are both worthy additions to your collection. The DVD, filmed during a concert in Copenhagen on November 4, 1969 (about five months before Bitches Brew was officially unleashed), previews what is just around the corner. It’s not unlike a jazz Altamont; it signals the end of an amazing decade but the only casualty captured on tape is convention. The performance, lasting just over an hour, is one continuous flow of music with songs spilling over and into one another. The curtain opens and the band is already playing: it is almost unreal how unvarnished live acts (especially jazz) were back then—no dry ice, no pyrotechnics, no fake heroics or dubbed in embellishment; it’s just a live jam. The crowd is quiet, respectful, and almost entirely white. On most of the selections Wayne Shorter functions as a sort of chaser to Miles’s 180 Proof solos, restoring a semblance of collected calm after The Sorcerer’s short blasts of piss and vinegar. Jack DeJohnette maintains a pulsating beat, sounding like a slightly more muscular Tony Williams. If it’s possible for a man with a beard to have a baby face, it is the young Dave Holland, who suffuses restraint behind his upright bass. On the front line, Chick Corea fills out the contours in between Miles’s focused and powerful runs. Every time Shorter drops in his soprano cascades with placid, almost cerebral intensity, his eyes shut tight in composed concentration. It is a delight to have access to this footage.

The concert recorded at Tanglewood, on August 18, 1970, takes stock of what has gone down and offers Field Notes from the future. Gary Bartz replaces Wayne Shorter and Keith Jarrett adds organ to bolster Corea’s electric piano. Holland and DeJohnette are still holding down the fort, augmented by the percussion of Airto Moreira. A filthy funk abounds and the band keeps the pedal to the metal throughout this abbreviated (43 minute) set. One can appreciate how the origins of “jam band” took firm root in this era: like the DVD, this is one extended groove. The band locks in and runs through the numbers in a deliberate but not choreographed fashion. There is no doubt that Miles feels invigorated by the youthful excitement around him, and the team is obviously eager to earn the maestro’s favor. It works.

And so, once the fairy dust settles and all is played and done, you may find yourself—here in the yesternow of 2010—asking what all the fuss was about. The question, of course, is the answer: this is what all the fuss was about. Same as it ever was.

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/128987-miles-davis-bitches-brew-40th-anniversary-legacy-edition/

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If Two Jazz Fans Fight on the Internet, Does Anyone Hear It?

Kind of like two trees falling in the forest, right?

Well, for anyone (and I mean “one”) who may wonder what it sounds like when two jazz fans fight, here is the ugly, unvarnished tale of the tape (to be cont’d?).

Brief back story: in June I took the opportunity to express my (not particularly controversial) opinion that Miles Davis’s second great quintet was the best band of musicians to ever assemble in one group, here (the piece also appeared at PopMatters). Here is some of what I wrote:

Those men, individually, are some of the most important and brilliant musicians of the last century. Together? Forget about it. This quintet (Davis’s second famous fivesome) was an unstoppable force and they made some of the greatest albums. In jazz music? In any music.

And then, after discussing the merits of the individual players, lamented that Wayne Shorter still seems to get short shrift when all-time greats are mentioned:

Wayne Shorter is, for my money, possibly the most underrated genius in any genre of music. To be sure, he gets plenty of props within jazz circles and the people who know really know. And in his wise, humble way, he is probably cool with that. But his name does not come up quickly enough, or often enough in discussions of the true masters. And aside from his considerable proficiency on the horn(s), he is also among the most distinctive and consistently satisfying composers. And while Miles, who was without peer in assembling talent, had the vision and deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit (he was the lion, after all), a good chunk of the material on those second quintet sessions was written by Shorter. And here’s where it gets unbelievable: all through the mid-to-late ’60s –at the same time they were in The Quintet– he (as well as Hancock) was dropping epic masterpieces on the Blue Note label (think Maiden Voyage, Speak Like A Child, JuJu, Speak No Evil –for starters).

So then, about a week later, I went ahead and sang the praises of Wayne Shorter in greater detail, here (a piece that also appeared at PopMatters). This is how I concluded the piece:

Wayne Shorter, on the other hand, is like imported dark chocolate. Or fresh Kona coffee beans. Or a 2004 Brunello (or a 1964 Brunello for that matter). Or whatever type of car people who appreciate cars get excited about. You get the picture. Wayne Shorter is, in other words, the authentic item that aficionados savor, but whom virtually anyone with unpolluted ears can immediately appreciate. We odd and admittedly obsessed folks who really love jazz have no agenda. Really. (I’m not talking about the aesthetic prigs who have nothing good to say about anything other than the music they endorse; that is a certain type of poseur who has always been amongst us, whether the topic is music, literature, movies or wine or food or coffee or, especially these days, beer, et cetera.) All we care about is disabusing opinionated but clueless blowhards of the notion that jazz is (insert cliche here: to include “old-fashioned dance music”, “boring”, “musical masturbation”, “shrieking”, “easy listening” (!!!), “overwhelming”, et cetera) what it is or, put another way, what it is so manifestly not.

Life is too short to try and pick up something you simply can’t appreciate. But if you’re willing to give it a shot you just might be surprised. So consider this five song sampler from Wayne Shorter a win/win: if you don’t like this, you don’t like jazz; if you do like it, welcome to the rest of your life.

I’ll confess I did not think anything I offered up was particularly debatable or objectionable. But when it comes to the so-called jazz intellegentia, all bets are off. Sure enough, a very hip(ster) reader of PopMatters felt obliged to chime in and (I have to hope unintentionally) misinterpret both the literal words and –more egregiously– the entire spirit of where I was coming from and why I was writing.

His letter, which prompted a response in kind, are below.

Him:

I am sorry, but I find your article very stupid.

I am a jazzman, I love jazz and I can’t live without it, but when I see sentences like, if you don’t like this, then you don’t like jazz, I can say anything but “stupid”.

First, you can love basie or billy without loving modern jazz. Jazz rythm is the most important thingin my life but it can’t be different for other people.

Twice, I know hundreds of people who like jazz and lots of them don’t like Wayne that much and it doesn’t mean they don’t like modern jazz. Moreover they may be much more advanced in their tastes than you, when it comes to real jazz ( they love Cecil taylor, the last thing of Coltrane and so on…)

You can give your opinion and as you say you are here for that, but don’t do what you are fight against. Let people have their own tastes and enlarge their tastes, not the contrary.

Best,

Serge

Me:

Serge,

Appreciate the thoughts and while I’m disappointed you found the piece “very stupid” I’m glad it provided you with the opportunity to vindicate the honor of those *really* misunderstood and sophisticated jazz aficionados (presumably for whom Wayne Shorter is simply too conventional).

Unfortunately, and more than a little ironically, your protestation kind of misses the purpose of my rather tongue-in-cheek point. Which is: the proposition that if a person, who has never taken the time (for understandable and legitimate reasons) to check out jazz does not find much to like in these rather accessible and representative post-bop recordings by Shorter, it’s unlikely that they will find much in the more free and “out” works of the last half-century (and for the record, I endorse Cecil Taylor, thank you very little, but find that there are two primary reasons I don’t recommend him first when talking to would-be jazz fans: one, however much I dig ‘Silent Tongues’, in my experience it’s not exactly an ideal aperitif for the uninitiated; two, dropping late period Coltrane (which I actually discuss in a recent appraisal of Trane’s career) or Cecil Taylor or Henry Threadgill as proof of my avant-garde bona fides would make me precisely the insufferable poseur I excoriate in this piece).

That said, I reckon there has to be at least one or maybe three people out there who ‘Speak No Evil’ would not speak to, but who would connect, at first listen, with Sun Ra’s ‘Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy’. Likewise, I am sure there are more than a handful of folks who just love pre-bop jazz but don’t care for anything after Coleman Hawkins; the problem is, they are all 130 years old.

The central impetus of this piece (and the previous entry on Eric Dolphy, and whatever subsequent ones I write) is to hopefully turn on a handful of open-minded listeners to some great music that—whether because of some insidious stereotypes that still exist about jazz, or because they encounter uber-hipsters who feel that John Zorn sold out after ‘Naked City’, or Albert Ayler sold out…by dying, which understandably confirms the worst clichés about how *real* jazz fans roll—they might find worthwhile. It is a humble endeavor that I imagine artists like Wayne Shorter might even appreciate—perish the thought!

Cheers,

Sean

For even unconvertable jazz haters, Mr. Shorter casts a long shadow –and you’ve probably heard him before, even if you don’t realize it.

Steely Dan’s “Aja” (featuring Wayne Shorter):

Portishead’s “Strangers” (which features two samples, particularly the DOPE one that opens the tune, from Weather Report’s “Elegant People”, composed by Wayne Shorter; that’s him on the sax…):

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What’s It All About, Then? Part Two: Jazz, Featuring Wayne Shorter

There are not many people who have any idea what it’s like to be this cool. Even Wayne Shorter does not know, because he is too cool to stop and consider how cool he is. That’s what people like me are here for. And along with his partner in crime Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter has been one of the coolest dudes on the planet for more than half a century.

It was only last week, while talking about the (second) Miles Davis Quintet, i.e., the best working band to ever make music, that I had this to say about Wayne Shorter:

Wayne Shorter is, for my money, possibly the most underrated genius in any genre of music. To be sure, he gets plenty of props within jazz circles and the people who know really know. And in his wise, humble way, he is probably cool with that. But his name does not come up quickly enough, or often enough in discussions of the true masters. And aside from his considerable proficiency on the horn(s), he is also among the most distinctive and consistently satisfying composers. And while Miles, who was without peer in assembling talent, had the vision and deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit (he was the lion, after all), a good chunk of the material on those second quintet sessions was written by Shorter. And here’s where it gets unbelievable: all through the mid-to-late ’60s –at the same time they were in The Quintet– he (as well as Hancock) was dropping epic masterpieces on the Blue Note label (think Maiden Voyage, Speak Like A Child, JuJu, Speak No Evil –for starters).

It occurs to me that while I occassionally wax ecstatic about jazz music (in general) and some of my all-time musical heroes (in particular), I have recently and with good reason invoked both the heavyweight champion John Coltrane and the man I unashamedly use words like “immortal” and “saint” to describe, Eric Dolphy. But I realize, when it comes to sax players and accessibility, perhaps I’ve been remiss to not put Wayne Shorter at the top of the list. Not that either Coltrane or Dolphy are necessarily intimidating, but they tend to both be acquired tastes (and by acquired taste I mean once you get it, you are on board for life and you won’t be satisfied until you own everything either man ever did –even the stuff like late-period Coltrane which you may never even listen to but you still must possess, for all the right and obvious reasons).

Wayne Shorter, on the other hand, is like imported dark chocolate. Or fresh Kona coffee beans. Or a 2004 Brunello (or a 1964 Brunello for that matter). Or whatever type of car people who appreciate cars get excited about. You get the picture. Wayne Shorter is, in other words, the authentic item that aficionados savor, but whom virtually anyone with unpolluted ears can immediately appreciate. We odd and admittedly obsessed folks who really love jazz have no agenda. Really. (I’m not talking about the aesthetic prigs who have nothing good to say about anything other than the music they endorse; that is a certain type of poseur who has always been amongst us, whether the topic is music, literature, movies or wine or food or coffee or, especially these days, beer, et cetera.) All we care about is disabusing opinionated but clueless blowhards of the notion that jazz is (insert cliche here: to include “old-fashioned dance music”, “boring”, “musical masturbation”, “shrieking”, “easy listening” (!!!), “overwhelming”, et cetera) what it is or, put another way, what it is so manifestly not.

Life is too short to try and pick up something you simply can’t appreciate. But if you’re willing to give it a shot you just might be surprised. So consider this five song sampler from Wayne Shorter a win/win: if you don’t like this, you don’t like jazz; if you do like it, welcome to the rest of your life.

“Deluge”, from JuJu:

 

“Speak No Evil”, from Speak No Evil:

“502 Blues (Drinkin’ and Drivin’)”, from Adam’s Apple:

“Miyako”, from Schizophrenia:

“De Pois Do Amor, O Vazio”, from Odyssey of Iska:

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Five Guys or, The Greatest Band of All Time (No, Really)

Miles Davis.

Herbie Hancock.

Wayne Shorter.

Tony Williams.

Ron Carter.

Those men, individually, are some of the most important and brilliant musicians of the last century. Together? Forget about it. This quintet (Davis’s second famous fivesome) was an unstoppable force and they made some of the greatest albums. In jazz music? In any music.

Miles and Herbie need little, if any introduction or elaboration. They were gods then and they remain gods, now. Seriously, you could spend years studying and absorbing the almost overwhelming volume of music they’ve made. And while the sheer quantity is impressive, the quality is astonishing.

Ron Carter (who, like Hancock and Shorter, is still with us) is certainly one of the best loved and highly regarded bassists. He also plays a mean cello (check him out making some of the most beautifully odd, or oddly beautiful music you’re ever likely to hear with the immaculate Eric Dolphy on Out There). To get a handle on his legacy, take a peak at his Wikipedia page. Just look at the number of albums –and the variety of brilliant musicians– his name is associated with.

Wayne Shorter is, for my money, possibly the most underrated genius in any genre of music. To be sure, he gets plenty of props within jazz circles and the people who know really know. And in his wise, humble way, he is probably cool with that. But his name does not come up quickly enough, or often enough in discussions of the true masters. And aside from his considerable proficiency on the horn(s), he is also among the most distinctive and consistently satisfying composers. And while Miles, who was without peer in assembling talent, had the vision and deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit (he was the lion, after all), a good chunk of the material on those second quintet sessions was written by Shorter. And here’s where it gets unbelievable: all through the mid-to-late ’60s –at the same time they were in The Quintet– he (as well as Hancock) was dropping epic masterpieces on the Blue Note label (think Maiden Voyage, Speak Like A Child, JuJu, Speak No Evil –for starters).

And finally, the wunderkind. If you were to make a short list –and I will, someday soon– of the best drummers (I won’t say “in jazz” because the best drummers in jazz are, virtually without exception, the best drummers period), Williams would be difficult to top. He is generally regarded as one of the most exciting and original drummers (and if you think the invocation of the word “original” –that most unoriginal of invocations– is facile, just listen to him: few, if any, drummers could change tempos and go from smooth to scorching like him). Discovered by (the great) Jackie McLean, he played on his first session as a sixteen year old (on Vertigo, along with Herbie Hancock). Check him out on McLean’s next album, One Step Beyond:

 

Whenever the topic of Jazz comes up (why I love it; why anyone else should like it), I invariably mention John Coltrane since he is, in many regards, the ideal starting point and the one you always, always come back to. And then there is Mingus. And Monk. And many others (obviously).

But aside from John Coltrane’s classic quartet, there is no jazz band that can hold a candle to the second Miles Davis quintet. And if their time together was brief (relatively speaking), they more than made the most of their partnership. And, needless to say, they all went on to make several more decades of miraculous music.

Here is a quintet, from the quintet.

(Wait, I’m not going to elaborate on why this music is exceptional or what makes it indelible? Of course not. I’m not inclined to embarrass myself, or the musicians, attempting to unravel the inscrutable or explain the lightning-in-a-recording-studio chemistry that blessed these sessions. And, as (the great) Dewey Redman said, it’s all, ultimately, in “The Ear of the Behearer”.)

If this is the first time you are hearing this music, do yourself a favor and make sure it’s not your last. But I don’t need to tell you that, right?

“Footprints”, from Miles Smiles:

“Pinocchio” from Nefertiti:

“Water Babies”, from Water Babies:

“Black Comedy” from Miles In The Sky:

“Agitation”, from E.S.P. (live):

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