Archive for the 'Listen Here' Category

Miles Davis

I could listen to Miles Davis all day.

Passing my waking hours with my iPod looping the three-plus hours of his music through my ears would be a quiet pleasure.

Jazz is an art form capable of spanning the emotional spectrum quickly and the trumpeter from Illinois was adept at eliciting them all.

Davis’ popularity blossomed in 1957 after the release of critically-acclaimed Miles Ahead, the bebop-influenced Birth of the Cool (recorded in 1949-50) and his work on Ascenseur pour l’√©chafaud, setting the French film’s mood with sultry compositions like “Generique” .

The following year, he began experimenting with modal composition and worked it into his take on George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, as well as the studio-made Milestones.

Then, in 1959, Kind of Blue arrived.

Turning aside the complex chords of his past alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker completely in favor of simpler scales, he produced a landmark in the history of recorded music. By unleashing the artist, he turned the genre on its ear.

The sextet on hand at Columbia 30th Street Studio included Davis and other luminaries of the time–Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane–roaming free across countless notes in unbridled improvisation.

With its smooth transition from indignant apathy to wistful romance, this is my favorite album of all time.

What makes it even more remarkable is the fact each of the five original tracks were produced with little in the way of direction or rehearsal. Davis was known to encourage expression and creativity by leaving his fellow musicians practically in the dark about the intended result of a session together.

The melodies are produced mostly by feel.

And that’s why I love it.

It’s all ingenuity, all the time.

Enjoy the opening song, “So What,” below.

Duke Ellington and Paul Gonsalves

“Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue”

This is one of the most brilliant pieces of improvisation in the history of jazz, particularly the Big Band variety. Originally composed by Ellington as two separate pieces, “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue,” with a piano interval to link them, legend has it that Gonsalves managed to successfully negotiate switching the preferred instrument to saxophone at the jazz monument Birdland on June 30, 1951.

On this particular day five years later, the song began simply enough, with the piano and  percussion section rhythmically setting the stage. The crowd is being told musically to take their seats. Then the horns sweep in to let you know the show is on. The winds call out their part, telling a comparatively subdued story as the trumpets, saxophones and trombones reply with tinny sarcasm. Up to this point, the tune has the trademark eloquence and technical quality of any Ellington work.

Then, Gonsalves’ saxophone saunters in unassumingly (possibly because it was being played into the wrong microphone). Over the course of 27 choruses–nearly 6.5 minutes–he rips off one of the most memorable solos in the history of music, gaining strength and altitude and sheer audacity with each passing bar. Band members begin to shout encouragement. They know what’s happening.

The sound resonates through the event, the crowd is lifted off their butts. A “striking platinum blonde woman in a black evening dress, named Elaine Anderson, jumped from her box seat and started dancing,” confirming the energy level had skyrocketed and giving it a further boost. Fellow attendants begin standing on chairs and whistling loudly as the bridge nears its midpoint, then applaud generously as the “wailing interval” gives way to the remainder of the song.

The horns let everyone know it’s time to get back to the sheet music. The winds announce themselves in the distance, gathering steam as they march forward, belting their airy tone in epic unison. The horns answer with force of their own. Like rival cheering sections, each throws their best at the other.

They’ve changed the environment. The air is on fire. If there had been a roof, it would have blown off and landed miles away. The song is nearing its close. Lungs are burning. Fingers ache from the furious activity. Nonetheless, the finish is a flourish and the crowd erupts in joyful gratitude for the honor of being witness to this ingenuity, this virtuosity, this majesty of moment-to-moment inspiration.

This is a description of the first known recording, performed live at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, which can be purchased here. (The episode embedded from YouTube above came later.)

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