Friday, December 19, 2014

Epitaph - Whitney Balliett on Miles Ahead: Miles Davis + 19

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles has been looking for a context to post more about the late Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis [1926-1991] and the late, esteemed writer on Jazz Whitney Balliett [1926-2007] on these pages and we found a setting that includes them both in the following essay by Whitney

Whitney’s piece takes as its point of departure the end of the big band era and what he sees as its relationship to the 1957 release of the Miles Davis-Gil Evans Miles Ahead: Miles Davis +19 Columbia LP.

You’ll find the music from Sides A & B of this LP featured in the videos that conclude this piece.

"THE FINAL COLLAPSE of the big-band era in the late forties left a permanent hole in jazz. The best of the big bands provided not only floating finishing schools for young musicians but the sort of roaring, imperious excitement that the small jazz group, for sheer want of volume, rarely matches. There were at least three distinct types of big band—the milky, unabashed dance band (Guy Lombardo, Charlie Spivak), the semi-jazz dance band (Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw), and the out-and-out jazz band (Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson). The demise of this small but lively industry was due largely to economics; it is also true that the big jazz band had just about run dry. It ended as it had begun—as a plump, highly regimented expansion of the traditional New Orleans instrumentation of cornet, clarinet, trombone, and rhythm section.

There was not really much difference, for example, between the Goodman band of 1936 and the Woody Herman band of a decade later. Goodman had fourteen pieces and a mechanized, tank-like style, and Herman had four or five more sidemen and a loose, flag-waving approach, but both groups depended on the same basic practices-elementary harmonies, short solos framed by opening and closing ensembles, brass and saxophone sections that stated (sometimes in mild counterpoint) simple riffs, often written to be played in unison, and a clocklike four-four beat. Indeed, the riff became the identifying badge of the big band.

The exception was Duke Ellington, whose music of the period still sounds almost avant-garde. Ellington, in fact, had begun replacing conventional big-band devices in the mid-thirties with new harmonies, his own brilliant melodies, and little concerto-type structures usually built around one soloist. These departures gave his band the sound of a unified instrument, rather than that of several determined platoons marching in the same general direction. Some of his inventions rubbed off in the mid-forties on such quixotic, short-lived organizations as those of Boyd Raeburn, Elliot Lawrence, Raymond Scott, and Billy Eckstine, while Stan Kenton was testing various independent approaches. Today, however, there are just four or five big jazz bands — Kenton, Gillespie, Basie, Ellington, and Herman — and they are, in the main, only heavier, more pompous versions of their earlier selves.

In the face of this melancholy situation, Columbia has released a new big-band record, Miles Ahead: Miles Davis + 19, that is the most adventurous effort of its kind in a decade. All the ten selections, by a variety of hands, have been shaped by the gifted arranger Gil Evans into small concertos centered on Miles Davis, who plays the flugelhorn instead of the trumpet. Evans came into prominence in the early forties, when he wrote for the Claude Thornhill band a number of gliding, richly textured pieces that made use of such unorthodox instruments as the French horn. He reappeared as a collaborator with Davis and Gerry Mulligan in some of the suave, contrapuntal small-band recordings [Birth of the Cool] made for Capitol in 1949 and 1950. For "Miles Ahead," Evans’ choice of instrumentation — five trumpets, three trombones, bass trombone, two French horns, tuba, alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, bass, and drums — is an expansion of the ensemble involved in most of the Davis-Mulligan records.  

Plush, subtle sounds predominate, and the tempos, with two exceptions, are slow or medium. All the solos are by Davis, whose instrument sounds fogbound. Buried in all this port and velvet is Evans' revolutionary use, for such a large group, of structure, dynamics, and harmony. Reeds and woodwinds mix gracefully with the brass and then withdraw; trombones play countermelodies against sustained French-horn chords; a distant, undulating basso-profundo figure is part of the background for a stark Davis solo; another background figure, played in stop time, is repeated with slightly different harmonies and by slightly different combinations of instruments; trumpet shouts disappear abruptly into mutes.

More important, Evans continually "improvises" on the melodies in the ensemble passages and rarely presents them any where in straightforward fashion. For all this, none of the pieces, except for parts of "Springsville" and "I Don't Wanna Be Kissed," ever get free from a chanting, hymnlike quality. There is, in fact, too much port and velvet, and Davis, a discreet, glancing performer, backslides in these surroundings into a moony, saccharine, and — in "My Ship"— downright dirge-like approach. The result is some of the coolest jazz ever uttered. (The use of the varying textures of other soloists might have relieved this.) Despite its technical innovations, "Miles Ahead" seems almost an epitaph for the cool school, whose beginnings are often dated by the Davis-Mulligan records and which has recently shown signs of wilting away. The playing throughout is impeccable."

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