Thursday, May 7, 2020

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

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

"But an event in the autumn of 1948 changed the entire scene, acting as a catalyst not only within the United States but also over here in Europe. I refer, of course, to the formation of Miles Davis band, a nine-piece group which played for a fortnight at the Royal Roost on Broadway and subsequently recorded three historic sessions for the Capitol label. [The modern day reference for this music is The Birth of the Cool recordings.]

The Miles Davis sessions (the last of which actually took place in ,1950) have been analysed and discussed at great length already; I need do little more than reiterate that they ushered in a new era of small-group jazz, bringing to the music a fresh sound and a much more ambitious conception of texture. And as well as using trumpet, trombone, alto and baritone saxes, piano, bass and drums, the band included a french horn and a tuba; it was the first time that these two instruments had been incorporated within a specifically jazz group, although for some years they had been exploited very skilfully by the arrangers with Claude Thornhill's orchestra, one of the most interesting dance bands of the 1940s.

The link with Thornhill's band is significant, for not only were several of the musicians taking part in the Capitol sessions members or ex-members of that orchestra but the Miles Davis band had been planned at a series of meetings held in the apartment of Gil Evans, Thornhill's chief arranger. At that time Evans was thirty-six, a surprisingly mature age for a man just about  to revolutionize jazz orchestration, although in no other art-form would it seem at all odd. In a way it was typical of Evans that he should have remained so stubbornly in the background before producing this tour de force. The same thing was to happen again between 1950 and 1957, the years which preceded his score for the "Miles Ahead" LP, when Evans worked at many tasks — "act music, vaudeville, night clubs", as well as orchestrating for radio and TV. He also occupied his time reading musical history, biographies of composers and music criticism and listening to records; he was filling in, as he put it later, "the gaps in my musical development", gaps which sprang from the fact— the surprising fact—that he had never received a proper musical education. "I've always learned through practical work," Evans told Nat Hentoff in 1957. "I started in music with a little band that could play the music as soon as I'd write it." This empirical method has been shared by at least two other distinguished jazz composers—Duke  Ellington and Tadd Dameron. They, along with Evans, can boast, like so many of the pioneers of jazz, that no academicians ever defined for them what was possible and what impossible. ...
According to George Avakian's note on its sleeve, "Miles Ahead" started as a series of discussions between Davis and Gil Evans, "out of which grew the basic conception (largely Miles'). . . ." The record takes the form of a set of short 'concertos' (to use that term in its loosest sense) for flugelhorn and an eighteen-piece orchestra, the latter an expanded version of the ensemble used on the 1949 Capitol sessions. Quite how much of the solo line was actually improvised on the spot it is difficult to tell. The fact that so much of the work is built upon a scalar rather than a chordal basis suggests that at least many of the sections which have Davis alternating with or playing above the orchestra were carefully planned in advance, and that perhaps only those parts where the flugelhorn is heard above bass and drums come at all near being improvised. Not that it matters very much. The important thing is the quality of imagination which both soloist and orchestrator have brought to the occasion."
- Charles Fox, Jazz author, critic, BBC radio and television host

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 and 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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