Thursday, November 10, 2016

In the Studio With Miles Davis By STUART ISACOFF

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

Because the music was performed for so many years primarily in night clubs, recording studios were somewhat of an artificial environment for Jazz musicians.

When I was coming up in the business in the late 1950’s, club dates often started at 9:00 PM and went until 2:00 AM; later still in Las Vegas and New York City because of more permissible laws concerning the sale of alcohol.

It wasn’t unusual following a gig to go to an all night coffee shop for steak and eggs at 3:00 AM to “unwind” and then head for home at sun-up for “a good night’s sleep.”

On occasion, this nocturnal work schedule sometimes continued with a visit to a recording studio to lay down a few tracks for a forthcoming recording.

Immersed in the atmosphere of a nightclub, usually a darkened smoke-filled room with couples engaged in small talk or nuzzling one another, the bright lights and orderliness of a recording study was almost hygienic by comparison.

Studios were artificial laboratories for Jazz-making. In a club, if you made a mistake you played right through it; in a recording studio you stopped and did another “take.” In a club you “felt” one another’s presence when making the music; in a studio you “saw” one another. Clubs were introspective; studios were self conscious.

There were ways around this dichotomy, but as usual they involved money which was a scarce commodity in the Jazz World.

Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff at Blue Note paid for rehearsal time at Rudy van Gelder’s legendary studio in Hackensack, NJ which, in its first iteration, used the living room in his parents home as the recording studio. Both the rehearsals and the cozy venue allowed for a relaxed informality akin to what musicians experienced when playing Jazz in a club, especially if the lights were turned down low during the actual blowing.  

It would seem from the following description by Stuart Isacoff that unlike most Jazz musicians who found the recording studios to be sterile and inhospitable, that Miles Davis actually thrived in them if the music on  Miles Davis Quintet: Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5 [1966-68] is any indication.

This wasn’t the first time that Miles immersed himself in a studio environment in such a way as to produce great Jazz recordings. Approximately 10 years earlier in November 1955 and May/October 1956 he led his quintet through all-day sessions that produced three classic Prestige LP’s: Relaxin’, Workin’ and Steamin.’

Miles obviated the unwelcoming atmosphere of the recording studio by first taking his working band on long road trips and playing the same list of tunes night-after-night and then taking the band into the recording studio for lengthy sessions where he cut and refined the finished product he wanted.

Of course, by 1966, Miles had achieved considerable stature as a successful recording artist and costly studio time was made available to him in a way that wasn’t granted to many other Jazz musicians.

Miles used it well for as Stuart Isacoff explains in the following piece, he took the time spent in what is often viewed as a hostile environment and applied it to achieve great artistic purposes.

Wall Street Journal -Nov. 7, 2016

“In the mid-1960s, as Miles Davis’s band rose to its place in the pantheon of jazz greats, the trumpeter boasted that he paid his musicians not to practice. The statement was typically provocative, but it was anything but frivolous: Davis, the reigning master of spontaneity, was simply declaring his aesthetic credo. His aim was to preserve the creative freshness that can evaporate when an artist spends long hours engaged in routine drills, in the hope of achieving technical perfection.

This hadn’t always been his way. I once transcribed Davis’s solos from a series of 1940s recordings he made with saxophonist Charlie Parker, and it turned out that on multiple takes of a tune he played exactly the same solo. Obviously, he was not truly improvising at that point so much as relying on a catalog of useful phrases to play.

But he grew fast. In multiple incarnations, Davis soon began to lead the jazz world through important stylistic shifts, from hard-edged bebop and cool jazz, through the modal revolution, in which particular scales and impressionist harmonies became the organizing principles for a much freer music. His 1959 recording along those lines, “Kind of Blue,” upended the music world with the force of an earthquake. Pianist Herbie Hancock called the recording “a doorway.” To many, it remains an exquisite revelation.

The ’60s group—with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams and Mr. Hancock on piano—took the concept even further. The band developed an almost telepathic skill in collaborative performance (thus the title of one of their albums, “E.S.P.”). And their combined efforts were a study in surprise.

How does one direct an ensemble like that? There are clues in the new 3-CD set, “Miles Davis Quintet: Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5.” It is a compilation from six recording sessions held between late 1966 and 1968, during the making of the albums “Miles Smiles,” “Sorcerer,” “Miles in the Sky,” “Nefertiti” and “Water Babies.” The producers at CBS Records had developed the habit of capturing every moment that Davis was in the studio, and as demonstrated here, the alternate takes, banter, complaints and laughter were all recorded as the tapes continued to roll. What do they tell us about how Davis directed the intricate creative process at work?

For one thing, that he used the studio to facilitate the musical process—first recording, then listening back to various takes while making decisions on the fly about form and style. The polished albums we have revered are actually the result of innumerable false starts. The leader clearly knows what he is after. At one point, he decides that Mr. Hancock should use only his right hand, freeing the music from reliance on particular harmonies.

At another, he gives oblique directions that work only because the collaborators know each other so well: “Hey Herbie: Don’t play nothin’ until you get ready to play.” Sometimes, a kind of shorthand comes into play, as when Williams responds to a suggestion by mentioning stylistic options, citing the names of iconic drummers Art Blakey and Elvin Jones. The musicians were all well aware of the work of their contemporaries and predecessors. (During the early ’70s I worked for a music publisher and approached Williams about writing a drum method; he quickly mentioned the seminal drummers whose techniques he would draw on.) The exchanges between Davis and the drummer are revealing: “Don’t do nothin’ like that,” he instructs in response to one effort, adding, “Should say babadabada-ba-ba-krchchh.” But, after encouraging Williams to “keep it up,” he eventually decides, “That’s terrible.” Williams responds: “Sure is.” Davis: “Throw that away.”

Perhaps the most fascinating moment comes in the midst of “Nefertiti,” the haunting tune by Mr. Shorter, during which the musicians forgo the usual improvised solos and simply repeat the melody, over and over. The final recording is mesmerizing, and unlike anything else in jazz. The moment it came together is captured here. After about 41/2 minutes of play, Davis suddenly interrupts. “Hey man, why don’t we make a tune . . . with just playin’ the melody, no play the solos. . . .” The immortal result was, announced Mr. Williams, “groovin’.””

Mr. Isacoff’s forthcoming book on Van Cliburn at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, “When the World Stopped to Listen,” will be published this spring by Knopf.

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