Thursday, January 13, 2022

Miles Davis - Kings of Jazz Series - by Michael James - Part 4

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

By way of background: “This new PERPETUA series, Kings of Jazz, provides authoritative introductions to the individual masters of traditional and modern jazz who have become legends in the field. The series has been designed for the jazz lover, and each volume has been written by an expert on his subject. These books include notes on the musician's life, early career, and influence, as well as a selected discography and a number of photographs. Bob Dawbarn wrote in The Melody Maker-. "This admirable new series fills a great need in the ever-increasing library of jazz literature. At last we are to have intelligent and authoritative jazz books at a price within the reach of every student of the music." Other titles in the Kings of Jazz series include: Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Dizzy Gillespie, Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Charlie Parker, King Oliver, and Johnny Dodds.”

The back cover annotation goes on to say: “Miles Davis, the subject of this volume, is presently in the mid-stream of a controversial trumpet-playing career that has developed with a single-mindedness untouched by fashion or the lure of monetary gain. While the promise of his future is abundant, his talents have already had an enduring effect on jazz development as a whole. Attracted long before his twentieth birthday by the new form of jazz then being pioneered by his seniors, he matured within the bop idiom to develop a style of improvisation that was clearly his own. He has become an acknowledged leader of contemporary jazz thought, with a body of recorded work to his credit that corroborates the justice of this general view.”

Here’s the Part 4 conclusion of Michael extended essay on Miles’ career up to 1961:

“The recording dates which produced the first of the albums on which Miles Davis and Gil Evans worked together in the late nineteen-fifties were held during May 1957. The record was eventually issued under the title of Miles Ahead. It consists of ten different pieces by various writers, including Ahmad Jamal, Dave Brubeck, and Johnny Carisi, assembled as a whole, with connecting notes or chords between one track and the next; although Evans himself contributed but a single composition—Blues for Pablo —he was responsible for all the arrangements, and his individual touch ensures that the collection offers an impressive degree of unity. The very nature of Evans's approach to the problems of arranging means that these pieces lack the rhythmic richness and vitality which abound in the Davis quintet's music, but in compensation they offer considerable harmonic appeal. The warmly lyrical tone Davis achieves on flugelhorn fits in perfectly with the orchestral textures; it is obvious on first hearing that it was a very wise decision which led him to forsake his usual instrument for this occasion, since the abrasive quality of his high-register trumpet work would probably have clashed uncomfortably with the voicings Evans devises. It is true that in the course of a second collaboration of this kind when the material used comprised themes from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, Davis did indeed play trumpet on several tracks. However, the latter album often presents him as a soloist over and against a scored backdrop, rather than as a closely integrated voice in the general musical scheme, as is definitely the case with the Miles Ahead record. Comparison between My Ship and Summertime, each to some extent typical of its companion pieces, clarifies the difference between the two collections.

Since our immediate concern is with Davis's part in these undertakings, there is no point in going into their subtleties at any length, for it is Evans who must take the lion's share of the credit for the finished effect, in so far as he wrote all the arrangements and presided over the sessions at which the recordings were made. Nevertheless, if we are to judge by Davis's public pronouncements, he was very enthusiastic about cooperating with Evans in their production, and they show a facet of his musical personality which any comprehensive appraisal of his work must take into account. More convincing than most of his small-group ballad renditions, though cast in a similar emotional mould, they more often than not find him dealing in a wistful tenderness which has its own peculiar charm. 

The irony which creeps in with It Ain't Necessarily So is far from characteristic, and it is very noticeable that the sour and aggressive overtones of his medium and rapid tempo quintet or sextet performances are altogether absent. Here, it seems to me, is the reason why Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess were accepted by the public at large, as distinct from the hard core of enthusiasts who had for some years previously bought most of the records issued under the trumpeter's name. It is no particularly original observation that the casual listener prefers not to be reminded of the dilemmas which face the artist in our society, and if the albums under discussion convey, first and foremost, an atmosphere of serenity and elegance, then this, we may he sure, is something of an asset from the commercial standpoint.

I trust nobody will infer from the above remarks that I wish to equate high sales figures with artistic poverty, for about such matters there can be no hard and fast rules, even under the present conditions of mass entertainment. Evans's collaborations with Davis, as I have already remarked, possess indisputable merits: his manipulation of the various instruments at his disposal bears witness not only to true originality on his part, but also to a remarkable flair for establishing a mood by sheer quality of sound alone. Here, I feel, we touch upon the essence of his achievement. 

The best of his records represent the phenomenon which in recent years has come to be known as 'mood music’ at its highest level. He can present interesting individual textures of sound in a formal framework of some strength; but rarely can he evoke, even with a soloist of Davis's powers at his disposal, that exhilarating sense of emotional release which characterizes the trumpeter's finest small-group performances. Working in what is more or less a jazz context, using techniques that at times recall Duke Ellington, he has at his command only the faintest echo of Ellington's rhythmic understanding. Intent on harmonic and textural invention, he pays little attention to the cardinal quality of swing. It is no exaggeration, in fact, to say that he willingly sacrifices it at the altar of his first loves, a point that is borne out by the reticence of such excellent drummers as Art Taylor and Philly Joe Jones on the records made under his direction. With the issue of Sketches of Spain, which contains the results of these two men's most recent collaborations in the studio, it has become quite clear that Evans's strength is also his weakness, and that the same gift which allows him to express with such persuasive accuracy the allied feelings of sadness and nostalgia debars him from transcending these moods to arrive at a bold artistic statement. In these records we can discover the virtues of sensitivity and grace, but with one or two exceptions, the necessary backbone seems to be missing. Beautiful invertebrates, Evans's creations seldom lift their heads far above the ground.

Miles Davis had been something of a fixture at the Cafe Bohemia Club in Greenwich Village during 1957, except for a brief period when he underwent throat surgery; but at the close of the year he made a short trip to Paris in order to record the soundtrack for Louis Malle's Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud. Inspired, it seems, by the simultaneous projection of the film on a screen in the recording studio, Davis provided an unfailingly apt commentary on the vicissitudes of the action. The collection is certainly superior to the album he made for Blue Note shortly after his return to New York. Though issued under Cannonball Adderley's name, this record is clearly dominated by his current employer, whose incisive choruses on Somethin' Else, the title piece, and One For Daddy-o make the altoist sound a discursive soloist in comparison.

In January 1958, John Coltrane rejoined Davis's group, having played with Thelonious Monk during the preceding summer. Adderley remained, so that Davis was now leading a sextet, and it was this band which recorded for Columbia some three months later [Milestones]. The atmosphere of cohesion that had been so striking an aspect of the group's work when Coltrane had previously partnered Davis is by no manner of means so striking, but some excellent solos are to be heard, and the rhythmic support is perfection itself. The trumpeter takes his best sequence of choruses in Sid's Ahead, a blues he had recorded in 1954 under the title of Weirdo, and a near relation to Walkin’. He performs with masterly precision, making every note tell, and generally using runs only to lead up to a sustained note. Adderley's task in having to follow a statement of such raw intensity is unenviable, and he fares no better than on the Blue Note session.

If no other evidence were at hand, this astonishing solo would be proof enough that Davis had learnt how to refine his style without weakening its substance; but with the departure of Red Garland, the band's character altered to some degree, with more emphasis being placed on a subdued mode of expression. “Especially when he started to use Bill Evans, Miles changed his style from very hard to a softer approach. Bill was brilliant in other areas, but he couldn't make the real hard things come off,” Cannonball Adderley has said. [Jazz Review, May 1960]. Evans spent eight months with Davis in 1958. His residence in the band coincided with two other important changes. The first has to do with a shift in the leader's musical sensibilities. During 1958 he seems to have been strongly attracted by the idea of basing his improvisations on a scale rather than a harmonic sequence. His phrasing grew sparer, the rests in his melodic line more prolonged. The second was Philly Joe Jones leaving the group, and his eventual replacement by Jimmy Cobb, a steady drummer possessed of a crisp swing but lacking the immense verve, imagination and technical resources of his predecessor. All three of these factors  —  the advent of Evans and Cobb, together with the evolution in Davis's views — were clearly interdependent, and their influence is keenly felt in the music which may he heard on Kind of Blue, a collection containing performances recorded at two sessions held in March and April of 1959.

This album, the only one to he issued of Davis's small-group work since Milestones, which was done about twelve months previously, represents a new departure in his musical thinking. One of the pieces it contains, Flamenco Sketches, is cast in 6/8 time, whilst other selections find the leader and his men constructing their improvisations with a scale, rather than a given chord sequence, in mind. All Blues, for example, is a calm, reflective performance in which each soloist wends his way expertly through five different scales in turn. It says much for the maturity and group feeling of the musicians that none loses his grip on the direction of his solo, despite the wide melodic choice with which he is faced. Bill Evans is especially good here, doubtless because the style of interpretation is eminently well suited to his capabilities. It is significant that on Freddie Freeloader, a more conventional mid-tempo blues, Davis saw fit to use Wynton Kelly at the keyboard. A less personal improviser, Kelly is a model accompanist for this type of number, and his presence explains in part why the track contains the leader's most cohesive solo of the album, a gripping, intense sequence which proves that Davis still finds ample inspiration in the more normal harmonic approach. 

Flamenco Sketches, All Blues and So What are interesting, often absorbing, but this performance, together with Blue in Green, a minute exploration of the inner recesses of melancholia, emerge as the highlights of the set. When one muses upon the very high standard the group attains both on this album and Milestones, it seems almost an impertinence on the part of those responsible that these two collations, supplemented by three rather less impressive renditions, should make up the entire catalogue of Davis's recordings with his regular group over the past three years. One hopes that other sessions have in fact been held in the Columbia studios and that in the fullness of time their fruits will be made available. Although the band has undergone one or two personnel changes over the past year or so, Adderley having left to form his own group in September 1959, and Coltrane having done likewise, with the same end in view, a few months later, the trumpeter has had no difficulty in maintaining a regular unit, thanks to a measure of popularity which must be unprecedented for a jazz musician over the past two decades. Currently he is leading a quintet which comprises Sonny Stitt on alto and tenor saxophones, and a rhythm section composed of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. At the present writing the band is about to embark on a British tour. This event will give local enthusiasts a unique opportunity of evaluating Davis's present musical approach to their own satisfaction.

The same wave of acclaim that has brought economic security within Davis's grasp  —he is reported to command fees in the region of $2,500 for one night's work and to possess $545,000-worth of stocks and shares — has inevitably been accompanied by the type of vulgar publicity usually reserved for popular entertainers such as Frank Sinatra or Johnny Ray. What is very curious is that so much that has been written about him turns upon his supposed antipathy to the people who pay to hear him. Perhaps because of the equivocal relationship that must always exist in an unintegrated society between a coloured performer and a predominantly white audience, Davis has made a point of refusing to acknowledge applause. Furthermore, very rarely will he announce the titles of the tunes his group plays, nor does he remain on stage whilst another musician is soloing. 

As a result, the trade Press is forever receiving letters from indignant customers who regard themselves as insulted by his behaviour. More surprisingly, many of the reports devoted to his club appearances by these same journals are concerned first and foremost with his bearing on and off the stand, often passing over the music proper with a brief phrase or two. Strangely enough, none of this publicity has proved to be as adverse as might have been supposed, and the anecdotes that abound regarding his hostility to employers and enthusiasts alike seem indirectly to have swollen his bank balance rather than depleted it. 

Although Davis maintains that he conducts himself with the best possible intentions and is anything but disdainful of the audience, one might be forgiven for supposing that he finds it extremely lucrative to perpetuate this image of himself as an arrogant outsider. However, the situation is not quite so simple as that. Since he was arrested and beaten up by police outside Birdland in August 1959, a violation of his rights as a citizen which would appear to have absolutely no justification, he is rumoured to have grown more irritable and short-tempered than ever, and many reports have it that his attitude is governed by a kind of reverse racial prejudice, though this, once again, he vehemently denies.

The degree to which attention has been focused upon Davis's stage presentation, or lack of it, reveals just how closely jazz is bound up with the mechanics of the popular music industry. Anecdotes about jazz musicians are still eagerly seized upon by record collectors, not so much for the extra light they throw on the music itself as for their entertainment value as novelties, in much the same way as countless people live out a surrogate existence by way of the daily newspaper gossip columns. In such a context it is hardly surprising that comment on Davis's recent musical activities has been at a premium.

It is to my mind undeniable that since Davis has achieved the kind of popularity enjoyed by such diverse musicians as Dave Brubeck, John Lewis and Gerry Mulligan, only a certain proportion of his records have been marked by the emotional intensity which characterized the whole of his output from 1950 to 1955. His technique, agreed, has grown a good deal surer. Though he still makes mistakes, generally in the higher register, they are far less frequent than in the past. Powers of execution, however, are only incidental to the point I am intent on making; if accuracy were a prerequisite of the successful jazz performance, neither the Armstrong Hot Five nor the Parker Quintet records could be regarded as milestones in the idiom's development, though this is what they very obviously are. Armstrong's occasional fluffs and Parker's recurrent squeaks are minor matters in the final analysis. 

Similarly, if Davis's 1951 recording of My Old Flame is compared with the version of Stella By Starlight done seven years later, it will be evident that the latter contains far fewer technical errors, if indeed any at all; but from the standpoint of melodic interest, rhythmic diversity, and — most vital of all — emotive power, the earlier selection is very clearly the better one.

Fortunately enough, the deterioration has been only partial and it is hard to see how anyone could unreservedly agree with the anonymous drummer who declared that 'a certain vitality isn't there any more. He lives a pretty lush life and his music gets kind of lush'.[Playboy Magazine, August 1960]. Whilst he has latterly tended to deal in moods less aggressive than before, the best of his records in this vein, such as Blue in Green or Summertime are every bit as convincing in their own way as Airegin or Tune Up, hard-driving performances done with his 1956 band. Whilst it seems probable that the comfortable existence he is now able to lead, in common with the more strictly musical factors already mentioned, has affected his choice of style, only at times, to judge at least from the records he has made, does he fall short of the artistic standards he established prior to emerging as a popular performer.

Only the very rash would care to predict what road Davis will take in the future, for at the present writing it is plainly impossible to know whether he will press on to an even sparer style of phrasing, or whether the influence of Sonny Stitt, currently working in his quintet, will cause him to lay more stress on rhythmic drive and melodic complexity. Yet wherever his alert musical spirit leads him, there is no gainsaying the fact that his talents have already had an enduring effect on jazz development as a whole. 

Attracted long before his twentieth birthday by the new form of jazz then being pioneered by his seniors, he matured within the bop idiom to develop a style of improvisation that was clearly his own, though based on the doctrines introduced to jazz by those who had originally inspired him. Over the past ten years he has worked to extend the range of his talents. The body of music he has produced during that time is extremely diverse, not only in feeling, but also in its formal character, yet this diversity in no way impugns the individual character of his work. His creative impulse has induced him to seek out new modes of  expression whenever he felt they were needed, irrespective of prevailing fashions. It is most encouraging to reflect that his artistic growth may yet take unsuspected directions.” [“Unsuspected directions” is an understatement in terms of the subsequent development of Miles' career over the next 30 years until his death in 1991].

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