Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Leave it to Miles

It would probably be appropriate to have a first post devoted to Lester Young, but there's plenty of time to touch on his enduring genius. Miles Davis, Young's greatest heir when it came to the deployment of the perfectly placed note, the well-chiseled phrase and a judicious, ultra musical use of space, gets the nod today.
When considering how jazz musicians can make seismically significant statements in the most compact of settings, I'm always called back to the title track of Davis's 1958 album "Milestones." (The piece was entitled "Miles" on the original recording in order to avoid confusion with a different composition, "Milestones," that Davis recorded in 1947. Although Davis receives composer's credit for both tunes, pianist John Lewis actually wrote the earlier piece, but that's another story...)
So how do you alter jazz history in five minutes? First you assemble a splendid aggregate of players: tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, altoist Cannonball Adderely, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones, each integral to the success of the performance.
I love that, unexpectedly, Cannonball is first out of the gate. A prolix soloist who, at that time wouldn't think twice about rattling off a machine gun volley of bebop virtuosity, Adderely doesn't so much reign himself in here as keep melodic figures paramount in his improvisation. No wonder Davis picks up on Cannonball's last six notes to jump start his own solo, itself an incredible display of acute lyricism wedded to surprise --where does he find those off-the-wall/just right note choices? That Coltrane jumps on Davis's concluding phrase to start his own highly melodic solo is again no surprise (wouldn't you?). While the horn men take a tidy two choruses each to say all that needs to be said, Garland sits this dance out all together, contributing to the whole with perfectly placed, effortlessly swinging accompaniment. Jones and Chambers are Jones and Chambers, an incomparable rhythm team at their peak.
And the shifting of jazz as we know it? A gorgeous round of solos also couches a serious investigation into modal improvisation, the move from playing on chords to playing on scales that Davis and company would delve into deeply the next year with the sublime "Kind of Blue."

If this performance isn't a perfect example of how to move mountains in the space of a relative instant, what is?

A less sprightly but still gorgeous alternate take should be heard for the sheer invention displayed: each of the three solos are markedly different from the issued take. Just, well, beautiful.

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