More 10K publicity

A few more items for the press scrapbook for Ten Thousand Voices:

This article about summer reading from UVA affiliated authors was posted in UVA Today on June 27. It links to the Author’s Corner interview.

I also announced the book on UVA Magazine‘s website. It’ll be interesting to see if it makes the print edition.

A reminder that the book is now available for sale everywhere.

On Surrender

It’s been over two long years since I first wrote about the pandemic, and it’s starting to be clear that it will never be over.

I think we all harbored a belief that one day we would wake up and everyone would be vaccinated and boosted, and the virus would slink away into a corner and never be heard from again. It’s abundantly clear that that isn’t going to happen. Instead, it feels like we face a perpetual bad flu season, one in which all choral singing will be masked, any large party risks a rash of people calling in sick, and we continue to swab at our nostrils and keep our fingers crossed.

I do the majority of the in-person shopping for our family and it’s always been masked. Until this weekend, when I got ready to head across the street to Wilson Farm, went to grab a mask as I went out the door… and stopped. And headed across the street without a mask.

Last summer when everyone was beginning to be double-vaccinated, going unmasked felt like a victory. This summer it feels more somber, like a surrender. Not that we are lying prostrate on the ground under the foot of the virus, but more that we now must acknowledge that we are not going to defeat this thing. We must instead learn to live with it.

In some ways this kind of surrender to the inevitable is painful, but in other ways it’s freeing. The mental tax of constant vigilance is high. It can feel better to let it go and stop worrying even though there is still risk.

But I struggle with it. Because it feels like giving up.

Wayne Shorter, The All Seeing Eye

Album of the Week, June 25, 2022.

As 1965 ran on, Miles Davis continued with health problems and personal setbacks. His hip replacement in April had failed, but he checked himself out of the hospital due to boredom in July. In August he was back in the hospital for another go at the hip replacement, this time with a plastic ball joint. The band continued recording, though. We’ve listened to Hancock’s Maiden Voyage. Tony Williams recorded his debut solo album Spring in August with Wayne Shorter and Hancock alongside. And Shorter recorded The Soothsayer in March, The Collector in June, and recorded the Lee Morgan album The Gigolo with his old Jazz Messengers bandmate in June and July. And in October, Shorter returned to Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey with an octet to record his next album, The All Seeing Eye.

To say that this new album was a radical departure from what came before is accurate, and might understate how dramatic a development this was for Shorter the composer. Not only was this the largest group he had ever written for — with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Freddie Hubbard returning from Speak No Evil, and now augmented by trombonist Grachan Moncur III, alto sax James Spaulding, drummer Joe Chambers, and Shorter’s brother Alan composing and playing flugelhorn on the final track — but compositionally this was far from the normal territory he covered. Even coming after some of the danker tracks on E.S.P. we are in new territory here. There is little of the blues or standards jazz on this album. We teeter over the abyss.

Shorter meant this as a concept album, exploring the meaning of life and the existence of God and the Universe. It’s easy to hear a search for the divine in the title track, which opens the album. In some ways the tune here is the most conventional one on the album, but the thick chords take it to a completely different place. Hubbard has a blazing solo that Shorter picks up and carries forward. Hancock slows things back down with his solo and the band comes back at the end to close things down.

The opening track is wild, but nothing prepares the listener for the free opening to “Genesis,” which presents a full keyboard chromatic scale by Hancock that builds from the abyss to a modal statement of the theme, first in the piano, then continued in the horns. Coming out of the band’s opening statement, first Carter and then Shorter take their own free statement of the melody. Shorter builds to a rhythmic pattern that he repeats on a single note for four measures before Hancock picks up the pattern, while Shorter spins back out. Hubbard takes the next solo, keeping in free time while exploring different tones and octaves with his horn. Moncur slowly explores an ascending chromatic scale as the part of Creation that he surveys unfurls. At the end the main theme comes back with the chords from the horns, followed by the piano theme to bring the composition full circle. Twelve bar blues this ain’t.

Chaos,” despite its title, is more conventional, albeit deep in modal jazz. Shorter has called this “what man has done… to God’s creation,” and the music reflects a deep tension, conflict and warring voices, all over the constant pulse of Carter and Chambers. First Shorter, then Hubbard and Hancock make fiery statements before the ensemble plays out the theme again and begin to spiral back out, ending the track in a rare fade-out.

The Face of the Deep” is a relatively more conventional slow ballad, rendered fresh both by the dense voicing of the horn quartet on the theme and by Hancock’s contemplative solo, accompanied by sensitive work from Chambers on the cymbals and a slow heartbeat from Carter. As an aside, this record features some of Carter’s earliest use of the portamento that would eventually become one of his signature techniques. Shorter’s solo here is reminiscent of his work on “Infant Eyes,” with an approach as much about space as about his notes. The horns return after to restate the theme with an ominous swell that leads into the final track.

Mephistopheles,” the sole composition by Alan Shorter on the album, seems at first puckish, with an angular melody in the horns that is played in clusters of notes. But then the rhythm section enters with an insistent ground played in the bass and piano accompanied by subtle cymbal work by Chambers, and the horns return with an ominous restatement of the theme followed by a scream. Shorter picks up the solo over rolling drumwork and that continuing ground, sketching a portrait of an uneven, unpredictable ruler of the underworld. His brother follows with a flugelhorn solo that continues the exploration of the Hadean region, playing against stabbing chords in the piano as he circles the melody, raising it higher and then descending back into the pit. Moncur gets the last word from the horns, with a solo that reflects less fire and more heat, taking the persistent beat of the ground and adopting it for his own descending solo. Chambers takes the ground and double times it for his own solo, then breaks free of the boundaries of the bars before returning to the ground beneath the horns who restate the melody once more, finishing with a final scream.

Shorter would explore many more boundaries of music, both with his solo recordings and his work with the Miles Davis Quintet, but The All Seeing Eye stands as a conceptual milestone in his catalog, both forbidding in its thorny complexity and inspiring in its dark beauty. It was not a permanent change of direction, and next time we’ll explore yet another side of him as a composer and sideman alongside another of his Art Blakey bandmates.

My copy of the record (top) is the recent Tone Poet reissue from Blue Note, which sounds superb. You can listen to the full album here.

Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage

Album of the week, June 18, 2022

Listening to the opening of “Maiden Voyage,” it’s hard to believe that it was recorded just two months after E.S.P.—and with three of the same members. It’s also hard to believe that it opens Hancock’s fifth solo album in four years—to say nothing of his work with Miles.

The band that entered Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs on March 17, 1965 bore some strong resemblances to the one that had recorded with Miles at Columbia Studios in Hollywood on January 20-22. In addition to Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams returned to the rhythm section; they had performed with Hancock on his preceding album, Empyrean Isles, as had Freddie Hubbard. George Coleman, who had played with Herbie on the live recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet from Carnegie Hall, My Funny Valentine and “Four” and More, rounded out the group on tenor sax. But though many of the players on the album had played with Miles, this album is distinctively Herbie Hancock’s work.

I write a lot about chordal structure, rhythmic interplay, and other facets of jazz improvisation in this series, but there is one essential element without which no jazz album can reach greatness: melody. One of the few weak points of E.S.P., to my ear, is the lack of distinct melodies on the second side, after the strong opening of the title track, “Eighty-One” and “Little One.” There’s no such weakness here, and “Maiden Voyage” opens the album with one of the all time great jazz melodies. It’s simple, persistent, and yearning, with a simple tune—up a fourth, then down a whole step and a four note run up a minor scale. But it’s slippery, with the same pattern repeated at a different part of the scale a few bars later, and the whole thing is set over suspended seventh chords, evoking a sense of mystery. It conveys everything about the sense of wonder of the beginning of a solo journey, combined with the mystery of the ocean. It is also unforgettable, and a substantial step forward from the Herbie Hancock who wrote the calculated hit tunes “Watermelon Man” and “Blind Man, Blind Man.

The whole track is a remarkable performance, but especially worth listening to is Tony Williams’ drum work under Hancock’s solo. Through a combination of cymbal work, snare rolls, and a bass drum heartbeat that slightly anticipates Ron Carter’s bass line. It’s an amazing evocation of the ocean, complete with creaking timbers and salt spray, and yet it’s utterly placid on the surface.

From the tranquility of the opening track we are immediately dropped into a storm. “The Eye of the Hurricane” provides an opportunity for Freddie Hubbard to demonstrate the combination of keen melodic sense, rhythmic complexity, and sheer technical acumen that would become his signature sound for the next fifteen years. His solo is astonishing. Coleman’s tenor solo following is less technically precise but is propulsive and carries the energy forward into Hancock’s solo, which is carried out almost entirely in the right hand as the chords drop way back, providing a feeling of calm at the center of the work. It’s a neat trick, but it makes me wonder what the piece would sound like in the hands of McCoy Tyner.

Hancock’s “Little One” follows, and he wisely rearranges the solos a little compared to the version on E.S.P. Here, both horns play the opening phrase, while Hubbard takes the following climb upward over Coleman’s lower accompaniment, and Hancock plays the yearning part that was Wayne Shorter’s on the earlier version. When the waltz comes in, George Coleman creates an entirely new melody over the opening, demonstrating the versatility of the tune and his own unique melodic gift. Freddie Hubbard follows the trail blazed by Coleman but quickly takes the melody to his own territory before passing it back to Herbie Hancock. His work on the solo finds him deep in impressionistic territory. Indeed, with his rhythmic chords alternating with melodic runs, he sounds like a livelier Bill Evans—a distinctively new voice from Hancock, who stretches out in several new directions on the record.

The furthest out direction he visits comes to the fore on “Survival of the Fittest.” What was I saying about melody? Here the hook is memorable but not hummable: slowly crescendoing chords, a saxophone line that sounds a lot like the opening to Wayne Shorter’s “Yes or No” (recorded seven months earlier), a scream in the trumpet, stabbing chords from the horns, a quick fragment of a melody, and then… burnout. Not in the pejorative sense, but in the sense that Branford Marsalis’s band has used it. Solos stretch past boundaries of bars and choruses and into different times and tonalities, anchored by Williams’ frantic drumming. Even here Hancock finds lyrical melody, but in a constantly shifting tonality and tempo. Finally the rest of the rhythm section falls away and it’s just Herbie playing a scherzo over chords that rock back and forth between two minor modes. It’s stunning and time stopping, and when Tony Williams comes back in he maintains the timeless feel with rolling drums in the deep. The horns come back in six bursts, restating the opening melody before abruptly halting.

And then: a surprise. “Dolphin Dance” swings gently and offers us the second most memorable melody of the record, an ascending run from the third to the fifth of the scale then down to the second, an easygoing pattern that continues with the same intervals but then starts from the tonic, the sixth and the third. It’s a vivid image, suggesting dolphins breaching out of the water one after another. And the soloists follow. Freddie Hubbard breaks out of the second repetition of the melody, taking flight for a moment, swimming along with the melody, then kicking it into a new key before passing it to George Coleman. The saxophonist swings his solo hard before going into double-time and eventually employing something like Coltrane’s “sheets of sound.” Hancock brings it back to the circling pattern, touching the other points of the scale before generating a new melody that reaches upwards, pauses, then climbs once more. The final recapitulation underscores the serenity of the melody, drifting into the distance.

It’s a fitting sendoff for the album, which stands as one of the high points of Hancock’s work—and of Blue Note Records in general. Next time we’ll hear a very different work from another member of Miles’ quintet.

You can listen to the album here.

Miles Davis, E.S.P.

Album of the Week, June 11, 2022.

In Miles in Berlin, we heard Miles’ new quintet in action on his standard repertoire, but that’s only a part of the story of this new group. The compositions on E.S.P. , recorded less than a month after Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, brought new vitality to the sound of the group and spurred higher levels of performance and contribution from all members. 

The title track, “E.S.P.,” provides a strong sound out of the gate and a sonic link to Miles’ immediately proceeding studio albums, with a memorable melody comprised of a concise downward triad that’s immediately repeated, then followed by a sketch of a different chord. It’s a memorable, simple melody but one one that provides chordal space for the group to explore. Indeed, throughout Miles’ solo, Hancock exchanges chordal fragments in response to Miles’ bursts of melody, blurring the edges of the melody and shading the performance further toward free jazz without ever losing the curve of the melody. It’s an astonishing performance, displaying the telepathic playing that famously provided Shorter with the track’s name. 

The next tune, “Eighty-One,” is credited to Ron Carter and Miles Davis, and shows one of the few hints of soul jazz crossover in the group’s repertoire. The tune is again memorable and melodic, and at first reads as an eight-bar blues — only the repeated sections are only two bars each rather than the normal four. The dramatic “hit” on the horns at the end of the second two-bar pattern shows unexpected humor, particularly in later live performances when the band would sometimes lay out an entire measure after the horns! Carter plays a loping bass line that keeps the rhythm for the group, leaving Williams free to add fills in different patterns around the soloists, including following Miles into a brisk swing partway through the trumpeter’s solo. Shorter’s solo uses sixths and ninths to stretch the harmonic series and also adds a swung section. Hancock takes a short solo of only two choruses, exploring melodic patterns and calling out the blues of the track in the second chorus. After a recapitulation of the melody, Carter and the rhythm section play a coda that brings the track to a close.

Herbie Hancock’s “Little One” follows. The slow ballad shifts in tonality through the first few chords and a melodic pattern in minor from Shorter before Miles enters with an inversion around the relative major of the key. Shorter follows with a modal gesture in a higher octave and Davis chases him around the key. The ballad then kicks into a brisker three with Davis exploring the tonality sketched out by the opening. Carter provides a consistent ground in the tonic, leaving Williams to underscore the tempo on the cymbal with both brush and stick. Shorter’s entrance finds different melodic and rhythmic paths, with Hancock following him closely throughout. Generally on this album but especially here, Shorter finds a different voice. If earlier solo works like “JuJu” could strongly bring Coltrane to mind, his playing here demonstrates a more wistful, meditative side that is quite distinct from the elder tenor. Hancock’s solo turn explores the tension between the triple meter and the more straight ahead melody, and is accompanied by some unique support from Williams, who plays brisk rolls on the snare. The track ends with a recap, with Davis and Shorter finishing each others’ musical thoughts, followed by another short outro from the rhythm section and a final recap. The overall performance runs from a tender, impressionist melody to a more articulated yearning, thanks in no small part to Shorter’s solo. The tune would remain in Hancock’s solo repertoire; we’ll hear it again.

R.J.,” which closes out the first half of the record, is another Carter composition, with Shorter and Carter jointly stating the gnarly theme over a free accompaniment by Williams, before Miles takes the first solo. Again, the playing is free, but returns to the same progression of six chords from Hancock in different inversions, rather like striking chimes in an unusually tuned carillon. Shorter’s solo follows Miles’ patterns but picks up the second half of the theme, repeating the descending motif before passing the ball to Hancock. Herbie elaborates the chordal pattern around the repeated chord clusters before Shorter and Carter jointly close the track out. It’s a bravura performance.

Miles’s “Agitation” opens the second half, beginning with a massive drum solo from Tony Williams. It’s been observed that the Second Great Quintet flirted with rock sounds long before the band electrified, and Williams’ solo provides evidence of that, with the drummer dropping in and out of meter before settling into a rapid alternating beat on the cymbals, keeping pace with Carter’s brisk bass accompaniment. Miles’ solo states the melody, sounding rather as though it’s stumbling downhill on a rocky slope before picking up velocity, dropping into a half-time restatement over a swung beat from Williams and Carter, and handing off to Shorter. Wayne’s solo chases the melody through some sheets of sound before briefly restating the melody in quarter notes, establishing a brief ground, and yielding ground to Hancock, whose solo lays bare the alternating chords under the melody in a series of arpeggios. The entire track is both playful and ominous, as the return to the melody is rendered somewhat claustrophobic.

Wayne Shorter and Miles’s “Iris” follows. A ballad that infuses the harmonic experimentation on the rest of the record with a palpable longing, it finds the band in high telepathic form, with the interplay between Hancock and Williams under Miles’ solo especially remarkable. Miles is in tender form here, though some of the agitation of the prior track persists. Shorter echoes the descending pattern that ends Miles’ solo, and steers the ballad into a more plain spoken territory. It’s worth noting that while Miles famously encouraged his sidemen to subtract unnecessary notes and embrace space in their playing, here it is Shorter whose solo seems to breathe, taking the track new places. Special attention must be paid to Carter’s bass line under the final statement of the melody by Shorter; an apparently simple ground reveals flights of countermelody on closer inspection. 

Mood,” another Carter composition, begins with the bass pattern that ended “Iris,” but finds the group more terse, slowly oscillating between F major and C minor in a slow three. Miles almost whispers as he sketches the outline of the chords, and Shorter whispers back, playing around the edges of the melody. On another record it would have been showstopping; here, coming after “Iris” and “Little One,” it feels like a recapitulation, like the band is restating the ideas throughout the album before gathering their energy for a big step forward.

It would be another year before the band returned to the studio for that step. Miles’ personal life would force a pause, as he had hip replacement surgery that had to be repeated after a fall later that summer. Also, his temper, famously erratic at the best of times, would finally spur Frances Taylor Davis, his first wife and the model on the cover of the album, to divorce him. But the members of the band weren’t idle; next time we’ll hear how E.S.P. pushed Herbie Hancock to his own mid-1960s Blue Note masterpiece.

You can listen to the album here.

Wayne Shorter, Speak No Evil

Album of the week, June 4, 2022.

Many of the musicians in this series must be described in the past tense, but Wayne Shorter is still with us. We heard his tenor voice last time as a member of Miles Davis’ band. Today we’re going to look at an album he recorded after that run of dates on the road—an album that still stands among the greatest small group jazz recordings ever.

Wayne Shorter started his career in the Army, serving for two years after graduating from New York University, and playing in a combo with Horace Silver. He was subsequently hired by Art Blakey, who made a career out of finding promising young players and giving them opportunities to shine. During the time when Shorter was in the Jazz Messengers, Blakey’s band, he played alongside trumpeter Lee Morgan, pianist Bobby Timmons, trombonist Curtis Fuller, bassist Reggie Workman, Freddie Hubbard, and pianist Cedar Walton at various times. (We’ll hear from many of these artists later.) Even among this group of young giants, Shorter stood out, eventually becoming the band’s musical director.

Shorter played a few gigs with Miles in 1962 but stayed committed to Blakey’s group, finally giving in and joining Miles for good in the summer of 1964. The group toured extensively through Europe that summer and fall; in addition to the Berlin date we wrote about last time, there are also radio sessions documenting concerts in Paris, Sindelfingen (West Germany), and Copenhagen. When the band returned, with no Davis recording sessions imminent, he hit Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. The first session, in November, yielded three takes that were rejected by Blue Note. The second session, on Christmas Eve, 1964, yielded a masterpiece.

Shorter had already recorded two albums for Blue Note in 1964, with a group consisting of Coltrane sidemen (McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman, and Elvin Jones) that established his abilities as a leader and a composer, but cast him as a Coltrane disciple. This time around the compositional voice was more assured and also beginning to speak a different language, with modal influences from Miles. That’s not all the record borrows from his work with the Miles Davis Quintet; his bandmates Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter joined him for the recording, alongside trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and John Coltrane Quartet drummer Elvin Jones. (We’ll hear more about all these musicians.)

Shorter starts off the album with “Witch Hunt,” a modal, bluesy track that features strong playing from Hubbard over a relaxed groove courtesy of Hancock and Carter. Hancock’s time in Miles’ group is apparent in his accompaniment, which drops chords into the spaces left by the horns as he brings the band along on the changes. Elvin Jones keeps the time with a relaxed swing, but turns up the heat as the group shifts gears into the chorus and as Shorter’s solo gets hotter, finding a new rhythmic pattern. Carter keeps an implacable heartbeat below all the players. And Shorter and Hubbard trade solos over the rhythm section, finding different approaches to the loping melody that opens the track.

“Fee Fi Fo Fum” is in nearly the same tempo, but relaxes further into the groove and drops a minor third down the chord that “Witch Hunt” explores, lending the impression of continuing the thought that the opening track started. Here Hubbard opens with a brief solo before yielding the floor to Shorter, who brings several different tonalities around the melody before passing the ball back to Hancock.

“Dance Cadaverous” continues the groove in waltz time. The first side of the album, in fact, feels like a slowly unfolding exploration of the same musical idea, with different melodic ideas continuing in the same mode. The sound continues to swirl around the same tonality in a series of hypnotic melodies, but you’d be forgiven for thinking of the songs as slightly interchangeable.

That changes in a big way with the title track, which opens the second side of the album. Here the melody is both simpler, reliant on just three notes to express the statement of the core idea, and more developed, as it moves in and out of the opening tonality, then climbs chromatically up the octave topping out a ninth above, with Hancock closing the pattern with a cluster of chords that descends back to the tonic. The tune is memorable and insistent and sticks around as Jones and Carter dig into the swing underneath while Hancock sketches out the scale, exploring both the chordal patterns and different rhythms. As with other songs in this session, Hubbard’s solo goes high, but Shorter stays in the same range as the melody, persistently circling round the melodic idea.

Things get stripped back even further on “Infant Ryes,” a slow ballad where Shorter and Hancock both strip out all but the most essential notes. Carter’s bass heartbeat is the pulse that moves the ballad forward, functioning in much the same way that Paul Chambers’ bass work did on Coltrane’s “Naima.” Shorter’s solo seems suspended in mid-air above the bed of Hancock’s delicate chord work throughout (Freddie Hubbard sits this one out). It’s stunning and points the way toward a path that Shorter would walk throughout his career.

The album closes with another statement in three. “Wild Flower” is, even more than “Dance Cadaverous,” a waltz, with the two horns playing in close harmony on the opening statement, only to come into unison on the second part of the theme as though two flowers twined around each other and grew toward the sky. The soloists follow the melody into and out of minor keys, exploring around the theme above the ground held by Elvin Jones and Ron Carter, with Herbie Hancock’s slightly off-beat chords giving the impression of someone wandering onto the dance floor with one leg slightly shorter than the other. Like the entire album, it’s mysterious, moody, and more than a little joyous.

Shorter would record more albums for Blue Note (and we’ll hear some of them), but this is undeniably his best known outing for the label. A statement of his compositional and soloistic gifts, it’s a performance that’s rarely been equalled on record. Next week we’ll see what happens when three of these players return to the context of the Miles Davis Quintet not quite a month later.

My copy of the album is the Blue Note 75th Anniversary re-pressing. I’ve picked up a few Blue Note reissues in various lines and have always been pleased, perhaps no more so than with this one, which has the sound of the musicians completely present and lifelike. You can listen to the album here.

Miles Davis, Miles in Berlin

Album of the Week, May 28, 2022

Jumping forward a year from last week’s Herbie Hancock album, we find another Miles Davis quintet on tour in Berlin. Much is the same as when we last saw Miles with a small group: the format is the same, much of the repertoire is the same. But the players are completely different, and that puts this date on a different planet.

After recording Someday My Prince Will Come and the two live albums that followed, Miles’ rhythm section had split to form a piano trio. Miles spent much of 1962 trying to make an album with Gil Evans and his orchestra, but the result (Quiet Nights) was enough of a disappointment artistically and commercially that it put an end to that long collaborative string between the two men. Miles formed another quintet, this time with George Coleman on tenor, Victor Feldman on piano, Frank Butler on drums, and a young bassist named Ron Carter, who had debuted a year previously in a trio with the avant-garde Eric Dolphin and Mal Waldron. They recorded the album Seven Steps to Heaven, which stands out in Miles’ early 1960s output as a cohesive, well played recording with strong tunes (mostly written by Feldman). But Feldman and Butler didn’t want to move to the East Coast, and by May of 1963, Miles had recruited the young Tony Williams, then Herbie Hancock, to join the trio. 

The new quintet played at Philharmonic Hall (recording the live albums My Funny Valentine and Four and More), and toured widely through the end of 1963 and most of 1964, but Coleman wasn’t clicking. Miles had played in mid-1963 with another tenor player, Wayne Shorter, who had been the chief composer in a well-regarded run with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Miles finally convinced Shorter to join his group in the summer of 1964, and on September 25 they played a concert at the Berlin Philharmonic. It would be the first recording released of the new quintet.

The repertoire may have been familiar but the performances weren’t. From the opening of “Milestones,” Tony Williams signals that something is different, playing a polyrhythm under the opening cymbal ride and dropping bombs at unpredictable points under Miles’ solo. The challenge invigorates Miles, who briskly runs through modal scales until he finds a countermelody, all the while playing with bebop velocity. He finishes the solo, then hands off to Wayne Shorter, who similarly embraces Coltrane-like runs, then drops into a swinging turn for a moment only to return to the trapeze. Over Hancock’s block chords, he embraces another run, then drops back into a swinging pattern, then imitates the block chords in the piano, playing in triplet groups, breaking down the melody into bursts of sound, Williams and Carter imitating him along the way. It’s a remarkable opening, and completely transforms the standard. This would be the rule for the night.

Autumn Leaves” is opened with an atmospheric solo by Miles, with the barest sketch of chords in the piano underneath, until he suddenly locks into a swinging groove. Williams follows the groove, keeping the beat with the brushes but introducing patterns which Miles reflects in the trumpet, then Herbie picks up in the piano. It’s simultaneously the most traditional and the most free performance on the record. 

So What” opens with Carter and Hancock trading off over another Williams polyrhythmic accompaniment in the cymbals. (Much of Tony Williams’ playing on this record makes me long for a meeting between him and Stewart Copeland.) Here Herbie’s chords take the changes into unfamiliar territory around the outside fringes of the mode. Shorter bends the melody and chords further as Herbie gives him more and more space to open things up, then comes back in with clusters of sound. Shorter’s performance here underscores one of the chief differences between him and Coltrane at this stage: both embrace a reaching style that uses runs of notes as a building block, but Shorter finds patterns of silence in the middle of his performance, as well as rhythmic patterns that form countermelodies. Throughout the rhythm section plays almost telepathically with the soloists. 

Walkin’” returns as a theme and becomes another brisk workout for the soloists. Here Miles picks up on Shorter’s trick from “So What,” varying the runs with alternating rhythmic patterns before yielding to Tony Williams for a drum solo. Throughout Shorter’s solo he and Hancock trade ideas, discovering a new melody and actually falling into the tag of the melody from “Milestones” before handing off to the rhythm section. In later years, Miles and his band would play long uninterrupted sets where the tunes would telepathically flow into each other, and this moment feels like a forerunner of that. Hancock takes a breath in his solo, decelerating with Williams into something like a blues by way of Debussy before accelerating back to the breakneck tempo of the opening over 32 bars. Finally, “The Theme” provides Carter with a brief spotlight followed by the emergence of yet another new melody courtesy of Herbie Hancock.

With this quintet, Miles had found musicians who challenged him and pushed him further to innovate, even as together they found something like a group mind. And this recording was just the very beginning. Soon Shorter would bring his compositional voice to the party, lifting the band to the next level. We will hear that voice in one of his early masterpieces next time.

(Note: This review is written based on the LP version of this live recording—in this case, a 1981 reissue of the original 1967 release. The full concert, which is available on CD and in streaming and downloadable version, also included a performance of “Stella by Starlight.”)

You can hear Miles in Berlin here.

Author’s corner

The publicity for Ten Thousand Voices: 150 Years of the Virginia Glee Club has begun, now that books are shipping from the warehouse and into the hands of readers. Yesterday University of Virginia Press published an interview with me in their Author’s Corner, in which we discussed some of what led to the book’s publication and some of the stories within it.

It was harder than I thought to pinpoint some of my favorite stories from the book. I had to pass up talking about the early Glee Club member who was paid for legal services with a trunk full of gems, as well as the Glee Club concert in Washington that was interrupted by a speech attacking the Jewish owner of Monticello for refusing to surrender the property to a nonprofit. But in the end I had to go with the story about running from our bus to the Jefferson Memorial to sing for the President on Thomas Jefferson’s 250th birthday.

Herbie Hancock, My Point of View

Album of the Week, May 21, 2022

Say you’re Herbie Hancock. You have, at the age of 22, released your first album for Blue Note Records, and it’s a hit. The single cracks the Top 100, and your friend Mongo Santamaria’s re-recording of it cracks the Top 10. You’ve demonstrated that you can compose soul jazz, modal jazz, and ballads. What do you do for an encore? Well, if you’re Herbie Hancock, almost a year to the day you get back in the studio, and you do it again, with a bigger band.

To call My Point of View similar to Takin’ Off is a little unfair. The writing is more assured and distinctive, for one thing. Where you could be forgiven for mixing up “Three Bags Full” and “Empty Pockets” on the first album, each tune on My Point of View is distinctive. And the orchestration is fuller. In fact, the band on this date reads like a Who’s Who of early 1960s Blue Note, with Donald Byrd stepping in for Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Hank Mobley (fresh off his stint with Miles’ band) replacing Dexter Gordon, and Chuck Israels, who did not release albums for Blue Note as a leader but who would later anchor one of Bill Evans’ most essential trios, on bass. Two other Blue Note luminaries, the brilliant guitarist Grant Green and the cerebral composer and trombonist Grachan Moncur III, appear on half the tracks.

And on the drums: Tony Williams. Aged seventeen years and three months when he went into the studio, Williams was already demonstrating his genius behind the kit, keeping things boiling even on tracks that might have been sleepier ballads like “A Tribute to Someone,” and positively lighting up the stage on the modal burner “King Cobra.”

So where’s the similarity? Mostly it is in the consistency of Herbie’s compositional voice. When he writes a soul jazz number like “Blind Man, Blind Man”—written, as he says in the liner notes, as a conscious evocation of his Black childhood—or “And What If I Don’t”—you can immediately hear the kinship to “Watermelon Man” from his first record. They are still catchy tunes, but there’s not a lot of compositional development from one to the next.

I mean, yes, Herbie’s arranging prowess leaps ahead substantially. The guitar lick that Grant Green drops at the turn in the chorus of “Blind Man, Blind Man” is a note of genius, as are the thick blocks of chords that open “King Cobra.” But in the end, you’d be forgiven for thinking that both albums were recorded in the same delicious session.

The album was revolutionary in one way, though, at least for Herbie’s career; it introduced him to Tony Williams. By June of 1963, they would both be playing with Miles, whose next great quintet was beginning to take shape. We’ll hear the first recorded (but not first released!) album from that group next time.

You can listen to My Point of View here.

Herbie Hancock, Takin’ Off

Album of the Week, May 14, 2022.

There aren’t too many jazz players who start a career the way Herbie Hancock did. A Chicago kid who went to Grinnell College and graduated with degrees in electrical engineering and music, he was already an accomplished performer, having made his public debut at the age of 11 performing a movement of a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony. He learned harmony from jazz musician Chris Anderson, and from the Hi-Los. He signed a contract with Blue Note Records fresh out of college and released his first album at the age of 22. And the very first song on his first album for the label became a top 100 single, then was re-recorded by Mongo Santamaria and reached number 10.

The band on that first album, Takin’ Off, had something to do with his early success. Dexter Gordon was a well-known player who had been an early bebop standout, but had some troubles (with heroin) in the 1950s. At the same time, he absorbed some lessons from both John Coltrane and West Coast jazz, broadening his style with modal influences, and when he signed to Blue Note in the early 1960s he experienced a Renaissance of his career. Butch Warren was a reliable house bassist for Blue Note, and Billy Higgins brought a deep well of innovation on the drums. And at the trumpet was another star of the Blue Note roster of the early 1960s, Freddie Hubbard.

Hubbard had gotten his start in New York in 1958, and had already recorded with both Ornette Coleman (on Free Jazz), John Coltrane (Olé Coltrane and Africa Brass), and Art Blakey, as well as two albums under his own name, by the time he entered the studio in May 1962 with Hancock’s group. He brought with him a burnished tone and solid technique, as well as a clear comfort with the modal-influenced post-bop tunes that Hancock brought to the session.

It’s Hancock’s compositions that ultimately stand out from this session. The opener, “Watermelon Man,” was a hit, which was a calculation by Hancock; he wanted something to start his career off strong, and he found it in the modified twelve-bar blues, which combined with a strong soul influence and a highly rhythmic approach was enough to loft it onto the pop charts in 1962. That’s when Mongo Santamaria, a Cuban percussionist and bandleader who heard something wilder in Hancock’s tune. Santamaria’s recording paid Herbie’s bills for several years. Hancock returned to the easygoing soul-jazz vein for “Driftin’,” the penultimate track on the album.

In between, though, are several more challenging works. “Three Bags Full” opens with a modal figure that would have been at home on Coltrane’s Atlantic records, but played with a swinging rhythm. “Empty Pockets” is in a similar mood, with a modal theme that is fiercely swung by the rhythm section and jauntily soloed by both Gordon and Hubbard. And “The Maze,” which opens the second side, is a deceptively straight-ahead sounding workout that twists and turns through a circle of chords, returning again and again to the same progression. This piece is ultimately a showcase not just for the soloists, but also HIggins, who explores more complex rhythms and timbres against each soloist in turn.

The last track on the album, “Alone and I,” is the farthest step on the album, a tender ballad that showcases not only Gordon’s romantic side but also Herbie’s sensitive, tender voice, with a solo that carries echoes of 19th century Romantic composers but that is also steeped in jazz. It’s a distinctive voice, and following the soul jazz and modal workouts of the rest of the album is something wholly new. Takin’ Off was aptly named: Hancock was definitely going places. We’ll hear the next stop on his journey next time.

You can listen to the album here.

Miles Davis, At Carnegie Hall

Album of the Week, May 7, 2022.

Miles began his Columbia Records recording career alternating between small group sessions and “big band” recordings with Gil Evans at the baton. When it came time for him to make his Carnegie Hall debut, then, it was only natural that the performance include both sounds. The result is one of the more unusual albums in Miles’ career, and one of the most lush sounding albums he ever recorded.

We must first acknowledge the developments that led to this moment. Miles was, by 1961, a genuine star, and Columbia was investing in him like one. Few other jazz artists could have put on a show like this one, just based on cost alone. Gil’s orchestra wasn’t the famous “+19” that played on Miles Ahead—the players on stage numbered 22, counting Evans conducting. But some of the members were doing double duty, with Hank Mobley, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers and Wynton Kelly returning from Someday My Prince Will Come as Miles’ quintet.

All the forces on stage join together for the opening number, an unusual arrangement of “So What” that combines the original Bill Evans opening, transcribed for Gil’s orchestra, and even slower and more contemplative in its tempo. Then Chambers enters with the famous bass figure and the whole orchestra plays the “So What” chord, amplified and augmented in several octaves, at which point the quintet picks up the arrangement at the faster tempo of the live versions heard on The Final Tour. This is “So What,” not as a nonchalant question, but as an angry demand. The quintet scorches through the tune, and Mobley’s hard bop roots show through in his solo.

When the next set with the big band comes, it turns the temperature down a bit, starting with a wistful Evans arrangement of Rodgers and Hart’s “Spring is Here” that was never recorded elsewhere, and a set from Miles Ahead: “The Meaning of the Blues,” “Lament,” and “New Rhumba.” Here, as on the original record, the rhumba is the standout, with some of the cool precision of the studio recording traded for a jaunty, swinging insouciance.

(I should note that the order of the tunes on this album depends on what version you have. The original 1961 LP omitted some tracks; the 1998 CD featured the whole concert in its original running order; and my 2LP set rearranges some of the tracks to fit the limits of the LP sides.)

The next set from the quintet is where the heart of this concert begins for me: an extended romp through “Teo” that lacks none of the fire from the studio version despite Mobley taking the tenor solo that Trane played in the first recording. The band segues into “Walkin’,” which by now was the theme for Miles’ group, and then proceeds into a quiet, wistful rendition of the opening chorus of “Someday My Prince Will Come.”

And then the fireworks start. The version of “Oleo” that the band uncorks shows off all Miles’ bebop bona fides, with a rapid fire statement of the melody and solo that would not have been out of place on a Dizzy Gillespie record. “No Blues,” formerly known as “Pfrancing,” while slightly slower, is no less assertive, and the band is hot as they play behind Miles, who throws off one impossibly cool trumpet line after another, blowing notes that from someone else would sound like mistakes but seamlessly blending them into his line. Mobley is more conventional here, but no less exciting, shifting in the second 8-bar pattern into double time and staying there for about 24 bars. You can hear why he’s known as the “middleweight champion of the tenor sax.” And the rhythm section gets a great spotlight too, with Paul Chambers showing why he was so widely regarded as a leader on his instrument.

The closing number of the quintet, “I Thought About You” is a stunning performance, with Miles equally tender and wistful before making a forthright declaration of intent, followed by a mid-chorus handoff to Mobley. But it’s Miles’ tune, and he closes quietly, defiantly, and with a shower of applause.

On the LP, the final number belongs to Miles and Gil, who revisit “En Aranjuez Con Tu Amor” from Sketches of Spain. It’s hypnotic, and the band seems to lift and enfold Miles’ trumpet line without ever overwhelming it. It’s a stunning performance.

As we’ve noted, this configuration wouldn’t last much longer. The concert at Carnegie Hall was in May 1961. Miles would record no more that year, returning to the studio with Evans in July 1962 for the abortive sessions for Quiet Nights, an album that ended up being their final joint statement until the late 1970s. By the end of 1962, Kelly, Chambers and Cobb left to perform as a trio, with Sonny Rollins (who had joined the quintet in the interim) departing soon after.

Miles, faced with having to pay thousands to settle cancelled gigs, pulled together a new quintet quickly, featuring Victor Feldman on piano, George Coleman on tenor sax, Frank Butler on drums, and Ron Carter on bass. That configuration recorded part of Miles’ next album, Seven Steps to Heaven, together, but Feldman and Butler would not leave the west coast permanently. So Miles found new members of the rhythm section: a teenage wunderkind drummer named Tony Williams, and a young pianist and composer named Herbie Hancock. We’ll hear more from Hancock next week.

I found my copy of Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall in the shop at the Moog factory in Asheville, North Carolina. You can listen to the album here.

Miles Davis, Someday My Prince Will Come

Album of the Week, April 30, 2022.

To interpret this album, we need to start with Dave Brubeck.

That’s not a sentence that begins many discussions of Miles Davis’s music. But in this case it fits, because the small group album released after Kind of Blue found Miles in a very different place than he was on that masterpiece. For once, he was not exactly blazing a trail.

He picked a good time to regroup, coming off two masterpieces—not just Kind of Blue but the followup album with Gil Evans and his orchestra, the miraculous Sketches of Spain (about which I may write one day, but which is not presently in my vinyl collection). But regrouping was needed. After the European tour, Trane had decided to strike out on his own, taking the tunes that he had explored onstage to the chords of “Kind of Blue” (“Impressions”) and “On Green Dolphin Street” (“Like Sonny”) along with his searching, experimental aesthetic, and forming his own quartet. (We’ll talk about their albums at some point, after I finish telling the rest of Miles’ story.)

Miles had auditioned a few saxophonists, doing live performances with both Jimmy Heath and Sonny Stitt, before landing on the young Hank Mobley. Mobley had been recording a string of ingenious albums for Blue Note, including the classics Soul Station and Roll Call in 1960, and brought with him some of the same athleticism that Trane displayed, tempered with a touch of soul. It was a good match in many ways for the rest of the quintet, which still included soul-flavored pianist Wynton Kelly as well as the redoubtable Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers.

But what Mobley didn’t bring was repertoire, at least, not in the same way that Bill Evans helped Miles tap the vein of modal jazz that underpinned the great 1958-1960 recordings. Miles had to bring that himself, which may explain why this recording featured several standards, including the title track. But why did a Disney song count as a standard? For that we have to thank Dave Brubeck (I told you I’d get there, eventually).

Brubeck in 1957 was a few years away from recording his own masterpiece, 1959’s Time Out, but he had built a strong working group of his own, with Paul Desmond’s distinctive alto providing a lyrical counterpart to Brubeck’s muscular approach to the piano. And Brubeck, while a substantial composer in his own right, was looking for new material that could showcase the quartet’s versatility. He found it, reportedly, at Disneyland, and then had to work hard to convince producer George Avakian to bet on a whole album of Disney covers. The lead-off tune on the second side of Dave Digs Disney? “Someday My Prince Will Come.” (We’ll talk more about Dave Digs Disney at some point, too.)

Miles had been listening to Brubeck for a while — remember, he covered “In Your Own Sweet Way” on Workin’ and “The Duke” on Miles Ahead. And he must have heard, in Brubeck’s version of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” something of the direction he wanted to take his quintet. The only problem was that Mobley, while a great tenor player, didn’t have the right sound for the arrangement.

And so it was that Miles called on Coltrane, one last time. Trane was reportedly reluctant to return to the studio with Miles’s group, being consumed with a much bigger project, the orchestra recordings that would be released as Africa/Brass. But return he did, and in two days in March 1961, he recorded “Prince” and Miles’ composition “Teo,” named for his long-suffering producer. (We’ll hear more about Teo Macero later.)

Something else strikes you about this album, maybe even before you open it: the portrait of the woman on the cover is more direct and beautiful than anything on Miles’ album covers to date. That’s appropriate; so is the music inside. Miles was in love, as it turns out, and his now-wife, Frances Taylor, was featured on the cover because Miles demanded that Columbia feature black women in the album art. The music is accordingly beautiful and melodic, with the Miles originals (“Drad-Dog,” “Teo,” and “Pfrancing” aka “No Blues”) alternating between wistful melodies and soulful blues. 

The recording was not just beautiful, though. Trane arrives late on the title track, after two solo turns by Miles and one by Mobley, but the power he brings to his turn injects it with new energy, simultaneously forthright and yearning.  His solo on “Teo” brings some of the energy and chordal approach that would appear on his own quartet recordings, and spurs Miles to feats of energy of his own, before the trumpeter deconstructs Trane’s approach to the melody. Miles’s second solo on the tune is additive, as he brings elements of his solos from Sketches of Spain, and subtractive, as he takes Trane’s statements and abstracts them, turning the arc of the solo into a stretched-out call that sounds over the rhythm section. 

By this recording, that rhythm section of Kelly, Chambers and Cobb was easily as tight a unit as Red Garland had formed with Philly Joe Jones and Chambers in the early days of the quintet. Kelly was more deeply steeped in the blues than Garland ever was, and his performance on this recording has a soul jazz sound that would rarely appear in Miles’ recordings. This unit would soon strike out on their own as a trio led by Kelly, and they would even record their own Someday My Prince Will Come

As for the originals on the album, “Pfrancing” and “Teo” would both be performed by other players, especially Joe Henderson, who brought both back in his tribute album, So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles). But if the tunes would stay, this band would not. This unit made no more studio recordings after this date, but they appeared in two legendary live sessions. The San Francisco sessions at the Blackhawk were issued as a pair of albums under the title Miles Davis in Person. We will discuss the other live album next time. 

You can listen to the album here.

Miles Davis and John Coltrane, The Final Tour: Copenhagen, March 24, 1960

Album of the Week, April 23, 2022.

As Robert Frost wrote (and S.E. Hinton quoted), nothing gold can stay. This was certainly true of John Coltrane’s sojourn in Miles Davis’ band.

As we’ve seen, Trane had already left Davis’ employ once, to get clean of his heroin habit, after which he rebuilt his career performing in Thelonious Monk’s band before rejoining Miles. The second and final departure happened for a different reason: Trane developed into a star. He had signed with Atlantic Records in 1958, and in April 1959, a month after the first recording session for Kind of Blue, he entered Atlantic Studio in New York City to begin laying down the tracks that would eventually emerge on his debut for the label, Giant Steps. The sessions for the album would continue throughout the year, during which he also recorded material for Coltrane Jazz. These albums, featuring only his compositions, helped him build his fan base further. But he continued to record and perform with Miles during this period, even going on a European tour with him.

This helps to explain the first track of this record, which captures one of the concerts released as The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6. Jazz impresario Norman Granz introduces the players, getting applause for each name, until he introduces Coltrane… and the crowd goes nuts, applauding at least as loudly as they do for Miles.

The performances heard on this record are a hybrid between the style of Miles’ first great quintet (Cannonball Adderley had left the group by now) and Coltrane’s solo materials. Not quite a year after the recording of Kind of Blue, that album’s opening track, “So What,” had picked up the tempo considerably, going from the gentle stroll heard on the album to something considerably faster and darker. The track would keep the faster arrangement from this point forward. And Trane seems to have been let off the leash.

Indeed, as Ted Mills has pointed out, sometimes it doesn’t even seem like the two greats are playing in the same band. With Miles soloing, the band sounds like a fired-up version of the group that made Kind of Blue almost a year previously, but they’re still recognizable as the same group. When Trane steps up, however, the band catches fire.

Trane was just beginning to move beyond the chord-focused explorations that drove his Prestige recordings into explorations of spiritual verities, and you hear some of these directions in his playing in the Copenhagen concert. While there is no overblowing or squalling in the horn, sounds that would come to define the outer reaches of his Pentecostal exploration of the world around him, some of the other trademarks of the classic Coltrane sound are there: the abandonment of cool, the breaking beyond the boundaries of the eight bar chorus, the use of modal scales as a vehicle for spiritual exploration, and of course, the cascading “sheets of sound” in which it becomes difficult to hear the individual notes of his runs as they search out beyond the boundaries of the improvisation for something new.

On its surface, “On Green Dolphin Street” would seem like a strange vehicle for Trane’s search. The song, by Bronisław Kaper with lyrics by Ned Washington, was an MGM movie theme in 1947 and then mostly forgotten until Miles’ sextet resurrected it in a recording in 1958, in their first recording sessions. Their recordings, which were followed by versions by Bill Evans’ trio, Wynton Kelly, and Eric Dolphy, established the song as a jazz standard. But you don’t hear the standard improvisation when Coltrane solos. You hear him taking flight.

After this tour, Trane would return to the studio with Miles’ group once more, for two songs. But he was otherwise off on his own flights of exploration. We’ll hear more from both Miles and Trane soon.

The vinyl version of The Last Tour is an odd artifact; it presents material from one of the European performances of the tour and splits “On Green Dolphin Street” across two sides of the record. A fuller record of the tour can be found on The Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Miles Davis & John Coltrane, The Final Tour, which in addition to the Copenhagen show also presents performances from L’Olympia in Paris and the Konserthuset in Stockholm. I’ve provided links to the performances on the LP below; enjoy!

  1. Introduction by Norman Granz
  2. So What
  3. On Green Dolphin Street
  4. All Blues
  5. The Theme (incomplete)

Album of the Week: methodology and sources

This is a peek behind my writing process for #albumoftheweek, which means if you’re just interested in the albums you can safely skip it. But it occurred to me that it might be of interest to folks anyway.

The point of this feature is to go through the record albums that I own and tell stories about each one. That means that, inevitably, there are going to be albums that are highly worthy of being featured that won’t be, because I don’t own them on vinyl. So it goes. (Though sometimes I skip an album chronologically and then later pick up a copy… I’ll try to insert those into the sequence as I can.)

My original plan for the series was to just go alphabetically through my music, starting with jazz, by artist name, and then chronologically by recording date within an artist’s work. This is, not coincidentally, how I sort my media anyway. But when I hit Miles, it kind of upended that plan. For one thing, I love Miles but I wasn’t sure I wanted to write for four straight months about nothing but Miles albums. For another, as I told the stories about Miles’ first great quintet, I began to realize that the individual members of the group had story arcs of their own.

I now have a plan for at least the next five months worth of AOTW, based on the contents of my collection and some supplemental resources, primarily biographies and sessionographies. The sessionography might be my secret weapon, since it gives me the dates and places that the artist recorded—often including sideman gigs, live performances, and recordings for other labels that lend interesting flavor to the overall arc of the musician’s career. If you don’t mind spoilers, you can peek at the one I’m using for Miles.

Last, when the story about how I found the vinyl is interesting, I try to include it. That means I’m mostly skipping stories that go “I bought this contemporary re-pressing on Amazon, or from the Jazz Center Stage Store, or from Blue Note.” Though, when we get to the Blue Note sequence, there are certainly some interesting things to call out about the Tone Poet re-releases… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

And really last, I reserve the right to break the sequence at any time, so buckle up!

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue

Album of the Week, April 16, 2022.

The opening of “So What,” the first track on Miles’ magnum opus, might be Paul Chambers’ most famous performance. Forget everything he had done with Miles’ group to this time; forget his solo records; forget all the great work he did with Trane and Cannonball Adderley and Kenny Clarke and Wynton Kelly and pretty much every hard bop artist in the 1950s and early 1960s. That walking bass line that follows Bill Evans’ introspective opening will forever define jazz bass: simple, functional (it underpins the modal progression of the that serves as the first line of the song’s theme), and utterly unforgettable. Chambers would live not quite ten more years after recording that bass line, and his work would never again have the sort of prominence he had on this record.

Kind of Blue was that kind of record for many of the players who performed on it. It’s that kind of record, period. It’s probably the one jazz record you have if you don’t own any jazz, because everyone has told you to buy it. And they’re right: Kind of Blue is the pinnacle of a certain type of playing, recorded by a group of men who had developed a certain telepathic sense of line and melody and how to step up and when to lay back.

For this reason, Kind of Blue repays countless listenings. It’s not as out there as some of the work that was to come with the Second Great Quintet, but it’s as intricate as a precision timepiece and as effortless as exhaling. So these thoughts are what I observe as I listen today. I might find different things tomorrow.

This was one of the few Miles albums that put the names of each player on the cover, even pianist Wynton Kelly, who only sat in on “Freddie Freeloader.” As we’ve learned in this series, the players matter in all these recordings, but they especially matter here. This is because, as Bill Evans notes in the liner notes to the album (below), almost everything you hear on the album was a first take.

That “almost” is interesting, because it raises the spectre of a self-conscious mythologizing—especially when one learns that there were, in fact, two takes of “Flamenco Sketches,” and that the one on the record is Take 2. There is also, in the liner notes, references to Japanese painting and a description of the different forms of each song, in an attempt to hint at the formal underpinnings beneath the improvisations. Evans notes of “All Blues,” for instance, that it is “a series of five scales, each to be played as long as the soloist wishes until he has completed the series,” which is a bit like saying Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a set of rhythmic vibrations of air.

Jibes aside, it is impossible to overstate Evans’ contributions to the album, and indeed to this phase of Davis’ band generally. As we learned while listening to Miles Ahead, Miles had been leaning toward a less cluttered conception of his music that offered more freedom for improvisation without the density of the chord changes that had been the formal underpinning of small group jazz since the days of Charlie Parker. Evans brought to his work on the piano a sense of formalism inspired by the works of Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud, as well as a formal grounding in the modal theories of George Russell courtesy of a working relationship with the noted “third stream” composer over the course of several years. The combination of Evans with Miles’ new modal direction, heard in their initial joint recordings as well as live performances in Davis’s sextet, was electric. But Evans was already looking beyond his sideman work and beginning to record with his first great trio with Scott Lafaro and Paul Motian. Miles had to ask Evans to come back and record this album with him.

It is clear that Kind of Blue would not have happened without Evans. First, on purely practical grounds, he by all accounts composed “Blue in Green,” based on a request by Miles to Evans for a piece that centered around two chords, G minor and A augmented. When he was not credited on the record, he confronted Miles, who is said to have offered him $25 in compensation. Based on its similarity to Evans’ earlier composition “Peace Piece,” it’s likely that the pianist wrote “Flamenco Sketches” as well.

But the pianist contributed other elements to the record, most notably an abiding sense of melancholy, particularly in the two compositions mentioned above. But the genius of the album is that the melancholy is not a destination. The form of “Blue in Green” sees the pianist come full circle, repeating the opening figure as though returning again and again to a painful memory. But “Flamenco Sketches,” as it moves through the different scales, opens up that melancholy like a flower, moving beyond and through to a new horizon.

Adderley and Coltrane brought their own strengths to the record. Cannonball brings his own sense of harmonic conception, but his rhythmic approach is more linear than Trane’s, who bent the meter when it suited him. Indeed, his entrance on “Freddie Freeloader” literally stops the time, as the entire band drops out behind his first entrance. Throughout, though, both saxophonists bring an almost psychic connection with each other and the rest of the band, contributing to the frequent description of these tracks as perfect improvisation.

Evans would not record with Miles again. Nor would Adderley, who moved on to form his own group. Trane returned for a few tracks of Miles’ next small-group album, but his swan song with the group was effectively the tour of Europe that they mounted in 1960. We’ll hear that soon.

Listen (again).