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).

Docker Desktop alternatives

Parking a few cheat sheets here for my brain and in case anyone else is messing about with this. I use Docker occasionally for customer enablement purposes, not often enough to justify a Docker Desktop license. So I’m playing with this approach for running Docker locally:

Benefits: all OSS solution, you also end up with the ability to run a local Kubernetes cluster.

Drawbacks: some gymnastics required to mount a volume to a Docker image. Apparently requires a different approach for M1 Macs (which isn’t a today problem for me, but could be a tomorrow problem).

Cannonball Adderly: Somethin’ Else

Album of the Week, April 9, 2022.

Miles, being Miles, was never one to stay locked into a format for long—and for a musician who wanted to continue to play and record, a small group was surely a more attractive—and affordable—option than the 19-piece orchestra he had recorded Miles Ahead with. So he spent the rest of 1957 in various small group formats, including a brief version of his quintet with Sonny Rollins and several groups in France. But in late February and early March 1958, he rejoined with Coltrane, fresh from his work with Thelonious Monk, alongside a new face: at the alto sax, Cannonball Adderly. The record they recorded as a sextet, Milestones, more than lived up to its name, with several original songs that signaled that Miles was not done upending the jazz cosmos.

And five days after the group finished recording Milestones at Columbia’s 30th Street Studios, Cannonball and Miles were across the river in Hackensack, New Jersey, recording at Rudy Van Gelder’s with the Jones brothers on piano and bass and Art Blakey on drums. The session was for Blue Note Records, and so had to be issued under Adderly’s name. It was the only recording of this lineup, and featured a single original composition, Miles’ title track. But that track is not the one that Somethin’ Else is remembered for. That honor goes to “Autumn Leaves.”

Miles had fully embraced the modal approach, based on scales rather than chords, by this time, as evidenced by his band’s arrangement of “Milestones,” “Autumn Leaves” takes the modal approach further, blending the chords of the standard with a modal intro and outro in a Doric minor scale. Miles is muted throughout, playing with an intimate closeness that is at once deeply felt and reserved. The contrast with Adderly’s solo is striking, with Cannonball bringing both heat and a certain volubility. Unlike Coltrane, though, the alto sax line is not cried so much as shouted, and you can hear the seeds of Adderly’s later successful embrace of “soul jazz” in the way he brings the melody around in the high reaching line of his improvisation. Italian pianist Leo Ravera points out that the track becomes more intimate as it proceeds, with each soloist bringing the dynamic down until Miles and Hank Jones close it out in another modal passage. The whole thing is a stunning performance, and the first sixteen bars give me chills every time I listen.

The rest of the album is a striking blend of styles. It is interesting to hear “Love for Sale” rendered here, with Davis’s cool approach surrounded by a rumba-inspired approach, completely different from the version he would record just a few months later with his own sextet. “Allison’s Uncle” is more straightforward bop, celebrating the birth of Nat Adderly’s daughter. “Somethin’ Else” continues in this vein with a theme that alternates statements from the trumpet and the sax, in a form that is more than slightly reminiscent of Miles’s “The Theme.” “One for Daddy-O” is a straightforward blues with a less than straightforward theme, veering from major into minor and leading into a wailing solo from Cannonball. And “Dancing in the Dark” is played as a straight ballad, in which the alto reveals a strong stylistic debt to Coleman Hawkins.

This group would never play in this configuration again. But Cannonball would remain a fixture of Miles’ sextet for some time to come. They would play together at Newport and, in between Miles’ next sessions with Gil Evans, perform on radio broadcasts and at the Plaza Hotel. And, almost a year to the day after they traveled to Hackensack, they would enter the studio to begin recording their next studio album, an undisputed masterpiece.

In this light, it’s worthwhile hearing this date two ways: once as the high point of Miles’ stylistic development to date that it represented, and once as the prelude to Kind of Blue.

Listen…

Glee Club Bandcamp: In Concert: Openings and Christmas, 1968

1968 Openings Concert program, first page

This edition of Virginia Glee Club Bandcamp features a surprise I found a few years ago. As the Glee Club historian, I regularly search online for information about the group’s history as more materials are digitized, and this time I found information in an unexpected place: Etsy. In particular, the Etsy shop of an antiques dealer in Florida, who had a Glee Club record that I had never seen before—recordings from 1968, including a fall concert and Christmas.

I bought the thing, of course. I was filled with some trepidation when it arrived and I noted that the album jacket (which was a generic blue cardboard sleeve with no printing or image) was torn in one corner and damaged—possibly even chewed—in another. But the record looked OK. So I dropped it on the turntable, played it, and was delighted to realize that, based on the repertoire, it was indeed a recording of parts of the 1968 Openings Concert and the 1968 Christmas Concert.

The 1968 Openings Concert was notable for a few things. First, it was the fifth year of Donald Loach’s tenure, so while there are definitely signs of his trademark style emerging, it’s not fully there. Second, the Openings program in particular opened for the first time with a song that would become part of Loach’s signature repertoire, “Hark, All Ye Lovely Saints Above,” but then featured a set of twentieth-century compositions that the group would return to only a few times in his tenure: “Here is the God Who Looks Both Ways” and “Thy Word is a Lantern.” Most durably in terms of the group’s repertoire, the Openings Concert also featured the debut recording of “Vir-ir-gin-i-a,” arranged by Loach from a march tune of Handel and featuring a text written by former Glee Club member Arthur Kyle Davis, Jr.

We actually know less about the Christmas Concert, as we have not found a full program listing. But the recording has a few highlights, including the earliest known performance of the “Gloria” from Josquin’s Missa Mater Patris, a work that the Glee Club would not perform again for another 24 years. The Dufay “Gloria” is spectacular here, as is the unexpected closing, the coronation scene from Boris Godounov by Mussorgsky.

Have a listen, and if you enjoy it, please remember that all proceeds from Glee Club Bandcamp sales go directly to support the Virginia Glee Club.

Miles Davis, Miles Ahead

Miles Ahead

Album of the Week, March 26, 2022.

While Coltrane was rebuilding his life and building a new reputation as a member of Monk’s band, Miles was expanding his sound. Dramatically.

From the beginning, Columbia was interested in more than a quintet with Miles’ sound. And Miles was interested in doing more with his sound too. After all, his earliest recordings, released years later as Birth of the Cool, were with a nonet that combined innovative arrangements with new voicing and sounds. 

And Miles, who had studied at Juilliard before dropping out to perform with Charlie Parker, had grown tired of the straightforward jazz that characterized his earlier recordings for Prestige, and even his first Columbia album, Round About Midnight. In time this dissatisfaction would open up new territories for his sound as he began to explore other approaches to improvisation that did not depend on chord changes. But for now, he did what he would do throughout his career: he turned to a collaborator. More specifically, he returned to the collaborator he had worked with on Birth of the Cool.  

Bandleader and arranger Gil Evans had a hot band, full of skilled players like Art Taylor and the great Lee Konitz. He also had a remarkable ear for how to place and support Miles’ trumpet so that it could soar melodically over complex orchestrations, so that the sound was simultaneously made richer (in harmonization) and simpler (in melodic line). He also shared an interest with Miles in combining techniques from jazz improvisation and composed (aka classical) music, a combination that was beginning to be known as Third Stream.

So it was that in May 1957, after playing his last radio broadcasts with Coltrane five months before, Miles entered the studio with Gil Evans’ orchestra to record an unusual set of material: “The Duke” by Dave Brubeck, “The Maids of Cadiz” by French composer Léo Delibes, and a tune that had shown up on one of Miles’ earliest Prestige recordings: “Miles Ahead.”

The performances are completely unlike the quintet recordings that proceeded them. Most of the material is through-composed, with the arrangement foregrounding Miles’ muted flugelhorn even as it paired it with other instruments in close harmony. Paul Chambers supported him in the rhythm section alongside Art Taylor on drums. There was no piano. Evans composed the tunes to link together seamlessly in two suites, one for each side of the LP. There is even, in Evans’ stunning “Blues for Pablo,” a hint of the next revolution to come. (Listen to that opening line from Miles and tell me we aren’t in mixolydian mode!)

To listen to Miles Ahead is to be rewarded with an experience that sees Miles’ sound into new directions. But is it jazz? In some ways it feels more like a completely different path, albeit one with its own excitement and promise.

Listen here and tell me what you think.

This copy of Miles Ahead is a 1960s era reissue that I found at my local bargain bin. It’s pretty lovely—a few pops on the opening track but otherwise gorgeous. Makes you really appreciate the continuity between the tracks when you’re listening to a whole side at a time.