Monday, August 17, 2009

Tribute: The 50th Anniversary of "Kind of Blue"

I grew up with a piano in my house, a big old black upright, made by the Monarch Piano Company. The tag inside the case said it was finished on my birthday (albeit in 1929), which might have been a sign. It was a tank, and I loved it. By age 5, I was picking out "Silent Night" in two-part harmony. By the time I started taking formal piano lessons a year or two later, it was a dreadful grind, because I had to stop playing songs I knew, and go back to playing scales and fingering exercises.

That phase eventually passed, and I continued my lessons for a few more years until my teacher retired (I choose to think that had nothing to do with all those years of teaching me). From then on, I learned some music from sheet, but mostly I did it "by ear," as the saying goes. Somewhere along in here I figured out that I had perfect pitch and perfect relative pitch. That helped. At least, in later life, it was good for winning bar bets.

I didn't have the vocabulary at the time to explain it, but structural concepts like "twelve-bar blues," "32-bar song," "ice-cream changes," and so on soon came to me as intuitively as multiplication tables (and, as I figured out much later, for approximately the same reason).

By the time I helped form our dreadfully earnest high school garage band (like Mystik Spiral, we were always thinking about changing our name), I was playing bass. To play rhythm guitar, all you had to do was learn to follow chord charts, but to play bass you needed to understand more about the architecture that was holding the song together.

Eventually, as an undergrad, I took a couple of music theory courses, if only to have a vocabulary to explain what I already knew. Today, I confess my chops aren't what they once were, and I can sight-read music about as well as I can sight-read Latin. But if you sat me down with any of several instruments and told me to fake it with the rest of the band, the odds would be strongly in my favor. (A couple of years ago at friends' 25th anniversary party, at a 30-year-old Wurlitzer electric, I led the pick-up band in "What'd I Say?"--which, strictly speaking, I'd never played before. We weren't magnificent, but we were good enough that the city police came by to offer their appreciation. So I figure my chops aren't gone completely, baby.) Musical styles change, but the brain's wiring doesn't.

Now let's talk about Miles Davis.

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Kind of Blue, judged by many as the best jazz album ever. (In fairness, I should mention that Lisa Simpson famously considers Davis' "Birth of the Cool" as her favorite album.)

(I came a little late to the game in jazz, so I'm indebted here to a good article by Fred Kalpan in this morning's Slate. )

On March 2, 1959, when its first tracks were laid down at Columbia Records' 30th Street Studio (the album would be released on Aug. 17), Charlie Parker, the exemplar of modern jazz, the greatest alto saxophonist ever, had been dead for four years, almost to the day. The jazz world was still waiting, longing, for "the next Charlie Parker" and wondering where he'd take the music.

Parker and his trumpeter sidekick, Dizzy Gillespie—Bird and Diz, as they were called—had launched the jazz revolution of the 1940s, known as bebop. Their concept was to take a standard blues or ballad and to improvise a whole new melody built on its chord changes. This in itself was nothing new. But they took it to a new level, extending the chords to more intricate patterns, playing them in darting, syncopated phrases, usually at breakneck tempos.

The problem was, Parker not only invented bebop, he perfected it. There were only so many chords you could lay down in a 12-bar blues or a 32-bar song, only so many variations you could play on those chords. By the time he died, even Parker was running out of steam.

When Miles Davis came to New York in 1945, at the age of 19, he replaced Gillespie as Parker's trumpeter for a few years and played very much in their style. A decade later, he, too, was wondering what to do next.

The answer came from a friend of his named George Russell (who died just last month at the age of 86). A brilliant composer and scholar in his own right, Russell spent the better part of the '50s devising a new theory of jazz improvisation based not on chord changes but on scales or "modes." The kind of music that resulted was often called "modal" jazz. (A scale consists of the 12 notes from one octave to the next. A chord consists of three or four specific notes in that scale, played together or in sequence: For instance, a C chord is C-E-G.)

This distinction may seem slight, but its implications were enormous. In a bebop improvisation, the chord changes (which occur when, usually, the pianist changes the harmony from one chord to another) serve as a compass; they point the direction to the next bar or the next phrase. Chords follow a particular pattern (that's why it's easy to hum along with most blues and ballads); you know what the next chord will be; you know that the notes you play will consist of the notes that comprise that chord or some variation on them. Playing blues, you know that the sequence of chord changes will be finished in 12 bars (or, if it's a song, 32 bars), and then you'll either end your solo or start the sequence again.

Russell threw the compass out the window. You could play all the notes of a scale, which is to say any and all notes. "It is for the musician to sing his own song really," Russell wrote, "without having to meet the deadline of a particular chord." In other words, he continued, "you are free to do anything" (the italics were his), "as long as you know where home is"—as long as you know where you're going to wind up.

(The Slate article includes several illustrative clips from several cuts.)

So, to put it simply, what came as naturally to me as my multiplication tables of threes and fours was the point where Davis and Russell--and the other artists on "Kind of Blue," including John Coltrane and "Cannonball" Adderly--took off into uncharted (literally and figuratively) territory. An old friend of mine, more steeped in jazz over breakfast this morning than I'll be by my dying day, encouraged me to get to know modal stuff better. His suggestion was to get my hand on everything I could from the ECM catalogue and burn it into my synapses. The idea was sound, and I have a lot of that music in my regular playlists, but the wiring in my head--and the lack of any good opportunity to get my hands and ear used to playing anything else--left me standing on the dock.

And odd as it sounds, that's why I like Davis' later, modal stuff as well as the bebop. Bebop, driven by piano chord changes I knew inside and out, feels as comfortable as an old pair of shoes. The later, modal stuff gives me the delight of experiencing the unexpected. Even on the fiftieth re-listening.

Here's a definitive cut off of "Kind of Blue." Kaplan writes this:

The clearest example of its novelty [i.e., the novelty of Davis' new approach] is a piece, composed (without credit) by Evans, called "Flamenco Sketches." At most jazz sessions, the sheet music that the leader passes around to the band consists of "heads"—the first 12 or so bars of a tune, with the chords notated above. The band plays the head, then each player improvises on the chords. But for "Flamenco Sketches," Evans had jotted down the notes of five scales, each of which expressed a slightly different mood. At the top of the sheet, he wrote, "Play in the sound of these scales."

For the band's two saxophone players, John Coltrane on tenor and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley on alto, it was a particularly bizarre instruction. Both were astonishingly adept improvisers, but they built their creations strictly on chords, Adderley as an acolyte of Charlie Parker (with a gospel-infused tone), Coltrane as an almost spiritual explorer, searching for the right sound, the right note, mapping out his voyage on charts of chords, piling and inverting chords on top of chords, expanding each note of a chord to a new chord, not knowing which combinations might work and therefore trying them all.

If you don't have the album, it's time.

(Hat tip to once-upon-a-time housemate Michael, who finally made me get Miles.)

1 comment:

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