Archive for Miles Davis

The Top 10 Jazz Artists

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on December 8, 2015 by telescoper

Back from a short break I thought I’d mention that BBC Radio 3 recently announced the results of a poll for the top Jazz artist of all time. The result was:

  1. Miles Davis
  2. Louis Armstrong
  3. Duke Ellington
  4. John Coltrane
  5. Ella Fitzgerald
  6. Charlie Parker
  7. Billie Holiday
  8. Thelonious Monk (8=)
  9. Bill Evans (8=)
  10. Oscar Peterson

Although my ordering would have been a little different, I was quite surprised that the top 10 corresponded so closely with my own selection. In fact 8 of the above list would have made it into mine: Miles Davis; Louis Armstrong; John Coltrane; Charlie Parker; Billie Holiday; Thelonious Monk; and Bill Evans.

The only differences were that (a) I couldn’t possibly have had Billie Holiday without having Lester Young and (b) I simply had to have Ornette Coleman in there. To accommodate Messrs Young and Coleman I would have displaced Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson. The latter are great artists, of course, but I wouldn’t say either influenced the development of Jazz as much as the others I mentioned, and that’s one of the criteria I applied.


No surprise that Miles Davis (above) came top. He changed musical direction so many times that he should actually count as four or five different musicians. It’s no coincidence that Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans all appeared on Kind of Blue, which is arguably the greatest jazz record of all time. I don’t think any serious Jazz enthusiast could have left out Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk either. And of course, Louis Armstrong just had to be there too. It’s hard to imagine what Jazz would have been without Satchmo. The same goes for the great Duke Ellington.

Anyway, it’s all a matter of personal choice. There are dozens of great jazz artists who didn’t make it into the top ten. Among my near misses were Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet, Eric Dolphy and Dizzy Gillespie.

Who else would you have picked?


Blue Christmas

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on December 23, 2013 by telescoper

It’s the fifth Christmas season for this blog but I’ve not yet posted this festive (?) classic by Miles Davis. The rest of the band consists of Frank Rehak (trombone), Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums), and Willie Bobo (bongos); the arrangement is unmistakeably Gil Evans. The vocalist is the legendary Bob Dorough who also wrote the lyrics. “Bah Humbug” never sounded so cool!

One Hundred Years of Pierrot Lunaire

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on October 22, 2012 by telescoper

I’m a bit annoyed with myself for having forgotten to mark the centenary of the first performance of Arnold Schönberg’s extraordinary work Pierrot Lunaire, which took place on October 16th 1912, in Berlin. Here’s a hasty reworking of an old post to make up for my lapse.

It’s hard to know exactly what to call Pierrot Lunaire. It’s basically a musical setting of a series of poems (by Albert Giraud, but translated into German) so you might be tempted to call it a song cycle. However, it’s not quite that because the words are not exactly sung, but performed in a half-singing half-spoken style called Sprechstimme. Moreover, they’re not really performed in the usual kind of recital, but in a semi-staged setting rather like a cabaret. It’s not really an opera, either, because there’s only one character and it doesn’t really have the element of music drama.

The whole thing only lasts about 40 minutes so the 21 individual pirces are quite short, and they’re arranged as three groups of seven with the narrator Pierrot dealing with different themes in each group. The work was written in 1912 and is his Opus 21, so it’s a relatively early example of  Schönberg’s atonal music but before he turned towards full-blown serialism. Atonalism isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it can (and does in this case) allow a hugely varied musical landscape to be constructed by a small group of instruments.

I’ve heard this work before, on the radio, and found it very intriguing but then I saw a youtube clip of the film version made in 1997 with Christine Schäfer as Pierrot. This is not a film of a concert or a recital, but an extraordinary visual response to the remarkable music and words. The director, Oliver Hermann, creates a grotesque dreamlike urban setting through which Pierrot wanders like a ghost, with emotions alternating between desperate alienation and amused reflection. I think music and film together create a wonderful work of art, which has gone right to the top of my list of favourite music DVDs.

Atonal music is very good for communicating a sense of disorientation and loneliness, course. The lack of tonal centre (or key) means that the listener is denied the usual points of harmonic reference. Hum doh-ray-me-fah-soh-la-ti and you’re drawn very powerfully back to the tonic doh. Deny this framework and the listener feels discomforted, but also, at least in my case, gripped.

Miles Davis’ classic album Kind of Blue – arguably the greatest jazz record of all time – was the first record I heard in which jazz musicians experimented with atonalism, and it has the same effect on most listeners: a spreading sense of melancholia and introspection. Perhaps not great for party music, but, in its own way, extremely beautiful.

Here’s the clip I saw on youtube that started me off on this. It’s the eighth item of Pierrot Lunaire (or, more accurately, the first of the second group of seven; Schönberg was quite obsessed with the number 7, apparently). It’s quite short, so hopefully won’t upset those who can’t stand atonal music for more than a few seconds, but it nicely exemplifies the extraordinary surreal imagery conjured up by the director as a response to the equally extraordinary music. Fantastic.

All Blues at School

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , , , , on October 14, 2012 by telescoper

I discovered by accident the other day that the classic Miles Davis composition All Blues has found its way onto the GCSE Music syllabus. I think that’s wonderful. In fact here’s a recording of the track,  produced and distributed as “set work” for that purpose:

I never took any qualifications in music at School – although I did get music lessons, I didn’t find them at all inspiring and it took me years to develop a taste for anything other than Jazz, which I knew about mainly from home, because my father was a (part-time) Jazz drummer. There wasn’t much mention of Jazz at School from teachers, and none of my friends were into it, so it became a very private passion, although I’m glad to say it never faded.

Anyway, what little I know about music I picked up by studying on my own, and trying to figure out what was going on by listening to records. All Blues is a really interesting composition to unpick in this way, as it tells you a lot about how Jazz was evolving in the late 1950s (it was released in 1959). Musicians like Miles Davis were experimenting with ways of breaking away from the standard approach to Jazz improvisation based on chord progressions, and one of the routes that developed was modal Jazz. All Blues is particularly interesting because it teeters on the edge between the old approach and the new; it’s clearly based on the traditional 12-bar blues progression but diverges from it in several respects.

A standard blues progression in G might go  like this (although there are many variations):


It’s based on just three chords: the tonic (in this case G): the sub-dominant IV (C) and the dominant V (D); the V-IV-I progression in the last four bars is usually called the turnaround.

The progression for All Blues is this:

|G7| G7| G7| G7|
|Gm7| Gm7| G7| G7|
|D7| E♭7 D7| F G|F G6|

While the addition of a major 7th note to the basic triad G isn’t unusual, the two G minor 7th chords are more interesting, because they involve adding a blue note (a flattened third) to the basic chord . But it’s in the last four bars that the harmonies move dramatically away from the standard turnaround. Chromatic chords are included and the usual resolution back to G is subtly changed by the addition of a 6th note (E) to the basic G chord (GBD) at the end; that trick became a bit of a trademark for Jazz of this period.

However, it’s the two F chords that represent the strongest connection with modal harmony. The scale of G major involves F-sharp, so the F is a flattened note (a flattened VIIth).  In fact, all the Fs in the piece are natural rather than sharp.  For this reason you could argue that this is a piece not played in the key of G major but in the corresponding Mixolydian mode (the white notes on the piano from G to G).

So it’s a blues that’s not quite a blues, but is (appropriately enough) Kind of BlueThere’s so much going on harmonically that the fact that it’s played in 6/8 rhythm (rather than the more usual 4/4 for the Blues) seems almost irrelevant.

Those are just the bare bones, but the improvisations of Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane et al.  breath life into them and create a living Jazz masterpiece. Although it seems like a complicated tune, apparently what happened at the recording session was that Miles Davis talked the band through the piece, they played it once to get a feel for it, and then recorded the entire track that was released on the album, in one go.

I must have listened to All Blues a thousand times, and I’ve never tired of it. The thing is, though, I could say the same thing about all the other tracks on the album Kind of Blue, about which Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote

Kind of Blue isn’t merely an artistic highlight for Miles Davis, it’s an album that towers above its peers, a record generally considered as the definitive jazz album, a universally acknowledged standard of excellence. Why does Kind of Blue posses such a mystique? Perhaps because this music never flaunts its genius… It’s the pinnacle of modal jazz — tonality and solos build from the overall key, not chord changes, giving the music a subtly shifting quality… It may be a stretch to say that if you don’t like Kind of Blue, you don’t like jazz — but it’s hard to imagine it as anything other than a cornerstone of any jazz collection.

My Funny Valentines

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2012 by telescoper

I’m not really into all this St Valentine’s Day nonsense (meaning: “I never get any cards”), but at least it provides me with an excuse to post three versions of the great Rogers & Hart ballad  My Funny Valentine.

The first is by the great Miles Davis Quintet featuring Miles Davis on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter bass and Tony Williams on drums. This was recorded live in Milan on October 11th 1964. There’s a slight distortion in the sound in the form of a pre-echo, which is a bit eery, but I still think it’s a marvellous performance.

And if Miles Davis isn’t your cup of tea, here is something completely different. It’s by Julie London, but very late in her career in 1981 when she was 55. Her voice was much smoother in her heyday in the 1960s, but I love the smokey sound of this very characterful rendition. By ear I’d say the bass player on this is Ray Brown and the guitar is Barney Kessel, both of whom (like Julie London herself) are no longer with us.

Last one up is a miracle of joint improvisation between the great Bill Evans on piano and Jim Hall on guitar, the sort of music that mere mortals can only dream of…

A Kind of Brew

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on August 27, 2011 by telescoper

Well here’s a find for fan’s of Miles Davis. I stumbled across this exceedingly rare clip of his 1969 band playing at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London, complete with an introduction by Ronnie Scott himself. It’s  rare, firstly, because Miles didn’t do many club gigs at this time (or after) and I have a feeling that this might be one of his last; he usually played big concert venues whenever he toured in later years. But an even rarer thing about it is that this is the legendary “Lost Quintet” of Miles (on trumpet, of course), Wayne Shorter on saxophone(s), Chick Corea (keyboards), Jack de Johnette on drums and Dave Holland on bass.

Filmed in November 1969, this performance took place just a few months after the recording sessions that give rise to the celebrated but controversial album Bitches Brew, which was released in April 1970. The band at Ronnie Scotts was a subset of the larger ensemble that made the album, but you can hear the similarity in musical style, heavily influenced by psychedelic rock…

And here, for completeness, is a fuller version of the title track of the album Bitches Brew, recorded just two days later in the Tivoli Concert Hall in Copenhagen.

Miles was obviously experimenting with a much freer form of improvisation at this time and both the album and this live performance seethe with a kind of wild passion that threatens to burst into anarchy at any moment. It’s not exactly easy listening, of course, and the live performance is inevitably rough around the edges, but I think it’s a fascinating bit of jazz history. And, for what it’s worth, I think Bitches Brew is completely and utterly brilliant..


Posted in Jazz with tags , on August 13, 2011 by telescoper

I thought I’d post this now because (a) the title is topical and (b) because playing a piece by a black musical  genius is the best way I can think of to refute David Starkey’s on Newsnight last night that there’s nothing more to “black culture” (whatever that means) than drugs and gang violence. This track, called Riot, is from the  album Nefertiti, by the superb Miles Davis Quintet of the late 60s, which included Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock (who wrote the tune), Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. It’s one of the most played albums on my iPod, but I very much doubt Dr Starkey has ever heard of it…


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