Archive for Miles Davis

Friday Music Quiz: The Yardbird Suite

Posted in History, Jazz with tags , , on September 30, 2016 by telescoper

Not much time to write today so I thought I’d put up a bit of music to end the week. This is a classic from 1946, featuring Charlie Parker leading a band that included a very young Miles Davis. The Yardbird Suite an original composition by Parker, and has become a jazz standard, but he never copyrighted the tune so never earned any royalties from it.

Now, here’s a little question to tease you with. Can anyone spot the connection between this tune and a notable event that occurred today, 30th September 2016?

Answers through the comments box please!


Back On Green Dolphin Street

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , , , , on September 12, 2016 by telescoper

I was listening to this wonderful track yesterday and couldn’t resist reposting a piece I wrote I wrote about it over 7 years. If I were ever to be asked on one of those programmes where you have to pick examples of your favourite music, this would probably be the first I’d write on my list.

Years ago in 1980, when the great pianist Bill Evans passed away suddenly, Humphrey Lyttelton paid tribute to him on his radio programme “The Best of Jazz” by playing a number of tracks featuring him. I didn’t really know much about Bill Evans at the time – I was only 17 then – but one track that Humph chose has been imprinted on my mind ever since, and it’s one of those pieces of music that I listen to over and over again.

The track is On Green Dolphin Street, as recorded in 1958 by the great Miles Davis sextet of the time that featured himself on trumpet, John Coltrane on tenor sax, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto sax, Jimmy Cobb on drums, Paul Chambers on bass and Bill Evans on piano. This is the same band that played on the classic album Kind of Blue, one of the most popular and also most innovative jazz records of all time, which was recorded a bit after the recording of On Green Dolphin Street.  I love Kind of Blue, of course, but I think this track is even better than the many great tracks on that album (All Blues, Flamenco Sketches, Blue in Green, etc). In fact, I’d venture the opinion – despite certainty of contradiction – that this is the greatest Jazz recording ever made.

On Green Dolphin Street was suggested to Miles Davis the band’s leader by the saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. It was the theme tune from a film from the late 1940s. It’s also the title of a more recent very fine novel by Sebastian Faulks.

I think the Miles Davis version demonstrates his genius not only as a musician himself but also as a bandleader. On Green Dolphin Street definitely bears the Miles Davis hallmark, but it also manages to accommodate the very different styles of the other musicians and allows them also to impose their personality on it. This is done by having each solo introduced with a passage with the rhythm section playing a different, less propulsive, 3/4 time behind it. This allows each musician to set out their stall before the superb rhythm section kicks into a more swinging straight-ahead beat  (although it still keeps the 3/4 feel alongside the 4-4, courtesy of brilliant drumming by Jimmy Cobb) and they head off into their own territory. As the soloists hand over from one to the other there are moments of beautiful contrast and dramatic tension, especially – and this is the reason why Humph picked this one in 1980 – when Bill Evans takes over for his solo from Cannonball Adderley. He starts with hesitant single-note phrases before moving into a richly voiced two handed solo fully of lush harmonies. It’s amazing to me to hear how the mood changes completely and immediately when he starts playing, and it always sends shivers down my spine.

Not that the other soloists play badly either. After Bill Evans’s short but exquisite prelude, Miles Davis takes over on muted trumpet, more lyrical and less introspective than in Kind of Blue but still with a moody,  melancholic edge. He’s followed by John Coltrane’s passionately virtuosic solo which floods out of him in an agonized stream which contrasts with Miles’ poised simplicity. By contrast, Cannonball Adderley is jaunty and upbeat, sauntering through his solo up to that wonderful moment where he hands over to the piano. Then Miles Davis takes over again to take them to the conclusion of the piece.

I’m not into League tables for music, but this is definitely fit to put up alongside the greatest of them all…

R.I.P. Rudy van Gelder (1924-2016)

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on September 1, 2016 by telescoper

One of the sad items of news that appeared last week while I was indisposed was the death at the age of 91 of legendary recording engineer Rudy van Gelder. He was the man who established the sound of a huge proportion of the greatest Jazz records made in the 1950s and 60s, including classic albums on the Blue Note, Prestige and Impulse labels by musicians of the calibre of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey. It’s quite unusual for sound engineers to become famous, but Van Gelder certainly did and his passing has left us with a priceless legacy of extraordinary music.

By sheer coincidence, one of the books I took with me to read in hospital was this:


Written by Richard Havers, this is an excellent illustrated history of the legendary record label, Blue Note. Blue Note began with a number of classic recordings from the era of Sidney Bechet, Edmond Hall and Bunk Johnson, but it was the post-bebop era that really established the label  in terms of sound and distinctive artwork:

Van Gelder’s  first recording studio was set up in his house in Hackensack, New Jersey, and it was probably because of the unsuitable shape of the room he used that he experimented so much with, e.g.,  the number and placing of microphones and in the way he mixed the tapes do produce a much fuller sound than was typical for jazz recordings of that era.  He moved to a bigger house – again with a built in studio – later on, but stuck by many of his earlier innovations.

One immediate result of his habit of close-miking both solo and backing instruments – he was known to use three mikes on the drums, which was unheard of at the time – and recording them as “hot” as possible, was that he guaranteed that his records would have a huge and vibrant sound when played on a gramophone or jukebox. He also captured the unique sound that Miles Davis created when he played the trumpet with a Harman mute. When Miles moved from Prestige to another label he asked their engineers to reproduce exactly what Van Gelder had done. They wouldn’t -or couldn’t – do it.

Not everyone approved of Van Gelder’s approach. You can read some severe criticisms here. Some musicians – including Charles Mingus – didn’t like the sound at all either. But there’s no question that what he did brought a new dimension to what was an extraordinarily creative time for Jazz. An astonishing fraction of the great records described in the book I mentioned above were recorded by him. As a tribute I’m including the record that for me established the Blue Note sound, Moanin’ by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers recorded in Van Gelder’s Hackensack Studio, New Jersey in 1958, the cover of which is shown above.

Rest in Peace, Rudy Van Gelder (1924-2016).

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.