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Sixty Years of Kind of Blue

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2019 by telescoper

I didn’t remember until late last night that yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the release, on 17th August 1959, of the classic jazz album Kind of Blue by a band led by trumpeter Miles Davis featuring John Coltrane (ts), Cannonball Adderley (as), Bill Evans (p, replaced by Wynton Kelly on one track), Paul Chambers (b) and Jimmy Cobb on drums. I bought the album on vinyl way back in the 1970s when I was still at school and have listened to it probably thousands of times since then. It still sounds fresh and exciting sixty years after its first release. But you don’t have to listen to me, you can listen to the whole album here:

When it first appeared, Kind of Blue seemed to represent all that Miles Davis stood for from a musical point of view, with its modal and scalar themes and such passages as the fourth section of Flamenco Sketches which hints at a Spanish influence. Whether the actual performances were typical of the way this band sounded live is less clear, but there’s no question that the album has worn so well as to be now universally regarded as a timeless masterpiece.

So why is it such an important album?

I can only speak for myself, of course, but I’d say a big part of this was that the music is on the cusp of the evolution of modern jazz. It’s music from a time of transition, pointing the way forward to exciting developments while also acknowledging past traditions. You only have to look at the various directions Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans explored after this album to see what I mean.

A few words about each of the tracks:

The opening number So What? established the practice of constructing themes based on scales instead of chords. After an introduction that keeps you guessing for a while, it turns out to be a straightforward 32-bar melody with a simple modulation serving as the bridge. At a medium tempo, the pure-toned and rather spare solo by Miles Davis provides a delicious contracts with the flurry of notes produced by Coltrane, who also plays between the beats. It might be just my imagination but the rhythm section seems to tighten up behind him, only to relax again with Cannonball Adderley’s more laid-back, bluesy approach.

The next track is All Blues, which is in a gentle 6/8 time. I discovered by accident a while ago this composition found its way onto the GCSE Music syllabus. In fact there’s a recording of the track,  produced and distributed as “set work” for that purpose:

As an aside, I should mention that 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):

|G|G|G|G|
|C|C|G|G|
|D|C|G|G|

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.

On Freddie Freeloader , Bill Evans was replaced with Wynton Kelly. I suppose that Miles Davis thought that Kelly would be more convincing on this relatively straight-ahead blues, and his crisp, direct opening solo suggests that Miles was probably right. Miles Davis’s solo that follows is superbly structured in terms of timing and dynamics. Coltrane plays more-or-less entirely in double-time and then Adderley enjoys himself hugely in a good-humoured final solo.

Blue in Green, which was mainly written by Bill Evans, is based on a ten-bar melody featuring an eloquent solo Miles on muted trumpet and some sensitive playing by Coltrane and Evans. The same mood prevails in the following track.

Flamenco Sketches involves a series of solos each improvised on a set of five scales; it’s the fourth section that hints at the Spanish influence alluded to in the title. The tempo is very slow, which contributes the air of solemnity as does the absolute perfection of the solos. In that respect it has clear parallels with some of Duke Ellington’s work. Miles Davis, who opens and closes the track on muted trumpet, and Bill Evans on piano are absolutely faultless but I particularly enjoy John Coltrane’s playing on tenor saxophone: his tone is as bleak and austere as an Arctic sunrise, and just as wonderful and he conjures up an absolutely beautiful improvised melody.

I’ll end with a comment on the album Kind of Blue, by  Stephen Thomas Erlewine who 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.

People sometimes ask me why I post about music on here. The answer has two parts and they’re both simple. One is that I enjoy writing about music because it gives me the opportunity to explore my own thoughts about why I like it so much. The other reason is to share something I love very much, in the hope that other people might find as much joy from the music I love. For example, if just one person listens to Kind of Blue for the first time as a result of reading this piece, then it will definitely be worth the 40 minutes it took me to write!

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Humphrey Lyttelton & Elkie Brooks – Trouble in Mind

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on August 18, 2018 by telescoper

Mention the name Elkie Brooks to people of my generation or older and most will think of her popular hits from the late 1970s, especially Pearl’s A Singer which made the UK Top Ten in 1977. Elkie Brooks has however had a long and very distinguished career as a Jazz and Blues singer, including regular performances over the years with trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton and his band. This particular track was recorded in 2002, when Humph was already in his eighties, but I think it’s a lovely performance so I thought I’d share it here.

Trouble in Mind is a very familiar tune that has been recorded countless times by jazz musicians. In fact an earlier manifestation of Humph’s Band made a very nice instrumental version way back in 1950 which I have on an old Parlophone 78. The tune is usually credited to Richard M. Jones, but it has its roots in much older spirituals and folk songs. There are a couple of things worth mentioning about it despite it being so well known.. Although Trouble in Mind is a blues, it is a slightly unusual one because it’s an eight-bar blues rather than the more usual twelve-bar variety. The other thing is that there’s something about this tune that suits a rhythm accompaniment in sixth notes, as exemplified by drummer Adrian Macintosh on this track when the vocal starts.

There’s also some fine trombone on this (by Pete Strange) and a nice bit of banter from Humph at the beginning. Enjoy!

Angela Hewitt at St David’s Hall – The Goldberg Variations

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on April 8, 2018 by telescoper

Angela Hewitt (picture credit: St David’s Hall website )

This afternoon I had the great pleasure of attending a solo piano concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff featuring star pianist Angela Hewitt (pictured above). The programme consisted of one work – but what a work! – the monumental Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach.

I’ve been looking forward to this concert for weeks, not only because it was a rare opportunity to hear Angela Hewitt play, but also because although it’s a very special piece to me I’ve never heard the entire work played live before today.

The fact that I love this work so much is probably connected with my love of Jazz. Although ostensibly totally different idioms, the basic idea of ‘theme and variation’ unites these forms. Not much is known about Bach’s approach to the composition of this particular work but it wouldn’t surprise me if he improvised at least some of the variations. Above all, though, it’s when those walking bass lines for the left hand appear (e.g. near the end of the Aria) that Bach really swings; I always imagine Percy Heath or Ray Brown accompanying those passages on the double bass.

The sense of anticipation for this concert probably explains why I arrived earlier than usual:

I have eight different versions of the Goldberg Variations on CD, including one by Angela Hewitt and the two extraordinary (and extraordinarily different) recordings by fellow Canadian Glenn Gould. If I had to pick my favourite, however,  it would probably be one by Andras Schiff, but I find much to enjoy in all of them. I think the great thing about Bach’s music is that it’s so beautifully constructed that it can be played in a huge variety of ways and still be exquisite.

I’ve heard some people describe Angela Hewitt’s way of playing Bach as ‘affected and punctilious’ and others ‘elegant and crisply articulated’. They’re probably all describing the same thing, but some people like it and some don’t, it’s just a matter of taste.

Recordings are not the same as a live experience, and today underlined to me just how much more I enjoy live concerts. The concert lasted about 80 minutes (without an interval) – there are 30 variations altogether – and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience at St David’s with such rapt attention. For me the time went so quickly that I was quite startled when I heard the start of penultimate section (‘Quodlibet’) signalling that we were near the end. After the final note of the closing recapitulation of the opening Aria had subsided, the soloist kept her face down over the keyboard as if daring anyone to break the spell. Eventually she raised her head, smiled, and the applause began, followed by a standing ovation. The St David’s audience is usually rather reticent so that tells you how good this was. What better way can there be to spend a Sunday afternoon?

P.S. Angela Hewitt walked on and off stage with the aid of a metal crutch, suggesting some form of leg injury. On the unlikely event that she reads this, let me wish her a speedy recovery from whatever it is!

Summer’s Ending

Posted in Bad Statistics, Biographical, Cricket with tags , , , , , on September 11, 2017 by telescoper

There’s no escaping the signs that summer is drawing to a close. The weather took a decidedly autumnal turn  at the end of last week, and though I resisted the temptation to turn the central heating on at Chateau Coles I fear it won’t be long before I have to face reality and take that step. I hope I can hold out at least until the conventional end of summer, the autumnal equinox, which this year happens at 21.02 BST on Friday, 22 September.

Saturday saw the Last Night of the BBC Proms season. I’ve enjoyed a great many of the concerts but I only listened to a bit of the first half of the Last Night as I find the jingoism of the second half rather hard to stomach. I did catch Nina Stemme on the wireless giving it some welly in the Liebestod from Tristan und Insolde, though.  Pretty good, but difficult to compare with my favourite version by Kirsten Flagstad.

One of the highlights of the season, just a few days ago, was Sir András Schiff’s late-night performance of Book I of The Well Tempered Clavier which had me captivated for two hours, until well past my usual bedtime…

However, as the Proms season ends in London the music-making continues in Cardiff with a new series of international concerts at St David’s Hall and Welsh National Opera’s new season at the Wales Millennium Centre (which starts on 23rd September). I notice also that, having finished his complete Beethoven cycle,  Llŷr Williams is embarking on a series of recitals of music by Schubert, starting on November 9th at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Another sign that summer is over is that the last Test Match of the summer has ended. Excellent bowling by Jimmy Anderson (and, in the first innings, by Ben Stokes) meant that England had only a small total to chase, which they managed comfortably. Victory at Lord’s gives England a 2-1 win for the series over West Indies. That outcome is welcome for England fans, but it doesn’t do much to build confidence for the forthcoming Ashes series in Australia. England’s pace bowlers have shown they can prosper in English conditions, when the Duke ball can be made to swing, but in Australia with the Kookaburra they may find success much harder to come by. More importantly, however, only two of England’s five top-order batsmen are of proven international class, making their batting lineup extremely fragile. So much depends on Cook and Root, as I don’t think it is at all obvious who should take the other three positions, despite a whole summer of experimentation.

There are a few one-day internationals and Twenty20 matches coming up as well as three full weeks of County Championship fixtures. In particular, there are two home games for Glamorgan in the next two weeks (one against Northants, starting tomorrow, and one next week against Gloucestershire). Their last match (away against Derbyshire) was drawn because three of the four days were lost to rain, but weather permitting there should still be a few opportunities to see cricket at Sophia Gardens this year.

And of course it will soon be time to for the start of the new academic year, welcoming new students (including the first intake on our MSc courses in Data-Intensive Physics and Astrophysics and new PhD students in Data-Intensive Science who form the first intake of our new Centre for Doctoral Training). All that happens just a couple of weeks from today, and we’re having a big launch event on 25th-26th September to welcome the new intake and introduce them to our industrial and academic partners.

Anyway, that reminds me that I have quite a lot to do before term starts so I’d better get on with it, especially if I’m going to make time to watch a few days of cricket between now and the end of the month!

Elegy, by Coles

Posted in Music, Poetry, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on November 20, 2015 by telescoper

Last night on Radio 3 there was a concert involving music by Cecil Coles (among others). Coles – who, as far as I know, was no relation – was killed in action in the First World War, in April 1918. In fact he was shot and mortally wounded by a sniper while working as a stretcher-bearer trying to rescue injured soldiers from a wood, a task for which he had volunteered. He was 29 when he died and not much of his work as a composer survives. In the interval of the Concert I heard this recording of a work by Coles, which I think is very touching. It’s a setting of one of the Elegiac Stanzas (“Sic Juvat Perire”)  by Thomas Moore. Here’s the text:

 

When wearied wretches sink to sleep,
How heavenly soft their slumbers lie!
How sweet is death to those who weep,
To those who weep and long to die!

Saw you the soft and grassy bed,
Where flowrets deck the green earth’s breast?
‘Tis there I wish to lay my head,
‘Tis there I wish to sleep at rest.

Oh, let not tears embalm my tomb, —
None but the dews at twilight given!
Oh, let not sighs disturb the gloom, —
None but the whispering winds of heaven!

And here is the setting by Cecil Coles:

 

We have a Beautiful Cosmos

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , on April 27, 2015 by telescoper

On the bus coming up to campus just now, I was looking through the Brighton Festival (which starts on 2nd May) and found that there is a show called The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler, which is on at the Theatre Royal. As a devout fan of Ivor Cutler I’ll definitely be going, but in the mean time here is the title track (set to video…)

And here be the lyrics:

You are the centre of your little world
and I am of mine.
No one again we meet for tea
we’re two of a kind.

This is our universe…
cups of tea.
We have a beautiful cosmos,
you and me.
We have a beautiful cosmos.

What do we talk of whenever we meet:
nothing at all.
You sit with a sandwich,
I look at a roll.
Sometimes I open my mouth,
then shut it.

We have a beautiful cosmos,
you and me.
We have a beautiful cosmos.

You are the centre of your little world
and I am of mine.
No one again we meet for tea
we’re two of a kind.

This is our universe…
cups of tea.
We have a beautiful cosmos,
you and me.
We have a beautiful cosmos.

200 Years of Sax – Anniversary Poll

Posted in History, Music with tags , , , on November 6, 2014 by telescoper

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of famous Belgian Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone. To mark this occasion I thought I’d undertake a bit of audience participation and get you out there in internet land to vote on the greatest proponent of said instrument. I’ve populated the list with people I consider to be likely contenders, but feel free to add your own if your favourite is missing!