So as I had those long drives last week (1,255 miles TOTAL to be exact) I listened to a few CD’s in my travel case. Miles happened to be in there twice. I thought it was very appropriate, driving miles – while listening to Miles.
Now Miles Davis is not always the most accessible of jazz musicians. Or at least for me. There is some of his stuff that veers off into directions that I think are only appreciated by other musicians. But as I drove those miles … these were my thoughts.
The first track that caught and help my attention (I had the CD player on “shuffle”), was the title track “Milestones”. I particularly like the way it moves from short quarter notes into half notes in the opening measures with the sax and trumpet – then the trumpet takes over. To listen along as I discuss this song, you can go here. This isn’t the original composition, but you’ll get the idea. Also, in the 9th measure, you’ll start to hear some dissonance, which I’ll talk about later .. .BUT
Here’s what strikes me about this song, as Miles plays it.
Those notes .. the long ones – just hang out there – they remind me of blowing soap bubbles – they are so “luminous” and effortless. Now if you’ve ever blown into a horn, you’ll know it’s not that easy to achieve this quality. Seriously – it’s just like these big puffy sounds emerge – and then hang – and hang – and hang. It reminds me of watching snow ski jumping and how they hang in the air. The short notes? Those quarter notes (I don’t have the music in front of me, so forgive me if I’m inaccurate here) … they are so crisp and precise – just as if you were biting into an apple.
The next track on that disk (click down in the link and you'll find a sample) is Billy Boy.
This is another reason why I think I love jazz so much. It really makes me think. Most other music, I get caught up in the lyrics – and think about the emotions the singer/songwriter are trying to invoke. But here? And often with instrumental jazz, a whole different thought process is begun.
I begin to wonder “What makes a song”? In this case – the song is an old classic – a childhood song listened to over and over again sung by Burl Ives. But here? It is 100% different, yet the same. I mean, the minute it begins to play, I know it is “Charming Billy/Billy Boy” – yet, it doesn’t quite match the “pattern” of the song I grew up with. The tempo is completely different – the melody is hidden, and teased, and subverted – yet through all those manipulations, I still know I’m listening to ‘Billy Boy”.
HOW do they do that? For miles and miles I can listen to this music and try and pick it out. How does the piano player know he can play those chords, yet be true to the integrity of the song? How can a drum solo mimic with no other instruments the melody of a song so perfectly – that even starting this track in the middle of one of those solos, I know instantly the song. And then in the next stanza, it dissolves completely … and there is not recognition of the original song … it’s wandered off on another path. Yet two measures later … here we are – back at a sign post I completely recognize!
Switching CD’s, I plug in Miles Davis Quartet of ‘Round Midnight, and once again, I am stuck in the 4th track, “Bye Bye Blackbird ”. I wonder, what about improvisation. What are the rules, and how much of the music can a soloist “break”, yet still retain the song? Not only that – but I marvel at how well the members of the group must know each other in order to improvise like this on Ah-Leu-Cha. At the right cue, each member takes off in his own direction – wanders around, messes with melody, harmony, and timing, and then they all return – cohesive, to split up again.
That's the thing about dissonance that gets me too. How can these notes - notes that don't match, be considered music? Sometimes I like them ... and the way they dissolve and come back together. Other times? I feel like I'm not smart enough to "get it" ..and it's just racket in my brain. All mumbley, jumbley, and not really music.
This happens with other groups and songs too. I particularly get interested when vocals are added. The great Sarah Vaughn sings in-front of, and behind, the phrasing of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love ” and also here in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow ”. How does she do it? No one claims she has bad timing – and it fits together perfectly. But when I do it??? I get yelled at for not matching the beat. (also? I can't sing in tune .. so I don't really think it's the rhythm thing)
The more I listen to jazz, the more I feel like I’m standing in the kitchen of a Cordon Bleu trained chef. Someone who has such an intimate knowledge of each ingredient, that they can break down each quality of composition – and play around. Get at the real taste, essence of a taste/sound – and present it for me to savor in unexpected ways. Actually, using the cooking metaphor, I think jazz is more like California Cuisine. The chefs learned all the French techniques and sauces – then stripped them away to leave the essence of the ingredient/sound … and they pick the very best sounds/tastes – and lay them on a platter – bare – or barely adorned, for me to sample.
Not only are my taste buds and ears pleased with this compositional style, but my mind is well satisfied too. Hour after hour of traveling, I have sounds/rhythms/topics to unravel – taste, admire, mull over – and then enjoy. Yeah, I know – some of you just want to be moved. Taken away from your thoughts – have your emotional buttons pushed, your anger and pain released. I like that too, but I like the way jazz makes me think about it.
Miles of Miles – what better way to spend 8 hours from here to there?