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Posts tagged ‘Miles Davis’

‘Porgy and Bess’ revisited

Porgy 2

As he surveyed the ranks of musicians preparing to play Gil Evans’s score for Porgy and Bess at St John’s, Smith Square last night, Nick Smart knew that he had everything he needed: a 21-piece orchestra including the correct complement of French horns (three), bass clarinets (three), flutes of various sizes (four, when necessary), and a quartet of wonderful trumpeters — Henry Lowther, Martin Shaw, Steve Fishwick and Freddie Gavita — prepared to hand around the role of soloist. Since that soloist was, of course, Miles Davis, the task facing the four men was not without its challenge.

Smart also had the benefit of dealing with Evans’s actual score. As John Billett, the concert’s promoter, pointed out in his introduction, even the best intentioned reproductions of Evans’s pieces for Davis have been forced to make do with transcribed versions which inevitably miss some of the infinite subtlety of the original orchestrations. Thanks to the Evans family’s generosity, last night’s orchestra — consisting of alumni of the Royal Academy of Music, where Smart is in charge of the jazz programme — were able to work from the notes as Gil wrote them.

Of the three much loved albums Davis and Evans recorded together between 1957 and 1960, Porgy and Bess may be the most ambitious and fully realised, the pinnacle of the highly original approach to large-ensemble music that the arranger had been developing since his days with the Claude Thornhill band in the 1940s. Sixty years later, the richness and variety of gesture Evans applied to George Gershwin’s show tunes remain a source of wonder. And it can only be said that, under Smart’s direction, last night’s ensemble did the score complete justice in both execution and spirit.

To watch and listen as the ensemble brought Evans’s unorthodox instrumental deployments and love of dynamic contrast to life was a delight, from the whispered accompaniment of the French horns behind the trumpet solo on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” to the sudden brassy flares of “Prayer”. To hear each trumpet soloist pay the proper homage to Davis without forfeiting his own character was enormously impressive (and I’m not going to compare them: they were all outstanding). To admire the way Jeremy Brown coped with the bass lines written for Paul Chambers and the restrained panache with which Ed Richardson attacked the drum parts played in the studio by Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb was hugely impressive. Nor can one forget the trumpeter who didn’t solo: George Hogg, who played Ernie Royal’s lead parts with perfectly judged power and precision.

The nave of St John’s was packed for the occasion. The sessions for the original album took place in Columbia Records’ studio on East 30th Street in New York City, in a deconsecrated Armenian Orthodox church whose dimensions created a famously perfect natural reverberation. Apart from a hum that briefly emerged late in the set, the amplified sound in the former Anglican church in Westminster, built in 1728, severely damaged in the war and then restored as a concert hall, was equally sumptuous, revealing all the fine detail of the scoring.

This was the last night of the EFG London Jazz Festival, and earlier in the evening the pianist Chris Ingham had led a sextet through downscaled versions of pieces from Miles Ahead, the first of the three Davis/Evans albums. They included “Blues for Pablo”, “New Rhumba”, “Maids of Cadiz”, and a rearrangement of “The Duke” on which the combo managed to sound like a big band, and there was also a lively account of “Boplicity”, an earlier Evans arrangement for Davis’s 1948 Birth of the Cool nonet. Paul Higgs played the Miles parts on trumpet and flugelhorn with great finesse, flanked by two outstanding saxophonists, Jamie O’Donnell on alto and Colin Watling on tenor.

A long relationship with the music that Gil Evans and Miles Davis made together a lifetime ago tends to create an unusually strong emotional bond. Probably the greatest tribute that can be paid to the evening at St John’s is that the listener emerged with that bond not only confirmed but strengthened. Congratulations, then, to everyone involved in a sublime experience.

 

For art’s sake

Rene Urtreger 2The French pianist René Urtreger, who celebrates his 80th birthday next month, was a member of the Miles Davis Quintet that recorded the celebrated soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold in 1957. He had become a frequent collaborator with Lester Young, Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz and many others during an era when his native Paris provided American jazz musicians with a warm welcome. Until now, however, his only appearance in Britain had been in the 1970s, when he visited London in his rather different capacity as Sacha Distel’s musical director.

Last night he and the other members of his trio — the bassist Yves Torchinsky and the drummer Eric Dervieu — performed in a small downstairs ballroom at the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair. They were playing to celebrate the opening of a new show, at the Timothy Taylor Gallery in Carlos Place, next door to the hotel, by the abstract expressionist painter Sean Scully, who was born in Dublin and brought up in South London, and now lives in New York and Bavaria. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a work titled Kind of Red, inspired by Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue: a series of five large paintings, in oil on aluminium, conceived as a single unit (you can see them on the gallery’s website, here).

Given the nature of the work’s origin, and Scully’s love of music (as a teenager he ran a blues club over a pub in Bromley High Street, and later named one of his paintings after John Coltrane’s “Dakar”), Timothy Taylor wanted something special to provide an unusual end to the conventional sequence of a private view followed by a small dinner. It seemed right to call on someone with a connection to the inspiration behind the paintings. The way Miles went about recording the music for Lift to the Scaffold — in particular the paring away of harmonic material — exerted a profound influence, two years later, on the concept of Kind of Blue. And Urtreger is now the only surviving member of the group that recorded the soundtrack to Malle’s noir classic.

His story is a fascinating one, revealed in an extensive interview with Pascal Anquetil in last January’s issue of the French monthly Jazz Magazine/Jazzman. To me the most striking single detail was his account of how, having waited day after day as an 11-year-old at the Gare de l’Est for the return of his Polish-Jewish mother, deported by the Nazis, only to discover that she had perished in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, he responded a handful of years later to the discovery of bebop: a music without overt sentiment.

But not, of course, without feeling, as we discovered last night in his fluent, thoughtful versions of “Old Devil Moon”, “So What”, “The Duke” and a handful of bop themes. “I suffered during my youth from a shyness that led me to imagine that I wasn’t at the same level as my (musical) partners,” he told Anquetil. “Today, that’s over. I’ve reached an age at which I have nothing to prove, and everything to give.” Last night’s audience, in which gallerists and collectors were joined by Bryan Ferry (like Scully, a former art student in Newcastle) and several of the painter’s friends, including the former champion boxer Barry McGuigan and the poet Kelly Grovier, accepted the gift with warmth and gratitude.

* The photograph of René Urtreger was taking during the sound-check at the Connaught. His most recent solo piano album, Tentatives (Minium, 2006), is highly recommended, and there will be a new album by the trio this summer. The Kind of Red exhibition opens today, June 11, and is on show until July 12 at 15 Carlos Place, London W1. Thcatalogue is published by the Timothy Taylor Gallery. 

Apropos of Barney Wilen

Barney WilenLouis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold begins a season at the BFI in London this week, providing an opportunity to enjoy the conjunction of the director’s (and his cinematographer, Henri Decae’s) images and Miles Davis’s historically significant soundtrack. A classic of French film noir, made in 1957, it looks and sounds wonderful — particularly when experienced on a big screen in a proper cinema.

Miles recorded the music in a Paris studio, using four musicians with whom he had just embarked on a short tour: Rene Urtreger on piano, Pierre Michelot on bass, Kenny Clarke on drums, and — a surprising choice, and a particularly inspired one — the 20-year-old tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen, a prodigy who would become one of the most significant European jazz musicians of his generation. Together they took the conceptual leap that would lead Davis, within a couple of years, to Kind of Blue.

Wilen’s story is a fascinating one. Born in Nice in 1937 to a French mother and an American father, he left France with his family in 1940 and spent the next six years in America, where an uncle gave him a saxophone. On returning to Nice at the end of the war, he developed his interest in music; at 13 he was already playing with local jazz bands and at 16, having moved to Paris, he was performing at Le Tabou in Saint-Germain-des-Pres with his fellow saxophonist Bobby Jaspar and the pianist Henri Renaud. In 1957, a few weeks before answering Davis’s call, he made his first recordings under his own name, for the Vogue label: reissued on CD a few years ago under the title Tilt, they show a young man clearly fascinated by the compositions of Thelonious Monk and completely at ease with such pieces as “Round Midnight”, “Think of One”, “Hackensack”, “We See”, “Blue Monk”, “Let’s Call This” and “Misterioso”.

His style was never one that cried out for attention, but it evolved into an approach that could hold its own among the hard-bop giants of the day, such as Roy Haynes, Milt Jackson and Donald Byrd, with whom he also recorded during the 1950s. (In 1959 he wrote a film soundtrack of his own, for Edouard Molinaro’s Un Temoin dans la ville, which he recorded with a band including the trumpeter Kenny Dorham.) Although his playing never lacked strength, there was no sense of trying to grab the listener by the lapels. He could swing forcefully while still seeming to take his time, and it’s hard to think of anyone who would have fitted so beautifully into the soundtrack recording with Miles, where subtlety and light-footedness were crucial. He had a lovely tone and a frictionless sense of swing; if there were a missing link between Lucky Thompson and Wayne Shorter, perhaps it would be him. He knew how to be cool without being cold.

He also possessed an inquiring and unorthodox mind, and was keen to venture beyond the confines of an idiom he had so quickly mastered. Seduced by the possibilities of free jazz, and encouraged by the adventurous German record producer Joachim-Ernst Berendt, in 1968 he recorded an album called Auto Jazz: The Tragic Destiny of Lorenzo Bandini, in which he and his quartet improvised against a recording of the commentary from the previous year’s Monaco Grand Prix, during which Bandini had been burnt to death at the wheel of his Ferrari. It was released on the MPS label, and is now hard to find.

“I have a French passport and I live in  Paris,” he once observed. “I consider myself a musician of the world, temporarily French.” In 1969, having grown his hair, adopted a more relaxed wardrobe and befriended such leading lights of the Parisian counter-culture as the film director Philippe Garrel and the actor Pierre Clementi, he and his girlfriend, the English-born model Caroline de Bendern, went to Africa, where they spent several months travelling in a Land Rover through Morocco, Algeria, Niger, Mali, Upper Volta and Senegal, recording with with local musicians as they went. The first results were issued under the title Moshi in 1972, on the Saravah label; about a year ago de Bendern  issued a second instalment of this fascinating Afro-funk trance music — with bits of conversation and street song interpolated and overlapping — under the title Moshi Too, on the Sonorama label.

Then, in effect, he disappeared. The next couple of decades were apparently spent back on the Cote d’Azur, where he played occasionally with a local group, effectively off the scene and out of the mainstream. Until, in 1988, an illustrator named Jacques de Loustal and my old friend Philippe Paringaux, a former editor of Rock & Folk magazine, collaborated on what we would nowadays call a graphic novel titled Barney et la note bleu, a romanticised version of Wilen’s life as an itinerant saxophonist on the jazz scene. Stylish and evocative, it was a huge hit (it’s still in print) and prompted Wilen to record a new album, titled La Note Bleu and using Loustal’s artwork. Accompanied by an excellent rhythm section, he proved that his old skills — particularly as a ballad player, on Gordon Jenkins’ “Good-Bye” and a short unaccompanied version of “Besame Mucho” — had not atrophied. His tone was, if anything, even more perfectly formed.

People suddenly remembered how good he was, and he was invited to make more recordings. I have a lovely quartet recording with the guitarist Jimmy Gourley from 1987 (Double Action, on the Elabeth label) and a fine duo album with the pianist Alain Jean Marie, his longtime associate, from 1992 (Dreamtime, on Nocturne). Both, coincidentally, contain versions of “Good-Bye”; along with “Besame Mucho”, it’s among my very favourite songs, and although his fondness for revisiting both these tunes at every opportunity is not why I’m such a fan of his, it probably helps.

According to Blue Melody, a short biography written by Yves Buin and published in France by Castor in 2011, Wilen already knew that he was suffering from stomach cancer by the time he travelled to the US in 1994. There he recorded an album called New York Romance at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, with an A-team rhythm section: the pianist Kenny Barron, the bassist Ira Coleman and the drummer Lewis Nash. The following year he made Passione with his own musicians plus the Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava. It would be his last recording; the man who was as great a ballad player as any produced by the European jazz scene died on May 25, 1996, aged 59. Go and see Lift to the Scaffold and marvel not just at an ageless film but at how good Barney Wilen had already become when his 20th birthday was still a recent memory.

And if you want to know more, spend 55 minutes watching The Rest of Your Life, Stephane Sinde’s terrific biographical film, made in 2005:

* The photograph of Barney Wilen (and the bassist Beb Guerin) is from the back cover of Auto Jazz: The Tragic Destiny of Lorenzo Bandini and was taken by Jean Maurice Pioton on February 13, 1968 while the musicians improvised the soundtrack as they watched the footage on a screen in the Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg.

Miles: back to mono

Miles in MonoLike a fool, I gave myself a Christmas present. After all, I could hardly justify asking anyone else to buy Miles Davis: The Original Mono Recordings for me. It’s just too much of a record-company scam. But I’m enough of an idiot to fall for it. Which is exactly what they’re counting on.

The trouble is that Miles Davis isn’t around any more. I spent around 30 years buying his records when he was alive, and more than 20 years later it’s still hard to get out of the habit. So every time they repackage something artfully enough, I open my wallet. It’s the nearest thing to having him back again.

And I can’t say I regret holding in my hand the black and white box containing The Original Mono Recordings, even though the nine albums in the package contain not a single note of music that I don’t already own (and in the case of several of the albums, several times over in marginally different forms). The albums included are Round About Midnight, Miles Ahead, Milestones, Jazz Track (including the Lift to the Scaffold soundtrack), Porgy and Bess, Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, Someday My Prince Will Come and Miles and Monk at Newport, recorded between 1957 and 1961, and all presented in card sleeves with miniaturised versions of their original US artwork. At the very least, it’s an excuse to listen again to the products of this phenomenally fertile and career-defining period.

The remastering engineer, Mark Wilder, talks in the accompanying booklet of how he “added a little more bass and mid-range” to Miles Ahead, “as well as a little high-treble equalisation to create air around the instruments,” and used a tube compressor to “tone down the treble a little” on Someday My Prince Will Come. Of course they sounded fine to most of us in their original monaural vinyl incarnations, thanks to the particular properties of Columbia’s 30th Street studio and the sensitive ears of the engineers, such as Fred Plaut and Harold Chapman, who worked there but go uncredited in this repackage.

You can listen to these “restored” versions with enormous pleasure, but direct comparisons reveal evidence not always supporting the implication behind the claim of George Avakian, Miles’s first producer at Columbia, that “mono has always been truer to the studio sound and the original intent”. When I flip back and forth between the mono and stereo versions of “Summertime”, a particular favourite from Porgy and Bess, it’s impossible not to notice how the stereophonic picture clarifies the individual voices in Evans’s horn arrangement behind Miles, while in mono they coalesce into a more recessed and undifferentiated blur of subdued colour. Maybe the latter effect is what the arranger had in mind, but somehow I doubt it. On the other hand, I much prefer the sound of Davis’s flugelhorn in the new mono versions of “Springsville” and “Blues for Pablo” from Miles Ahead: it’s more rounded, not so brightly burnished by the studio EQ, and somehow truer to itself.

These matters are less of a consideration when it comes to the combo albums, where mix and balance are more straightforward, although I’ve never been sure whether I prefer to hear “Milestones” — probably my favourite piece of music ever, when all is said and done — with all the instruments separated and laid out in a panorama, every detail highlighted, or with the tighter aural focus of the version in which I learnt to love it, and which still seems perfectly suited to its sense of forward movement.

Just in terms of the music, the album that interests me most at the moment is Someday My Prince Will Come, always seen as a transitional affair in terms of Davis’s career. Perhaps feeling that his basic 1961 working quintet with Hank Mobley on tenor was not stimulating enough, Miles invited John Coltrane back to play on two of the album’s six pieces, both in 3/4, a metre in which Coltrane was deeply involved with his own quartet: the title track (where he solos after Miles, Mobley and Wynton Kelly, providing the piece with its climax), and the modal, Spanish-tinged “Teo”, on which his long solo is an absolute beauty. Davis’s own playing is luminous and inventive thoroughout, particularly on “Teo” and the ballads: “Old Folks”, “Drad-Dog” and “I Thought About You”.

It’s wonderful to listen closely to this music again. And I certainly don’t want to do Mr Wilder — or the reissue producer, Steve Berkowitz — a disservice. Maybe their diligence has made it a little easier, for instance, to appreciate the genius of Paul Chambers on these marvellous recordings, to which the great bassist, with his lovely tone, impeccable note selection and peerless swing, contributed so much. And if that’s so, perhaps we can say the whole project was worthwhile.

* The photograph of Miles Davis (playing flugelhorn) was taken by Don Hunstein during the Miles Ahead sessions and appears in the booklet accompanying The Original Mono Recordings (Columbia/Legacy).

One night in Berlin

Miles in BerlinAt the start of the film of the Berlin concert which forms a bonus DVD to three audio CDs of the recently released Miles Davis Quintet Live in Europe 1969 set, you can’t help being struck by the impassive demeanour of the musicians as they are announced, one by one, to the audience. Jack DeJohnette doesn’t even look up as he fiddles with the placement of a microphone boom over one of his cymbals. Dave Holland, the young Englishman, is expressionless as he adjusts his double bass. Chick Corea reaches out his left hand to twist a knob above the keyboard of his Fender-Rhodes piano. Wayne Shorter licks his mouthpiece and stares into the middle distance. Meanwhile Miles has already prowled on to the stage, clearly not caring that the spontaneous wave of applause for his arrival has disrupted the MC’s scene-setting introductions. From none of the musicians comes even the tiniest acknowledgement of the audience’s welcome. This is how far the influence of Miles’s own super-cool on-stage deportment had spread, to men a generation younger than him (and, in the case of Corea and Holland, with naturally outgoing temperaments); he, in turn, is taking his wardrobe cues from them.

None of that stops it being a great concert, of course — or half a concert, in fact, since Miles’s group were sharing the bill at that night’s concert with Stan Kenton. You might think it an unlikely combination, even by the eclectic standards of the Berliner Jazztage, and that was how the 2,400-strong audience saw it, too. I remember half of them vociferously expressing their dissatisfaction with Kenton’s set, while those who acclaimed Kenton were clearly disconcerted by what Miles was up to (although their presence can be detected in the film only in the shot of some listeners frowning and shaking their heads as the camera scans the audience while the band leaves the stage). This intolerance was typical of Berlin audiences of the time and seemed particularly impolite since the whole festival, including that evening’s performances, had been dedicated in advance to Duke Ellington, who was due to appear at the same venue the following night in a concert scheduled in celebration of his 70th birthday.

It was my first exposure to Miles in person, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Urged on by sidemen who were leading him to the frontier of free jazz, he was spellbinding. Less than a year later, as he veered away from freedom towards an engagement with funk, he would be wanting his musicians to anchor the beat in a much more explicit way. But this was enthralling, a  freewheeling post-In a Silent Way, pre-Bitches Brew journey into abstraction, with a gorgeously oblique version of “I Fall in Love Too Easily” to seduce even those scandalised by the black shirt, trousers and leather waistcoat and the orange and gold scarf in which he took the stage, an outfit to match his black and orange trumpet.

Poor Kenton suffered far worse from the hecklers. He was booed even before he started, and later confessed that the experience had given him a sleepless night. Conducting the specially assembled Berlin Dream Band, a 19-strong multinational emsemble which included the trumpeter Carmell Jones, the trombonists Ake Persson and Jiggs Whigham and the alto saxophonist Leo Wright, he ran through a series of his best known pieces: “Artistry in Rhythm”, “Intermission Riff”, “The Peanut Vendor” and so on. Towards the end, however, he gestured the band to stand down as he performed his personal homage to Ellington, a five-minute variation on “Take the ‘A’ Train” delivered with such sincerity of emotion that the dissenters were temporarily silenced.

From the point of view of the audience’s divided reaction, it was one of the most bizarre concerts I’ve ever attended. The festival’s director, the late Jo Berendt, a man of broad vision and catholic taste, was intensely embarrassed. The following night, however, Ellington took the stage at the head of a band including Cootie Williams, Lawrence Brown, Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves and Harry Carney, and harmony was restored.