Miles Davis, The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions (Mosaic, 5-LP, 1969, 2001)

Miles Davis, 1969

Miles Davis, 1969

The famed 1959 sessions that led to the Kind of Blue recording of Miles Davis, perhaps the most popular jazz record of all time, has always gotten a lot more attention than the electrified, experimental, and even baffling In a Silent Way (1969).   Kind of Blue ushered in important changes in the way jazz music could be conceived, with Davis’s introduction of modal tunes that allowed for dense improvisation within strange and yet swinging chord changes that evaded the closure and comfortable finality of conventional song forms.  Historians of the Kind of Blue sessions point out that the record was cut after only a few takes and that Davis gave little opportunity for his bandmates to rehearse before cutting the tunes, instead merely arriving at the studio with some musical phrases and ideas committed to the charts, and of course an invitation to his players to create and improvise.  The rest, as they say, is history, and Kind of Blue became the sort of recording that jazz fans began using to introduce newcomers (typically pop and rock and roll burnouts, like myself) to the remarkable creativity within modern jazz, such as it was before the 1960s.  After all, how could you go wrong listening to Davis with sidemen that included John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Paul Chambers, Bill Evans, and Wynton Kelly?  All in their prime, they were easily among the very best acoustic jazz musicians of that, or any, period of the twentieth century.  And the result was a stunning tour de force of unexpected musical creativity, epitomized by the furious and yet restrained interplay between Davis and Coltrane on the title cut of Kind of Blue.

The rub, however, is that word ‘acoustic’, for as the sixties dawned, Davis — ever alert to new musical currents, and ever willing to adjust and evolve as an artist — went electric, much to the dismay of a large proportion of his enormous jazz audience.  By the end of the sixties, Davis had evolved to the point where he had mustered a new set of bandmates, calling upon the best of the creative young generation of players that included Jack DeJohnette (drums), Chick Corea (keyboards), Keith Jarrett (keyboards), Dave Holland (bass), Joe Zawinul (saxophone), Tony Williams (drums) and John McLaughlin (guitar).  With extraordinary musicians like these, Davis was well on his way to the cross-over popularity of his sprawling jazz/rock LP, Bitches Brew (1970), where these players were joined by a host of others in a bout of studio manipulation and bravura musicianship that stands as one of the few truly great jazz-rock albums.

It is In a Silent Way, however, that has for many years been a curious piece of the puzzle that was Davis’s artistic evolution.  Originally issued as a very short album of some 33 minutes, it constituted a sort of snapshot of what we now know (thanks to the brilliant 5-LP reissue by Mosaic) was an extraordinary set of creative sessions in the studio during 1968-69.  Here we can see precisely how Davis would adjust to the tragic death of John Coltrane in the summer of 1967.  Absent Coltrane’s visionary improvisations, Davis turned to the virtuosic young players then emerging to enlist their musicianship in the creation of stunning soundscapes that are fully appreciated only by listening to the complete sessions.   In later years, some jazz purists would accuse Davis of ‘selling out’ by turning to jazz/rock fusion, but in these sessions there’s a lot more jazz than ‘rock’ and the transcendent soundscapes of cuts like “Shhh/Peaceful” (18 minutes) and “In a Slent Way/It’s About that Time” (nearly 20 minutes) are the kind of musical creations that stagger one’s sense of musical possibility while defying a musical marketplace that clearly preferred two and three minute songs.    It’s a shame that Mosaic does not release jazz on vinyl very often, but in this case everything is perfect.  Five pristine slabs of 180gm vinyl showcasing the best jazz players of the late 1960s.  Listen carefully to these sessions and see if you can still persuade yourself that rock and the Beatles are really the most important things to happen in music during the 1960s.

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Vinyl Notes: Ryan Adams: “Cardinology” (Lost Highway LP, 2008)

It’s not just about the school of rock.  For those in the know, the prolific and talented Ryan Adams has been a musician, songwriter, and singer whose importance has been tied mainly to his moving renditions of acoustic country ballads,  such as his heart-stopping rendition of “My Sweet Carolina” on the now-classic Heartbreaker LP.   And despite his ambitions as a plugged-in rocker, as far as I am concerned, it is as an acoustic artist that he will be best remembered.

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, "Cardinology" (2008)

He’s a great rock musician with great timing and showmanship, and he is increasingly skilled guitarist, but generally the noise of even the best rock performances and recording don’t really do justice to singers with great voices.  And Adams has a voice of extraordinary range and subtlety that shows itself to best effect in his solo or small acoustic ensembles and the more pared-down recordings in his discography.

In Cardinology, Adams’s latest album release, he taps deep into his rocker mentality and talents with an excellent rock band lineup: the “Cardinals”  As I discovered during their Sprng 2009 performance in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in front of about 600 true-believing fans, Adams hits all the right notes as a rock star.  Owing in part to his careful study at the school of post-1970 American rock, he has the look, the body language, and (increasingly) the guitar chops to lay down a truly memorable show, albeit one that, like the new album, is strictly plugged in.

Apparently, he’s turned to a life of sobriety as well, which lessened the drama of his performance somewhat (no crazy outbursts or shouting matches with hecklers), and this gave the show a lustrous sheen of rock and roll professionalism.  If that isn’t too much of an oxymoron.   He’s apparently laid down the dope and drink and cigarettes and shouldered the mantle of AA-style sobriety, as hinted at not too subtly by his echoing of the AA slogan “easy does it” in his recent album Easy Tiger and “Go Easy” from Cardinology.  The prospects for America’s best current songwriter never looked brighter, although the next steps seem far from certain, as the rock band is slated to retire in favor of uncertain future projects.  A book seems to be in the offing, but we can only hope that inspiration leads him down acoustic paths and solo projects and not just rock star juvenilia, even though we know how much fun that can be.

Vinyl Notes: Drive-By Truckers, “Pizza Deliverance” (1999, New West Records LP 2007)

Drive-By Truckers

Drive-By Truckers

First of all, you need to get past the Athens, Georgia, pretensions, which get a band only so far down the road to stardom, especially since R.E.M.—the sometime darlings of Athens—are finally beginning to consign themselves to the dustbin of pop music obscurity. Not that there’s anything wrong with R.E.M. doing a disappearing act, since they were only occasionally interesting after they got famous (a familiar theme in American pop music). To my admittedly-idiosyncratic way of thinking, R.E.M. peaked at Fables of the Reconstruction (1985), although to be fair this year’s Accelerate shows the band returning to top form and energetic live performances.

For my money, though, the real rock and roll coming out of Athens happened a long before R.E.M. That’s right, I’m talking about the B-52’s. Campy as all get out, but they got the party started big-time during the late 1970s when things were looking pretty bleak musically on the American side of the pond, where we were all trying to put pretentious Anglo-American prog-rock bands like Kansas, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, and Steely Dan far behind us. Hearing “Private Idaho” out on the green pastures of 1978 West Philadelphia was a revelation. Ask me how I know, and I’ll tell you how it sounded just after I got off the Greyhound bus from the provinces: with Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie jazz flyers posted on all the nearest signposts, and with all of my friends giving me the message that we needed to see “Yes” and the “Doobie Brothers” like right now. Talk about your cognitive dissonance! But, campy clothes and hairstyles or not, the B-52’s were a kick-ass rock band in those days, even if the Southerness of their gimmick was sort of lost on some of us yankeees.

Not so for the Alabama-bred, Athens-based Drive-By Truckers, who are clear candidates for “hardest working Southern rock band” of the new millennium. Pizza Deliverance, titled with a sly reference to the Georgia-boy poet, novelist, guitar picker, and hard drinker James Dickey’s great novel (and later film) Deliverance. Set in the “New South” of the 1960s, Dickey’s Deliverance (1970) set out the contrast between Appalachian hillbilly and Atlanta suburban dude better than any other novel or film of the era. The suburbs had re-shaped the Old South, and them folks back in the hollow weren’t liking it one bit. So too with the Drive-By Truckers, who’ve sustained their Southern roots through a handful of great albums, all of which are now being released on high-quality vinyl by New West Records. Pizza Deliverance has the grit and vibe of the best “Southern Rock” of iconic bands like the Allman Brothers, but without the endless jams and flower child pretensions. Sometimes the South will hurt you, and front-man singer and guitarist Patterson Hood and his mates are here to confirm the pain and see past it into a future that comprises songs that explain not only the suburban sprawl of “Bulldozers and Dirt” but also the evangelical complaint of “Too Much Sex (Too Little Jesus).”

If you want to start understanding the South, an enterprise guaranteed to consume a lifetime of pains and pleasures unsuspected by those beyond the pale, you could think of worse places to start your education.

Vinyl Notes: Gene Ammons, “Blue Gene” (1958, OJC re-issue)

Maybe it’s because I’m recovering from the experience of attending a high school reunion, after 30 years of avoiding such an event. But the old parlor game of imagining life and culture during one’s earliest days of life is getting to be somewhat more appealing. For instance, for those of us born around 1960, there’s the eerie phenomenon of switching on the best show currently on TV—I refer of course to “Mad Men” on AMC, now about to begin its second season—and sorting through the inevitable poetic license to discover something about the experience of our parents as they negotiated the pre-JFK, pre-feminism, pre-Beatles, pre-Woodstock, American culture-scape.

In the same vein, tracking one’s relationship to musical culture can take up a similar parlor game, with similarly appealing results. What were the musical currents during the years of our birth, and how might those currents have fared during the intervening decades? We might begin with the most important and lasting American contribution to 20th century music, and I refer of course to jazz. In so doing, it would perhaps be unfair to cite the true giants of modern jazz: Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Thelonius Monk, or the endlesssly astonishing Duke Ellington. The greatness of the cutting-edge jazz musicians of the mid-century is so obvious as to require no argument on their behalf But how about jazz in the heart of its blues-based tradition: the core lounge-fixated pulse of the mainstream of the American improvisatory jazz scene in 1960?

The tenor sax player Gene Ammons (1925-1974), born into a jazz family as the son of boogie-woogie Chicago pianist Albert Ammons, is a fair representative standing in the mainstream of the jazz world as we discover it in mid-1958 on his album Blue Gene, featuring the Gene Ammons All Stars, currently reissued by OJC. This is not the avant garde jazz pinnacle of that era, which only a few months later would be claimed by the great Miles Davis ensemble on the classic Kind of Blue (1959) sessions, where Davis was joined on an un-rehearsed modal set by an immortal line up comprising John Coltrane (tenor), Wynton Kelly (piano), Cannonball Adderly (alto), and Bill Evans (piano). After Kind of Blue, as all students of the music are well aware, jazz would never be the same again.

Instead, on Blue Gene, Ammons presents a merely solid but utterly reliable lineup including Idrees Sulieman (Leonard Graham) on trumpet, Pepper Adams on baritone, Mal Waldron on piano, Art Taylor on drums, Doug Watkins on bass, and Ray Barretto on conga. The rhythm section hardly breaks a sweat, but lays down a fat groove with just a moderate flavor of harmonic improvisation to shade its blues atmosphere into the modern idiom. Titles include only four extended cuts: “Blue Gene”, “Scamperin”, “Blue Greens n Beans”, and “Hip Tip” — and all tracks are long, with plenty of focus on the unhurried solos of Ammons on tenor, which he plays in his characteristic style reminiscent of the vibrato-rich playing of Ben Webster or Scott Hamilton. Long out of print on 33rpm disc, this vital release by Ammons has been given the audiophile vinyl treatment, making the relaxed set of blues numbers a great listening experience, transporting the listener back in time to a favorite smoke-filled lounge of the pre-Kennedy era.

How many of us know that the late Fifties jazz scene was this unpretentiously engaged in the blues, especially in its less experimental moods? Or that the music had so much integrity even on the verge of its transformation by rock and roll, that viscerally commanding but ultimately less enduring musical form that it spawned?

James Howard Kunstler on Urbanism and Public Space

Great talk by JHK on the failed architectural aesthetic of public spaces in America.   

 

Alice Stuart, “Statesboro Blues” (1972 / 2008)

Memories are short, and so most of us can’t remember much in the way of great women guitarists of the 1960s. Some would cite Bonnie Raitt, and they wouldn’t be totally off base, although who’s heard much from Bonnie of late? The hard-core blues fanatics may possibly remember the slide-guitar stylings of obscure players like Ellen McIlwaine, who used to put on some great Hendrix-inspired electric performances in places like Philadelphia’s Academy of Music back in the late 1970s. But how many of us remember Alice Stuart, who made her first recordings as a ‘folkie’ back in the mid-1960s and then turned blues-rocker with her excellent LP “Believing” (1972), which featured, among other things, the Tower of Power horn section.

believing_cover.jpg

Mostly, though, it was a great album of guitar-driven blues, including fine renditions of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” (don’t let anyone tell you the Allman Brothers own this one) and the now-obscure country classic “Golden Rocket” by the great Hank Snow. “Believing” also sounds superb on the vinyl release, unlike many rock recordings of that era. The voices are clear and true, and Stuart’s fine rhythm section is steady in the pocket and vividly rendered on LP without the digital hash of CD sound that would have been inflicted on her music a decade later (if only she’d bothered to stick around for ‘perfect sound forever’).

The video provides an acoustic update of her music and showcases the hard-won nuances of her playing. Here’s Alice playing “Statesboro Blues” with Nashville session man Brad Davis on rhythm guitar. Since the 1960s, her voice has picked up some welcome grit and wisdom, and now she really does sound like a righteous blues singer instead of just a fine blues picker with a somewhat too-crystalline voice, as was the case with her early releases. The Martin D-18 is the one she got as a high school graduation present in 1963, just a few years before she—like a lot of other us music lovers—converted from earnest folk singer to serious rocker as the Sixties wound down in 1972. Luckier than most of us, though, Alice retired from the pop music scene shortly after her 1972 breakthrough album, only to resurface in the mid-1990s after spending a few decades taking care of family. No wonder her chops are unscathed and the music is better than ever.

Vinyl Notes: Lightnin’ Hopkins “Goin’ Away” (Analogue Productions, 2LP/45RPM)

The recent Analogue Productions reissue of Texas bluesman Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkin’s classic Goin’ Away [Lightnin’ Hopkins (vocals, guitar); Leonard Gaskins (bass); Herbie Lovelle (drums), originally recorded June 1963] is in many respects emblematic of both the best and worst aspects of the vinyl record subculture in the early 21st century. Let’s talk about the “worst” aspect with no further ado: the price of admission is $50 for the double-LP set, which puts it far out of reach of many music fans, and especially out of reach for the younger fans who might find in Hopkins’s masterful blues guitar some valuable inspiration.

Vinyl has made a resurgence in the last ten years, after nearly being killed dead in the 1980s, with the introduction of compact disks, which promised “perfect sound forever” to the millions who closeted their turntables and bought the first generation of digital players. This history is well known to all music lovers. With the introduction of mp3 players—especially the iconic and ubiquitous iPod—those same CDs were consigned to the dustbin, there to gather dust alongside abandoned 8-track tapes and 78rpm shellac disks from previous generations of music lovers. But to those for whom high fidelity reproduction of sound was an essential tribute to their beloved musical artists, vinyl never went away but instead remained for perhaps two decades a kind of underground pursuit kept alive, often at great expense, by devoted listeners. Skip ahead to the 21st century, and the music business looks (and sounds) a lot different. File sharing has practically killed off the business model that the record labels used for most of the last century to make their enormous profits, most digital music sounds terrible because of the essential nature of that technology (sampled sound will never sound as good as analog), and the loudness compression used by current recording engineers to make their music sound good on cheap earbuds can make extended listening harsh and grating. Artists who can’t rely on record sales any more, since all digital music is essentially free to all thanks to P2P technologies like BitTorrent. The incomparable Gillian Welch, among the many victims of this crisis in the music business, gives a bittersweet taste of what it’s like to be an artist with plenty to say, a burning need to say it, but with nobody willing to pay for it:

Everything is free now,
That’s what they say.
Everything I ever loved,
I’m going to give it away.
Someone hit the big score.
They figured it out,
That we’re gonna do it anyway,
Even if doesn’t pay.

-Gillian Welch, “Everything is Free” from Time, the Revelator (2001)

For an earlier generation, analog vinyl disks were cheap and ubiquitous, but for postmodern listeners, the best of vinyl reproduction often comes at a high price. Jazz and blues records, particularly the most interesting ones—many of which were released in small numbers by obscure labels—now command extremely high prices in the collector market. And only a few high-end companies are stoking the vinyl market with high quality re-issues of this material. But some of these re-issues, heard through the latest vinyl playback equipment, provide a listening experience that could not have been imagined during the height of the vinyl era (1955-1985). Hopkins’s “Goin’ Away” is a classic example of the pricey-but-stunning kind of recording that has come available during the past decade of the analog music renaissance. Cut at 45rpm on two pristine black slabs of 200gram vinyl, this great recording is in every respect the antithesis of the iPod experience. What you don’t get is the portable genius of the slender and chic digital player that shuffles its way serendipitously through thousands of your “favorite” tunes. Instead, you get two or three songs per 45rpm side before you have to flip the record over for more of the best blues recorded by one of the great American musical artists of the past century, who is conjured holographically from the loudspeakers without a trace of digital hash. Check out the sly “Don’t Embarrass Me, Baby” from the first side, for example, to get a sense of the bluesy growl of Hopkins’s voice and the rock steady pulse of his simple but uncanny fingerpicked guitar style. These are the roadhouse blues that Jim Morrison was trying to conjure. And all this time, you thought Elvis was the source of rock and roll. Think again. Now if we could just figure out a way to make that 50 kilogram turntable, garden-hose looking speaker cables, and refrigerator-sized loudspeakers fit in a backpack for the younger set to enjoy the Texas blues the way they were meant to be heard…