31. Milestones

Milestones1Record: Milestones
Artist: Miles Davis
Released: Columbia Records, 1958

One of the best gifts I've ever received came, not surprisingly, from my wife. We had been married only a year or so when she presented me with a 6-CD collection, Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings, 1955-1961. This was during a time period when record companies were regularly issuing remastered versions of classic albums and releasing career compilations like this one in massive box sets. It was a bonanza for music lovers, specifically jazz fans. Once constricted by vinyl's physical boundaries of twenty-two minutes per side, these companies could now dig deep into their archives, not just for longer live sessions but also for alternate takes that had never been heard outside of the recording studio.

When a gift doesn't hit the mark, someone will often offer a condolence of sorts. "Well, it's the thought that counts." But here's the thing -- it's always the thought that counts, especially when a gift does hit the mark. When I unwrapped this particular gift twenty-three years ago, I looked at my wife with awe. She has never been a jazz fan, and likely had never heard of either Miles Davis or John Coltrane before we met, and yet she had found and gifted me a collection of their work, a collection that I didn't know existed. I appreciated the music, but I appreciated the thought so much more. She knew me.

The bad news is that I'll almost certainly never listen to these six CDs again. They were right when they promised us that the music would last forever in this new format, but how could they have known that all the CD players would be gone within a few decades? Even so, this set is worth keeping. Packaged in a striking red and black metal slipcase with a stark image of the two subjects on the cover, it's simply beautiful. Inside that slipcase, the CDs themselves rest in a cloth-bound booklet with more than a hundred pages of liner notes featuring photographs, essays, session details, and track information. It's a coffee table book that fits in your pocket. Come to think of it, it should be on my coffee table, not relegated to a dark corner of our garage.

The six-year span of time preserved in the collection encompasses some of the most important music ever recorded, and one of the albums produced was this one. And so while I never had my own stand alone copy of Milestones, all of these tracks are familiar. I knew them as part of the lengthy collaboration between these two giants, but this was the first time I'd listened to them as intended, six tracks recorded over two sessions in the spring of 1958.

When I first pulled this record from the shelf, it was the cover photograph that struck me. Miles Davis is often rightly described as a musical genius, and perhaps one of the most influential figures in music history, but the portrait on the album sleeve emphasizes another aspect of his persona. Gripping his horn tightly in one hand and holding a cigarette loosely in the other, Davis stares almost defiantly through the camera and into the viewer's soul. He was not quite 32 years old during the Milestones studio sessions, and some of his greatest work still lay ahead of him, but there is an undeniable confidence in him here. "I am the baddest motherfucker you'll ever come across," he seems to be saying, and he would be right. Because he's Miles Davis.

And what of the music? I've been listening to this record every day for almost two weeks, and still I have nothing to say that hasn't already been said. First, consider the lineup. Davis has Coltrane with him on tenor saxophone and Cannonball Adderly on alto saxophone, which is kind of like LeBron playing with Kobe and Jordan. The sextet is rounded out by Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums, and together they actually changed the course of jazz.

Modal jazz was not new at the time, but Milestones was probably the first mainstream record to explore this avenue. Rather than relying on chords and scales as the structure for improvisation, musicians following the modal approach enjoy the freedom -- even the necessity -- to experiment with rhythm and melody as they improvise. Miles explained, "When you play this way, you can go on forever... You don't have to worry about changes... The challenge is to see how inventive you can become melodically."

Any type of change, of course, brings with it a certain degree of tension. Pianist Red Garland wasn't ready to take this leap with Davis and the rest of the sextet, and Garland actually got up and left at one point, leaving Davis to sit in for him. "I played piano on 'Sid's Ahead,'" explained Davis, "because Red got mad at me when I was trying to tell him something and left." Sometimes genius is like that.

But beyond the music theory and the innovation, this record is simply a pure joy. Coltrane and Adderly exchange bristling solos, each taking turns leaping away from the melody for walks on the wild side before returning home. The rhythm section of Garland, Chambers, and Jones holds everything together, but always there is Miles Davis. Davis's trumpet is sometimes quiet and restrained, sometimes frenetic and fierce, but always exactly where it needs to be.


Side 1
Dr. Jekyll*
Sid's Ahead
Two Bass Hit

Side 2
Billy Boy
Straight, No Chaser

*This track incorrectly labelled on early editions. The actual name is "Dr. Jackle."

30. Oscar Peterson Plays Duke Ellington

PetersonRecord: Oscar Peterson Plays Duke Ellington
Artist: Oscar Peterson
Released: Clef Records, 1952

Before the record even comes out of the sleeve, this album is guaranteed to please. This format -- one legend plays another's material -- was incredibly common, but this particular effort, recorded way back in 1952, was surely one of the first examples. And when the source material is one of the greatest composers in the history of American music and the artist is perhaps the best piano player of his generation, the resulting record can only be great.

And so it is with this. I've written a few times already about the tradition of jazz standards, certain pieces that were universally known and played by everyone during the 1950s and '60s, serving two purposes. First, they served as common ground when musicians bounced from one band to another. A band leader could confidently call out "Take the A Train" and know that everyone on stage wouldn't just know it, they could play it together without further instruction.

Second, these pieces served as measuring sticks. If an unknown musician could keep up, he proved his worth. Better yet, if a player could improvise a bit and add his own flavor to an established classic, it meant he might be someone worth keeping track of.

Oscar Peterson is doing nothing like any of that in these sessions, however. He certainly had nothing to prove to anyone, even at this early stage of a career that would stretch across seven decades. He's leading a trio here, with guitarist Barney Kessel and bassist Ray Brown, a threesome that Peterson described as "the most stimulating" group he ever played with, and the results reflect that confidence. 

I've been listening to this record in the evenings for a couple of weeks, and Peterson's swinging versions of Ellington's classics have been the perfect companion for lesson planning and paper grading. A bit of sleuthing reveals that this particular pressing was released in 1953, the year after the recording and original release, meaning that my father likely had this in his collection for fifteen years or so. The jacket is worn from use, with adhesive tape along the bottom to guard against a split, and a faded price tag on the corner tells me that this is another record he bought from the basement of the downtown Hudsons in Detroit. After sitting dormant for more than fifty years, it's been spinning again in my living room, proving once again that music is timeless and vinyl is forever.


Side 1
John Hardy's Wife
Sophisticated Lady
Things Ain't What They Used to Be
Sittin' and Rockin'
In a Mellow Tone
I've Got It Bad and That Ain't Good

Side 2
Prelude to a Kiss
Don't Get Around Much Anymore
Take the A Train
Rockin' in Rhythm
Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me

29. Jimmy & Wes: The Dynamic Duo

Duo1Record: Jimmy & Wes: The Dynamic Duo
Artist: Jimmy Smith & Wes Montg0mery
Released: Verve Records, 1966

The first thing you notice is the cover. One of the unexpected joys of this journey through my record collection has been the variety of artistic styles represented in the album artwork. Dozens of books have published focusing solely on album artwork, and I could probably write one myself focusing just on this collection.

The twenty-nine records I've written about so far have release dates ranging from 1954 to 1968, and the changing fashion norms over the course of that decade and a half are reflected in the slipcases. There are elegant portraits of Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington, staged phots of Nat "King" Cole and Frank Sinatra, and beautiful paintings by various artists.

And then there's this one. The final result could never have been expected ahead of time, but it's easy to imagine how cover designer Acy R. Lehman and photographer Charles Stewart arrived at this image. Lehman is credited with more than 600 album cover designs, and he was the one behind the Velvet Underground's first album, which featured a peelable banana drawn by Andy Warhol. Stewart was also a legend who shot more than 2,000 album covers. His portfolio includes photographs of most of the greatest jazz legends ever to grace a stage. In short, these two knew what they were doing -- even if the cover seems to indicate otherwise. 

There are session photos inside the gatefold, but how exactly did they settle on that cover photo? One imagines that the Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery were asked to pose for a series of posed and spontaneous photos, but at some point the conversation went like this:

Lehman: Okay, why don't you each pick up your sandwiches?
Smith: Okay, now what?
Lehman: Jimmy, you take a big old bit of yours.
Montgomery: What about me?
Lehman: Hmm. Good question, Wes. Why don't you put your arm through Jimmy's arms...
Montgomery: Like this? Like the first champagne toast at our wedding?
Lehman: Exactly! Now each of you take a bite of your sandwich at the same time.
Stewart: That's a great idea, Acy!
Lehman: How's it look through the lens, Chuck!
Stewart: This is absolute gold, Acy! This album is gonna fly off the shelves!

Whether or not it happened that way, the resulting image seems to be pushing against the album cover norms of the time. It wasn't quite the departure that Miles Davis's Bitches Brew would be a few years later, but it wasn't Billie Holiday wearing peals and a satin dress, either. If that was the goal of the cover, perhaps it was to reflect the similar departure heard in the music on the vinyl within.

The music is electric -- and I mean that literally, not just figuratively. After listening to a progression of pianists from Art Tatum to Duke Ellington to Ahman Jamal, it can be a bit disconcerting to hear Jimmy Smith on the Hammond Organ. Rather than the pure melodic depth of a standard piano, the electronic organ offers a more artificial -- but still pleasing -- companion to Wes Montgomery's electric guitar. Smith's organ provides the backbone of much of the music while Montgomery dances on top with various melodies and a distinctive style of improvisation. He enjoys the quick repetition of short phrases, and more than once he convinces the listener that the record is skipping. (Kids today have no idea.) Only Smith's steady rhythm behind that improvisation spoils the illusion.

Smith also gets his time in the spotlight, with solos ranging from the frenetic to the sublime, and as the two men bounce back and forth in their entwined melodic conversation, its hard not to think about their entwined portrait on the cover. Perhaps that photograph isn't so crazy after all.


Side 1
Down by the Riverside
Night Train

Side 2
James and Wes
13 (Death March)
Baby, It's Cold Outside


28. Time Out

TimeOut1Record: Time Out
Artist: The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Released: Columbia Records, 1961

Time means everything in music, and not just as it relates to rhythm. Our brain has been conditioned to hear things in predictable units of time, whether its music or any number of other things. In your earliest days, as your mother held you in her arms, she introduced you to poetic forms that would quickly become ingrained into your grey matter.

"The sun did not shine.
It was too wet to play.
So we sat in the house
All that cold, cold wet day."

In the opening lines of The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss isn't just rhyming, he's rhyming with a predictable pattern and restricting his phrases to match the rhyme. Notice that each line contains a complete thought, allowing our brain to take in each bit of information one line -- one phrase -- at a time. You didn't know it at the time, and probably your parent didn't either, but those early nursery rhymes gave you the framework that would allow you to read poetry and listen to music for the rest of your life.

Don't believe me? Dr. Seuss was just following those who had come before him. Look at the opening lines of William Shakespeare's Sonnet 18:

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date..."

The poet confines each thought to a single rhymed ten-syllable line, a structure that isn't just pleasing to the ear but to the mind. A few hundred years later, Robert Frost would open The Road Not Taken like this:

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth..."

Once again, the reader quickly locks in to Frost's nine-syllable pattern, and even though he uses a relatively unconventional five-line rhyme scheme, he still gives us one idea per line. 

Because songwriters are merely poets in disguise, there's more of the same when we begin listening closely to some of our favorite records.

"Picture yourself on a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes..."

Or what about this one?

"Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again..."

Maybe we expect traditional rhyming and phrasing by the likes of Lennon and McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel, but here's something interesting. When punk and new wave began to push against tradition in the 1970s and '80s, the songwriters still followed these patterns, whether it was the Clash...

"London calling to the faraway towns
No war is declared and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls"

Or the Ramones...

"Twenty, twenty, twenty-four hours to go
I wanna be sedated
Nothin' to do, no where to go-oh
I wanna be sedated."

They might've strayed a bit from the syllable count, but the patterns are still there. Fast forward a bit and hear an angsty Kurt Cobain screaming in resistance but still following the pattern:

"With the lights out, it's less dangerous.
Here we are now, entertain us.
I feel stupid, and contagious.
Here we are now, entertain us."

More recently, and more conventionally, there's Taylor Swift...

"Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone.
I'll be waiting, all there's left to do is run.
You'll be the prince and I'll be the princess.
It's a love story, baby, just say, "Yes."

But what does all of this have to with a jazz record recorded six decades ago? Just as with poetry and song lyrics -- and perhaps specifically because of poetry and song lyrics -- there is a clear set of expectations that every listener brings to every piece of music. 

If you've ever looked at a piece of sheet music, you've noticed the time signature, a type of legend for the map of the musical journey that's laid out on the lines that follow. The most traditional time signature is 4/4, which means that every measure has four beats, and each of those beats is a quarter note. Some genres of music have become synonymous with different time signatures -- waltzes are in 3/4, marches are often in 6/8 -- but almost every jazz record ever recorded is in the standard 4/4 with the "phrasing" sitting at two or four measures.

To explain what that means, let's go back to the Simon and Garfunkel lines mentioned above. Sing them to yourself and pay attention to the phrasing.

"Hello darkness my old friend...
I've come to talk with you again..."

Each line is predictable, not just in rhythm (they cheat the first syllable of the second line) but in the length of the phrase (and added space in between) which stretches across two measures. It's comfortable.

The beauty of Dave Brubeck's Time Out is that it's completely uncomfortable. The title of the record is a direct announcement that he isn't playing by the rules anymore, and the opening thirty seconds of the first track on side one, "Blue Rondo a la Turk," played in a frenetic 9/8 is intriguing and fascinating precisely because it goes against every nursery rhyme, every sonnet, and every pop song we've ever heard. We bob our heads or snap our fingers and tap our toes naturally when a record finds its rhythm, or rather when we find the record's rhythm, but somehow Brubeck and his quartet flip that around.

We certainly feel the rhythm, but almost as soon as we find it and begin confidently nodding along, it flits away as Brubeck dives into something new. Most of the songs on this record switch back and forth between two or more time signatures, almost always racing ahead at breakneck speed with Brubeck at the wheel like a Formula 1 driver frantically switching gears.

The result is one of the most famous and most critically acclaimed records in American history. The third track, "Take Five," is possibly the most recognizable jazz tune ever recorded, and its unconventional 5/4 time seems to be constantly pushing us forward. We're so used to hearing the standard four-beat phrase that the extra note in each bar is delightfully uncomfortable, like an unexpected gift in every measure.

I don't know how much my father ever thought about any of this as he listened to this record, and there's something to be said for disregarding all of it and just enjoying the music, but I'm certain he knew that this was like nothing else in his collection. The great contradiction of the genre is that jazz is rooted steadfastly in tradition but also ingrained with a spirit of improvisation and experimentation. Later in the 1960s Charles Mingus would overlap songs and John Coltrane would experiment with "sheets of sound;" in the '70s Miles Davis would go electric.

Brubeck's decision here to break free of the most basic structure in song was more than just courageous and boundary breaking. He honored tradition by breaking tradition, and he created one of the twentieth century's most important pieces of art. 


Side 1
Blue Rondo a la Turk
Strange Meadow Lark
Take Five

Side 2
Three to Get Ready
Kathy's Waltz
Everybody's Jumpin'
Pick Up Sticks

27. Lady in Satin

Satin1Record: Lady in Satin
Artist: Billie Holiday
Released: Columbia Records, 1958

When you listen to Billie Holiday, are you listening to jazz? On this particular record, her first recorded with Ray Ellis and his orchestra, it seems at first that you aren't. Ellis's orchestra is what you would expect from the label -- there's a full string section with ten violins, two violas, and two cellos, and there's even a harp. If you were to remove Ms. Holiday's vocals, the tracks left behind would certainly never be classified as jazz.

But with Lady Day? Irving Townsend addresses the question in his liner notes. "Is this jazz? And the answer must be: Yes. It is jazz because Billie Holiday sings jazz, no matter what the accompaniment is, no matter what the song is." And so I will defer to Mr. Townsend. Jazz it is.

But obviously it's decidedly not jazz, at least not if you listen in a vacuum. Maybe it's easy listening, maybe it's R&B or even neoclassical, but the music itself is not what we think of when we think of jazz. It simply isn't.

In today's world we often hear that hip-hop is not just music but a culture, something that influences and infuses fashion, language, sports, and more. Today's biggest starts aren't selling albums, they're selling a lifestyle that comes with a soundtrack, and that's what's going on with Billie Holiday.

She rose from the night clubs of Harlem to become one of the first star vocalists of the jazz era, so it would be wrong to classify her music -- and we could have a much longer conversation about our need to classify art -- as anything but jazz. Really, we should just listen and be thankful for the gift she's given us.


Side 1
I'm a Fool to Want You
For Heaven's Sake
You Don't Know What Love Is
I Get Along without You Very Well
For All We Know
Violets for Your Furs

Side 2
You've Changed
It's Easy to Remember
But Beautiful
Glad to Be Unhappy
I'll Be Around
The End of a Love Affair