Listening to Freddie Hubbard

Posted by: Dave Douglas on January 1, 2009 @ 1:21 pm
Filed under: Dave Douglas (Artist Thoughts), Perennials

Even with centuries of innovation in brass instrument making, the trumpet is still basically a metal tube through which one is expected to blow, vibrating the lips against the opening at one end. It doesn’t matter who’s making the horn. That’s basically all it is.

The notes come out following the harmonic series: beginning with a low fundamental tone and ascending, according to the laws of physics, by ever smaller intervals until the top of the range, where the series ends in pure, densely packed chromatics. Add three valves and you’ve got seven harmonic series available: 0, 1, 2, 12, 23, 13, and 123.* In the low range all the fundamental notes have their own fingering. In the high range, where the seven series converge, almost any note can be played with any fingering.

In addition, there is the quality of the attack, the flow of air, and the flexibility in moving from one note to another. All musical expressiveness on the trumpet stems from control of these few variables.

Freddie Hubbard was one of the most skilled practitioners of this art. The joy and freedom in his playing came in part from this complete mastery of the instrument. It always sounded effortless. In the high range his control of air was so sublime that his lines sometimes defied the laws of physics and harmony, resolving in odd ways just by dint of his total domination of the instrument. Freddie grabbed the opportunity of those alternate fingerings to pop in and out of chromatic chord and scale ideas. His attack was always precise and his dodging and darting lines flowed like water through a sluiceway.

A lot of people can play the trumpet well. Technical mastery is far from the reason Freddie Hubbard is the most imitated player of the last half-century. It was what he did with that mastery — the inventiveness of his harmonies and the ingenuity of his rhythmic propulsion. Freddie’s impact is so profound that you often don’t have to mention him when noting a young player’s influences. Freddie is always there. He had a lot to say, and we all soaked it up.

As a young player Freddie listened to Clifford Brown for sure. He also drank deeply at the well of Clifford’s inspirations: Fats Navarro, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, and Louis Armstrong, among many others. But trumpeters aren’t the only influence for trumpeters. In the same way that Clifford Brown talked about putting Charlie Parker’s language on the trumpet, Freddie Hubbard brought the practices of John Coltrane, his occasional practice-mate, directly into the brass world.

Freddie’s lines drove the harmony. Freddie toyed with the music, anticipating and delaying resolutions in unexpected ways. But at the end of the day it was the maturity of his improvisations that were the most powerful aspect of his musical expression. Freddie at his best could go nuts with the lines and the harmony, but he would also ease off and play with bluesy simplicity when it more effectively served the moment.

The VSOP records of the mid-seventies show Freddie in an unusual and revealing light. This had been Miles Davis’ band in the mid-sixties: Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. With Miles this music was spare and enigmatic — no extra notes and no bravura energy added to the brilliance of the tunes. Freddie brings something quite different. He is generous with notes and all flowing grace. A different kind of grace, like a gregarious toastmaster. Freddie is so on top of the music and the horn that he is unable to restrain the joyful exuberance of his ideas and his ability to pull them off.

That explains a lot about why he is more imitated than Miles Davis — his style gave so much more material to hold onto. Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard were two very different visions of the modern esthetic. Echoes of Miles are heard a lot, but you hear the sound of Freddie everywhere.

Trumpeters have often been tragic figures in American life. Freddie Hubbard was no different. The last fifteen years of his life saw him battling a disastrous lip injury that limited his ability to execute his ideas. Freddie also battled the forces of fashion – by his own admission (though not necessarily that of his fans) he spent some years making music that did not live up to his high standards. By the early seventies he had done pretty much everything that could be done: documented many masterpiece solos, participated in dozens of seminal recordings, elaborated a personal vision for the instrument and the music that still stands up today. Where was he to go? That kind of legacy and pressure at such a young age is hard to imagine.

We can be thankful for the joy Freddie Hubbard brought to us in his seventy years on the planet. He will be missed.

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* For those curious why 3 is not included among the seven basic fingerings — 3 creates a length of tubing almost exactly identical to 12, with 12 being slightly more in tune. 3 is a widely used alternate fingering, but is not considered among the basic positions.

Darcy at Secret Society has a great collection of links to other thoughts about Freddie Hubbard, as well as some perceptive thoughts of his own.

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Why FONT?

Posted by: Dave Douglas on December 19, 2008 @ 7:26 pm
Filed under: Culture, Dave Douglas (Artist Thoughts), Perennials

This festival (Festival of New Trumpet Music, or FONT) and its growing organization is dedicated to music: performances first and foremost, but also commissioning new brass music (12 commissions to date), and increasingly, educational events. Our mission is to present and support living brass music regardless of genre.

For 6 years, FONT Music has been putting together engaging programs of brass music around New York. It has been both an enormous challenge and exciting thrill. We have not always been able to do what we wanted, and not all programs have succeeded in every way. But we’ve been able to look back and see the gains from the new music we have helped to facilitate.

At the beginning FONT Music was Roy Campbell and myself, hashing out ideas over the bar at Tonic. The first two years remained at Tonic, but in 2005 we were joined by Jon Nelson who brought a broader vision to how we could work, and guided us forward as an organization. Micah Killion was instrumental in helping us incorporate and organize, all the while lending his vital creativity to the presentation of programs.

In 2007 we made a big step into nonprofit status, forming a board and adding new voices to the mix. Taylor Ho Bynum has emerged as a crucial and hard-working member of our organizational team, as well as a keen curatorial ear. Other curators have now included Jeremy Pelt, John McNeil, Mark Gould, and Frank London. We also have a working group of officers (still all-volunteer, as is everything to date…) in Chris DiMeglio, Richard Johnson, and Erol Tamerman.

We are still a very grassroots organization, as many of you know.

In 2009 we will change the way we work somewhat, presenting a few special events throughout the year and presenting a shorter, more tightly-focused festival in September. We hope you’ll join us — in any case please feel free to send us your thoughts and ideas for how we can make the festival more effective in serving the community. And visit us at Myspace and Facebook.

Fundraising is always a struggle for us, especially in these difficult times. We are grateful for any contribution you can make – any amount is an invaluable support to us. NY Charities makes use of their web site availble to us, making it easy to contribute tax-deductible, safe and secure contributions. You may also send a check made out to FONT Music, PO Box 31, Croton, NY 10520. We hope you’ll agree that supporting new music and independent artists is important and take a moment to help us if you can.

And we will continue to support creative, exciting new brass music as we continue to move forward with the Festival of New Trumpet Music. Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing from you after the new year.

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Joy Writer: Wayne Shorter

Posted by: Dave Douglas on December 3, 2008 @ 10:05 am
Filed under: Dave Douglas (Artist Thoughts), Perennials

This isn’t a review of the Wayne Shorter Quartet plus Imani Winds at Carnegie Hall, it’s an appreciation. It was a pure joy to hear. It was pretty clear that the musicians felt that joy too.

The main thing that touches is how modern Shorter remains in the current environment and in the continuum of American music. That’s not for nothing, and his music continues to defy expectations and confront assumptions about melody, harmony, rhythm, and especially, form. But that sounds so academic – the music is powerfully moving, and so profoundly human.

Imani Winds opened with Villas Lobos – the acoustic sound of the Hall a perfect fit. They then played Terra Incognita, the piece they commissioned from Shorter a few years ago, nailing the open improvisatory sections as well as the more precise and driving sections that were, for lack of a better word, Shorter-esque. Hints of his melodies floated by, at one point the theme from Water Babies almost intact. But the thing about these melodies is that they all have such character. Strong intervals in unusual parts of the beat. And there are certain motives that just belong to Wayne, so I never had the feeling he was raiding his own book, more like airing it out.

Then the Quartet came out and played a little over an hour without pause. This group seems to be the perfect expression of Wayne’s (I’m going to go with the first name here, last name seems so formal) compositional mind. One of the hardest things in music is handling freedom. Real freedom, as demonstrated by this current phase of Wayne’s work, means listening, inuiting, knowing the material cold, and then going out and making something from nothing.

He would lead them to certain areas, only to head fake and go another direction. Each band member also instigated directions, Danilo Perez occasionally with explicit chords, John Patitucci with bowed or plucked lines, Brian Blade with those incredibly sophisticated and understated rhythms that timbrally worked the room in an uncanny way. They were each perfect, as individuals and as pieces of a puzzle that wasn’t always going to be solved in a linear fashion. But yet, there was never any sense that an invitation denied was a problem. On the contrary, Wayne seemed to revel in the clashing of two ideas that had maybe never been heard together before.

I recognized some themes, didn’t recognize others. It didn’t matter, it was all played with such ferocity, sincerity, humor, grace and humility. Like Shorter has found a way to put all of life into his music. I cried a few times, just from the sheer directness. And from joy – in the blessing of being able to be there to hear all the ideas, thoughts, feelings and emotions get expressed.

There are those who would rue Shorter’s divergence from common practice in jazz. There’s a story about Picasso presenting a portrait of the wife of a rich patron. The patron says,”That’s not what my wife looks like,” and presents a pocket photo to demonstrate. And Picasso says, “Oh. I had no idea she was so small.” Literalists may have cause for concern.

Even so, the quartet played Joy Ryder almost as a head-solos-head tune. OK, so the jagged edges of the bass line and the exaggerated harmonies are unusual. But they played the form faithfully, no doubt. And the tempo was the classic ‘several shades faster than the studio version’ that seems de rigeur in jazz.

In a way, the final act was the culmination of everything Wayne has done through the years. The Three Marias, a new treatment with woodwind quintet of a piece from the album Atlantis, brought home how free Wayne is with his ideas. The themes were all there, but there were extra bars, woodwind soli, extended improvisations, re-harmonizations. And I had the feeling that all of that was probably there when the original recording was made, but just didn’t make it in. This was a new vision of how free and how flexible those pieces really are.

Perhaps the most awesome part of this concert was the amount of writing. Reams and reams of composition, some of it played and some of it merely available. All of it surprising. Piece after piece, never getting predictable or even particularly ambitious – just pure expression page after page.

It was clear how much fun Wayne Shorter was having. He’d play lines and then mug at the Imanis. He would intentionally play one of their riffs on the wrong side of the beat. He even stopped playing at one point and whistled into the microphone. No big deal. He was there for the music.

And we are all so thankful for that. It is special to see someone who has been through so much, contributed so much, who is still giving everything he has for the creative act. For eternity, as he would say. After two hours without intermission, the crowd whistled his themes in their demands for an encore.

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The Demands of Style

Posted by: Dave Douglas on October 8, 2008 @ 8:47 am
Filed under: Dave Douglas (Artist Thoughts), Perennials

On September 13, 2008, after an evening of accolades from friends, colleagues, and admirers, Leo Smith raised his horn and let out a characteristic blast–clear and long, warm and penetrating, aggressive but not piercing to the ear. His duo partner, percussionist Pheeroan akLaff, played counterpoint. The paradox of Leo’s style is that it is at once mystical and precise. Each attack is carefully placed in time, yet the rhythmic underpinning of tempo is entirely imaginary. Though the trumpet sound itself is clarion, the overall impression is of philosophical reserve. This is a style that Leo invented, and the mystical effect has something to do with the fact that he taught himself to play this way.

By coincidence or by design, September in New York offered the chance to hear many trumpeters. On a lot of the gigs they played side by side. It was a unique opportunity to observe variations in style–style not in the sense of ‘genre,’ but rather of “personal style” or the way each person plays. Personal style often includes elements of genre, but it seems much more noticeable in individuals who, like Leo, create a new pathway to their own music.

It was kind of astounding to see so many radically varied approaches to this one instrument. Hearing 35 trumpeters in 14 days, I came to some thoughts about style, how it’s found, some new ways it operates, and why it is so important to today’s music scene. At its best, it’s the singular sound that makes a musician recognizable.

Something that often goes unmentioned is the long road players and composers take to arrive at their choice of materials, and the opportunities this process offers for new music. Listening and understanding new music in this era requires a consideration of those forces–not necessarily for the enjoyment of the music, but to go deeper into its meaning and purpose. Maybe because the trumpet is so nakedly exposed in an ensemble and so molded to the physique of the player, these differences in personal style show up in stark relief. In any case it was in listening to and considering all those trumpeters that these thoughts arose.

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The Digital Free Market

Posted by: Dave Douglas on August 5, 2008 @ 9:01 am
Filed under: Dave Douglas (Artist Thoughts), Music Business News, Perennials

Mike from Premonition sent me an article containing this excerpt:

Digital Music and the Free Market by Max Keiser

One of the most fascinating New Economy consequences to emerge from the
Eliot Spitzer sex sting is the apparent multi-hundred thousand dollar score bagged by Emperor’s Club VIP escort and budding recording artist Ashley Alexandra Dupre. She had a couple of tracks listed on Dragon Slayer upstart and indie music site amiestreet.com. Her notoriety combined with Amiestreet’s underlying economic model combusted to the tune of instant lottery like winnings. For years Madonna had to pretend to be a vamp to make that kind of money. Here’s an actual hooker scoring big on the pop charts for her vocal skills.

Let’s look at the Amiestreet business model for a moment. All tracks are free at first. Then, if the demand picks up, the price starts to rise topping out at just under the psychologically important $1 (imagine if the Federal Reserve Bank under Greenspan and Bernanke operated like this, the dot-com and sub-prime bubble and burst would never had happened as the demand for credit would have raised interest rates in time to avert the bubble).

Economics is a social science and not a physical science, meaning there are no absolutes in economics. The unpredictability of psychology counts (per George Soros’ theory of ‘reflexivity’). And this is as important in the virtual economy as it is in the analog economy but with a caveat.

The actual cost of digital entertainment is virtually zero. Electrons are virtually free. The only thing that matters is perception and psychology in an economy that is 100% demand driven.

[click here to read the rest of this article]

OK hold it right there. This is one of my pet peeves. Yes, the electrons are virtually free. But the music? Where does it come from? A well-known sound artist on a panel at Future of Music said, and I paraphrase, “the archive of recorded sound in the 20th century is large enough that I would never have to hire another musician to do what I do.” And I thought, what about the 21st century archive?

Anyway, Mike enlightens me by telling me that’s not really what Keiser means. The article goes on to talk about the growing impotence of copyright protection and how the free spread of information can benefit both artist and audience.

Mike Friedman: For me, his is an interesting argument. That is to say I’m not sure I completely disagree, especially since the people who benefit most from copyright protection in our industry are gigantic corporations and their stockholders. Is copyright protection really helping you as a composer/author all that much? Is it helping Greenleaf or Premonition? I don’t know for sure but I tend to believe it is not. I’d be interested to hear the answer.

What he is arguing – you can read it in a couple of his articles on Huffington Post — is that the idea of copyrights is actually holding back society, including artists, record companies, publishers, etc., from taking full advantage of the digital revolution. It’s very Lawrence Lessig. Just think what might have happened had the major labels embraced the concept of Napster in 2000. We’ll never know of course but the fact is I don’t believe we’ve even scratched the surface of what’s possible and the delay caused by these gigantic corporations fighting for their copyrights was and is, a gigantic roadblock. This is addressing the same issue with regard to the expansion of the internet as a business. One thing is clear: the music industry we grew up with is dead. And for what? So that EMI can re-exploit its Beatles catalog? I mean really.

The big question is: Why are we spending time thinking about getting the digital toothpaste back in the tube when there is a strong possibility that there is more money to be made, and more discovery to be found taking advantage of the new technology? I mean, isn’t that what it’s about? Or is there something about owning and controlling a copyright that is important? I’m asking.

DD: Copyright is a barrier to unauthorized use, but also hinders the spread of information. So in your view he’s suggesting we should simply give everything away, copyrights included, right?

MF: The way I’m interpreting the “free” aspect is about manufacturing. There is little or no cost associated with making and distributing MP3s available via the internet in terms of physical product. As an aside, taking the distributors out of the equation is a particularly delicious development for me even though it is sad for me to see a number of good distributors I’ve worked with over the years go under or be forced into a less than supportive position.

In terms of the cost of creating and producing music there is expense. But that is true in any business. In fact, research and development, the creative stuff, is the big expense in most businesses. The question is how do you get paid for it? Do your copyrights really reimburse you for those costs? Traditionally, yes, but does the digital revolution give you an even better, albeit different, way to reimburse you (and Greenleaf)? I think that may be true.

DD: And what way would that be? Quite honestly I want to see what you think is the upside. Is it amiestreet? Is it unlimited free downloads?

MF: I would first respond by asking: Are you dreaming of the end of the digital era? I hope not because I don’t think that’s ever coming. We’re not going back to analog, in music or anything, in any significant way. With that in mind, here are a couple of scenarios based only on the current state.

1. The way to translate creative work into income is by taking advantage of the combination of Artist/Label/Management, all basically working towards the same end and under the artistic umbrella. We create revenue from original material by thinking of it as part of a larger whole, putting it all into one big basket. Record sales, downloads, subscriptions, touring, commissions, the value of a website, etc., all controlled by the artist. I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of what is possible. We are not only creating value for current releases but fans, customers, supporters for life as opposed to masters that may or may not be owned by someone else.

2. Focusing on the potential of the digital revolution as opposed to lamenting what’s “lost.” Why? Because no one knows what’s out there really. If anything truly new in the selling of music is about to happen, it’s going to come from those who are embracing the moment rather than fighting it. Those who have made a living fighting it are effectively out of the business as are the “old model” companies for whom they used to work. We need to get it into our heads that protecting copyrights is a waste of time given the power of the digital wave and the amount of incredible opportunity out there previously unavailable to you as an artist.

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The Practice of Ear Training

Posted by: Dave Douglas on July 7, 2008 @ 9:13 am
Filed under: Culture, Dave Douglas (Artist Thoughts), Music, Perennials

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You can’t deny the power of raw talent in music, but it is possible there is an even greater strength in the human capacity for self-transformation, growth, and genius. Some people have enormous natural talent and ability. Some have to work really hard. One way or another we’re all striving to find a true expression in sound, one that touches on something universal, and we all have to strive to find our own path, no matter how gifted or challenged we may be.

For the past decade the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music has been offering classes with names like “Ear Training for Improvisers,” and “Applied Ear Training.” About a year ago Rick G at iwasdoingallright.com started asking me to write down my thoughts on ear training. In working on this post I realized why I struggle with that. Ear training is about sound in a given place in a given time. Text can’t capture that, though I have tried a little bit here. If you are not interested in this topic, or not interested in putting in some time working with this, skip this post. It gets nerdy.

Ear training is the most valuable training for any musician, and maybe most of all for an improviser. Improvisation puts a musician on the spot in unpredictable ways — you have only your ears to help you learn what’s going on and decide how to respond to events or initiate them. Basically ear training underlies anything a musician does: melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, form, density, community (who you are playing with), legacy (how you choose to deal, or not deal, with the traditions of music). You name it — to be handled fully it has got to be heard deeply and accurately. It’s as simple as focused hearing.

Ear training takes a lot of time to master, and it seems like the more you work on it the more you see your own shortcomings. It’s slow going, as is the attempt to explain it. What’s more — this topic is almost entirely behind the scenes, off the radar. Maybe it has nothing at all to do with the reception of the music. And yet, to find satisfaction as musicians — to express ourselves — takes a constant inventing and encountering of new challenges, new ways of keeping the music exciting. The new challenges have a lot to do with how we hear sound and process it, how we deepen the experience, and how we can push ourselves to more profound levels of expression. That’s what keeps me playing.

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. ” – Mohandas K. Gandhi

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Illuminations of the Cellar Door: Miles Davis

Posted by: Dave Douglas on April 25, 2006 @ 1:50 pm
Filed under: Culture, Dave Douglas (Artist Thoughts), Perennials

I was listening to Miles Davis’ 1970 recordings from the Cellar Door, a space in Washington, DC. These recordings went into making the album Live Evil in 1970. It is an absolute classic of an album, and yet it falls in that controversial zone that separates lovers of early Miles from those entranced by the second half of his recorded tenure, the electric years.

Much has been said about Miles Davis and his music. Sometimes too much, and for that reason I have hesitated to jump in. But in the words of trombonist George Lewis, music doesn’t speak for itself. We have to talk about it because it doesn’t talk. I imagine Miles having the last laugh because like it or not everyone is still talking about his music. I’ll at least try to be concise.

1. This box set reminded me that the move to electric instruments (not just by Miles Davis) was a gradual progression. It started in the mid-Sixties as a search for new sounds and evolved. It’s still evolving today. This is one more hole in the leaky boat of the “electric revolution and/or sellout” trope. There is a clear progression from the acoustic quintet of the sixties, to electric pianos, to guitar, and onward. It’s crystal clear here, and I think it’s important to point that out because that search is relevant to so much music in the 21st century.

2. This set of recordings should forever put to rest the notion that Miles Davis could not play the horn, or had limited “chops.” PLEASE listen to this recording and then refrain from saying Miles had bad trumpet technique. Ever again. OK?

It’s not that chops have anything to do with making this music great. Nonetheless he’s playing a ridiculous amount of trumpet in all ranges very fluently. The timing of his attack is impeccable. It’s too easy to sit around putting him down without acknowledging the physical realities of this music, and it’s tiresome to hear once again how Miles made the most of his limited abilities. These recordings demonstrate dramatically the awesome nature of that ability, perhaps even more so than many celebrated “masterpieces.”

I have often thought that Miles created the ultimate artistic illusion: he played so much music on trumpet that he fooled people into believing he couldn’t play the instrument. There was so much music happening they couldn’t hear the trumpet playing. To me that’s one of his great contributions to the modern language of the trumpet: that it is primarily a MUSICAL instrument.

3. The Cellar Door box set gives a renewed appreciation for Miles’ producer Teo Macero. It’s remarkable to me, having listened to Live Evil (severely edited from these tapes) for years, the unerring taste that Teo had in picking the best material. That goes for all the box sets — I feel that Macero always honed in on the best stuff and made incredibly astute judgments about these recordings. That might seem easy in hindsight, but try to put yourself in his shoes. At the time no one had ever heard anything like this and it was his job to decide what was the best stuff. Once again on the Cellar Door he nailed it.

4. It is an illusion to judge an entire period and an artist by one recording. Remember that the so-called “Cellar Door Sessions” represent exactly four days in these musicians’ lives. This is what they played that week. It’s majestic, but let’s keep it in perspective and not go all necrophiliac here. They played something else the next week, and something else the week after that. In the case of Miles Davis he left a 50 year body of recorded work. Why should a live date from 1970 be the basis for analysis of a man for selling out, or for that matter for being a genius? Let’s keep this in perspective. It was a really really great gig.

5. Anyway. There are likes and dislikes and music will never prove anyone’s point. But to me this work stands the test of time because it sounds inevitable. It sounds like a logical progression from the music that came before it, it sounds like a brilliant solution to a series of questions, it sounds as fresh and ingenious as the day it was made. It still excites with the freshness of discovery. What more should it have to do for us?

6. It is frequently said that starting in the seventies the Davis bands were less free than in the past, that the musicians were not as able to shine as individuals. I think if you listen for what they are actually playing, this is simply not true. This is the way these musicians played, and they are playing their asses off in the context of Miles Davis’ music. A recent comment was that “If you ask Al Foster to point out his best playing he wouldn’t say it was with Miles.” Wow. First of all, why would you ask Al Foster to choose? He was smoking with Miles and he was smoking with Joe Henderson. Period. (And he’s still smoking.) It has been said that the saxophonists stopped being a personality in Miles’ bands of the late period, and became “ciphers,” in other words merely guys representing “the saxophone player.” I couldn’t disagree more. Gary Bartz, Steve Grossman, Dave Liebman? Come on. Listen to them. Transcribe them. Then tell me they’re ciphers. It strikes me as awfully ungrateful to hear the music that way. Miles always chose great players, and saxophonists of the late period all shined: from and to many others.

I’m not saying one need be uncritical. I just get the creeps when I hear music analyzed for it’s “social meanings.” This is great music and it is merely armchair kibitzing not to see the nitty gritty of that. There is a physicality to all of Miles’ music that could be considered its primary perceptual trait. It can be criticized on many fronts (and has been), but let’s first admit that these musicians are giving their all, playing hard and for keeps and for an uncompromising band leader who was looking for new ways to move forward (among many other things…). When it came time to work there was no question of Miles Davis’ commitment to quality and the hard work required to achieve it. The recordings from the Cellar Door once again demonstrate the quality of a unique and exciting personal vision. I hold out hope that this music could finally put some of those sweeping assessments to bed.

The transition of the late 60s and early 70s now seems to be another “neglected period of Miles” that is seeing a resuscitation in interest. Fancy that. Ten years from now, will we be re-rediscovering Tutu, Decoy, Live Around The World? And if so will we finally be able to say that the guy was simply great? Somehow I doubt it. When you go it alone as Miles did there will always be doubters. Yet it’s still dispiriting to me to read people putting down various “periods” of Miles’ work and then later “rediscovering” them.

My feeling is that someone who gave us such consistent excellence over so many years must have been in touch with something larger than we can understand. All of his work would deserve a consideration, and I say let’s give it to him. All appraisal of his personal life, all partisan wrangling over various artistic decisions, all second-guessing his reasons should take a back seat as we simply accept him as the American music master he was, in every period.

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Free Country

Posted by: Dave Douglas on March 6, 2006 @ 8:25 am
Filed under: Dave Douglas (Artist Thoughts), Perennials

I got in an argument with Adam Benjamin last fall when we were driving back from Cambridge to New York. We were listening to music, some of it from CDs camped out in my car, some of it new: Miles Davis Seven Steps to Berlin box set, a mixed Cd of contemporary Belgian music, the odd Rufus Wainwright disc, Ethiopiques 14, Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra’s new record, other things I can’t remember. I buy new CDs when they come out, even though I feel a little like a sap at the register when everyone else is downloading or simply ripping. But I like having them and checking out the artwork, putting them in my collection, and you know what they say, put your money where your mouth is….

Anyway, Adam’s into music education, he’s going for a masters at CalArts. So we got to talking about the program at Banff Workshop (he’s coming up along with the rest of Keystone this year), jazz programs in general, how you teach improvising and repertoire, how you learn it, what’s important, what’s not. We started talking about what’s happening in jazz, what we listen for, and how that becomes teaching.

Well we disagreed about this. I think what makes a jazz group great (I know that jazz means many things to many people, I’ll just say I use the word loosely) is the freedom of each player to be themselves. That’s what I listen for, a conversation between individuals. How free is everyone? How much are they playing together? How does that freedom serve the whole music? Are they in straight-jackets? If so, does it serve the music?

What makes jazz distinctive is the richness of interaction between the players. And for interaction to happen, there has to be freedom. And with freedom responsibility and with responsibility power.

There are many ways to be free, and varying degrees of freedom — to me that is one of the biggest tasks for a jazz composer or bandleader. That is the prime decision to be made in creating a music. That’s the challenge. And a successful balance creates great music.

Maybe this is not a particularly original idea, but it defines what I like about music, and why I don’t like certain things, even recordings by artists whose work I generally like. In a way, teaching has helped me define this feeling, which was instinctual, but vague for many years. Teaching helped me understand why I gravitate towards certain things and away from others. The issue of freedom has also had an enormous impact on the way I write.

Now, I hate universal theories of anything, but I’m having a hard time not seeing this musical dimension of freedom as something that extends to all kinds of music. In pop music I’m more excited when I hear a band, or whatever it is, playing together. Even in programmed electronic music tracks isn’t it the programmer’s personality that makes it rock? Listen to Milton Babbitt’s Ensembles for Synthesizer from the early 60s and tell me that doesn’t have personality.

What makes a compelling classical (remember, using those terms loosely) performance? To me, it’s when every member of the quartet or quintet or orchestra seems to understand what the composer and/or conductor are after. That’s when they can put their personality and heart into it.

What I like is hearing a band of personalities. I like to hear some of what each person has to say, in the service of a whole. Whatever it is, they have to believe it and personalize it, whether it is someone else’s notes or not. When I don’t hear that the music rarely gets to me. My ear searches out each instrument and what’s unique about its part and what that person is doing with it. If a lot of the band is strapped down to playing parts rote, somehow the richness is gone. That’s what’s special about jazz — it’s a music of personal expression and group consciousness. It’s great chamber music.

If I may set up a few straw men to knock them down:

In response to the virtuoso soloist argument: Part of the reason Coltrane could so often hit it out of the park is that he had Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison with him so often. My point is: virtuoso as he was, his playing was always a part of the whole music, never showy for its own sake. Freedom within a group. That’s what makes it deep.

The impersonal music argument: As much as John Cage would deny it, his personality clearly pervades his pieces and a great Cage performance involves a lot of will from the performers. OK, maybe he wouldn’t deny it.

Big bands: The reason I love Gil Evans and Thad Jones/Mel Lewis is that in their music I hear everyone speaking. Even in a big band format, they found a way to elevate the individual parts to something unique and special for the players. As do all the greats, including Ellington, Basie and so many others.

See if you agree. I don’t think Adam does because he kept looking for counterexamples and anxiously picking at his bagel. Granted, counterexamples are the best way to examine an idea, or to destroy it. But soon we weren’t listening, just talking. All those great Tony Williams licks going by unremarked. But the miles flew by.

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