Birth of the Cool by Miles Davis

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (#12)

Miles Davis | Birth of the Cool (1957)
Capitol (USA)
Cool Jazz 35:29

The first two albums I ever owned would never have made the cut in this list. Not because they weren’t any good – on the contrary, there were some outstanding tracks on both (as well as a few less-than-classic cuts) – but because the numbers weren’t placed as the artists originally intended them to be heard. Rather than producing a coherent whole, with one song complementing the numbers either side, these were created by record executives hoping to make money from their biggest hitters. Individually they may have had great moments but they were never intended to be heard alongside the other tracks on that particular album. Welcome to the world of the compilation.

My initial records, which both fell into this category, weren’t even by a single artist. While I would later purchase any number of Greatest Hits packages (from the Red and Blue albums of The Beatles through to The Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks and the first two Queen Greatest Hits albums), these first two were simply a collection of recent hits by various artists. I can still remember that Christmas morning, unwrapping a Walkman closely followed by that well-remembered LP (or, in this case, cassette) The Greatest Hits of 1985. Within a few months, I’d doubled my music collection by heading out and purchasing my first Now That’s What I Call Music compilation (volume six, if you were wondering). As a 10-year-old, who had only first tuned into Top of the Pops a few months earlier, a whole new world had opened up to me. I was being introduced to a mass variety of songs that I may never have had a chance to listen to until this point. Pressing play on Now 6, I was treated to my first ever Queen track – One Vision. It was a revelation. But while many of those once chart-topping tracks may have succumbed to a more discerning taste over the years, even the classics were suddenly placed in a context never intended for them by their original recording artist. Did Freddie Mercury and Brian May, while writing the words to one of their greatest songs, think to themselves: ‘This is brilliant but let’s not sully it with any other of our own pieces; what it really needs to follow it is Nik Kershaw’s When A Heart Beats’?

Don’t get me wrong. Firstly, personally I don’t think there is anything wrong with Nik Kershaw – he may not be a credible artiste any longer, but at least he was better than much of the dross that was churned out in the mid-80s. But I digress. More importantly, while I can have the snob in me stare in distaste at compilation albums, generally I don’t have any problem with them. Because, as I found out to my benefit almost 30 years ago, they are a wonderful way of introducing you to an artist and even a whole genre. Which makes Birth of the Cool something of an achievement, allowing me to finally hear one of the all-time greats in the guise of jazz legend Miles Davis.

As the name unsurprisingly suggests, Birth of the Cool reveals the origins of one of jazz music’s most enduring styles. Aged just 24, Davis had been playing with Charlie Parker for three years but was becoming bored of the bebop sound; so, with growing tensions in Parker’s quintet, he decided to head out on his own and lead his own band. Hooking up with acclaimed arranger Gil Evans, Davis was able to put together nine musicians who were open to exploring new ways of playing. The result saw the music being slowed down and muted; and Cool Jazz was created. The nonet recorded 12 tracks over 1949 and 1950, some of which were released as singles. But it wasn’t until 1957 that Capitol decided to release them together as an album, initially as a way of presenting Davis playing classic numbers in jazz. And while, in many ways, this is simply a greatest hits album, the result is regarded as one of the most important recordings of the 20th century.

I admit to still not entirely understanding jazz music. But while Brilliant Corners left me with a head that ached as I tried to make sense of it, Birth of the Cool draws you in. True, it is still not arranged in a way that, as someone brought up on a diet of rock and pop, can easily deconstruct. But there is a sense to the music, along with a coolness that relaxes you into the music. Take opening number Move; the trumpet of Davis works its way up and down the scales without ever forcing you to feel that you can’t follow him. Add to that sublime drumming – check out the short drum solo – and this is a wonderful opening. There is a laidback air to all of the numbers on the album, which can just float over you, no matter what you are doing, allowing any tensions to simply flow out of your body.

Miles Keylock described the album as a series of tonal poems by Davis, and it is easy to see why he used this description. While Monk may have confounded me in my efforts to understand and enjoy jazz, Davis has eased me gently in; before, the thought of a ‘pure’ jazz record (and I use the word ‘pure’ lightly, as I am sure there are many arguments among musicians as to what that would actually sound like) filled with a sense of having to force myself through an unlistenable mess, Miles has me looking forward to seeing his work again (there are another three of his albums still to come on the list). Mixing a gentle swing with an easy-going toot of the trumpet or alto-sax, this is fun music to bring a smile to the face on a dull day. With only the final number – a later addition to the album in 1971 – putting a foot wrong (why bother having Kenny Hagood sing Darn that Dream? Birth of the Cool had worked beautifully as an instrumental number until this point), this is an album which is worth digging out by anyone wanting an introduction to jazz.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Birth of the Cool here:

Next time: Kenya by Machito

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Palo Congo by Sabu

Sabu : Palo Congo (#11)

Sabu | Palo Congo (1957)
Blue Note (USA)
Latin Jazz 40:52

Pity poor Phil Selway. Despite being great at his job, nobody knew who he was. He would turn up to work, put in his hours, and go home, all under the shadow of anonymity. Yet, fortunately for him, people did take notice and before long admirers were flocking to show their love and support. For those still struggling to place the name – and I suspect that will be a fair number of you – Phil is the drummer with Radiohead, one of the biggest bands in the world. After once admitting in the interview that nobody really noticed him sitting at the back, one follower of the group set up a fan club just for him; soon thousands were flocking to his cause. He finally had the recognition he deserved.

Naming famous percussionists is no easy feat for the average music fan. Sure you can probably list the obvious ones (Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, Phil Collins) and possibly a couple from a favourite band, but then it gets tricky. Perhaps it is because of the bad reputation they have garnered, unjustly assumed to not be doing anything but mindlessly hitting something with a big stick. Many have suffered the oft-told joke: “What do you call somebody who hangs around with musicians? A drummer.” While the singer is standing at the front, getting all the glory, the poor drummer has to hide forgotten to the audience at the back of the stage (as Charlie Watts once commented, his 50-odd years in The Rolling Stones has largely consisted of staring at Mick Jagger’s arse).

Yet, for all the mockery, the drummer is the pounding heartbeat of any musical enterprise. They keep the beat, ensuring that all the other musicians are able to stay in time with one another; take out the drummer (as well as the bassist, that other forgotten instrumentalist who is usually dismissed) and who knows what will happen. The frontmen – singer, lead guitarist etc – find the fame; but they do it on the back of the hard work of their percussionists. It isn’t an easy skill to master – let’s be honest, it’s one thing to pick a few strings but quite another to co-ordinate your hands and feet together to keep time. Have you ever tried it? It’s no mean feat, I can tell you. Despite what Mark Knopfler once insisted in Money for Nothing, there is much more skill involved than just banging a drum.

So it is pleasing that, just a few albums into the list, we come across somebody who aims to change that perception. Louis Martinez – better known as Sabu – was an American conguero. Despite his sound having a “World Music” feel to it (a terrible phrase, essentially meaning any music that doesn’t sound like American pop), he was born and raised in the United States. Falling in love with the congo drums at an early age, he became a percussionist and worked with numerous big names, including Charlie Parker, Tony Bennett, Dizzy Gillespie and Harry Belafonte. Deciding to lead his own band when he was 27, he opted to focus more on his Latin roots; the result was the album Palo Congo.

After working my way through the pioneers of jazz and rock, it is interesting listening to an album that turns everything on its head. The drumming of the other two genres may have driven the sound, but they were still very much underlying the other musicians. To suddenly hear drumming at the forefront – in fact, to only hear drumming in some cases – is a strange experience. Even coming from a context that has heard groups such as Stomp turn percussion into more than just a backbeat, there is an initial sense that, when the beat of a song starts, it will be quickly followed by another instrument of some kind of another. That it doesn’t is one of the album’s greatest strengths. Because the congo-playing is so beautiful, it would be criminal to try to mask it in any way.

Percussion obviously comes to the front, but this album is not just about the drumming, and a number of tunes have some form of voice work as well (I’m loathe to describe it as singing; it is more of a call and response above the sound of the drums) and even some gentle Spanish guitar playing. The album opens with El Cumbanchero and the listener is instantly introduced to a sound very different to the “traditional” pop album. And, it has to be said, it takes some getting used to. Without question, the drumming is superb, with a wonderful beat keeping things moving. The guitar sounds sparse alongside it (there is no bass), in many ways emphasising the drumming. A repeated refrain, sounding more like a chant, is repeated throughout. It was only on my third or fourth listen that I began to appreciate it. Perhaps I needed that time to acclimatise my ears to an entirely new sound. But, the more I have heard the album over the past 24 hours, the more I have enjoyed it.

That said, the second track (Billumba Palo-Congo; perhaps the closest to a ‘title track’) is hard work. It opens with a voice calling out and hearing a response, but the sound is so monotonous and the drumming so repetitive, it threatens to undo the good work of the first number. At six minutes, it is also the longest track on the album (and, boy, does it feel it); if there was one number to skip, this is it. Fortunately, the best is yet to come.

Asabache, the fourth track on Palo Congo, is essentially four minutes of congo playing. No other instruments, this is the sound of the drums being hit in time. And what a sound it produces! If you have any doubts about the merits of percussion as musical instruments in their own rights, prepare to blown away. The skill in it is incredible with a beat that draws the listener in. This was the point when I stopped trying to hear for the sake of the project and began to enjoy a new experience.

Clearly this type of music won’t be for everybody; but for those wanting to hear something a little different from the classic pop songs that we are constantly thrown by our radio and television stations, this is definitely one album to track down.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to the album here:

Next time: Birth of the Cool by Miles Davis

Brilliant Corners

Thelonious Monk : Brilliant Corners (#10)

Thelonious Monk | Brilliant Corners (1957)
Riverside (USA)
Hard Bop 42:47

There is a bass guitar standing in the corner of my room. I’ve had it for more than 20 years, since I received it as a gift for my 18th birthday. Each year, as another birthday comes around, I promise myself that I will pick it up and learn to play it. And each year, it remains in its case, hidden from the world, its strings remaining unplucked. I have made the occasional attempt to master this instrument – I have brought ‘how to…’ guides, tuned the strings and sat with it on my knee. But I have never got past the first few exercises.

The reason for my hesitation is simple; I learned to play electric guitar using tablature. This version of notation involves using numbers on the musical lines, each line representing a string of the guitar and the number representing the fret that needs to be held down. It is a simple process and one which, with a little practice, means that you can soon be playing along to your favourite rock track without ever learning to read real music. The bass instruction guides, however, forego this simple notation in favour for the more traditional approach – all staves and rest symbols. And, no matter how hard I try, I just can’t get my head around this very different form of writing.

It begs the question, when listening to records, how much do you need to know about musical theory in order to appreciate the tracks? Many incredible musicians don’t know the basics elements behind their sounds either – John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Page have all stated in interviews that they are unable to read sheet music (Page once said that the notes looked like “crows on power lines” to him, while Clapton confessed to feeling nervous in recording sessions as every other musicians had the music on stands in front of them). So if you don’t need to understand music theory in order to write it, stands to reason that you don’t need to understand the workings behind it to appreciate listening to it either.

To be honest, it probably doesn’t matter with a large proportion of the albums in the charts. After all, how much do you really need to know when listening to Status Quo using the same three chords for every song (a cheap shot – but you get my point)? I may not really get the intricacies of the key changes, but it doesn’t stop me from understanding whether I enjoy actually listening to the music. But there is a nagging feeling, somewhere at the back of my mind, that I would be able to appreciate it so much more if I knew a little more theory, even if I couldn’t translate that into practice. And this couldn’t be more obvious than with Thelonious Monk’s album, Brilliant Corners.

While undoubtedly a landmark album, this is not an easy listen. Mind you, it wasn’t exactly an easy one to record either. The title track, which is as close to my perception of ‘true’ jazz – music stopping and stuttering; instruments playing a range of notes, none of which necessary following each other on the scale – took 25 takes across a four-hour session. Even after all this, a complete recording was never made, with bassist Oscar Pettiford reaching boiling point and venting his anger at Monk, while saxophonist Ernie Henry seemingly having a mental breakdown. Even then, it was up to producer Orrin Keepnews to splice the results of all the takes into one final version. Listening to it kick off the album, it isn’t hard to understand why it was so difficult to record. The tempo changes at the drop of a hat and it is often hard to follow any narrative to the musical score. Again, I’m no expert but this sounds a mess at times. However, unlike my hatred of country music, I feel I want to appreciate the musicianship but, without that deeper knowledge, I find myself floundering.

As the album progresses across its running time (there are just five tracks in total on the whole album), things don’t become easier. The following number, Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Ar, continues to be determined to frustrate in its lack of a coherent form. At times it seems the drummer, pianist and saxophonists, are either playing different songs or, a theory which became more likely the longer I listened, as if they are playing their instruments for the very first time (random notes on the piano do not make music, no matter how talented you are). By the time we’ve reached the final track, Bemsh Swing, my brain is aching.

I know I don’t get jazz; I know my knowledge of music isn’t great. But, without wanting to sound like the grumpy father of a young nightclubber, to my ears this isn’t music. Perhaps my choices in the records I’ve listened to until this point in my life has left me unable to appreciate anything which deviates from a traditional concept of ‘popular’ tunes. Perhaps I need a better education in music before listening to an album this ‘difficult’. But I fear that, even then, I wouldn’t really understand it – because, in my mind, truly great music allows the audience in, to access it at a deeper understanding, no matter what the level of their music. And unfortunately Monk seems more determined to block the listeners and I’m left wondering if I’ve missed the joke.

If you’ve got a Spotify account, you can take a listen to the album here:

 

Next time: Palo Congo by Sabu