Friday, September 23, 2011

On the Road with Lenny White and RTF IV: the Montreux Jazz Festival, Sete, France, plus Aosta and Pescara, Italy

RTF IV onstage

[Editor's Note: Lenny White and his fellow jazz/rockers have already returned home to the States, and picked up an opening act, and his crack outfit, Zappa Plays Zappa. After touring the East Coast and Midwest, they have been lighting up the Left Coast.  Today's installment was filed as RTF IV were wrapping up in Europe.  There's big news here of a DVD-in-progress, plus White's interesting take on the current state of the music industry.  Stay tuned for the next editions, covering their recent travels on the West Coast as they revisited the band's original '70s home territory and stomping grounds--and after that, the much-anticipated return to the enthusiastic fans of Japan.]

Lenny White and Esperanza Spalding backstage at Montreux

"While we were in Montreux we did some filming for a DVD we're making. Part of the problem that I have with recording a live performance, at a festival like Montreux, is that their cameras and lights are set up and everybody looks the same.  All the videos and DVDs from there look the same.  That isn't necessarily what we would like to do, and if you want a video with your own personal textures to it, you really can't do that.  When we recorded the performance and did the video, there were parts of it we didn't like, so we told the audience after the performance, "We're going to come back and redo parts of it.  If you want to stay, you can stay," and almost everybody stayed.  It was like being at a movie shoot where we'd have a take, and then the director would say 'Cut! Cut! That's good, but this time let's try it a little different,' and we would do it that way.  That's what we did with the audience, and that, for me, was more special than the actual concert.  During the breaks between shots, while the band was having conversations about what they were doing, I'd have a conversation with the audience.  It was really cool.  Montreux was good.  Patti Austin was there.  Esperanza Spalding opened up for us."

"After that we went to Sete, France, an absolutely beautiful setting with a full moon rising over the Mediterranean.  The festival was packed with people who were so enthused, so emotionally moved that people were crying, including a lady who was with the festival--she had been there, had heard bands for seven weeks, and she started to cry.  She said the music that we played touched people so deeply.  It was a beautiful setting, a great concert.

RTF IV onstage at Aosta, Italy. From left: Chick Corea, Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanley Clarke, 
Frank Gambale and Lenny White

"We played in Aosta, Italy, and then we did Pescara, both outdoor festivals, and the audiences were great.  What's very interesting is that Return To Forever is not a fusion band.  It's a jazz-rock band.  Part of the reason I say that is that we have two distinctly different but authentic musical styles that we play on any given night.  Every night we play jazz, and we play rock.  It's very obvious when I see it from the stage.  In certain parts of the concert people will be sitting with their arms crossed, their legs crossed, enjoying the acoustic bass, the piano, the acoustic guitar, the violin, almost maybe like they'd listen to classical improvising... and then we come back for an encore and play "School Daze," and everybody is on their feet, jumping up, clapping their hands, like at a rock concert.  For the same band!  It's really remarkable to see, and it's a testament to the musicians who are playing.  I see it happen every night.  At the classical music festival that we played in Germany, there were people in jackets and ties, and dresses, standing up and rocking.  It's really deep!  Stanley Clarke says, 'There's a rocker in everyone,' and it's been proven every night."

The Aosta fortress

"Not just this version of Return To Forever, but all the versions, there has been this virtuosity enclosed in some common music and also within the complexities of the virtuoso music.  When you go see a jazz virtuoso play, you go see Return To Forever, that's what you expect.  You don't go jumping up out of your seat, because that wouldn't be appropriate.  But when that group of musicians starts playing something that makes you move, makes you abandon your composure somewhat, you give it up.  If you're in a club with 150 people, that's what you'd expect, but when it's a concert hall with 3,000 in the audience, the effect is quite different.

"On this tour we're doing music from all the electric Return To Forever periods.  Right now we're in discussions about doing a film.  Not just a documentary, because I wouldn't want it to be done the same way every other documentary film is done.  I think we're going to approach it from a different perspective, with someone who has a real vision, as opposed to just doing a concert film--that's not really what we want to do.  The angle is that the industry really has suppressed music like this.  When you see the effect it has on people, there's no reason why this direction in music, and bands like what we represent, haven't gotten the exposure they deserve.  If you look at the number of people this music reaches, the per capita concentration of fans we make happy during a live performance, we do as well and reach as many people, in effect, as Lady Gaga.  Without meat dresses, without dancing and pyrotechnics.  If you think about it, Lady Gaga plays arenas that hold 20,000 people, and we play concert halls with 2,000 people.  I can't compete with Lady Gaga, who plays in front of 10,000,000 people on her tour.  Return To Forever can play in front of 600,000 on a tour.  But per capita, I can say that we reach fans the same way she does.

Lenny White at work

"There's good justification for the music that we play to be exposed the same way, but that's not the case.  From a money standpoint, record labels or commercially oriented companies want to hire artists with commercial appeal because they reach more fans.  It's easier for those companies to use them as corporate branding because they reach a larger audience."

"We touch the soul.  Pop music touches souls because it has lyrics--most of the time it's the lyrics that touch the soul, not necessarily the performance.  You have to be there to experience a performance for it to touch your soul.  You hear the song that has lyrics and you hear it sung--depending upon how great the artist is who is rendering the story--you get it and you say, 'Wow, that song really touched me,' because these words relate to your consciousness, or whatever.  Return To Forever has been able to do that from a musical standpoint.  That's why we have such dedicated fans, because we've been able to accomplish that without lyrics."

Photo Credits
All Photos: Andrew Elliott

Sunday, August 7, 2011

On the Road with Lenny White and RTF IV: Germany, Holland, and France

RTF IV: L to R: Chick Corea (p), Jean-Luc Ponty (v), Stanley Clarke (b), Frank Gambale (g), Lenny White (d).

"The gigs in Germany were fantastic, great audiences.  The band is starting to hit its stride. In Hamburg, about 1,000 real dedicated fans stood in the rain for the full performance. In Neckarsulm, we played at the Audi performance center inside an Audi car manufacturing plant, a remarkable structure filled with classic and current Audi cars.

"Overall, this is an amazing band.  We played in Essen, Germany, at a classical music festival that was held in a hall that had great acoustics.  The audience members were subscription season ticketholders and the atmosphere was pretty formal.  Chick [Corea] wore a nice jacket and tie for the occasion, for example, although the rest of us were dressed however we were dressed, the way we usually dress for a show.

Riding the elevator to the Audi performance.
"After we'd played the first set, Chick said he felt our performance had been a little reserved, and I told him we probably were, because everybody in the band had seen the audience's formal attire--the men in suits and ties and so forth--and thought maybe we shouldn't play so loud, or whatever.  But by the end of the show, all those people in suits and ties were up on their feet, rockin' to "School Daze."  It was a great transformation.  Even the directors of the festival came to us afterward and told us, 'You were remarkable. You guys play with the power of rock and roll, the sophistication of jazz, and there are tinges of classical virtuosity.'

"There's an aspect of jazz that gets misunderstood.  Jazz musicians are not usually given enough credit for their dedication to the music.  Their commitment is on par--or, sometimes, maybe even greater--than the classical performers' commitment to their music.  The dedication that it takes to be able to perform and improvise at the same time is a little more.  Obviously, there are classical musicians who improvise very well.   I don't think the great jazz virtuosos get credit, because most music aficionados think jazz is a folk music, as opposed to something from the great European classical tradition.

"Whether it's a trio or quartet, or a quintet, like what we have with Return To Forever, when we play we have five composers composing music in the present tense.  Each one is composing their own mini-composition within a composition.

"In Hamburg, Germany, it rained cats and dogs.  But in Vienne, France, it rained cows and horses.  It was five times the storm that was in Hamburg... lightning, thunder, not just a rain shower, but a rainstorm, a torrential downpour like a monsoon.  But the people knew it was going to rain and came prepared. They had raincoats and umbrellas, and they stayed through the whole performance.  It was true dedication.  The fans really do come out in Europe and support the artists.

"Sometimes in the US, when a music is indigenous to a certain area, people can be a little passive about it.  But RTF is popular.  As I say to the audience every night, there are a lot of boy bands where no one really plays an instrument, but with a man band like Return To Forever, it's a different dynamic.  In the United States, pop music is more of a manufactured product that sells big numbers and draws huge crowds that come out to see the artist because the artist is on TV all the time, or their videos are being played on music channels.  So it's a testament to RTF that we play music that's very progressive, without vocals, with a great deal of virtuosity, and people come out to support us.  There's hope!

Return To Forever performing at Wollman Rink in Central Park, NYC, on July 28, 1975.  L to R: Chick Corea, Al Di Meola, Stanley Clarke, Lenny White.

"The turning point for me in understanding the impact of Return To Forever was the Central Park concert in 1975.  Wollman Rink held about 7,000 people, it was enclosed, with actual physical fences.  When we got there the concert was sold out, but then some fans broke down the fences and another 5,000 fans came in.  There were about 12,000 people there.  This was a band that didn't have a lead singer, no vocalist.  And I said to myself: "This is big.  This is something different now."

[Editor's note: the award-winning actor (and director/playwright) Laurence Fishburne, once came backstage and told his story of being at the historic concert, sitting up front near the stage and seeing the historic Wollman Rink performance.  It had been a turning point in his life, too, he said.  Return To Forever's appearance on July 28, 1975, in the annual summer series held in the old skating rink at the south end of Manhattan's Central Park, came at the peak of RTF's powers.  They had been touring with the new material from No Mystery (Polydor, 1975)--which, like Where Have I Known You Before (Polydor, 1974), had reached the pop Top 40 chart.  Within a few months RTF would record Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976) and get a gold record--thanks, in part, to a masterful last-minute remix and remaster by none other than Lenny White.]

A view of RTF IV in action, from the top of the Audi performance center.

"But now this band, this version, RTF IV--I don't mean to downgrade any of the other earlier versions of Return To Forever, or put them in a secondary category, but this one is very, very musical.  It covers a wide variety.  The people at the classical festival made me realize that there were all these different kinds of musics that we dealt with.  You have five musicians who have had many, many different musical experiences, and it's kind of a conversation.  It's like if you were to be in an audience and listen to five famous actors who had been in the business for 40-50 years, talking about their different roles in films, you would be privy to some information that you wouldn't normally get.  What you have in this band are five different individuals who have played every kind of music you can imagine.  We have musical conversations every night, and you can be privy to them.

"We're true road warriors.  We travel well, but it's traveling.  We sleep when we can.  This is a vicious schedule--we just did 11 concerts in 12 days.  I personally think the performance at the Tollwood Festival in Munich was the best so far. This is worth all the stress of traveling, to see genuine joy on the faces of the fans."

Photo Credits
Page 1: All Photos: Bill Rooney
Page 2: Ria Images

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Lenny White and RTF IV: Syracuse, NY and the Canada Gigs

Lenny White

[Editor’s note: after opening night in Northampton, Massachusetts, Lenny White and his Return To Forever band mates played at the M&T Jazz Festival in Syracuse, New York then headed north to Canada for festival dates in Montreal and Toronto. After filing this report, he and RTF IV played a third festival in Ottawa and then got on a plane to Berlin.]

“It was cold and rainy in Syracuse on the day of the concert, but the rain stopped in time, and the music was good. It was cool because the director of the Jazz Fest presented each of the band members with a proclamation.


“The Montreal Jazz Festival gave Stanley the Miles Davis Award [Ed. note: the festival’s annual award is given each year to honor “a great international jazz musician for the entire body of his or her work and for that musician’s influence in regenerating the jazz idiom.”] Montreal was a sold-out show. The people were really into it. The comments afterward were like “This is the most musical Return To Forever yet.” We are all more mature musicians and instrumentalists, through the years of being around great composers and experimenting with compositions. All the guys in the band are composers, and they play accordingly. It’s not just notes. They play with the idea of creating compositions within compositions—your solo is a composition within a composition. Like Frank Gambale, he’s really doing it now.

“We played two sets in Montreal. But what we’ve been doing now is not announcing the tunes. You know, we’re doing like how some of the old rock guys used to do when they’d asked the audience, ‘Hey, remember this one…?’ and then they’d play it, and the crowd would shout out YEAH-H-H-H-H!!!” So we don’t really announce the songs. We play it and the people say, ‘Oh, YEAH, I remember that one!’

L. to R., Chick Corea, Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanley Clarke, Frank Gambale, Lenny White

[Editor’s note: Return To Forever has been in Germany since July 1. As they continue to play festivals in Poland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Croatia, and Montreux in Switzerland, they will need to follow each festival’s time restrictions. Hence the following comment:]

“We have a set that’s working now, and we’re ironing it out. But you never know. By the time we get back to the States, it might change. But even if you’re a headliner here in the States… you’re playing with other bands, and you go on last, you don’t want people in the audience to be hanging out, saying ‘Wow, this is a long show. You want to keep their attention and make them happy when they leave.

L. to R., Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanley Clarke, Frank Gambale (hidden), Chick Corea, Lenny White

“Ottawa was our fourth gig and if it was any indication of what's in store for the fans... Get ready! The band is starting to gel. We knew there would be mistakes, but I personally think real music is made when you play your way out of a mistake, and this band is SO-O-O MUSICAL. Stay tuned for more notes from the road...”

All photos by Bill Rooney

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Return To Forever IV World Tour 2011: On the Road with Lenny White

Lenny White with his newly-tuned baby blue Innovation drums.

Editor’s note: Lenny White and the other members of the legendary jazz/rock band Return To Forever began a world tour last February in Australia, and on Friday, June 24th resume in Northampton, Massachusetts. After that it’s north to Canada for three dates, over to Europe for a month, then back to the U.S. for the summer. Throughout the tour you’ll have the opportunity to get a unique insider’s perspective on performing live music, as the journeyman drummer regularly posts his comments here. How big is the 2011 RTF IV world tour? Back in the day, Return To Forever and a small handful of other jazz/rock outfits like Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, the Headhunters and of course, Miles Davis--the fountainhead from which they'd all flowed--were capable of filling stadiums. For that brief period in the late 1960s-1970s, jazz reached levels of popularity not equaled since. How big is an RTF tour? Yesterday Steve Badalament, the founder and CEO of Innovation Drums, came up to Northampton from Detroit to personally tweak and fine tune White’s kit and make sure it’s roadworthy.

Chick Corea at the rehearsals in Northampton, MA.

“Hey everybody, this is Lenny White, on the road with Return To Forever, version IV. I’m up in Northampton, Massachusetts and we’re rehearsing for a tour that starts on the 24th.

“It’s kind of exciting, because we have some new members in the band. It’s Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and myself—the same rhythm section—but we’ve added the famous violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, and a great guitarist, Frank Gambale. This is my first opportunity to play with Frank. He used to work with the Chick Corea Elektric Band, and now he’s in this version of Return To Forever. Frank is a real student of music and has played in a lot of different contexts.

“It’s nice. We were doing some interesting things today, and I think what is really important is that we’re all open to explore different types of musics, and can include those in what we do. It’s fun to be able to do that.

“Jean-Luc’s addition brings another kind of musical element, and orchestration-wise it adds another flavor to some of the older RTF compositions, so we have new sections we’ll be doing. We’re playing a few tunes from the Romantic Warrior album and going back to No Mystery—not playing the tune “No Mystery,” but material from the album.

“We might play a few new pieces, too. We’re debating that right now. See, the situation is that we’re going to go out in Europe, and at a lot of these festivals we only get a certain amount of time to play, so we’re getting together music to do that. When we do shows on our own, we’ll probably expand it a lot and maybe play some of the newer pieces of music.

“We’re more seasoned. All the guys are getting along really well. When we did the Australian tour we only had a couple days to rehearse, and we went out and just hit it. But now we’ve rehearsed more, the music is settled. And it’s always great playing with my friends. It’s special. I think people are really going to like it.

“We’re like the Rolling Stones of jazz. In terms of jazz-rock music, we’re the last band standing. It’s true!

“But I believe what we have to offer is basically from the traditional jazz approach. We incorporate every other kind of music. Some of the bands that were playing, and were around after us, [Return To Forever disbanded in 1977, toured briefly in 1983, and then reunited for a world tour in 2008] were specialists. They specialized in a certain kind of thing. It was great, because they had big followings. But for us to be able to endure this long, we’ve changed perspectives on many different things, and all of us have played and been involved in a lot of different kinds of musics.

“What we’ve done with this particular Return To Forever is to bring in other people who have other kinds of experiences, bring them into the Return To Forever experience. It’s expanded, and I think the perspective is so wide that we could go on and play forever.”

Stanley Clarke and Jean-Luc Ponty hanging out in Northampton.

Stanley Clarke, Jean-Luc Ponty and Frank Gambale during the Northampton rehearsals.

All photos courtesy of Lenny White

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

You Say You Want a Revolution (We All Want to Change the World): Bitches Brew Live, or How Miles Davis Saved 21st Century Jazz

Bitches Brew was recognized as the proverbial “shot heard ’round the world” within weeks of being released by Columbia Records in April, 1970. In his musical choices--particularly the electric instrumentation, radically new editing approaches, and recent personnel changes--Miles had set off a fiery explosion that continues to reverberate throughout jazz. A good number of critics have spoken violently against it and still do to this day. Whether they were annoyed or confused by his new direction in music, it’s a case of no harm, no foul. It’s all good. The relentless hue and cry has helped introduce millions of people to jazz through the work of what Miles called the “best damn rock and roll band in the world.”
But until just this last February, no one but a small handful of people had ever heard that band play.
Not live. Certainly not recorded. Not whole tunes, or beginning-to-end performances of contiguous notes or phrases. The only people who had heard them were those fortunate few in May-June 1969, a time when the working band “played to a lot of half-empty clubs,” Miles said later in his autobiography.
Neither could you have heard this band if you had been one of the musicians or engineers, “live in the studio” at Columbia a few weeks later. Miles used the cavernous space and spread the players out, setting them up in a circle so that he could stand or move around at the center like an orchestra conductor and cue the musicians, stopping and starting them by pointing or using other gestures while the tape rolled. In some ways, he was less like a conductor and more like a film director shooting scenes—helping to facilitate what he, and more particularly, producer Teo Macero, were about to do. As the editor, Macero (with help from Miles) sliced and diced all the recorded takes to become part of a grand, interwoven and interconnected whole that bore only a resemblance to its original parts. Joe Zawinul, one of the two pianists on those sessions, is said to have walked into the Columbia offices one day after the album had been released, and asked what the music was that was playing on the PA… only to discover that he was listening to—but not recognizing—Bitches Brew.
No album was ever more aptly titled. Just the same, once all the editing and mixing had been done, the final version’s astonishingly beautiful form was groundbreaking. Despite not adhering to standard recording conventions, it soon became one of the fastest selling jazz records ever, and even more surprising (at least to many industry people) it was accomplishing what hadn’t been done on such a grand scale in many, many years: it was making new jazz fans by the score. Its commercial success, that rarity in jazz, elicited predictable outrage from the Jazz Police who recently had been fond of pronouncing the Death of Jazz—which made no difference to the young rockers who were listening to it, unless it made them feel even hipper in defiantly buying a copy.
Many millions have heard the legendary recording since then. But ardent fans and contrarian critics alike—neither present at the moment of inception—had all necessarily relied on producer Macero’s recombinant versions of what was recorded August 19-21, 1969 (the extent of Miles’ involvement in the editing and mixing is a matter of debate, and is beside the point). For 42 years, the legions who never heard the band play a complete tune had needed to content themselves with little more than rough bootlegs and the voluminous anecdotal lore about that original band’s performances.
Sure, there had been occasional glimpses of Miles’ embrace of funk and rock in his ominously heretical departures from the Church of Orthodox Jazz on 1968’s Filles de Kilimanjaro, and 1969’s In A Silent Way, recorded in February of that year. But for curious listeners, the mystery had always been that first cannonade, fired but never heard, by what the unrequited had dubbed the Lost Quintet. Columbia’s release of At Fillmore and many years later, Black Beauty (recorded live at Fillmore West) and Live at the Fillmore East, March 7, 1970: It's About That Time, gave listeners an idea of what the music eventually evolved into, but, with the subsequent personnel changes and eventual transformations in the material, could never answer the question: What did “the best damn rock and roll band in the world” sound like at the beginning—rough, ready and untamed by expectation? With Bitches Brew Live (Columbia/Sony Legacy, 2011) we finally have the answer. It is the first professional recording ever made of that aggregation. And for fans of historical symmetry, it was made, appropriately, on the same stage where rock’s supreme iconoclast, Bob Dylan, had first performed with Paul Butterfield’s electronically amplified instrumentation in 1965, in the cosmically blessed city of Newport, RI.
With the opening three tracks of Bitches Brew Live we can now hear, at last, the jazz revolution’s Battle of Lexington, the black powder musket reports that signaled the most dramatic changes in jazz since Jelly Roll Morton’s Black Bottom Stomp. Like those militiamen, Miles and company would soon face stern criticism from the starch-collared loyalists of the established order. And on this particular Saturday afternoon they were not only were out-numbered, but short-handed: when he and drummer Jack DeJohnette, pianist Chick Corea and bassist Dave Holland took the stage on July 5th, 1969, Wayne Shorter was stuck somewhere in traffic. But like the impassioned revolutionaries that they were, the truncated outfit rose to the occasion and, as a quartet, performed what are probably the most exciting, adrenaline-charged versions of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” and “It’s About That Time/The Theme” ever recorded. “Sanctuary,” minus Shorter, gets short shrift, and at a subdued 45 seconds long, was probably used as a musical interlude, a cool-down after the athletic burner they had opened with.
The CD’s six other tracks are from the Isle of Wight, the last recording ever done with this same Lost Quartet of Miles, Chick, Jack and Dave. Wayne is gone again, this time for good, replaced for the time being by Gary Bartz, while Airto Moreira uses his cuica to enhance the music’s feral other-worldliness, and Keith Jarrett noodles on a little Fender Contempo organ. The Quartet’s the thing. You may have watched in astonishment and listened to this performance on the DVD Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue (Eagle Rock, 2004) but until you hear these newly remastered versions, you really haven’t heard all of them. This audio recording’s fidelity blows it away.
Suffice it to say, one by one, all serious histories and analyses of Bitches Brew and this band of mischief-makers will be amended or re-written as people listen to these three Newport tracks (as well as the remastered Isle of Wight tracks, to a lesser extent). Hearing these recordings captured in the earliest stage of creative development is going to change everything. Weary completists who can’t believe there could possibly be anything more to hear, need to file it in an entirely new category. Everything we’d heard until now was New Testament. Bitches Brew Live is the Book of Genesis. This was the revolution.
II. "In revolutions the occasions may be trifling, but great interests are at stake – Aristotle’s Politics, Book 5.
A year before those pivotal Columbia studio sessions, on a night in August, 1968, Miles Davis and his friend Philly Joe Jones were in the audience at Ronnie Scott’s storied club in London, there to see mutual friend Bill Evans (with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette) perform. Between tunes they began commiserating.
Both were feeling a little out of sorts. Times had been tough for jazzers, tough enough that wild rumors were swirling, the most famous involving McCoy Tyner: supposedly, after leaving the august company of John Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, he had descended so far down from Mount Olympus that he’d begun playing support for Ike & Tina Turner, and when that didn’t pay the bills, driving a cab. It turns out neither were true, but such is the power of myth that these apocryphal stories have persisted. Times were indeed tough.
The year 1968 had much in common with 2011. The United States was a nation at war, which was not only hell, but very expensive. Combined with the spiraling costs of the ever-expanding social programs of the day, the Viet Nam war had created runaway currency inflation. Jazz artists were having a harder time than usual getting customers to open their wallets and come see them.
To make matters worse, despite Philly Joe’s nonpareil drumming skills, the UK Musicians’ Union was preventing him from playing while he held a teaching job in the Hampstead section of the city. Miles and his Second Great Quintet (with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter) were working and selling a few records, but not in the volume Columbia had come to expect from their prize racehorse in years past, and certainly not in numbers comparable to the rockers. Not even close. “…jazz music seemed to be withering on the vine, in record sales and live performances,” Miles said in Miles: the Autobiography. “It was the first time in a long time that I didn’t sell out crowds everywhere I played.”
Problem is, his situation with his record company was uniquely different from any other jazz artist’s. He not only liked to take royalty advances and live well, Clive Davis and Columbia, who were unable to bear the idea of their prestigious icon leaving for greener pastures at another label, had always been willing to accommodate him. In the process they had run up quite a bill together. But that’s how Miles had always rolled, and would continue to roll his entire life. Driving his yellow Ferrari, playing brilliantly lyrical runs on his horn, assembling and leading the best musical talent in the world, all had snuggled together into adjoining chambers of the same heart that beat harmoniously beneath his breast. Art and commerce were component parts of the life he’d chosen, and contrary to popular fiction, he’d understood free enterprise long before he met Clive Davis. The problem in 1968 was that the fickle, unruly world of popular taste had all but left jazz for dead.
The difficulty was part economics, and part sociology. The older, more mature jazz fans were becoming very conservative with their money, less inclined to go out to a jazz club, whereas their carefree children were embracing the Beatles and other British invaders, madly spending their allowances on rock & roll records and shows.
Miles and Philly Joe had been left out. Just as a writer needs readers, a musician needs listeners. No musician ever spent more than two seconds pondering the philosophical quandary that asks “if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound?” Because the answer is, “of course… but who cares?” If a trumpeter blows his horn and no one else hears it, he blows the note again. The real question for him is “how do you get that guy in the forest to hear it?”
Something had clicked as he watched and listened to the young bassist playing in pianist Pat Smythe’s trio onstage, a young Brit named Dave Holland. Before Bill Evans’ trio could take the stage for the second set, the germ of a conspiracy had glimmered to life. Miles sent word to Holland through Philly Joe that he was interested in hiring him, and left for the States.
It can be difficult to grasp the kind of power Miles Davis had while acquiring players. It was this simple: Miles got whomever he wanted. He didn’t particularly mind taking someone from another leader—in fact, it was almost a mark of distinction for the cuckolded band leader that Miles had taken his protégé. He was the best known and most successful leader in jazz. He knew he had much more to offer to a musician than just a regular paycheck, that his was the premiere gig at the leading edge of the jazz frontier, and there was hardly a musician in the world who would ever consider turning down an offer to work with him. Two weeks later, Holland, who had steady work with Ronnie Scott, playing with various bands who came through the club or in the support acts, got the word that Miles wanted to replace Ron Carter and needed him to get on a plane to New York for a show in three days.
Which he did, of course. Next, Miles asked if his drummer Tony Williams would track down fellow Bostonian, pianist Chick Corea. Corea’s recording for Blue Note a few months earlier, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Blue Note, 1968) was unquestionably brilliant, and anyone who had heard it knew his grasp of abstracted harmonies and rhythmic invention were mind-blowing. There was an upcoming gig and Herbie Hancock, on his honeymoon and stuck in South America, was confined by a doctor and told he couldn’t fly back until he had recovered from a case of food poisoning. Miles, in his famously Machiavellian way, viewed this as a fortuitous, natural juncture. Herbie had been recording his own projects and mulling the idea of getting out on his own. It was time to change gears. Several of them. Chick got a call from Tony (himself on the way out of Miles’ band to start his own band, Lifetime) who found his friend in a San Francisco hotel working to support his family by playing accompaniment for Sarah Vaughan. Could he get on a plane? Fortunately, Bob James was available to take over the job and Chick was on the first flight he could get.
Both arrived. Neither had ever played with Miles or even met him, but revolutions are like that. Neither had ever played an electrically-amplified version of his instrument before, either. It was time for new directions in music. It was time for jazz to rock and roll. Miles knew it.
III. “You say you'll change the constitution/ Well, you know/ We all want to change your head/ You tell me it's the institution/ Well, you know/ You better free you mind instead.” – “Revolution,” John Lennon
George Wein knew it, too. Since 1954 he had been successfully mounting the Newport Jazz Festival, but like the eponymous folk festival that sprang from it five years later, its ticket sales had been falling off. For awhile, after seeing the reactions to Dylan’s infamous appearance, he’d been a bit shy about showcasing amplified music, but this reluctance was overcome in 1969 by his urge to sell tickets.
There they were, jazz’s biggest promoter (Wein had also created the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1959) and its biggest band leader, trying to find a way back into their own game. In the Bitches Brew Live CD’s excellent liner notes, Michael Azerrad describes how Miles had forsaken his usual practice of staying on a rented yacht anchored nearby while waiting for his set during the annual event—performing when it was time, then getting back on board and sailing home to NYC afterward—but instead, this year remaining through the entire weekend festival and, Wein is quoted as saying: “He watched every group and he watched the response of everyone in the audience, who got the most applause, what music they were playing.”
What makes this comment so significant is who the bands were that Miles was watching. “Bebop, a revolutionary music in its time, had been absorbed into the mainstream of jazz. . . Rock was happening,” Wein told Azerrad. So in addition to Herbie Hancock, Roland Kirk, Art Blakey and Dave Brubeck, the promoter had booked an extensive selection of rockers—Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter, Brits like Jeff Beck, Jethro Tull, Ten Years After and John Mayall, plus funksters James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone.
“Be careful what you wish for,” as the saying goes. On Friday, July 4th, in a preview of what would unfold six weeks later at Woodstock, the show featured an almost entirely rock & roll lineup and drew 25,000 people, 10,000 more than had ever attended a previous Newport Jazz Festival performance. By the end of the weekend, the estimated attendance of 80,000-90,000 would nearly double the festival’s previous record, overwhelming the tiny harbor town of 37,500. So unprepared were the townspeople for anything but small, polite jazz audiences, and so disruptive were the crowds (thousands of unticketed attendees reportedly crashing fences and/or swarming a nearby hillside, some starting fires, mixing it up with security personnel, etc.) that the local city council feared a riot, and after the Saturday event’s problems asked Wein to cancel the Sunday night performance of the festival’s putative biggest draw, Led Zeppelin. Unnerved by the chaotic situation, Wein acquiesced and announced the shore story that one of the band’s members was too ill to perform, and canceled them. But when Jimmy Page, who felt Newport was an important gig for the fast-emerging band, refused to go along with the ruse and insisted on appearing, Wein reversed his position a few hours later. Thousands of disgruntled attendees had already packed up and left after hearing of the earlier cancellation, but Led Zeppelin took the stage and performed just the same. They, their fans and Wein all shared various hard feelings about the experience for some time to come. Wein would never attempt such a thing again and, in fact, would return to a strictly jazz format eventually and move the program to NYC in 1972. All’s well that ends well, though. In 1981 Wein returned the festival to Newport, and there the elder statesman and the oldest and grandest American jazz festival have ever remained.
Miles had watched the entire spectacle unfold, and couldn’t have been more intrigued with what he’d seen. He and his associates had been playing the new material for a couple months prior to their show Saturday afternoon, but when he took the stage it was with a renewed sense of purpose and urgency. After soaking up rock acts for three days, all his suspicions had been confirmed. He’d never copied the work of other artists, and he wasn’t about to start. He and his band were at this festival to play something no one had ever heard before. It wasn’t jazz and it wasn’t rock. It was jazz/rock, right at the cliff’s edge.
Six weeks later, on the morning of August 19th, 1969, less than 24 hours after Jimi Hendrix’s last notes had echoed across the hills outside Bethel, NY, Miles would bring these same musicians together again (with Wayne Shorter returned) plus Lenny White, Juma Santos, Don Alias, Joe Zawinul, Harvey Brooks, Bennie Maupin, Larry Young and John McLaughlin at a Columbia studio and commence recording Bitches Brew.
So when you hear his horn come in on “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” at Newport like he’s a fire-eater blowing propane through a Bunsen burner, know that he’d had an epiphany of Miles Davis proportions. He’d assembled an elite band composed of the heaviest hitting players he could find on planet Earth. Stories vary on the kind of direction or instruction Miles might have given these three young men that day--he never was inclined to have long chats with his musicians. But, when you first hear them start to kick it this hard, you’ll know for sure that they’d come to rock.
IV. Bitches Brew Live at Newport
Remember when you first heard the term “jazz/rock,” and the images it conjured of a big, ass-kicking rock and roll backbeat? Didn’t hear much of it. There were rock rhythms, yes, and there were jazz melodies and harmony. But there wasn’t much of that howling explosion from your diaphragm as it pounds your nervous system and takes over fibrillating your heart.
The first thing you’ll hear on “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” the opening tune, is the unison bass line, heavy on the downbeat, Corea on his Fender Rhodes and Holland on the double bass (not well amplified, better on headphones) but the first thing you’ll probably sit up and take notice of is Jack DeJohnette’s drums, coming at you like a cross between a crazy flying saucer and some high speed, three-engine Japanese locomotive getting the train to run hard and run on time, pistons pounding.
About the time you’re feeling the polyrhythmic assault DeJohnette is laying down, you’ll slip back to listening to the infectiously rock-hard bass line Corea is crafting with Holland, its obvious deconstruction of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” chugging incrementally into a syncopated funkiness, until the whole band is so tightly ratcheted into the groove that it’s necessary to start releasing the tension with solos. Wave after wave of them, Corea plays so aggressively that he’s almost daring Miles to jump in. Which the boss does, time after time, answering the pianist with blasts and showers of upper register sparks. The two of them go after it like two musical athletes, feverishly running, pouncing, leaping faster and higher and never exhausting their energies or imaginations.
In years to come he would emerge as the leading exponent of all things Fender Rhodes, as he transformed the corny rock-n-roller’s toy into an electronic Steinway. Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Jan Hammer, all of them were listening to everything Corea did with it. No one who ever heard him play “La Fiesta” or “Spain” on those early Return To Forever recordings will ever forget it. But no recording (and likely no live performance) before or since, is preparation for exactly what you’ll hear him doing on the three Newport tracks. There have been are a lot of Chick Coreas. This is not the one who comps politely as other players take their turns, or insinuates himself unobtrusively into the musical conversation, taking a tasteful 16 bars for himself here and there; neither is this the flame-throwing technical wizard whose solos weave and soar through the atmosphere, leaving a contrail of stunned silence. Here he has become the hub of the wheel, the center of the band. Miles’ band. His fury and intensity are directed at attacking the music with a force that seems to well up volcanically through his veins, pouring out his fingers and wrapping around Holland’s and DeJohnette’s frenetic rhythmic structures and enfolding Miles—the axle of the flywheel on this machine--who is playing like a brilliantly talented surfer awakened from a dream, only to discover he is atop a terrifyingly mountainous wave.
Miles must have been blown away by this rhythm section. The three of them were welded together, a sovereign union. Earlier in the summer Holland and DeJohnette had joined Corea in recording the monumental Is sessions for Blue Note, a couple hours of freely improvised musical explorations that foreshadowed the kind of work he and Holland would do together in Circle a year later. But as connected on that Newport stage as the three of them were, harmonically abstract and rhythmically complex, they remained in a kind of synchronous orbit around Miles, who recognized the opportunity to let it fly fast and rock hard.
Shorter’s absence was an important part of atmospheric conditions that made this perfect storm possible. His influence on this unit was so great, it couldn’t have been otherwise. Under normal circumstances his soprano sax would have provided an alternate solo voice to Miles’, and the two of them would have been out in front of the rhythm section to a much greater extent. Their interplay, as witness any occasion when all five of them performed, was a defining element. The total effect of the quintet with Shorter involved emphasized a kind of wandering lyricism and tended to utilize subtler rhythms. Without him on this night, Corea necessarily had to step up as a soloist and play more with Miles, which altered his role in the rhythm section dramatically. His comping has a different set of harmonic values, a different feel, his oftentimes intellectual, Bill Evans-like touch replaced by an utter lack of restraint in the way he just goes full out. Holland is playing in such close cooperation with Corea, and in such similar timbral regions, that it is often difficult to tell his acoustic bass’ soft sonorities and the round, oak-barrel plangencies coaxed from the Fender Rhodes apart. That may sound like a bad thing, but it is not at all. On this particular day at Newport, Corea’s rental piano sounds like the Rhodes Mark 1 Stage Piano, which could be attached to an external amplifier for an aching, fat-bottomed resonance and lovely pipe organ fidelity in lower registers. If you’ve ever stood next to a propane tank or cistern and given it a sharp, openhanded slap and heard the cavernous, whale-deep utterance—he’s getting that sound out of it. Holland knew what to do with his own big, upright wooden whale in that contralto-contrabass range, and between them they were making sounds with oceanic depth. DeJohnette is playing like he has four hands, creating a percussive tsunami full of pounding surf, undercurrents, and riptides that have enough tonal range that he, too, is supporting additional orchestrational weight.
And if you listen to the trilling and double-tonguing Miles is doing, it is plain that he has joined the rhythm section himself. Nothing invigorates a virtuoso like another’s virtuosic performance. Miles is so fired up to play that he takes the same tack as Corea. Either because of Shorter’s absence or in spite of it, Miles assumes a second solo voice. The energy level on his solos is breathtaking, and every time he hears the abstracted blues harmonies or syncopated block chords Corea is engaging Dave Holland with, he leaps in with his own in ways that are even more melodic than many other nights with this band. There is an aggressive enthusiasm for the rhythmic drive of the piece that is unrelenting. No one stops. No one lays out. No one maunders. This is balls-to-the-wall musical upheaval.
This was the beginnings of “the best damn rock and roll band in the world,” the rhythm section from hell.
The dynamic reversal of “Sanctuary,” the second piece, is the clue to what Miles’ plan had been for the set from the beginning. Re-arranged and electrified, subdued, slowed down, it’s approached by him and his rhythmnists as a calm, cooler breeze than usual, using it for the release it offered musically to the audience, and for the relief it meant for the musicians. The intensity of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” had been so great that it’s possible no other piece in their repertoire but “Sanctuary” could have been used to follow it and fill the need so aptly.
Indeed, this version of the tune without the presence of the author changed the dynamic of it. On a typical night Wayne Shorter and Miles had a variety of approaches for it… They could exchange ideas in the many ways a duet allows. Miles might play under him harmonically as he soloed, or he might anchor the root of the chord himself, as he did later in the Copenhagen (seen on the digitally restored DVD included in the Bitches Brew 40th Anniversary Edition) and let Miles attack his solo more aggressively. But in all instances, the title of “Sanctuary” was a forecast of the change of pace in the performance.
As they went into “Sanctuary” this night it’s clear that they really did view it in the spirit of its name. One easily visualizes Corea, Holland and DeJohnette all pulling out their towels and drying off, lighting cigarettes, shaking out their hands and loosening their shoulders and necks from the workout they’d just been put through. The basic melody and composition are there, but the quiet sanctum of this place is underscored as an artistic rest, a compositional pause, and feels like the musical equivalent of a back stage conversation. Each of them solos, not too hastily, in a way that somehow de-emphasizes the solo and simply contributes to the overall sound as each comps and plays fills in the same spirit, for a soothing, ambient effect.
The serenity of “Sanctuary” segues somewhat mysteriously into “It’s About That Time/The Theme,” the third and final Newport track. Within moments DeJohnette is revving up the engine with rapid-fire snare work. Corea is twisting the dials and making his Rhodes emit resonant, metallic snaps, and when Miles signals that “It’s About That Time” he starts throwing down fistfuls of syncopated block chords that make the wobbly electric keyboard sound like a big, fat Hammond B3, playing rhythms with a drummer’s sensibilities, a la Jimmy Smith (whose Newport performance may have inspired Corea the previous afternoon) in deep counterpoint that rolls along in waves, while DeJohnette’s snare fills ride inside the curl of the thundering surf as it crests and breaks. With Holland girding the bottom harmonies, they’re back at their rocked out pace, bluesier and less complex than they’d been on “Voodoo,” in a groove so fat I wanted them to stretch it twice as long.
V. The Isle of Wight
This same rhythm section made their final appearance with Miles’ working band in front of approximately 600,000 people (double the estimated audience at Woodstock) at the Isle of Wight Festival on the 29th of August, 1970. Jack DeJohnette would stay with the unit for a little while longer, but Chick Corea and Dave Holland had given notice of their intention to move on and devote their full energies to the free jazz collective they had formed called Circle. This group, whose talents also included saxophonist/multi-reedist Anthony Braxton and drummer Barry Altschul, had already signed on with the visionaries at Blue Note and had already recorded the material that was eventually released as Circling In and Circulus (and possibly Circle 2: Gathering as well, whose liner notes indicate it was recorded on March 17, 1971, seven months later—unlikely, in my mind, because they were touring in Europe at the time.)
Much has been said about the performance at the Isle of Wight. Shorter is gone, replaced by Gary Bartz. This was the last performance of that Lost Quartet consisting of Miles plus his three rhythm nationals, Corea, Holland and DeJohnette, the end of the story for “the best damn rock and roll band.” For the trip to the other side of the pond, Miles had also brought along Airto Moreira and Keith Jarrett. Airto (who says Miles never did formally hire him to work in the band) provided lots of exotic polyrhythms and ethereal sound effects, so his inclusion with this group makes sense. I’ve never known what to make of the meandering little filligrees Jarrett is playing, but they don’t often intrude. Again, the Quartet’s the thing.
But that brings me to the salient feature of these last six tracks on Bitches Brew Live. If you are an aficionado, you have already seen the DVD of the full performance and feel you have heard them. I thought as much myself. This is because I have grown to dis-trust, dis-miss, dis-regard and otherwise diss nearly any CD of a recording pitched by the record company’s marketing people as “re-mastered” or “re-mixed.” Any audiophile knows that the original recording cannot be improved. Enhanced or sharpened or sweetened, yes. Changed, no. “Improved?” By digitally sampling the analog recording? Reissues are most often a re-invention of the wheel for the record label, and hopefully a payday for the artists and/or songwriters... which isn’t a crime, but they often are a lesson in leaving well enough alone. Until very, very recently, the original mastering and mixing usually were much superior to whatever could be produced by digitizing and messing with it.
So the big news on the last six tracks of Bitches Brew Live, taken from that Isle of Wight performance—in actuality, one long suite of tunes and an un-segmented medley-style continuum… are FANTASTIC. If ever there was an argument for re-issuing a recording, this is it. The fidelity on this set of tunes is startlingly better than anything you have heard before, and would be reason enough to acquire it. Richard Seidler and Michael Cuscuna (who has made a career fashioned from labors of love, including those Blue Note sessions in 1970 with the freely improvising Holland and Corea) and the people employed to do the mastering, have taken a curatorial approach to the task of putting this package together. Like those steady-handed art restorers who gave us back the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, their decisions will be analyzed and criticized for some time. But not by me. It was like hearing a new recording, different from anything I’d heard before.
By the bye, in answer to the question, “How much did Miles want to rock?” the answer is that he was slated to have a meeting to discuss a recording project with Jimi Hendrix while he was in old London town for the Isle of Wight festival, but it didn’t happen, and three weeks later Hendrix was gone from this mortal coil.
VI. Final thoughts, un-answered questions (stupid and otherwise)
1. Did Miles “sell out” or incorporate musical forms popular in his day?
2. Is much of the music he recorded from Filles de Kilimanjaro forward an embracing of the culture around him, not an artistic prostitution or a fatally flawed compromise?
3. Did Louis Armstrong really say: "Jazz is music that's never played the same way once?"
4. Did Miles’ love of the popular music of his day—James Brown, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix—heartfelt, instead of a sign that he had joined Darth Vader and crossed over to the Dark Side?
5. Is there no real reason for the critical backlash against jazz/rock except for the fact that it made money for a few people?
6. Did Duke Ellington really say jazz is “freedom of expression?” And when that wasn’t enough, did he say of jazz that “It’s all music?”
7. Is it true, as is hinted at in Miles’ autobiography, that he and Columbia Records president, Clive Davis, and later George Butler, talked about the future of jazz sales, in particular, his sales and the hundreds of thousands of dollars he owed Columbia, and how he might approach a balancing of the books?
8. In those conversations, did Clive Davis suggest to Miles that his (Miles’) enormous affection for rock and roll and funk might be a good avenue to pursue in his own musical endeavors and artistic expression?
9. Did Clive push and cajole Miles into going along with the idea of letting the rising star and promotional genius, rock and roll’s newly-crowned impresario, Bill Graham, book him into larger venues that held larger numbers?
10. Has Sony Legacy probably got a vault of un-issued Miles Davis recordings that they intend to mine for eternity?
I love this discussion.
My own answers to all the questions I listed are either 1) yes, 2) I believe so, or 3) I hope so. I certainly hope all of those things are true. I personally want jazz artists to think of all kinds of ways to make a living with their artistry, make all the deals they can, and sell as many records and tickets as possible. I want composers to be paid all their royalties, and musicians to get paid well for every bit of their work. Because what I want most of all is for jazz artists to keep making jazz.
Drummer Bobby Previte, whose 11-piece group Voodoo Orchestra devote themselves to the music from the Miles’ Bitches Brew period, answered many of these questions about that seminal music from an artistic viewpoint for an interview with Matt Snyder in the December 1997/January 1998 issue of 5/4 Magazine, in which he said about Bitches Brew:
“Well, it was groundbreaking, for one. How much groundbreaking music do you hear now? It was music that you had that feeling you never heard quite before. It came from another place. How much music do you hear now like that? It was about, you know, a great freedom in music. There was a lot of risk taking in that music, there was a lot of soul in the music: Three things that I feel are very lacking in today’s music.”
The questions Previte didn’t answer in that interview were addressed last year when the Bitches Brew 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition was released, and one critic got an unexpected reply from Bob Belden. Belden, a fine musician and producer and one of the world’s key curators who have made sure we still have a jazz recording tradition in the 21st century, had labored long and well with Michael Cuscuna to produce these recordings for reissue, only to have some people dismiss them as unimportant or worse. His response to one reviewer, published as a comment on the jazz music website on 11/22/2010, got me to smile because of its forthrightness. Mr. Belden’s epistle is an excellent statement about Jazz, Economics, Miles Davis, how Miles helped to keep the art form viable, and how jazz musicians pay their bills. Jazz Economics 101 is not taught in college for a good reason: no one has written a textbook yet. But when I ran across the note from Mr. Belden, I determined that the elusive textbook’s foreword had been written. Here are a few excerpts:

Miles was well aware of the need for companies to release all of the music. He was proud of his tenure at Columbia. HE WANTED EVERYTHING TO COME OUT in order to prove the vast nature of his mind. He made deals up to the day he died for unissued music.

Miles recorded music and let the company determine the LP configuration. He was not concerned about sales as he 'owed' Columbia hundreds of thousands of dollars well into the 1970s as his royalty rate was 2¢ per side, upped to 6¢ in 1971. It remained at 6¢ until the late 70s, when George Butler, fearing Miles would leave the label, upped the rate to 9¢ per side, or 18¢ per LP. Do the math.

Miles was paid $5000 for Kind of Blue. Coltrane and the rest $160!

Each musician on "Bitches Brew" made a total of $215 for the 2-LP set. Union scale.

As far any alternate takes, again, Teo Macero made the decisions not based on anything but how Miles sounded. It was his opinion that determined what was issued and what was not.

What about "Fun" (composed by Gil Evans and the original title was "Gil's Waltz"), "Circle in the Round", "Directions", the alternates from "Milestones". If any other band had made those tracks their own the would be considered geniuses.
. . .
Now think for one minute about the concept of a Large, Multinational Corporation with absolutely no real interest in jazz music to allow us to treat Miles like Mozart and create an overview of a body of work at the level that we did. Unprecedented.”

VII. Epilogue
These recordings were made in 1969 at the Newport Jazz Festival and in 1970 at the Isle of Wight. I am eternally grateful to Michael Cuscuna, Richard Seidel, Reice Hamel, Mark Wilder, Mariana Triana, and Donna Kloepfer for pushing this through. These fine people knew the value of their work. If they had backed off from the task because moldy figs and other killjoys had condemned Miles Davis’ post-1967 oeuvre, claiming his estate was just filling the coffers with another re-issue, we would never have heard these recordings. The only chance we ever had of hearing the best damn recording of the “best damn rock and roll band” would have never happened.
So I hope Sony Legacy sells tons of copies of Bitches Brew Live and stuffs their bank accounts with money and declares record profits... and then keeps right on issuing more music. I hope the Miles Davis estate is enriched. I hope a miracle occurs and every working jazz musician makes at least twice as much money this year as last.
In the current economy, most jazz titles sell fewer than 500 copies. Not 500,000, but 500. A big established artist might sell as many as 10,000. Let that register for a moment. Released in the spring of 1970, Bitches Brew was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America in May of 1976, but it was 27 years later, on September 22, 2003, before it earned a platinum record for selling one million copies. Kind of Blue had made it to the same mark by 1997 (and has sold even more vigorously since), but both achievements happened long after Miles had died in 1991. These are unquestionably stellar feats for jazz recordings. But… Rihanna’s album Loud was certified platinum two months and a week after its November 16, 2010 release, on January 25, 2011, in the midst of a worldwide recession. That fact might make you sad, it might make you cynical, but it makes me glad, because she helped to keep the recording industry alive long enough to release Bitches Brew Live a month later.
In the long run it is Michael Buble who keeps the Frank Sinatra estate in business, as much as the other way around. If Miles were alive today, he would go back stage, give Diana Krall a big hug and thank her for what she does with “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Cry Me a River.”
And she would thank him for “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.”

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Casey Abrams: New American Idol Contestant Is a Messenger With a Jazz Message

Before last Wednesday, I was like more than a few music fans in my instinctive dislike of the American Idol phenomenon. Cheap and showy, lowest-common-denominator entertainment, it was created in the same terrifying cauldron that Fox's 1989 Cops voyeurism and MTV’s 1992 Real World success originally inspired, and which has since produced Survivor, Big Brother, Fear Factor, America's Next Top Model, etc., in addition to permutations like Glee, in a long term strategic response to the 1988 WGA strike, whose effects no member of that union would ever have expected or desired. Like other detractors, I’ve consistently mocked the boardroom mentality that produces this low-cost, writer-free “reality” programming, or writer-lite “unreality” programming in which the writer is a show runner’s joke designer or transcriptionist.

True, like every other person on earth, I’d seen YouTube clips of Simon “Legree” Cowell and read about his bounteous bank account, watched the feel-good videos of tenor Paul Potts’ “Nessun Dorma” and Susan Boyle’s “I Dreamed a Dream.” Pop culture occasionally has its moments.

But in spite of these musical high water marks, I had dismissed the lot of them.

Then last Wednesday, all these prejudices and qualms were washed away in one astonishing tsunami of incredulity as I watched American Idol contestant Casey Abrams, a chubby, red-headed Jewish kid from Idyllwild, California as he accompanied himself on the upright bass and sang “Nature Boy,” the Eden Ahbez standard originally penned for Nat “King” Cole in 1947. Not only sang it, but killed it.

I was floored. I thought, this is American Idol? What have I been missing? Fortunately my wife, a devoted fan of the show, knew the answer(s) to my question(s).

Fan or not, you’ll please forgive my clumsy grasp of the competition’s rules and all the rest of the American Idol culture. I have some catching up to do. Simply, it’s a contest that begins with big un-televised auditions in which the field is winnowed down by a three-person panel, followed by a second phase during which, week by week, Fox TV televises a ten-week round of live performances, during which the contestants are either kept in the hunt, or eliminated, by means of millions of fans’ votes that are submitted online, texted and phoned in immediately following the broadcast. The panel of three judges exerts its influence only in the beginning audition stages, except in one rare instance—the rules state that once per season, if the panel considers a contestant has been voted off unfairly, they can override the popular vote and reinstate the musician. As you might expect, the second-biggest media buzz the show gets each season is when an extremely talented person is unexpectedly eliminated by the voting. The biggest buzz (next to when the final winner is announced) is when the judges find themselves in total disagreement with the vote and can’t do anything about it.

Which happened two weeks ago, with a beautiful, hugely talented ballad singer named Pia Toscano, at one point the odds-on favorite to win it all. When the vote was announced, the studio theatre crowd booed. The judges all blew their diplomatic cool and exploded in resentful anger. Her fellow contestants stared in disbelief. Tom Hanks tweeted: “Don’t have an IDOL habit, but how could the USA vote Pia off? I may be done for the season!” Newspapers made it front page news.

But fortunately for Casey Abrams, the judges couldn’t rescue her only because they had already used their one discretionary veto a few weeks earlier on rescuing him.

Jazz fans the world over should take notice. Jazz musicians should rejoice! Why? Because as soon as Casey’s love of jazz had been validated by this group of three successful professionals, the tide turned. There was no more holding back. He knew this was his hour to shine.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a musician as talented as yourself,” Randy Jackson told him. The elder American Idol statesman/judge, a producer, manager and bassist who’s played with everyone from Herbie Hancock and Billy Cobham to Bob Dylan, Jackson is joined on the judges' dais by singer/actress Jennifer Lopez and Arrowsmith’s Steven Tyler.

With their vote of confidence he has forged ahead, fearlessly demonstrating show after show exactly what Jackson had enunciated.

So fearlessly, that perhaps my favorite moment so far in all this new Idol pastime came in one of the backstage film clips the show uses. It is a very revealing look at not only this guy’s strength of character, but his artistic integrity and commitment to his music. In the clip (which you can see momentarily, if you haven't already), he is being coached by heavyweight record producer Jimmy Iovine, who is arguing with him over his song choice for the upcoming performance. Iovine is encouraging him to do Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” and quite actively discouraging him from considering “Nature Boy.” But no one who eventually saw Abrams’ performance will ever doubt the artist’s decision to go with his instinct. “It is so hard to find a song that defines me as an artist, and this week, thank God, I have a song that I really just love,” he says in response to Iovine’s criticism, “and the thing is, I don’t want to lose myself in this process.”

There’s Casey Abrams, treading on the world stage and getting seriously Big Time, professional advice from a producer who has worked with everybody from John Lennon and the Raspberries, to Eminem and Lady Gaga. But instead of taking the advice and singing the Collins tune, which he considers would be the safe--but wrong--path, he follows his heart.


That night he went out on stage and absolutely tore it up with “Nature Boy.” Killed it like you've rarely heard it done since Cole and Sinatra were doing it. Once again the panel of three judges couldn’t contain themselves, and effused and enthused over his performance, and the crowd went crazy for him. It was clearly the most artistic performance of any so far. Had he taken Iovine’s advice, we never would have heard him do that highly idiosyncratic, unsafe, uncommercial, but crazy beautiful version of “Nature Boy.”

Or heard what came next.

Thursday April 14th, the night following this triumphant performance, he showed what a real jazz artist he is. There have been many great jazz players over the last hundred some years, but the best have always been defined by their ability to amplify and enhance what they do in their collaborations with others. Miles Davis… added to John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Bill Evans, Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers results in a Kind of Blue. Throughout his earlier performances Abrams had shown a clear understanding of this, but this particular Thursday he really showed it in a duet with fellow contestant Haley Reinhart.

American Idol is broadcast on back to back nights, as I’ve now learned. On Wednesday the musicians perform pieces competitively and the fans vote. Thursday’s program (in American Idol culture, Results Night) consists of a drawn-out, dramatic disclosure of who is still alive in the contest and finally who’s been dropped, punctuated by live performances from a mixture of well-known guest artists and some of the contestants themselves.

Meet Haley Reinhart. From the beginning it’d been obvious she has tremendous vocal abilities: beautiful, bright tone, sharp technique, great range, and power to burn. But she had been all over the map in her song choices. The week previous she’d impressed the judges with her version of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” but she had left me cold, very cold. Not because of anything technical. Not even because she couldn’t do a blues rasp, because she could. Because her heart wasn’t in it. Worse yet, her soul wasn’t in it. If you happened to be around when Janis Joplin was singing, you’ll remember she arrived like a fiery comet. It’s tempting to say she was a white singer who sounded like she was black, but the blues aren’t about race. They aren’t just about specific notes or flatting certain intervals. The blues are about feeling something. It didn’t seem to me she could feel it. The worst part of it is, a couple broadcasts earlier I’d heard her do Bill Mack’s “Blue,” the tune he’d written in the early 1960s for Patsy Cline to record, but hadn't had the chance. Because of Cline’s untimely death, he’d held out hope of some day recording it right, in 1997 finally giving it to the supremely talented 13-yr-old LeAnn Rimes. They won a Grammy with it. The problem, for me, with Rimes’ nearly perfect impersonation of Cline, was that it sounded like... an impersonation, an imitation. But a few weeks ago when I heard Haley Reinhart doing “Blue,” I was across the house, not even watching the program, and when I heard her singing the chorus I thought it was Patsy Cline and raced across the house to stand in front of the TV and listen to her. Patsy Cline’s singing isn't the same as Bessie Smith's, but it's as authentic as the blues gets. Like Joplin, she laid open her heart and soul when she sang, and for just those few moments, so did Haley Reinhart. I hope Bill Mack was watching.

So… Last Thursday when I saw Haley Reinhart of Wheeling, Illinois, join Casey Abrams as he sang the opening lines of “Moanin’,” I held my breath. I knew instantly that Abrams would be going for the glory, but uncertain which Haley would show up. The song, written in 1958 by pianist Bobby Timmons for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (a killer assemblage which included Lee Morgan, Benny Golson and Jymie Merrit) was so popular that after the eponymously titled LP was released, the classic Blue Note recording became forever more known as Moanin’. To longtime jazz fans the tune is amongst a small handful of the most recognizable ever recorded. That’s a lot of jazz and blues tradition for two kids to roll into a song with.

As it turned out, a third Haley appeared, and this one was so fired up and filled with the jazz spirit that she was shooting sparks. She and Casey were howling, growling, harmonizing and singing the blues with such commitment that when it came time for a quick round of scatting they just fearlessly scatted. On live television. On American Idol. Who knew?

And it was their fiery, boisterous chemistry that did it. Casey Abrams, jazz messenger, had taken Haley Reinhart’s wandering eye and focused it straight at the pinnacle. Instead of two American Idol contestants standing next to each other, what we got to see was two artists and three talented backup vocalists collaborating in a most intimate way, as they dusted off a classic 53-year-old jazz standard and made it relevant to millions of people who had never heard it before (it’s true—when you look at some of the YouTube video upload titles, you’ll see what I mean: one of them is given a Gen X cultural frame of reference with the title “Casey Abrams: Why Don’t You Do Right (Jessica Rabbit Song).” But that’s okay. Call it anything you want. I’ll take that many people hearing "Moanin'" for the first time any way I can get it.

Who knows what we’ll see next Wednesday? These are live performances on live television, so anything can happen. What I do know is I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Does it bother the jazz elitist in me that I'm looking forward to seeing the highest-rated program on television? No. Do I think jazz does better when it is marginalized, or marginalizes itself and stuffs itself uncomfortably into a corner with other musical forms that are not a big part of popular culture? No. For one, jazz was once the most popular music in our culture--the first Gold Record ever awarded was for Glenn Miller's "Chattanooga Choo Choo" when 1,200,000 copies of the 78 had been sold. For another, even in times when other forms have been more popular, the separation from jazz has been but a very thin, porous membrane that allows the musics to migrate back and forth between genres. John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" and Miles Davis' "Someday My Prince Will Come" were arrangements of Disney movie music, some of the most popular music of the day. Jazz has always borrowed proudly from popular culture. It's a pleasure to see someone borrowing some jazz.

This has been a remarkable year so far. It was just two months ago that Esperanza Spalding won a Grammy for Best New Artist, the first time it’s ever happened for a jazz musician. This alone would have signaled 2011 as a year of momentous change. But now we have a young jazz artist blowing people away on American Idol as he paves the way to a big career. Could this be a banner year for jazz and popular culture? Or is that reading too much into Esperanza’s or Casey’s accomplishments? After all, sea changes in popular musical taste really are difficult to forecast. Remember when Norah Jones won five Grammys while selling two million (on its way to 10M) copies of Come Away With Me in 2002? Remember how many people saw that coming? The execs at Blue Note probably still keep their oxygen tanks and defibrillators next to their desks. No matter what Jimmy Iovine predicts will happen, there will be plenty of surprises for everyone.

This could be the year of the jazz bassist!

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Casey Abrams singing Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You”

Casey Abrams singing Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind”

Haley Reinhart singing Bill Mack’s Blue”

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