Miles

I thought it would be fun to post occasionally here, so please let me know if you have anything in particular you are interested in!  Also feel free to ask any questions.

I've been on another Miles Davis marathon, being that it was his birthday over the weekend.  He's been a huge influence on me, in so many ways. 

I first got turned on to him when I was discovering bebop & Charlie Parker, around middle school.  At the time I was more into Dizzy Gillespie (since I had just seen my first concert, and it was Dizzy at Juniata College).  But then the hormones hit, and it was all rock music for a while after that for me. 

Many years later, when I moved back from Philly, I discovered Kind Of Blue, and man what a masterpiece!  It was a real turning point for me, in discovering that a great musical statement could be made using (mostly) one chord. 

And I'm still amazed at how well that album in particular was recorded, especially for 1959.  A good copy on a great stereo almost feels like they are right THERE in front of you, playing.  It's one of the top albums ever for me.  The vibe is just so NYC for that time.

Then of course I got into Bitches Brew, a murky, spacey vibe.  John McLaughlin really caught my attention, and that lead to the Jack Johnson album, which has some of Miles' most powerful, athletic playing ever.  In A Silent Way is another one with McLaughlin that sets a nice, mellow mood.  Great background music on a date, I might add...

It took a long time for me to get into the '70's funk stuff, but I eventually saw the light while blasting the second half of Dark Magus at a friend's house one day.  It was just relentless, heavy, and angry.  I could feel all of the pain that Miles was in at the time, through the music. 

Pete Cosey would do these things with a guitar that sounded like a synthesizer, Michael Henderson was just laying down the baddest grooves on the bass, and then Miles would barely break in but it sure had an effect when he did.  It was just so tortured and emotional; I wasn't surprised to read later that he stopped playing for a while after that.

Miles was always at whatever was truly new in jazz for decades: bebop, modal, fusion, funk.  Always experimenting, always pushing forward what jazz could be.   And he had a knack for getting the best players in his band. 

Reading his autobiography was quite a trip, too.  He had a wild life, and he truly was like the Keith Richards of jazz.  He was a bad boy that was a true artist and didn't care what folks thought. 

I never saw him, but I was fortunate to know somebody that worked a show that he played in, and she confirmed that he was every bit the difficult personality everybody made him out to be.  When you are the most successful jazz musician of all time, I guess you can do that.  He really lived like a rock star.

One of the things I got from him was that if you put the right folks together, you don't have to really tell them too much about what to play.  Just let them do their thing.  It can throw lesser musicians off, because they aren't sure if it's working or not, but I give only the bare minimum as far as direction goes when dealing with my band.  They are all good enough that they can improvise, always have lots of ideas they can throw out there, and most importantly they can listen constantly and adapt. 

Since so much of what I do uses improvisation, it seems only natural.  It's not how most bands work, but then again, I don't want to be in most bands.  It's important to do something new & unique at this stage for me.  It limits where I can play a lot, but really cool stuff isn't for the masses.

Back when I first got into jazz, it wasn't really popular but there were a lot of folks that REALLY liked it and sought it out.  My friends in central PA made fun of me whenever I'd play it then, and I was really surprised.  I still get that "it's like a Charlie Brown special" which reminds me that most folks think of it as just background music.  It can be, but it can also be quite a journey.  It can be driving and energetic, mellow and sentimental, funky, spacey or whatever. 

I'm not really into the big band jazz thing; Sing Sing Sing stands out, mostly because of Gene Krupa.  Duke Ellington did some cool things too.  And some of the early stuff with the young Louis Armstrong & The Hot Five is interesting once in a while. 

But I'm more into the jazz of the late '50's to mid '70's.  It wasn't until the Dead and the jam band scene came along that I finally found some modern instrumental music that wasn't jazz.  Of course, one of my favorite bands is Medeski, Martin and Wood, but they are a jazz band that got big in the jam band world.  And they've talked about Miles, too.

One of the real revelations to me in my trips to NYC over the past few years is where jazz is currently.  There are some very dissonant, modern folks all over the city doing cool things, but on a very small scale.  Instruments you wouldn't expect sometimes are put together.  Bizarre things happen, usually at the right time.  And there a lot of folks who really get into it. 

I'm forever grateful that I got to go to so many shows at the old Stone in the Lower East Side, before it got moved.  It was a real education, and I'm probably still trying to bring some of that vibe back whenever I play out with my band.

A lot of folks can argue about whether or not jazz would have gone in the directions that it did without Miles, but to me he was absolutely crucial.  He was there at every turn for so long that it's hard to separate him from most of the what happened in the 20th century.  And he still looms large.

8 comments

  • Ralph Diekemper

    Ralph Diekemper Harrisburg-Pennsylvania

    This.. “One of the things I got from him was that if you put the right folks together, you don't have to really tell them too much about what to play. Just let them do their thing. “ , and the last paragraph speaks volumes. Nice writing Joe.. we’ll play soon!

    This.. “One of the things I got from him was that if you put the right folks together, you don't have to really tell them too much about what to play. Just let them do their thing. “ , and the last paragraph speaks volumes.

    Nice writing Joe.. we’ll play soon!

  • Joe Olnick

    Joe Olnick

    Thanks, Ralph! Yes, that approach seems to work well, once you get to a certain level.

    Thanks, Ralph! Yes, that approach seems to work well, once you get to a certain level.

  • Jean

    Jean Lewisburg

    Good writing! It's interesting to hear you talk about your early musical loves--all those influences are there in your playing.

    Good writing! It's interesting to hear you talk about your early musical loves--all those influences are there in your playing.

  • Joe Olnick

    Joe Olnick

    Appreciate it, Jean. Yes, Miles is definitely on the big influences on my music, no doubt. Glad that others can hear it!

    Appreciate it, Jean. Yes, Miles is definitely on the big influences on my music, no doubt. Glad that others can hear it!

  • Troy Collins

    Troy Collins Lancaster

    Nice article, Joe. I'd second that Miles' greatest gift was his ear for talent; all of his working bands from the post-bebop era onwards featured sidemen that went on to become not only bandleaders, but innovators as well. The roots of modal jazz and fusion all have their foundations in Miles' various line-ups. On a personal aside, while many of my initial experiences first hearing Kind of Blue, Bitches Brew, etc., parallel your's, one anecdote stands out. Granted, hearing that opening chord in "So What," from Kind of Blue is an unforgettable experience, but I believe (if memory serves me right) that the very first Miles I ever heard was one of the live electric records. Before buying any jazz records on my own, I borrowed some from the local library. The only serious jazz I could find there at the time was Charles Mingus' Changes One & Two, and Miles' Agharta. Imagine my surprise upon first hearing these records after a steady diet of punk, metal, and hard core! They actually weren't that far off the mark from what I was accustomed to, energy-wise, and I was an instant convert. Years later, with ample listening under my belt, I'll make a plug for my all-time favorite Miles' album: Filles de Kilimanjaro, recorded late in 1968, mere months before the Dark Prince goes full-blown electric. It's a near perfect balance of acoustic and electric, as well as jazz and rock. It might be his most perfect album ...

    Nice article, Joe. I'd second that Miles' greatest gift was his ear for talent; all of his working bands from the post-bebop era onwards featured sidemen that went on to become not only bandleaders, but innovators as well. The roots of modal jazz and fusion all have their foundations in Miles' various line-ups.

    On a personal aside, while many of my initial experiences first hearing Kind of Blue, Bitches Brew, etc., parallel your's, one anecdote stands out. Granted, hearing that opening chord in "So What," from Kind of Blue is an unforgettable experience, but I believe (if memory serves me right) that the very first Miles I ever heard was one of the live electric records. Before buying any jazz records on my own, I borrowed some from the local library. The only serious jazz I could find there at the time was Charles Mingus' Changes One & Two, and Miles' Agharta. Imagine my surprise upon first hearing these records after a steady diet of punk, metal, and hard core! They actually weren't that far off the mark from what I was accustomed to, energy-wise, and I was an instant convert.

    Years later, with ample listening under my belt, I'll make a plug for my all-time favorite Miles' album: Filles de Kilimanjaro, recorded late in 1968, mere months before the Dark Prince goes full-blown electric. It's a near perfect balance of acoustic and electric, as well as jazz and rock. It might be his most perfect album ...

  • Joe Olnick

    Joe Olnick

    Wow, great story, Troy! Agharta is one of the better live albums from that era. A great recording. And interesting that you mention Filles de Kilmanjaro. I was debating mentioning that album, precisely because it is so unique. As you say, it the last of the albums that was at least partially acoustic, and it really succeeds in setting up a great, chill vibe that at times is quite atmospheric (Miles was the master at that, wasn't he?). It leads directly to In A Silent Way after that. I may have to check that one out again....

    Wow, great story, Troy! Agharta is one of the better live albums from that era. A great recording.

    And interesting that you mention Filles de Kilmanjaro. I was debating mentioning that album, precisely because it is so unique. As you say, it the last of the albums that was at least partially acoustic, and it really succeeds in setting up a great, chill vibe that at times is quite atmospheric (Miles was the master at that, wasn't he?). It leads directly to In A Silent Way after that. I may have to check that one out again....

  • Troy Collins

    Troy Collins Lancaster

    I think Miles really was masterful at setting a mood, more so than many of his contemporaries. I also think that's the key to his popularity (obviously). Virtuosity is great when it's used to support an interesting concept, but devoid of an original idea, virtuosity for it's own sake is empty flash. Miles knew this as far back as Birth of the Cool. It also explains the popularity of hard-bop over bebop, soul jazz over fusion, and the small attendance at most free jazz/avant garde shows. I went through a long period of dedicated listening to difficult music, and have come out the other side exhausted by it. At this point, if there isn't something to hang on to (melody, harmony, rhythm) I lose interest. I'm all for experimentation, but if there's NO structure to rebel against and everything is up for grabs, well ... I'm preaching to the converted. My point being, I think Miles knew this instinctively. Hence the reason his cool jazz period, modal explorations, and even Second Quintet albums are all steeped in an almost cinematic ambiance. He carried that over into his early fusion experiments as well; In a Silent Way is about as evocative as albums get! Keep in mind, Miles was just as influenced later on by Hendrix as he was Stockhausen -- he just knew how to find that elusive, accessible middle ground, something many of his peers couldn't. Miles made no bones about wanting an audience, and he knew how to get them. He's famous for a reason.

    I think Miles really was masterful at setting a mood, more so than many of his contemporaries. I also think that's the key to his popularity (obviously). Virtuosity is great when it's used to support an interesting concept, but devoid of an original idea, virtuosity for it's own sake is empty flash. Miles knew this as far back as Birth of the Cool. It also explains the popularity of hard-bop over bebop, soul jazz over fusion, and the small attendance at most free jazz/avant garde shows.

    I went through a long period of dedicated listening to difficult music, and have come out the other side exhausted by it. At this point, if there isn't something to hang on to (melody, harmony, rhythm) I lose interest. I'm all for experimentation, but if there's NO structure to rebel against and everything is up for grabs, well ... I'm preaching to the converted. My point being, I think Miles knew this instinctively. Hence the reason his cool jazz period, modal explorations, and even Second Quintet albums are all steeped in an almost cinematic ambiance. He carried that over into his early fusion experiments as well; In a Silent Way is about as evocative as albums get! Keep in mind, Miles was just as influenced later on by Hendrix as he was Stockhausen -- he just knew how to find that elusive, accessible middle ground, something many of his peers couldn't. Miles made no bones about wanting an audience, and he knew how to get them. He's famous for a reason.

  • Joe Olnick

    Joe Olnick

    Yes, I couldn't agree more. I think the reason I didn't get Miles when I was younger was precisely because he wasn't flashy like a lot of musicians, especially jazz trumpet players. He was almost the opposite, and at times barely even played at all. When he did, it was sometimes with a very muted, vocal quality that clearly holds up better as time goes on. There's some soul that comes through. A real person expressing a mood, an emotion, or an atmosphere.

    Yes, I couldn't agree more. I think the reason I didn't get Miles when I was younger was precisely because he wasn't flashy like a lot of musicians, especially jazz trumpet players. He was almost the opposite, and at times barely even played at all. When he did, it was sometimes with a very muted, vocal quality that clearly holds up better as time goes on. There's some soul that comes through. A real person expressing a mood, an emotion, or an atmosphere.

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