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Archive for July, 2019

Fifty Year Friday: In A Silent Way

 

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MILES DAVIS: IN A SILENT WAY

Recorded in one session on Feb 18, 1969 as three performances, “Shhh/Peaceful”, “In A Silent Way”, “It’s About That Time”, then edited by Ted Macero (with apparently minimal input from Miles Davis) into two compositions in ABA form, one for each side, In A Silent Way, was released on July 30, 1969, peaking at number 134 on Billboard’s Top LPs chart.  The music is available today in both the edited form, which for a long time was all that listeners were familiar with, and in its original form.

What is striking about either the edited or original form, is the original style of both the music and the musical approach to structure and form that was deployed.  The album version differs considerably than the original takes.  For “Shhh”/”Peaceful” the original starts off with a whole-tone sort of motif (with traces of the flat-second Dorian mode) on which the entire work unfolds.  There is this amazing guitar work from McLaughlin and a brief but luxuriantly melodic Davis/Shorter passage.  All of this is dropped from the album version, which begins with the initial statement of another theme from the original take (about ninety seconds) followed with the restatement of this theme that occurs during the last four and a half minutes of the original, then followed with earlier material.  Whereas the original is multi-thematic and provides more contrast, the album version is more mono-thematic and ambient in nature.  It is basically in A B A form, resembling the Sonata form found in Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven era music, with the middle section analogous to a development section.

On the second side of the album, Teo Maceo continues to aggressively edit the original music, once again creating an ABA structure by taking the group’s performance of Davis’s simplified version of Zawinul’s “In A Silent Way” for the A section and using Davis and Zawinul’s collaborative “It’s about That Time” as the B section.  The results provides us with an impressionistic A section, and a quasi-bluesy, slightly funky B section, with a perfect repeat (as it is just a copy) of the original A section.

Though a transitional style for Davis, this landmark ambient jazz album would have considerable influence on many styles of music in the next few years ranging from other jazz or jazz-ambient artists to a subset of progressive rock groups, particularly several of the so-called Kraut-rock bands including Can, Cluster, Tangerine Dream, Amon Duul II, to Brian Eno to a number of New Age artists to even several modern “classical music” composers.  It’s tempting to debate the artistic pros and cons and the artistic merit of the original music versus the final edited album, but it was that final edited album that was the sole source of this music for musicians and music lovers during the last five months of 1969, all of the seventies, the eighties and the nineties.   Commercial music is often notable for its externally enforced limitations, but in 1969 in particular, music markedly stood out for its bold exploration outside of established boundaries, with In A Silent Way being one of the best examples of music liberated and unencumbered from the realm of retail-driven mechanical patterns and formulas, purposefully, yet seemingly spontaneously, creating a new and unconfined expanse of musical expression.

Side One

“Shhh”/”Peaceful” (Miles Davis)  18:16

Side Two

“In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time” (Joe Zawinul, Miles Davis)  19:52

Musicians

 

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Fifty Year Friday: Men on the Moon, Yes, Larry Coryell

“That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.” Neil Armstrong

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Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, television gave us nearly front row seats as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin each made an appearance on what is still today, the most distant theatrical stage ever occupied by human performers, while above, circling around 60 miles above them, was their ride home.  It was such an extraordinary event that there are individuals and semi-organized clusters of people that deny that this amazing technical performance, this greatest non-musical show of all time, ever even happened.  Did Keith Emerson’s piano rotate around at the California Jam in 1974?  Could one see some of the jazz greats of all time at the Hermosa Beach Lighthouse Café throughout the early and mid seventies? Did Elton John dress up in something akin to a large sequined chicken suit as part of his performance at the Fabulous Forum in 1974? Could one, without more than an hour in line, get an up close seat in 1978 to see Peter Hammill at the Trouboudor perform “A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers” or a seat in the front three rows to see Gentle Giant perform their very last U.S. concert at the Roxy in 1980?  All these things, as unbelievable as they may seem, actually happened!

And rock was reaching new heights, proving its relevance beyond dance music, beyond catchy three minute pop songs tailored for car radios.

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Yes: Yes

Recorded in Spring of 1969 and released on July 25, 1969, the world heard the very first Yes album.  Their first studio effort is indeed impressive and immediately identifiable by its sound as both progressive rock and, more relevantly and significantly, a Yes album!  Authored primarily by Jon Anderson and Chris Squire, we already have that recognizable, identifiable Yes style from their compositions and collaborations, Peter Banks pre-Howe guitar work, Tony Kaye’s keyboards, and Bill Bruford’s percussion work, influenced by such cosmic musical giants as Art Blakey and Max Roach.

Most of us baby boomer progressive rock fans, first heard Yes in the 1970s, initially from either their third album, The Yes Album, or their fourth album, Fragile.  The reality was that most of us music lovers usually started with the third or fourth album of a number of the so-called progressive rock groups — and as we had some spending money, we invariably went back and purchased earlier albums of groups like Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Genesis or Yes — even after knowing (after the first back catalog purchase or two) that the albums would not be as good as the later albums. The fact was that even those earlier albums were still good enough and provided further insight and material from some of the finest bands outside of the jazz universe — but maybe not so completely outside of jazz  as one might think:  the jazz influences were indeed there for many of these musicians in these bands. And worth noting, so was the classical music influence.

So even though this first Yes album isn’t up to the standards of their third album, The Yes Album or Fragile, it still is Yes, and the music is captivating and engaging. It’s way too easy for those of us used to the later Yes to find fault with this album, but if we just listen to this in the context of it’s own time, when jazz, rock, and classical styles were first intermingling, its remarkable nature reveals itself.

The album opens up with “Beyond and Before” from Squires, Banks and Anderson’s previous band, Mabel Greer’s Toyshop.  Even at this early point in time the music sounds clearly the work of Chris Squire with co-authoring credits (perhaps the words) for Clive Bailey, the guitarist and vocalist of Mabel Greer’s Toyshop.    The bass/drums pairing of Squire and Bill Bruford and vocal combination of Squire and Jon Anderson establishes the framework of a style that would become unmistakably a feature of the Yes sound. The music is not as polished as later Yes, but is clearly a different sound distinct from anything else being released, and Peter Bank’s guitar work is representative in both it’s uniqueness and its sometimes rough edges.

There are two covers on this album: the second track on side one is of the Byrds  “I See You” and the second track on side two is of the Beatles “Every Little Thing”, both absorbed and incorporated into Yes’s own sound.

The other five tracks are Yes originals, ranging from good to borderline excellent.  Also recorded during these sessions is the amazing cover of “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, which is included as a bonus track on some CD reissues, or in most of the many Yes anthology albums.

Yes

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Larry Coryell: Lady Coryell

One of the earliest, if not the earliest true jazz-fusion albums, Lady Coryell features the complex, multi-track layers of  Larry Coryell’s  jazz and rock guitar polyphony.  Joined by drummer Bob Moses from Coryell’s earlier psychedelic, rough-edged jazz-rock group, “The Free Spirits”, the album moves away from the more British-rock influenced style of the earlier Free Spirits’ Out of Sight and Sound into a more convincing blend of rock and jazz.  Coryell sings, less than exquisitely, on most of the tracks, but his guitar and bass guitar work is beyond reproach.  Jimmy Garrison provides acoustic bass on track seven, and Elvin Jones provides drumming on tracks 7 and 9.

Personnel

 

 

 

Fifty Year Friday: Unhalfbricking, Five Leaves Free

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Fairport Convention: Unhalfbricking

Released on July 3, 1969, Unhalfbricking is Fairport Convention’s third album, continuing their evolution towards a mostly English Folk music style despite inclusion of three unreleased Dylan songs.  Elements of progressive rock abound, due to the acoustic guitar work of Richard Thompson and use of organ, harpsichord, electric dulcimers, violin and the eleven minute “A Sailor’s Life” with it’s instrumental second half. Sandy Denny’s expansively liberated vocals, her deft handling of the melodic line, and the subtleties in the arranging contribute to a finely finished aura that envelops the album.

The album includes two Sandy Denny compositions, including  the deeply insightful “Autopsy”, and the widely praised “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?“, previously recorded two years earlier with the Strawbs, and performed with a more relaxed pace, greater freedom, and more maturity on Unhalfbricking,

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Nick Drake: Five Leaves Free

Fifty years later, it seems natural to look back and feel some level of loss for the music that never was — the music that never was because of the tragic and premature loss of such resonant artists as Sandy Denny and Nick Drake. It’s doesn’t help to reflect that general lack of commercial attention probably contributed to the depression that brought about Denny’s and Drake’s deaths.  However, such speculation is called into question upon consideration of artists whose stardom-level status similarly contributed to their shortened lives.

Whereas Sandy Denny at least got attention and opportunities from other, more prominent artists, Nick Drake was pretty much ignored not only up until 1974 when he died of an overdose of his anti-depressant medicine, possibly intentional, but also pretty much until the late 1980s.

Though barely twenty years old when he started to record Five Leaves Free in July of 1968, and though excited at the prospect of having an album, Drake’s life was already full of darkness and depression, as clear from the lyrics of the songs. His level of musicianship was impressive: he effortlessly sings and plays complex guitar passages artfully and effectively in real time with strings or other musicians as opposed to coming back later to dub the guitar work.  Though the recording sessions were rushed  (using downtime available courtesy of Fairport Convention) and the production and arrangements were not to Drake’s liking, by June of 1969, one of the finest singer-songwriter albums of the sixties was completed and released to the public on July 3, 1969. Unfortunately, the critics generally cared little for the album, and very few purchased it.  People like myself would never hear of Nick Drake until many years later.

It seems unimaginable today that this album was ignored for so long.  The quality of the music and the lyrics are undeniable, and the production is generally quite good.  Joe Boyd, a George Martin fan and the producer of this album, had a vision of leveraging all studio resources to provide a integral sound, whereas Drake wanted a simpler, more organic approach.  Boyd wanted an established arranger, Richard Anthony Hewson to provide the orchestration.  However, upon hearing Hewson’s attempts with Drake’s music, neither Boyd or Drake felt that such arrangements were suitable. Drake suggested they go with one of his friends at Cambridge University, music student Robert Kirby, who had previously arranged some of Drake’s music.  Though Boyd was initially reluctant to go with someone so unknown, lacking in credentials, and so inexperienced, after getting Kirby in the studio and hearing what he could do, Boyd settled upon Kirby for all the arrangements except one, “River Man” which, for whatever reason, was arranged by professional music director, arranger and composer, Harry Robertson.  Oddly, though Robertson is a skilled arranger, this is the weakest arrangement on the album. Perhaps it was just that Robertson didn’t have the personal familiarity with either Drake or his music that Kirby did.  Perhaps it was a matter of lack of attention to the depth of the lyrics and music.  Perhaps even Kirby would not have done the song justice. It’s not that this is one of those rare songs that works best left in bleakest, most natural state of single guitar and voice, the inclusion of the strings is a workable idea, its just that the particularly arrangement deployed lacks a true connection to Drake’s message. Nonetheless the song still works well, even if not as well as if it had been recorded with just Drake’s guitar and voice.  The composition is in 5/4 time — five beats to the measure, creating a slightly surreal effect. It’s not a jazzy 5/4 like Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” or Lalo Schifrin’s “Mission: Impossible” theme song, but a flowing, natural 5/4 composition further enhanced by the relationship between the minor and major chord choices.

It’s fair to say that as particularly special as “River Man” is as a song, all the songs on this album are finely crafted compositions. How this album was initially overlooked by critics but now fully embraced by them is just one of those recurring oddities in the music world  — and often later attributed to the music being ahead of its time. Yet, this doesn’t seem to be the case here.  Yes, the music is timeless and seemingly perfectly suited to the Shoegaze era of the late 1980s and 1990s, but it also fits in nicely with contemporary work of many of the other singer songwriters of 1969.  And there is nothing difficult or elusive in either the relatively simple lyrics, or Drake’s personal and distinctive,  yet easily accessible songs.

Accessible and personal does not exclude universal as in the case of “Day is Done” with its poetic representation of the inevitable finality of any given life.  Here, as in all the Kirby arrangements, the strings appropriately support the essence and character of the song amplifying its impact and effect.   “Fruit Tree” also addresses the nature of life but focuses on fame and the underappreciated artist, eerily predictive of Drake’s own life and legacy:

“Safe in your place deep in the earth, that’s when they’ll know what you were really worth.” 

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