It’s About That Time: Miles Davis On and Off Record

A Review of  Richard Cook’s Book

© Laurence Svirchev

In the century-old form of music known as jazz, no one musician has been more enigmatic than Miles Dewey Davis (1926-1991). The key to his misterioso aura is certainly not his creativity and invention alone. Many musicians of any musical genre have those qualities. He was certainly not jazz’ greatest composer. That honor belongs to Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington. If one considers modern technique and velocity on the trumpet, John Birkes “Dizzy” Gillespie could play circles around Miles Davis. His music never captured the intense spirituality of John Coltrane nor did he attempt to. The public persona of Davis contributed mightily to his mystique, for in a field of endeavor known for eccentric personalities, Davis had one of the darkest.

Many commentators have compared the oeuvre of Miles Davis to that of the painter Picasso, and the comparison is not without merit. Miles Davis was the quintessential creative musician, constantly molting his music and in the process establishing whole new modes for its expression. But making music is not the same as the solo craft  of painting. It involves collaborating with other music-makers and with post-production producers to complete the work. Davis had the knack for doing just that–and for choosing wisely his collaborators.

Davis’ music was formed in the be-bop era through his collaborations with, among others, Charlie Parker. He remained satisfied with that music for only a few years. He then rapidly transformed his concepts, collaborating with the lesser known Gil Evans, and established what became known as Cool. That variation lasted a short time and he launched many successful small group recordings with Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. In parallel with the small groups, he and Evans recorded a set of orchestrated concept albums on which Davis was the sole soloist: Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain (1957-59).

Just prior to Sketches of Spain, he recorded jazz’ best selling record Kind of Blue, one of the few almost-perfect examples of compositional and instrumental improvisations in jazz recordings. Had Davis ended his career with the issuing of those four albums, he himself would have been recorded as one of the great musicians of his century.

Then in 1967 he recorded the last of his great acoustic albums, Nefertiti, and promptly turned the jazz world on its head with his first electric album In a Silent Way (1969). That album also marked the beginning of tape manipulation, looping, and studio editing in jazz. In so doing, he not only left much of the traditional jazz world behind, but he also set a new standard for jazz composition and improvisation that the newer generations of musicians were aspiring to but only starting to express. Bitches Brew in 1969 is considered to be the definitive work of that period but In a Silent Way may be the more profound.

The jazz critics who were writing at the time Davis went electric were scarcely aware that much of Davis’ work was done at least in intellectual collaboration with an un-credited Gil Evans. More importantly, Columbia producer Teo Macero, not Davis himself, was assembling his recorded improvisations into their coherent final forms, Davis’ last great recording was Aura. Like the works with Evans twenty-five years earlier,  Danish musician Palle Mikkelborg assembled a large band for which Davis was the sole soloist. With his final recording in 1991 Miles Davis left behind a discography of variegated styles and forward motion that arguably no other musician of the last century could surpass.

To analyze such an artist, an author has the choice of pathways. One is to fit the music into the biography,  the other is to treat the music as the more important quality, leaving definitive biography to others. (Davis himself preferred that there be no commentary on his album covers. He was widely quoted as saying , “Let the music speak for itself.”) There are a host of life-stories on Miles Davis, including an oral autobiography organized into prose by co-author Quincy Troup.

The outstanding biography is the two volume Milestones by Jack Chambers, the chief deficiency of which is that Chambers finished his work with Davis’ 1983 album Decoy. Since the death of Davis, his chief publisher (Columbia/Sony) has undertaken an ambitious project to issue a series of “Complete” sessions, some of which may of interest only to industry professionals, amateur enthusiasts, and to scholars. These recordings include In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, Complete from 1961, and out-takes, rehearsals, and never-issued takes from the Bitches Brew period. Jack Chamber’s book was published too early to have the benefit of contemporary re-issues.

In “It’s About That Time,” jazz writer and record producer Richard Cook (1957-2007) wisely took the second route. He examined Miles Davis’ track record, his recordings from the beginning to the end. As a jazz journalist with catholic tastes, Cook had the opportunity to listen extensively to Davis while he lived, as well as to hear the newly issued, but still incomplete, materials from the vaults of the recording companies. In his introduction, Cook states he attempted to “disentangle, perhaps, the mythology of Miles from his music, to rehear and reconsider his marvelous oeuvre as it was documented by the record industry.”

As such, the details of gigs, social and political events, Davis’ health problems, and relationships are treated as low-lights, the better to flesh out the music. The construct of the book is chronologically linear, starting not with Davis as child, young man, and apprentice with the like of Parker, Gillespie, and Max Roach but as the leader on the Birth of the Cool Sessions (1949).

Cook’s takes on the music of Miles Davis are incisive and refreshing. He gets inside the music and makes it palpable. Like the great American jazz critic Whitney Balliett (1926-2007), Cook had the knack, the knowledge, and the poetry to discern and elucidate the mystery of jazz without desiccating its flesh, blood, and neural pathways. His writing takes the literary high road and that approach injects, for those who didn’t already know it, the confirmation that improvising musicians such as Davis are artists of the first order.

Here is his take on the composition “So What” from A Kind of Blue: “The mystery of the piece is its air of elusive, almost secretive possibility. One feels its solos could go anywhere, could follow any path, could drift on without stopping, and not feel ‘wrong.’ It is a defining piece of jazz, if one identifies that music as something played by intuition, and living on its instincts.”

Similarly, Cook’s writing hammer nails Davis’ approach to the trumpet: “Miles was never either hot or cool: he could be both or neither. When be-bop players were loud, fast, and high, he was quiet, steady, hovering in the middle register. He softened his trumpet with a device –the Harmon mute- which gave his sound a sneaky, inward-facing timbre which seemed tremulously vulnerable one moment, mockingly acerbic the next.” Imagine that! Davis was “never either.” Exactly what a jazz musician strives for, to be recognized as having a unique voice.

Commentators such as the trombonist JJ Johnson and Gillespie noted that Davis’ tone did not change over the course of time, even when he went electric. Cook explains that Davis atypically opted in concert during his electric period to play in the higher range of the instrument in order to cut though the dense bass, percussion, and noise of the other instruments, but his mid-range and ballad tempos were still the defining sound.

Few jazz commentators have dug into Aura, recorded in 1985, perhaps because the majority of jazz critics are not sympathetic to serialism or composers such as Messiaen. Conversely, ‘serious music’ critics shy away from commenting on improvising musicians. Cook, however, takes Aura head on for what it was, a set of contemporary compositions interpreted by one the most dynamic of improvisers. Cook clarifies Davis’ ability to fit into just about any context he chose and still come out the consummate artist. Davis himself had never had much truck for either 20th century new music or with post-sixties total improvisation. But he dug the work of Palle Mikkelborg. On Aura Mikkelborg assigned each letter of the alphabet a note on an ascending chromatic scale and derived a themed based on Davis’ name. Each composition in the suite is also named after a color. Davis liked the initial compositions enough to ask Mikkelborg to simplify them for the recording. The Danish radio band was laden with first-class readers and improvisers, but what stands out is Mikkelborg’s use of electronics. And the opulent sound of Davis’ horn.

Cook magnificently translates Davis’ sound into words when he comments on “White.” The composition was spontaneously arranged and recorded in a darkened studio after most of the musicians had gone home. Cook writes, “Davis played two stealthy, feelingful solos with the mute in. Cast against the ancient dignity of the oboe and the pulsing permafrost of the electronics, the trumpeter should sound like a fish very much out of water, but his grave, sauntering lines worked handsomely, tickled along with a few echo effects. If his older electronic works had suggested a humid jungle of noise, this one was more like a dance along a glacier.” Few are the jazz writers who could come up with such deft and evocative descriptions of music.

There is much to disagree within Cook’s “It’s About That Time,” not because his scholarship is inadequate or incomplete. To the contrary, I detected no mistakes that cast doubt on this book. Taste is subjective, and Cook had his own sophisticated inclinations. Miles Davis’ career is so broad that response to Cook’s likes and dislikes will inevitably vary. An example is Sketches of Spain, upon which Cook expends little energy, clearly preferring Miles Ahead. Concerning the composition “Saeta,” he dryly comments, “Davis pitched a starkly organized flugelhorn solo, the usual fatness of the instrument’s sound here traded for a squeezed, almost parched sound.” My ears interpret it differently: Davis’ solo on “Saeta” was one of the most gut-wrenching, emotionally draining pieces that Davis ever recorded.

Such differences of opinion are a sort of “so what” and part of the terrain that comes from intense listening. Cook’s insightful and literate writing provides listeners familiar with the music of Miles Davis new listening angles, and those unfamiliar with his music valuable reference points from which to start listening.

Richard David Cook (1957-2007) was co-author, with Brian Morton, of The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recording. “It’s About That Time” was first published in Great Britain in 2005 by Atlantic Books. This review was originally published in the academic journal “American Music.”

Comments are closed.