Miles Davis: Israel

John Carisi and George Russell were the resident "ultramoderns" in the group that hung out at Gil Evans's midtown Manhattan pad in the late 1940s. Russell's only composition for this band exists but does not seem to have been played publicly. Carisi was one of the few white musicians who jammed at Minton's during the early years of bebop, and was studying composition with Stephan Wolpe while hanging out with Evans and company. In the one musical contribution he made to this ensemble, Carisi blended the traditional blues with modern harmony (some of the chords are dissonant clusters) and counterpoint, with solos for Davis and Konitz. "Israel" became a standard in the jazz repertoire, and Carisi would later arrange it for Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band. John later taught at Queens College, part of the City University of New York, where this writer studied composition with him.

March 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Godchild

One of the most popular jazz compositions of its era, "Godchild" boasts a wonderful Gerry Mulligan arrangement with very clever touches. Taking a cue from Gil Evans (who was an important influence on Mulligan during this era), Gerry focused more on individual part writing versus block harmonic writing. This contrapuntal approach not only influenced such later writers as Bill Holman, it freed Mulligan himself from slavishly following a stated harmony. He also plays with time signatures; a 2/4 bar in the turnaround is a refreshing touch. In an arrangement that was opened up for solos, Davis, Mulligan and Winding are heard.

March 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Darn That Dream

The only real "dog" in the Birth of the Cool catalog, this track remained unavailable for many years until it was finally dug out of the vault in 1972 for a "complete" LP release in Holland. Singer Kenny Hagood is not at his best, and the ensemble playing of Gerry Mulligan's indifferent score is lackluster and tired. It is a real pity that Mulligan's "Joost at the Roost" was not recorded instead.

March 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Budo

Pronounced Bud-o and not Boo-do, this composition is also known under the title "Hallucinations." After a series of rhythmic parallel dissonant chords interspersed with fills by Roach, the ensemble plays one of the most boppish pieces in the BOTC repertoire. Even though the ensemble playing is a bit sloppy at times, this track is certainly exciting. Davis, Mulligan, Konitz, Winding and Roach are featured.

March 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Boplicity

Even though Gil Evans was one of the chief architects of what became the Miles Davis Nonet, he provided only two arrangements for the ensemble, including this piece which he co-wrote but for some reason was never so credited. As he'd already demonstrated in writing for Claude Thornhill's big band, Evans was an orchestrational and contrapuntal master. "Boplicity" provides further proof: instrumental parts that are carefully crafted, beautiful to play and sound improvised, yet together result in a rich-textured ensemble that seems bigger than nine musicians. Mulligan, Davis and Lewis solo (although the short trumpet solo at 1:36 is fully notated). Decades later, this piece came up missing from Miles Davis's collection of scores; luckily Evans gave Gunther Schuller copies of the parts.

March 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz: Stella by Starlight

This is typically the kind of piece that people will classify as "West Coast jazz," although it was recorded in New York by a native of Philadelphia. True, Getz's tenor delivery is thoroughly relaxed, and the sound of the quintet is basically cool. But what I find most remarkable in the Getz of the early '50s is the way he can, with apparently no effort, carve a little gem of less than three minutes. Of course some will merely use it as background music. But others will listen again and again, endlessly raving at, for example, the art with which Stan casually inserts a quotation from Bizet's Carmen at the end of his solo.

January 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz & Jimmy Giuffre: Palo Alto

A flowing though rather abstract melody penned by Lee Konitz, wrapped in the smooth yet swinging arrangement of his partner Jimmy Giuffre, this spells cool jazz at its best. Konitz's sinewy alto blows its way through his solo with supreme, relaxed creativity while the airy sound of the four other reeds weaves a supple tapestry of refined countermelodies around it. The rhythm section, led by Bill Evans, is a model of fluidity and elegance, and the whole thing casts the discreet and intense glow of a gem in its velvet setting. This collective effort by Konitz, Giuffre and their colleagues is definitely one of the major achievements of the so-called "cool school."

January 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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Tony Fruscella: I'll Be Seeing You

Tony Fruscella spent most of his short life in institutions of various sorts -- orphanage, army, prison, hospital. But on those rare occasions when he graced the bandstand, he was one of the finest "cool school" trumpeters in jazz. Fruscella still has a small, dedicated cult following (check out this tribute, for example), but many even knowledgeable jazz fans have never heard his music. Those who admire the 1950s work of Miles Davis and Chet Baker would do well to track down his definitive performance of "I'll Be Seeing You." Fruscella's solo is beautifully crafted from start to finish, every phrase rich in melodic invention, and the whole infused with deep emotion. A musical gem from an unfairly forgotten master of the horn.

November 24, 2007 · 0 comments

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Gerry Mulligan: La plus que lente

During the mid-1950s, Gerry Mulligan expanded his famous pianoless quartet to a pianoless sextet, allowing a return to the Birth of the Cool chamber orchestral ambience for which Mulligan had been largely responsible. The sextet's pièce de résistance was a transcription of Debussy's waltz for piano "La plus que lente" (1910). Gil Evans's arrangement, however, is neither waltz nor "more than slow" (title translation), but a tango, which was all the rage in 1910 Paris. True to the French Impressionist spirit, Mulligan and Evans make "La plus que lente" a ne plus ultra of modern jazz. Monsieur Claude, meet Messrs. Cool.

November 01, 2007 · 0 comments

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June Christy: Something Cool

In 1953, no longer the '40s flychick scatting "How High the Moon" with Stan Kenton, June Christy turned to dramatic readings of saloon songs. Bill Barnes's "Something Cool" is incisive storytelling, as June enacts the first-person narrative of a self-deluding barfly. Think Blanche DuBois as lounge lizard. Ordinarily, she would decline to drink with a stranger, but relents because she's "so terribly far from home." Citing past triumphs—a house with countless rooms, 15 different beaus, off to Paris in the fall—this gal fools herself more than she impresses the guy who stops to buy her something cool. A remarkable 4-minute drama.

October 31, 2007 · 1 comment

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Lee Konitz & Warne Marsh: Topsy


           Lee Konitz, Miles Davis, Art Blakey and
      Bud Powell at Birdland
, photo by Marcel Fleiss

Beginning in the late 1940s, cool alto saxophonist Lee Konitz earned a reputation as one of the most original improvisers in jazz. While many altoists were imitating Charlie Parker, Konitz was developing a phraseology all his own. On the Count Basie classic “Topsy,” he and two former colleagues from pianist Lennie Tristano’s groups are joined by bebop pioneers Kenny Clarke on drums and Oscar Pettiford on bass. Since Konitz and tenorist Warne Marsh shared similar tonal concepts and improvisatory approaches, they made a highly compatible and successful team.

October 30, 2007 · 1 comment

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The Modern Jazz Quartet: Django

MJQ in Tuxedos

Ceremonially attired, affecting deadpan expressions suitable for illustrations in an embalmer’s manual, the MJQ looked like four stiffs modeling for Madame Tussaud. Their musical charm, however, will live forever. Based on a Bartók piano piece, John Lewis's finest composition is a tribute to the great Gypsy swing guitarist Django Reinhardt, who died a year earlier. "Django" doesn’t sound like Django, but it’s a stately, swinging, multihued masterpiece of modern jazz.

In a famous putdown, Miles Davis likened the MJQ to boxers "fighting in tuxedos." If so, "Django" wins the undisputed world championship for pugilists in evening dress. It's a knockout.

October 29, 2007 · 0 comments

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Gerry Mulligan & Chet Baker: Bernie's Tune

In Los Angeles during the summer of 1952, transplanted New Yorker Gerry Mulligan inaugurated a new era of West Coast jazz. The bright, upbeat music of his pianoless quartet with 22-year-old trumpet phenom Chet Baker was noticed even by Time magazine. Coming in the wake of what Time called "the frantic extremes of bop," Mulligan & Baker's melodicism, focused solos and thoughtful counterpoint, jostled along by Chico Hamilton’s nimbly brushed snare and firmly booted bass drum, made jazz listenable again. Their signature "Bernie's Tune," a brilliant conceptual breakthrough, has long outlived the movement for which it served as a template.

October 26, 2007 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Deception


           Miles Davis, Lee Konitz, Art Blakey and
      Bud Powell at Birdland
, photo by Marcel Fleiss

As its title hints, "Deception" (1950) is based on George Shearing's "Conception" (1949). Adding a 6-bar pedal point, Miles ingeniously extends Shearing's 44-bar structure to an equally unusual 50 bars. Gerry Mulligan's arrangement features a sea-change solo by J.J. Johnson, who modernized jazz trombone by subduing the instrument's traditional bluster while meticulously expanding its technique. Davis, though, was the linchpin of this band, validating Gil Evans's observation that Miles was ideal for Birth of the Cool because, alone among bebop's star soloists, Miles could sublimate ego and coalesce with the ensemble. "Deception" is legendary legerdemain by magicians of modern jazz.

October 25, 2007 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Moon Dreams


Miles Davis, artwork by Michael Symonds

Miles Davis once studied a Gil Evans chart "for days, trying to find the note I heard" when superimposed chords produced a mysterious overtone. Miles decided the note "didn’t even exist.” Here, after a passage ascends seamlessly from tuba through baritone through alto, Lee Konitz sustains a high note as the other instruments fall away. In the moment before Miles reenters, there's a faint sound that may be a squeak from Lee’s reed, a tape glitch, or perhaps a phantom Gil Evans overtone. This uncertainty contributes to the eeriness of “Moon Dreams,” among the most haunting orchestrations in jazz history.

October 25, 2007 · 0 comments

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