Miles Davis: My Funny Valentine

“My Funny Valentine” made such a strong impression on me when I first heard it. I understood how standards could be opened up and played in many different ways, using many different grooves and a flexible approach in choosing chords and harmonic substitutions. It starts as a duet between Herbie and Miles, and Herbie uses very extended chords, substituting new chords for the song’s original chords. The pianistic touch and textures he brings in are so beautiful, and create a lot of contrast in his accompaniment to Miles. Some chords that he uses behind Miles might have two notes, while others are richer and denser, often implying polytonality; he superimposes different chords, which gives the song a lush, impressionistic harmony. Then when the whole group starts to come in and swing, Herbie responds to whatever events occur. Sometimes he lays back or plays against Tony Williams’ polyrhythms. In comping for the soloists, sometimes he leads them on, but he also uses a lot of harmonic abstraction. His own solo is very creative and emotional —he hints at the harmony and uses a lot of substitutions, so it has a fresh, unexpected sound, And when he starts to swing, it is intense! You could say that he might be coming out of a combination of Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, but the actual sound is so distinctive as to be immediately identifiable as Herbie. I think that this piece influenced a lot of pianists, first of all, in how they reharmonized standards, and also towards using much more advanced type of harmony for the time—what he did was really special.

It’s hard to pick just one tune on which Herbie is playing with Miles. I also love how creatively he plays on "All of You," where each soloist ends the solo with an extended tag in Eb. Another great recording that I listened to endlessly are all the sets from the Plugged Nickel. Of course, Herbie is operating as part of a very innovative rhythm section, so it’s not just him. For example, Tony Williams was changing the parameters of how drummers play with the group, because he would switch up the grooves so much and could swing in so many tempos and feels. This rhythm section instantly adapts to any little hint of change. If it seems like Miles is going to start swinging, they swing. If it feels like he wants to slow down and make it a ballad, they slow down and make it a ballad. If they want to go into sort of a Latin feel, they do that. Each person in the rhythm section, either Herbie or Ron or Tony, can initiate the move, because they’re listening so closely to each other and to the soloist. It led to a much more interactive concept of group playing than what had been happening, where the rhythm section would keep the rhythm going in one way, and the pianist fed the chords to the soloist. But I think Miles was encouraging them to experiment that way. Any one of them could take the lead, or drop out, or play strong, or sort of take the lead. Playing a standard but opening it up to a wide range of mutating possibilities instead of playing head-solos-head gave the music a different dynamic—the tune itself could be taken through all these different feels and emotions, imparting freshness and an unexpected quality.

March 20, 2009 · 1 comment

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Paul Desmond: My Funny Valentine

Sometimes I'm amazed at the good music I found in my high school days when I was just starting to learn about jazz. I bought this double-LP set when it first came out, and instantly fell in love with this version of "My Funny Valentine." Thirty-four years later, it still makes my heart flutter. Not even the Miles Davis versions (1956 and 1964) eclipse this one for establishing and maintaining mood. Desmond's tender reading of the melody and impassioned solo, Bickert's understated comping, Thompson's active (but always nuanced) counterpoint and Fuller's glorious brushwork are all part of the mix, but there's more than the ingredients at play. These were musicians who understood each other and instinctively knew what to play in order to make this performance greater than the sum of its parts. And as is true with much of Desmond's solo work, it's all so quiet and understated that you could just lose yourself in the music and miss all that happened.

January 20, 2009 · 1 comment

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Miles Davis: My Funny Valentine (1964)

Without a doubt, this is an essential Miles Davis recording. Full essays have been written about this performance, and there's no way to do it justice in a couple hundred words. So, assuming you already know that Miles and his second quintet perform one of the most amazing transformations of a popular song, let's focus on a pair of important highlights. First, there's Miles and his sound. Unlike the tightly controlled Harmon-muted sound of his Prestige recording, here he plays through open horn with a tone that seems … bruised. If the earlier version sounded like the nervous anticipation of a new love affair, the later version is the pained sound of a messy aftermath. It is well documented that Miles was having a tough time in his personal life during this period, and it's not much of a stretch to feel that pain reflected here. The other important highlight is the sensitive work of Tony Williams. He was 18 years old in 1964. Now think of every 18-year-old drummer you've ever heard (are you cringing?), and then listen to Tony on this recording. Not only did he play with extreme taste and restraint, he knew when not to play! In fact, during about 5 minutes of this 15-minute recording, he doesn't play at all. Would there be more musicians with that amount of good sense.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: My Funny Valentine (1956)

Miles's first recording of "My Funny Valentine" was made at the end of a marathon session designed to complete his contract with Prestige Records. All the music on the Cookin' / Relaxin' / Workin' / Steamin' sessions was part of his quintet's working repertoire, and every issued recording from the sessions was a first take. Despite this casual approach to posterity, Miles's quintet turned out one masterpiece after another, capped by this version of the Rodgers & Hart standard. With the benefit of hindsight, we know how Miles eventually transformed "Valentine," but the Prestige version was not simply a reference point. Indeed, had Miles never performed the song again, the Prestige version would still be one of the great jazz classics.

Miles's fragile muted trumpet invokes the unheard lyrics even as he moves away from the melody. Paul Chambers's bass dances along in obbligato, offsetting Miles's melancholy. And as Red Garland's joyful piano solo takes the spotlight, Philly Joe Jones lifts the performance with a subtle move to double-time. As with Miles's later versions, what amazes is what's not there: while John Coltrane might have provided a remarkable contrast to Miles's statement here, Miles must have felt that the performance was better balanced without him, and consequently this track is the only one on the first session where Coltrane sits out.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jim Hall: My Funny Valentine

This is an astounding attempt to use the duo concept from the Bill Evans/Jim Hall 1962 recording of "My Funny Valentine" and translate it into a trio version. If it doesn't quite match up to the earlier version, that is no criticism of the musicians involved, who are listening and responding as intently as Evans and Hall did 26 years earlier. Indeed, there is an incredible amount of interplay in this recording, and intriguing harmonic avenues are explored. But the medium tempo, while quicker than most versions of "Valentine," doesn't quite jell the way Evans/Hall's quick tempo did, and the necessary spark needed to re-create such a masterpiece is missing. Still, this is a solid performance that works well on its own terms.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jimmy Giuffre: My Funny Valentine

A quick look at the instrumentation will explain why this is one of the more unusual versions of "My Funny Valentine." It's an odd mix of a classical woodwind quartet with a very jazzy and soulful ostinato bass part. Giuffre had studied composition with Dr. Wesley La Violette, and one wonders if this arrangement began as a homework assignment. Although none of the woodwinds plays in true classical style, the mix of jazz and classical doesn't quite work. Giuffre's subtone clarinet clashes with the strident sound of the double reeds, and while the performance has some level of emotion, it is all so reserved that one wonders about the point of the entire experiment. Giuffre's work deserves to be reexamined, as he created an amazing body of recordings. Unfortunately, this is not the most interesting example.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Shirley Horn: My Funny Valentine

While Miles Davis tribute albums are legion, none is more heartfelt than Shirley Horn's I Remember Miles. Horn got one of her first big breaks from Davis in 1961, when the trumpeter insisted that the then-unknown singer open for him at the Village Vanguard. A Davis sketch of the two adorns the cover, and a vintage photo (presumably taken at the Vanguard) appears inside the package. One imagines that those images were in her mind, if not in the studio, as she made this album. Throughout, it's as if Horn is singing directly to her late friend and supporter. Her version of "My Funny Valentine" starts with a stark reading of the bridge before settling into her patented slow groove. As the performance grows in intensity, Horn makes us think about every word, and each melodic variation seems to emphasize the lyric. And when she reaches the word "stay," everything stops so she can make the most out of the last line, repeating it several times to bolster the final point. Perhaps that final word ("stay") was Shirley's wish that Miles— who'd passed away six years before—would never truly leave us.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ruby Braff & Ellis Larkins: My Funny Valentine

Because the lyric is gender-specific and character-driven, the verse to "My Funny Valentine" is rarely performed. Yet Ellis Larkins plays it as an introduction to this austere duet version. (Aside from a couple of instrumental recordings featuring Tubby Hayes, I've never heard another recording of the verse.) On this track, Larkins's rubato reading of the verse leads to Ruby Braff's glowing reading of the melody, which is also out of tempo. Braff might have been labeled as a traditionalist, but few musicians could sing through their instrument as he could. When Larkins takes the solo spotlight, he establishes a walking tempo with his beautifully flowing version of stride piano. When Braff comes back, the tempo recedes and disappears, and the cornetist shows his rhapsodic side to close the recording.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sarah Vaughan: My Funny Valentine

As her voice became deeper and richer, Sarah Vaughan's interpretive powers grew even more profound. As Gunther Schuller has noted, she had "an arsenal of vibratos, ranging from none to a rich throbbing, almost at times excessive one, all varying as to speed … size and intensity at will." Further, she could move freely from one part of her voice to another, performing leaps that would shred a lesser voice. This remarkable version of "My Funny Valentine" was recorded live, and there is a concentrated intensity by both performer and audience as Vaughan completely reconstructs the classic song. Her interpretation goes far beyond basic variations and represents an aesthetic towards her material that was different from any other singer now or then. While it's possible to point out specific harmonic and melodic risks she takes (and there are many), it is more important to hear Vaughan's statement as a whole. Almost more Vaughan than Rodgers & Hart, it is unparalleled in the history of vocal jazz.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gerry Mulligan: My Funny Valentine (1953)

While Chet Baker was widely known for his vocal versions of "My Funny Valentine," he first recorded the song as a trumpet feature with the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Both the Fantasy and Pacific Jazz versions were recorded live, but the Pacific Jazz is the longer and better take. Bunker's opening tom-tom roll announces a dramatic start, and suddenly it is only Baker with Smith's spare bass backing. But listen again, and faintly in the background are the unison singing voices of Mulligan, Smith and Bunker! Baker's plaintive solo displays his natural sense of melody and phrasing. He says so much with the simplicity of his ideas and the burnished sound of his horn. Mulligan was a superb ballad player as well, and his more complex solo acts as a fine counterpoint to Baker's statement. And this time, Baker leads the vocal background, which in keeping with Mulligan's multi-noted solo is more intricate than the backgrounds for the trumpet solo.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Fred Hersch: My Funny Valentine

Put simply, Fred Hersch is one of the world's finest jazz pianists, and every day that he can share his musical vision with us is a blessing. This version of "My Funny Valentine" shows how he and his trio bring fresh light to a familiar standard. Hersch shifts from the song's usual key of C minor down to A minor, giving the entire performance a different feel. Gress and Rainey provide an unusual and subtle beat that lightly pulsates rather than swings. Hersch's ultra-lyrical lines float above the time through most of the performance until near the end, when he picks up an insistent rhythmic motive hinted at earlier in his solo and builds it to a peak. Gress contributes a lovely solo based on a single melodic idea, and Rainey's brushwork is tasty throughout.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charlie Parker with Stan Kenton: My Funny Valentine

Yes, Charlie Parker actually recorded with Stan Kenton! And unlike the electronically created collaborations that are released today, the only "electronic miracle" in this case is that someone had the good sense to record the concert. In 1954, Kenton presented a package tour with Bird, Dizzy Gillespie, Candido and Lee Konitz as featured soloists with his orchestra. While Konitz's performances from the tour have not surfaced, a week after this concert, he recorded the same Bill Holman arrangement of "Valentine" in the studio that Bird had performed live with the band. Konitz's cool, detached performance pales in comparison to Bird's white-hot intensity. Set to an aggressive Latin beat that later gives way to a powerful 4/4 swing, Parker stays close to the melody at first, using his searing tone and flawless melodic sense to accent the important notes. When he starts to improvise, things really heat up as he builds to an astounding climax, where a stutter-tongued figure tied to a descending idea moves up in pitch and intensity until he's wailing over the Kenton brass section. One of Bird's best.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Evans & Jim Hall: My Funny Valentine

Stripped of any sentimentality, this fast aggressive version of the Rodgers & Hart classic shows Bill Evans and Jim Hall—two of the best-matched musicians in the history of jazz—engaged in a sprightly give and take. As they intensely listen to one another, there seems little either can play without the other finding a pithy and entirely appropriate answer. To cite just one example, near the end of the solos, Evans plays a fiercely rhythmic three-against-four pattern and Hall picks it up instantly; it turns out to be the climax of the recording. On the alternate take included on this CD, Evans merely hints at the pattern and not much happens. We don't know how many unissued and undocumented takes may have transpired between those we have, but there's little doubt that the two musicians had intensified their listening by the time the master was made.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ahn Trio: My Funny Valentine

Those Ahn sisters sure look great in their Vogue magazine feature. Wow, check out the Ahn sister in GQ. Did you see those Ahn gals in People? Their clothes are first rate. I wonder who picks out their wardrobe.

Oh, here I see in the liner notes: makeup by Elaine Madelon, hair by Christaan, jewelry by Marie Lee and wardrobe by five different designers! And further contributions by stylist Aeri Yun. They really pulled out the stops, and it shows in every snapshot. You go girls!

Ah, I see there is a CD that comes along with the photos. Hmm, pleasant background music for my perusing of Vogue magazine. And not too loud or noticeable, nothing to shake me out of my fashion reverie. Maybe a little schlocky and Muzak-ish. But who cares. These photos are hot!

June 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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J.J. Johnson: My Funny Valentine

The great trombonist J.J. Johnson's engagement at New York's Village Vanguard in July 1988 was a major jazz event. Finally he was returning to active touring with a working band after nearly two decades in Hollywood, primarily writing for film and television. Those in attendance who heard him play "My Funny Valentine" may have thought back to his 1957 recording of it with Stan Getz, but there is really no comparison. While in 1957 Johnson's boppish improvisation exhibited a staccato, wide-ranging and multi-noted attack, in 1988 Johnson delves into trombone's lower depths and dwells there for the duration. He plays the theme in a deliberate, halting fashion, extending each deep note with astonishing tonal control, hitting some notes with a timbre that resembles that of a foghorn at sea. His embellishments and progressions are fresh, dramatic and occasionally eerie. He concludes with an emotionally searing coda-like summation, rather than a conventional reprise. A true masterpiece, and a bold declaration by J.J. that he was back stronger than ever.

May 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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