Tag Archives: Miles Davis

Colin Steele: “The Birth of the Cool”, and the Pearlfishers Quartet. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2107.

“The Birth of the Cool” was the first jazz record I bought, over thirty five years ago. It’s not my favourite jazz record – it’s not even my favourite Miles Davis record, not even in the top ten – but it is one naturally has a special place in my heart. So when I saw a project to put together a band to play the album in its entirety live at Edinburgh Jazz Festival, it was a gig I had to go to.

And a very special occasion it was.

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Colin Steele – not at this gig, but he looks the same!

The trumpet seat was filled by Colin Steele, at competitively late notice, apparently; Martin Kershaw was on alto and Allon Beauvoisin was on baritone. The other musicians making up the nonet were a younger generation: Alan Benzie on piano, May Halliburton on bass, and a trombonist, drummer, tuba and French horn players whose names I didn’t get – though it was pointed out that even the younger players were older than Miles Davis, Lee Konitz, and Get Mulligan when they recorded the original. The whole thing was directed by Richard Ingham, who didn’t so much conduct as dance around the rhythm.

Recreating a historical record could easily slide into kitsch, but one faux radio announcement aside, this performance moist certainly didn’t. The music sounded lively and fresh, bouncy when it needed to be. It no longer has the capacity to surprise (as it once must, the first of Miles’ three big innovations), but it was a particular joy to be able to hear such familiar music live.

* * *

The following night saw Steele lead his own quartet, playing the music by the band The Pearlfishers, which they’ve recorded on the recently released CD “Diving for Pearls“. He might not have written the music, but Steele and pianist and arranger Dave Milligan made it totally their own.

Steele said that he didn’t think hit his stride till the second set, but it didn’t show. Playing with a battered mute throughout, close into the mike, he was enthralling and beguiling.

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Colin Steele and Dave Milligan – again, not at this gig!

It was a huge pleasure to hear Milligan, who seems to get better and better: some of his solos had an intensity that was gripping. In the second half Steele took a break leaving the trio of Milligan, bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Alyn Cosker to play an open, seemingly improvised piece – it would lovely to see Milligan do more trio work. Gourlay and Cosker were full of confident competence throughout the show – it is easy to take them for granted, but they add a lot to the bands they play in.

But it was Steele’s evening: literally muted but the notes flying from his trumpet.

* * *

Milligan played a solo set in the final weekend of the festival. I managed to miss the first half of his set – I got the time wrong (a schoolboy error…) but what I did hear was wonderful. Largely improvised (he told a story of his young daughter asking what he was going to play, so he had to tell her he didn’t really know), he produced a variety of moods – energetic, contemplative, quiet, all engaging. This was music to get lost in, full of depth.

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Dave Milligan – not at this gig! (I didn’t have my camera, ok?!)

Feeling “Kind of Blue”. March 2013.

Yesterday afternoon, I gave a brief introductory talk to Miles Davis’ iconic 1959 album “Kind of Blue”. My friends at Edinburgh Jazz Festival were invited to introduce the record to a Sunday afternoon Classic Album session, and, unable to make it, asked if I wanted to do it.

I was naturally very curious. It sounds interesting – I never listen to an album all the way through with no other distraction – and not in such a social setting, either.

I won’t write out what I said; much of it was derived (with full credit given!) from Ashley Kahn’s excellent “biography” of the record. If you’re interested, you’ve probably already read the book.

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my kind of notes…

But it was an interesting experience. I re-read Kahn’s book, and played the record through three times in the last week – on digital releases. What was played this afternoon was a vinyl reissue.

Each time I played it, I heard different things. The vinyl yielded more, too. It was played through a very good system. That’s A VERY GOOD SYSTEM. One that cost many thousands of pounds: the event was organised by an upmarket hifi shop. It is the first time I have listened to vinyl close up for many, many years.

I was surprised by the rumble of the turntable and the crackle of the vinyl. But the top end speakers (KEF, like my own – not top end, though…) had immense depth. The cymbals and the bass were both crystal clear.

The things that I noticed this afternoon which I hadn’t before – and this is a very minority sport! – were

  • Jimmy Cobb moving from brushes to sticks – you could hear him actually picking the sticks up
  • Paul Chambers bowing his bass at the end of one track
  • Miles fluffing a couple of notes.

I noticed Miles’ bum notes because I’d been listening out for them when playing the record during the week. And I hadn’t heard any.

Miles Davis was a genius. Really. The greatest trumpet player one could hear. But his genius didn’t necessarily lie in his technical ability. If you listen to much of his output, you will hear duff notes. “Porgy and Bess” is full of them, for instance.

I reckon that the slow tempo of many of the tunes on “Kind of Blue” favoured Miles’ soloing, reducing the technical needs and eradicating bad notes. I didn’t hear any listening to my digital version of the album during the week.

I was therefore very amused to hear a couple creep in when listening to the vinyl.

I haven’t played much vinyl for fifteen years or so, and not at all for at least five years. I still have a turntable, but it is in a box upstairs, and it hasn’t left it’s box since 2007.

I can’t honestly say I noticed the difference vinyl made. The rumble of the turntable; surface noise between tracks; a scratch – yes, a scratch on virgin vinyl! – in Miles’ second solo in “Flamenco Sketches”: Sod’s law demanded it be in a quiet, contemplative passage.

Maybe the music had more depth than I get playing my iPod through my old but pretty good hifi; it maybe that was the speakers or amp…

People seemed pleased with what I said in my introduction. I think it would be possible to talk for hours about “Kind of Blue”; I probably have – though not this afternoon. As well as books being written about the record, Google suggests many people have written PhDs about it, too.

I tried to keep it to about fifteen minutes or so – just a bit of context. One of the things about “Kind of Blue” is that it is the jazz record that people that don’t like jazz like. (People that DO like jazz rave about it. As you may have noticed…) I asked the audience of forty or so people how many considered themselves jazz fans – about ten people stuck their hands up. But thirty of them had a copy of the record!

All in all, a fascinating experience. Just listening to music – and nothing else – is so rare; doing so in a social situation felt almost privileged.

And maybe I should dig out my vinyl…

“My Funny Valentine”. May 2006.

The song that has been strongly lodged in my mind today is “My Funny Valentine”; it won’t budge.

Actually, it isn’t the song so much as the piano introduction to the tune on the Miles Davis record Cookin’, with Red Garland on the piano. It is a lovely little figure, backed with just the bass, before the trumpet
comes.

And it is going around and around and around in my head.

Still, Rogers and Hart wrote one of the all-time classic lyrics with the line “Your looks are laughable, unphotographeable…

Brilliant.

My favourite vocal version is a life recording by Elvis Costello, which brings out the inherent sadness in the song – it is beautiful.