Another Desert Island Disc

BBC Radio has a long running program called Desert Island Discs.  It is an interview program that invites a public figure to name eight recordings they could not live without.  The guests are supposed to imagine themselves stranded on a desert island and choose eight pieces of music they would want with them.  They get to pick a favorite book and one luxury item to have as well.  These choices enlighten the audience to some personal insights about the guest.  It makes for an interesting dinner party game and can lead to some fascinating discussions.

A love SupremeI already wrote about one of the recordings I would have to pick.  Kind of Blue by Miles Davis is an easy pick to guess for anyone who knows me.  The earlier blog post about Kind of Blue can be read here.  Another clear choice for me is the famous 1965 album from the John Coltrane Quartet, A Love Supreme.  I have owned this recording on vinyl LP, on compact disc, on my iPod and in the special two disc Deluxe Edition released in 2002.

On this record, we hear some of the greatest work by the “classic” Coltrane quartet:  McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Coltrane playing tenor saxophone.   By the time of this recording, they had been playing something like 300 dates a year together for about 3 years.  They improvised freely like they could read each others’ musical minds. The albums they created are required listening for any fan of Jazz.

This album was a very spiritual work for Coltrane.  His struggles over the years with drug and alcohol addiction have been written about many times, and he credited a loving, merciful God with giving him the strength to continue to fight those addictions.  A Love Supreme is a declaration of faith from Coltrane, and also some of the best music ever recorded.  NPR has an article on their site telling some of the story of the recording.

The Story of “A Love Supreme”

I have listened to this album hundreds of times.  I can hear the whole thing in my head without the album even playing.  I have studied it, transcribed it, stumbled through sad attempts to play along with it, and I never get tired of it.  It wasn’t until I owned the 2002 Deluxe Edition that I realized Coltrane had written a poem for this music.  The liner notes for this 2002 release include the complete text of the poem, and can be read here.

Liner notes to “A Love Supreme”

Classic Coltrane Quartet

Classic Coltrane Quartet

The suite has four parts: “Acknowledgement”, “Resolution”, “Pursuance” and “Psalm”.  It is the final part, “Psalm”, that Trane is intoning the poem in his saxophone melody.  If you follow along with Trane, he is playing the poem and the words fit his phrasing exactly.  He is clearly reciting the poem in his head and playing melody to go with it.  Imagine my experience in discovering this for the first time.  I had listened to this record for a dozen years and didn’t imagine there was anything I didn’t know about it.  Then this poem opens up a whole new layer of meaning and insight.

Here is that fourth part of the album, “Psalm”, with the words by Coltrane.

John Coltrane Quartet,  “Psalm”

That is one of the things about good music, it keeps revealing new things upon repeated listening.  It “wears” well, and that is why I will keep on listening to A Love Supreme.  So that’s two albums for me, I get to take 6 more to the island.  What would be on your list of Desert Island Discs?

Now For Something Completely Different

The last two posts were about music the old record stores would have categorized as “classical” music.  I now want to move over a couple of aisles in the store and talk about an album that is on the Jazz shelf.   It should be on everyone’s Jazz shelf. For some people it is the whole Jazz shelf!  I’m talking about the famous album Kind of Blue from Miles Davis and his legendary sextet group.

Miles Davis

Miles Davis

Jazz is a pretty broad category of music that applies to everything from Louis Armstrong and his “Hot Five” and “Hot Seven” groups, to Count Basie’s big band, to Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and so much more.  Miles himself was an innovator  and changed approaches many times during the decades of his career.  His early professional career in the late 1940’s included work with Charlie Parker, a pioneer in the style of Jazz that came to be known as bebop.

Bebop often features  a small group of musicians playing at very quick tempos and giving us blazing fast solos .  The players use upper extensions of the chords, and pack in multiple chords into each bar. They sometimes substituted some of their own chords on top of the existing harmony.  Bebop was definitely a vehicle for the soloist, who would improvise over tunes often based on blues chord changes or the 32 bar form called rhythm changes (after “I’ve Got Rhythm”).

Here is a recording of a tune called “Donna Lee” from 1947 featuring Charlie Parker on alto saxophone and Miles Davis on trumpet. (Email readers click here)

To deal with frequent chord changes at fast speeds, players often developed their own ideas and “licks” that they practiced ahead of time. They had these ready to go for when common harmonic patterns appeared in the tune they were playing. This brings us to one of the novel things Miles did with the Kind of Blue recording session.  There was absolutely no rehearsal for the recording, and the players did not know what they were going to play that day.  Davis showed up with just ideas on scraps of paper.  Unlike the bebop example above, the tunes on this record take a modal approach to improvisation. This modal approach used long stretches of music on only ONE scale or mode.  The tempos are more relaxed and the tunes are simpler and sparse.  This forced the players away from any of their practiced “licks” and made them improvise completely differently.  Listen to “So What”, the first tune on the album.  After the bass solo introduction, the music lingers on the same chord for 8 and 16 bars at a time. (Email readers click here)

How could this possibly have worked?  Well, Miles started with one of the greatest jazz small groups every assembled:  John Coltrane on tenor sax, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto sax, Paul Chambers on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums and Bill Evans on piano.  The group had worked together and recorded together before.  The players were all great players by themselves, but also complemented each other.  Compare the first solo (in “So What”) with Miles on trumpet with the second solo with Coltrane on tenor saxophone.  Miles plays a cool, relaxed solo with plenty of space in between melodic phrases.  Coltrane is using a little of his “sheets of sound” approach where he plays sweeping runs of whole scales trying to fit in everything at once.  (Later on in his tenure with Miles, Trane would play extremely long solos and said “I don’t know how to end it”.  Miles reported replied in his gravelly, permanently hoarse voice “Try taking the horn out of your mouth”)

Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Miles, Bill Evans

Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Miles, Bill Evans

Kind of Blue is likely the best selling Jazz album of all time.  There were problems with some of the releases.  Some of the early LP’s reversed the names of “All Blues” and “Flamenco Sketches”  on what was side two.  Some releases had side one at a pitch level that was maybe a quarter step high, due to one of the master tapes running in a machine that was slightly off speed.  This pitch issue had caused me a few headaches in my teenage years as I tried to play along with the record and could never push the tuning slide on my trumpet in far enough to play in tune with the music.  I didn’t know at the time there was an issue with the recording.  I probably owe my parents and neighbors  an apology for the clashing sounds as I tried to practice with my copy of Kind of Blue.

Thankfully, all those problems have been corrected, and it is safe to go out and get your own copy of Kind of Blue.  Whether you let some young trumpet student try to play along is completely up to you.

-Rich