Tag Archives: Miles Davis

Ringing the changes – the music of moving

Steel Bridge, Portland, September 2016

Steel Bridge, Portland, September 2016

“If you fear change, give it to me.”

There’s a guy who panhandles on the corner of North Broadway and North Vancouver Avenue in northeast Portland. His message, written on a piece of cardboard, seems to work. Well, it did for me last week.

Change is something I’ve become acquainted with over the past few months. Despite the common advice to remake and remodel, to constantly develop and progress, it’s not something that comes naturally to most people. I include myself.

A friend recently pointed out, however, that leaving a place or a job (and, in the process, a state of mind) is the only way to grow. A couple of months ago my wife and I did both, relocated to relocating to Portland, Oregon from Dublin, Ireland.

The journey’s been like nothing before. We are learning a new city, a new (to me) culture, job and apartment hunting. Some days it’s a natural fit, others demand a doubling down on resolve. But the change has come.

What downtime I have, between the hunting and unpacking and lifting and meetings, has been spent listening to music – on the MAX to the market, in line at the DMV, driving to a house viewing.

And so I’ve put together a short playlist with two intersecting themes – change and American popular music.

All the songs contain some trace or theme of change, from the social (Buffalo Springfield) to spiritual (Nina Simone) to the local (Cisco Houston’s version of a song Woody Guthrie wrote when he lived here in 1941).

Elsewhere there’s personal development (a track from Miles Davis’ Birth Of The Cool sessions), a scorched-earth new start (courtesy of a Louis Armstrong solo) and a simple call for contentment from Elliott Smith.

And what better way to end it all than the famous largo from Dvořák’s ninth symphony, ‘From the New World’, the composer’s musical testament to America – a composition of progress, hope and, above all, change.

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The right notes – music to read by

FullSizeRender (1)Back in the early 2000s I worked a night shift job. Each morning I’d return to the house I shared with three others at 4 or 5am, and read for a hour in bed before turning in.

I’d always believed that reading, like sleeping or writing, was best done in silence. But there’s silence and then there’s 4am silence. The coastal suburb I lived in was pin-drop quiet.

And so I picked up a new habit – I’d play music as I read. The only condition was that the music had to be quiet – not solely in terms of volume but also by way of sound.

I spent most of those early mornings listening to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume II. The slow surges, whale-call noises, absence of percussion – all served to fill the lingering silence of an early summer morning in Clontarf.

The music also helped me, it seemed, focus on what I was reading. The subject matter might have differed (two of the books I read at that time were Crime And Punishment and a popular biography of Irish Arctic explorer Tom Crean) but the effect of music was the same. Like the ambient hum of one’s body heard in a sound-proofed room the music lingered, just out of feeling but present, while I read.

Brian Eno. Detail from 'Music For Films' sleeve

Brian Eno

The use of music as an aid to reading is a well-covered topic. This week I was brought back to my pre-dawn reading sessions when I encountered a post by Sam Jordison on the Guardian’s Books blog. Much of the article concerned how we can battle ‘aural sludge’ – distracting and loud daily noises -when reading.

I find it difficult, if not impossible, to deep read amidst loud noise – even custom-made soundtracks are unlikely to help me.

But the article led to me to ask: what other music worked like Selected Ambient Works, Volume II did, as a reading aid?

In the 12 years since those night shift days I’ve encountered only a few: a Naxos collection of Chopin’s piano works, Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks and, perhaps, Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way.

The ‘x’ factor in each of these recordings is hard to pin down. Perhaps the tidal feel of the music in each set of recordings is the key; or perhaps the absence or mere suggestion of a beat which, when present, is no faster than my resting heart rate.

Whatever their key is they all work to break ground, coming through silence to open my ear and eye and mind to absorb the words.

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A history of jazz (in 500 words)

Louis Armstrong, Kid Koala and Miles Davis. Pics: Library of Congress; Kristof Acke; Tom Palumbo

Louis Armstrong, Kid Koala and Miles Davis.
Pics: Library of Congress; Kristof Acke; Tom Palumbo

What is jazz?

To my ears it’s melody, movement, beat, snap, switch, sweat, dynamic and inverted and syncopated, free and indulgent and arrogant, full and fleeting.

And on the basis of all that it’s likely indefinable.

Pushed to one word though, it’s invention.

A composition can move and shift in the hands of different musicians. Of all music jazz is the genre where the furthest movement from the theme, while still, however distantly, orbiting it, is often most admired.

Basin Street Blues is one of my favourite songs, and a perfect example of this shifting evolution.

It was written by Spencer Williams in 1928, and named for Basin Street, a departed main drag in the (by 1928, cleaned up) New Orleans red light district of Storyville, where he had been raised.

The song was made famous first by Louis Armstrong and later Jack Teagarden, the latter with lyrics. Many other versions followed.

Charting the song across the generations provides as good an answer as any to the impossible question: ‘what is jazz?’

Take three versions.

Louis Armstrong – 1928


To start at the beginning, in every way. Armstrong cut his version in a period where he was, almost single-handedly, inventing ‘jazz’ as a soloist’s art form.

His performances on a number of recordings from this era are Rosetta Stone moments, solos (even at their shortest) in which you can hear the invention of something new.

Louis’ version starts eerily, with Earl Hines’ celesta, before Armstrong solos and scats. But it’s the trumpeter’s second solo (at 2.02) that’s remarkable – an ascending sequence of notes which picks up the melody and takes it up and up, transcending Basin Street and all else besides, to hold a searing high Bb, before returning to Earth for the last 16, somewhat mournful, bars.

Miles Davis – 1963


Thirty-five years later Davis turns the exuberance of Armstrong’s version on its head, moving from the stately stride of the 1928 recording to something pensive and brooding.

Gone is the overarching horn, replaced instead by the interplay of the leader’s muted trumpet, Victor Feldman’s piano and Ron Carter’s bass.

This is a lament – always elegant – for a way of life and a way of music that had long departed.

At times, as the trumpeter slips deeper in his solo (Davis’ first, lasting six minutes, is over twice the length of Armstrong’s song), we stray far from Basin Street, only to slowly resurface, pulled by Carter’s insistent bass.

Kid Koala – 2003


A natural progression. Koala takes Basin Street Blues away from single group performance, building a version with bass, banjo and beats around the melody line, in this case a scratched and slurred horn, his trademark ‘drunk trumpet’.

In contrast to Armstrong’s soloing 75 years earlier what stands out here is the low end, the beats which build in the second half of the song (from 2.13).

Koala, it seems, visualises the song as a funeral march, a fragmented second line, with banjo that closes the circle, echoing the Dixieland sound that Armstrong emerged from generations earlier.

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What is jazz then? It’s something that’s found throughout these three works, a form of music that encompasses creation, re- invention and subvention.

But, as Louis himself reputedly said, if you have to ask you’ll never know.

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On turning 36

Ernest Hemingway, Havana, 1934. Pic: NARA

Ernest Hemingway, Havana, 1934.
Pic: NARA

Ernest Hemingway sailed the Caribbean in the Pilar, spending much of his time fishing for marlin out of Bimini; the fish later featured in his greatest work.

Miles Davis played club dates, stranded between his first and second great quintets following the departure of John Coltrane.

Marilyn Monroe, disillusioned with fame yet planning new movies, died of a barbiturate overdose at her home in Los Angeles.

Edmund Hillary published High Adventure, an account of his successful ascent of Everest.

Raymond Carver left the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he had drunk often (and worked occasionally) with fellow alcoholic John Cheever, hoping that a change of location would help him sober up.

Siddharta Gautama attained enlightenment following 49 days of meditation, after which he was known to followers as the Buddha.

Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for her researches on radiation.

'Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps' J.M.W. Turner (1812)

‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’
J.M.W. Turner (1812)

J.M.W Turner completed Hannibal Crossing The Alps; contemporary critics branded his impressionistic landscapes as “pictures of nothing, and very like.”

Woody Guthrie wrote Deportee, after reading a newspaper report of the death of 28 Mexican farm workers in a plane crash at Los Gatos, California.

Billie Holiday, battling drug addiction, starred in a 15 minute short with a 12-year-old piano prodigy, Frank ‘Sugar Chile’ Robinson.

Bob Dylan finished the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, having released his 17th album Desire; it went to number one in the Billboard Pop Albums chart.

'Taos, New Mexico (1931)' Dorothea Lange Pic: The Getty Trust

‘Taos, New Mexico (1931)’
Dorothea Lange
Pic: The Getty Trust

Dorothea Lange traveled to New Mexico with her husband and two children, frustrated that family life had limited her photography.

Patrick Kavanagh published his poem on rural deprivation, The Great Hunger; every copy of the magazine it first appeared in was seized on the orders of the Irish government.

Gertrude Stein continued to encounter difficulty in selling her writing to publishers, despite critical acclaim for her first novel Three Lives.

Dylan Thomas began work on Under Milk Wood, having completed his first American tour; shortly afterwards he dropped it to script a film for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

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Most of all

For those I'm here with.

For those I’m here with.

And do you feel yourself thankful?

I do.

Thankful for being here.

Thankful for those I’m here with, her most of all.

Thankful every morning.

Not thankful enough for most of the day.

But thankful.

For small things.

For the last line of A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.

For the first solo on Autumn Leaves.

And the taste of crab linguine.

And more.

I’m thankful that release exists and that I witnessed it.

That pain exists and has an end.

That love exists and has none.

Most of all I’m thankful that I’m here, and not anywhere else.

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